With all due apologies to sportswriter Bill Simmons, who coined the phrase, last night’s spectacle on The Rachel Maddow Show blew the top off the Unintentional Comedy Scale. From her flustered, breathless demeanor to her web of conspiracy theories that featured shots of suspicious yachts docked side-by-side, Maddow built the suspense over her acquisition of two pages of President Trump’s tax returns to a fever pitch — only to have the Daily Beast blow her scoop right in the middle of her monologue.
Here’s the bottom line: In 2005, Donald Trump made a ton of money (around $153 million) and paid a pile of taxes ($5.3 million in regular income tax and $31 million in alternative minimum tax, a.k.a. the AMT). In fact, that tax burden was so high that his 2005 taxes represented a greater percentage of his income than that paid by such progressive luminaries as Barack Obama in 2015 and Bernie Sanders in 2014. It also undermined the campaign narrative that Trump possibly hadn’t paid federal taxes for 18 years.
But there must be something here to work with, right? Isn’t there some negative angle to a rich man paying lots of taxes?
Indeed, there is. As Vox, Mother Jones, and others have noted, Trump wants to abolish the AMT, the very tax that hit him so hard in 2005. As Vox’s Dylan Matthews put it, “Trump has a lot to gain from his own tax plan.” Mother Jones’s Russ Choma asserted (without proof) that Trump’s plan “would benefit no one more than him.” The insinuation is clear: Trump’s policy proposals aren’t necessarily in the public’s best interests but rather motivated by his own greed. He’s in office to help himself.
When it comes to taxes and economic policies, this is a persistent progressive line of critique. When a politician or corporation pushes tax cuts, deregulation, or other policies that run headlong against the administrative state, some on the left criticize the proposal on the simple basis that it’s self-interested — that it’s somehow less pure or altruistic to want to pay less taxes or cut through less red tape when running a business.
Indeed, there’s a certain degree of surface appeal to this argument. Don’t we want people to be purely public-spirited? Isn’t the greater good more compelling than individual benefit? But this isn’t how Democrats treat their own core constituencies. Indeed, when it comes to their base, they relentlessly sell policies based on personal advantage and beg constituents to vote in their self-interest.
We just endured a primary campaign where hundreds of thousands of Millennials were applauded by the progressive press for standing up and demanding free college tuition and free health care. Indeed, they made these demands in spite of evidence that their preferred plan would impose crushing burdens on future generations of Americans. How crushing? Bernie Sanders’s health and college plans would have added a whopping $33 trillion in new spending, impose $15 trillion in new taxes, and leave an $18 trillion budget gap.
Call me crazy, but that looks like an awful lot like greed to me.
Let me make a confession: I want to pay less taxes. And I want to pay less taxes not just because I believe the government is swollen, bloated, and often irresponsible and destructive in the way that it spends money (though I believe all those things). I want to pay less taxes because I want my family to have more money. There is nothing at all inherently wrong with wanting to keep the money that you make, or with believing that you can make better decisions spending your hard-earned dollars than the government can.
Self-interest also applies to core constitutional liberties. Yes, I believe rights to free speech, religious freedom, and due process are vital to a healthy republic, but I also very much like to speak freely, exercise my religious liberty, and limit the power of the state over my life. Yes, I believe the right to keep and bear arms helps restrain tyranny and has enduring benefits for a free society, but I also want to defend myself.
So what if Donald Trump likes repealing the AMT because he’ll make more money? The question for the rest of us to answer is whether the AMT does more harm than good, including to our own pocketbooks — against the backdrop of a core philosophy that holds that our funds belong to each of us (including Trump), not the government, and the government bears the burden of proving that its taxation is necessary to fulfilling its constitutional obligations.
Maddow’s scoop was useful in one respect. After cutting through the hype, we’re back to an old argument. Is it somehow selfish to advocate tax cuts? Maybe. But that doesn’t make it wrong. After all, unlike progressives who seek massive new state benefits, at least I’m seeking to keep what I’ve earned and not to pick another man’s pocket to gain what I want. In a world consumed by greed, that’s the most dangerous greed of all.
— David French is a staff writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.