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How Trump’s Tax Returns Became a Liberal Fantasy

There is a desperate belief that we’re just one more disclosure away from bringing down the president.

Mark Ralston/Getty Images

Every Tax March got its own giant, inflatable chicken. More than 150 marches were held across America on Saturday, along with solidarity marches in Germany, Japan, New Zealand, and the U.K. In the biggest cities, stages were equipped with the chickens, which had been originally manufactured in China for the Year of the Rooster celebrations and featured a golden, Donald Trump–like toupee. In New York, the chicken swayed uneasily in the breeze during speeches by the comedian Sarah Silverman and the city’s popular public advocate, Letitia James. The joke was that the president was too chicken to release his tax returns. On Twitter, one of the march’s official hashtags was #cluckcluckcluck.

The Tax March was organized after the success of the Women’s March on inauguration weekend, gaining momentum in response to a viral January 22 tweet by the law professor Jennifer Taub calling for demonstrations on Tax Day. The Tax March stuck to much of the same formula: a main event in Washington, D.C., accompanied by satellite marches around the country, with speeches from activists, Democratic elected officials, and representatives from an array of constituent groups. But unlike the Women’s March, the Tax March had a single, specific, and comparatively minor demand: the release of Donald J. Trump’s tax returns from at least the past five years.   

Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns has been fuel for all manner of complaints from the left. Sober ethics concerns run alongside wild conspiracy theories. The issue provides a decent prism for opposition to his presidency, revealing a spectrum of anti-Trump beliefs. At the Tax March in New York, the signs ranged from implying that the returns contained evidence of a Russian connection (“Ivanka See More Returnskis”) to suspicion that his energy industry investments may be dictating environmental policy (“Who Benefits?” read one sign, with the O colored in as the Earth and the B featuring the swaying hammerhead of an oil field pump).

Partial Trump tax documents that have been leaked to the press reveal that he owned shares of Raytheon in 2015, the weapons manufacturer that made the missiles that were launched at a Syrian air base earlier this month. A number of the signs at the march were shaped like bombs, some with cartoon Trumps riding on them, Dr. Strangelove–style. “What bombshells are in the tax returns?” one read. The crowd, which skewed easily two decades older than that of the Women’s March, was ecstatic. “What are you hiding?” they chanted. “Show me yours, I’ll show you mine!”

What seems to be uniform in the discussion surrounding Trump’s tax returns is the conviction that they are definitely hiding something. Why else would the returns be kept private, if not to conceal something damning or uncouth? (Trump’s own excuse, that he can’t release his returns because he is under audit, has been roundly dismissed by tax and ethics experts, as well as the IRS.)  The tradition of presidents and presidential candidates releasing their tax returns is supposed to avoid just this kind of suspicion. The last sitting president who did not release his full tax returns was Gerald Ford (although he did voluntarily release a tax summary, more than Trump has done), and that alone invited unsavory comparisons to the secretiveness of his predecessor, Richard Nixon.

Trump himself is often cast as a Nixonian figure, and his administration’s efforts to curtail transparency aren’t helping: Just last week, the White House announced that its visitor logs will no longer be made public, meaning that for the first time in years the public will not know whom the executive branch is meeting. All of this opacity makes for an excellent screen on which to project anti-Trumpian anxiety: the fear that he is a pawn of the Russians, the suspicion that he is beholden to private interests, and the more generalized anger that he represents a ruling elite that does not pay its fair share. 

But the problem with using the tax returns as a symbol for all of Trump’s corruption is that the returns themselves may be less than earth shattering. This is, at least, what seems to be suggested by the scattered documents that have been made public thus far. The most damning information to come out of the 1995 documents that were leaked anonymously to the New York Times in October 2016 was that Trump had suffered a $916 million loss on three failed casinos and may have used that loss to avoid paying federal income taxes for years. Then-candidate Hillary Clinton used the revelation to undermine Trump’s claim that his business expertise was what qualified him for office. “What kind of genius loses a billion dollars in a single year?” she asked.

But the knowledge that Trump was a mediocre executive was already public, in the wake of his three high-profile bankruptcies—and really, for many of his hardcore supporters, Trump’s supposed business acumen was never the point of his appeal. In March, when Rachel Maddow announced that her show had obtained Trump’s tax returns, the suspense was enormous. But the show’s findings were disappointingly mundane, revealing only that he had paid a low, but perfectly legal effective rate of 25 percent in 2005.   

For Democrats, the tax returns issue is a useful political tool to generate bad headlines and stymie tax reform. But the left’s broader hope for the tax returns is that they contain information damning enough to Donald Trump that it would force his removal from power. The idea seems to be that Trump has been largely insincere in his public, political life, but that his tax returns will expose his real, unaffected nefariousness. But unless the returns show direct bank deposits from Vladimir Putin, they would likely never be sufficient to crater his base support or lead Republicans in Congress to abandon him. This almost desperate hope for the tax returns raises the question of why those who think that Trump is not qualified for office don’t feel sufficiently vindicated by the evidence that’s already available, documented publicly, and repeatedly made clear by the president’s own behavior. 

Those who believe that the returns contain evidence of a Russian-tied conspiracy, for instance, might ask themselves why Trump’s public, televised call for Russian intervention against the Clinton campaign is not itself sufficient grounds for impeachment. Those who believe that the returns may contain evidence of collusion with fossil fuel industries may ask themselves what evidence they think is lacking from Trump’s appointment of Scott Pruitt, a climate change skeptic with deep, established connections to those industries, to head the EPA. The real scandal might not be that Trump’s tax returns conceal an intention to use his office to advance his own interests and those of people he’s in debt to—though this remains perfectly possible—so much that our own standards for integrity and decency in our politicians have been dramatically lowered by his ascent.  

One reason that so many who oppose Trump still believe that further justification is needed to remove him is a lack of faith in their elected leaders—a belief that, since so many politicians have been willing to tolerate, work with, or even endorse Trump so far, only the most horrendous trespass will force them to abandon him. This is fair enough, given what Trump has gotten away with. 

But I wonder if the tax return–hungry left hasn’t fallen into the trap of believing that most of what Trump says and does doesn’t really count. The refrain to “take Trump seriously, but not literally,” is by now a cliché, and one whose usefulness is belied by Trump’s tendency to pursue very literal interpretations of his campaign promises. But Trump himself has always hidden behind some version of the “seriously, not literally” idea, claiming humor, exaggeration, or mere rhetorical flourish when his most incendiary actions backfire—as if the entire public sphere could be reduced to jocular “locker room talk.” By pining for a hidden truth, instead of addressing the one staring us in the face, liberals also buy into this game. If the country was sufficiently outraged by his actions, it wouldn’t matter what was in his tax returns.