05 March 2017

Even the "Good" Ones Are Rotten

Posted by at 9:58 PM

On September 9th, speaking at the LGBT for Hillary Gala in New York City, Hillary Clinton made the now-infamous remark:

“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic -- you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people -- now 11 million.”

She was of course immediately lambasted by all those on the right who conveniently ignored the fact that she was referring to “half” of the Trump supporters. Realizing that it was being misconstrued, even though she explicitly prefaced the remark by saying it was a “gross generalization,” and even though she had in fact said nothing that was untrue, she later apologized for the remark. This, of course, did absolutely nothing to assuage the conservative frenzy that her comment engendered. Many of Trump’s supporters at the time in fact openly and defiantly identified themselves, in the media, in social media, in tee-shirts, in rallies, etc. as proud members of this basket (i.e., as racists, homophobes, xenophobes, Islamophobes), something which I found very confusing at the time. Had I been a Trump supporter, I would have surely placed myself in the other basket. No? The only conceivable reason to self-identify with the “deplorables” (unless one really is a racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and/or Islamophobic person) would be a gratuitous self-serving partisan insolence.

Regardless, here we are, six months later. Bill Maher, who has no love for this basket of deplorables, opened his Real Time show on Friday (March 3rd) with an interview with CNN anchor (and longtime Trump supporter) Jeffrey Lord, whom he was told was “the nicest guy in the world,” presumably in the interest of fairly representing the opinions of the members of that other basket of Trump supporters, the non-deplorable. Indeed, Maher introduced him as “polite” and “genteel.”

You can view the entire interview below:

Maher has been duly lauded since Friday for holding Lord’s feet over the fire for dissimulating on the severity of the allegations regarding the influence that the Russian government may have had on the Statesian** 2016 election and on the involvement of Trump and his circle of friends in this matter. “Don’t bullshit me!” Maher implored Mr. Lord, to a round of well-deserved applause. I won’t belabor that particular point here, except to say that Maher was in good form.

But I would like to comment on something that I think has been regrettably overlooked from that same interview. Namely, on the following volley:

Maher— “You know what could clear so much up?”

Lord— “What?”

Maher— “[…] if Donald Trump would release his tax returns. Why doesn't he release his tax returns, as every other president has done in my lifetime?”

Lord— “To be perfectly candid, as I've said many times on CNN, I totally disagree with this. I don't think he should ever release his tax returns. We've had presidents of the United States from George Washington all the way through Lyndon Johnson who never released a single tax return. Was Franklin Roosevelt a bad president because he didn't release his tax returns? I don't think so.”

It was with visible exasperation that Maher sighed a feeble “OK” before moving on with the rest of the interview, which only lasted a couple more minutes. But Lord should have been immediately challenged for this remark, a remark that made me somewhat nauseous to hear from someone who definitely should know better. Superficially, the statement is true; almost none (see second footnote) of the presidents from Washington to LBJ ever produced their tax returns before taking the presidential oath. But to present this “fact” as a defense of Trump’s defiant refusal to release his tax returns is ludicrous. Breathtakingly so.


To answer this question we must engage in a brief review of Statesian history:

Before the Civil War, all national revenue was accrued through a series of tariffs (on goods, services, property, slaves, inheritances, etc.). There had been no direct taxation of individual incomes prior to this time. This spans Washington to Buchanan—fifteen presidents for whom “tax returns” could not have been applicable.

During the Civil War, President Lincoln and Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1862, creating the office of Commissioner of Internal Revenue and enacting a temporary income tax as an emergency war-time tax. By 1864, the new income tax was 5% on incomes over $600 (equal to about $48,000 in current dollars) and up to 10% on incomes over $10,000 ($800,000 in current dollars). This essentially exempted most wage-earners in the country. In fact, by the end of the war, only roughly 10% of Union households had paid some form of income tax. After the war, the rates were reduced to a flat five-percent rate, and imposed only on incomes over $1,000. Regardless, the system at the time was modeled on the English system and had little resemblance to taxation as we know it today. What we know as “tax returns” did not yet exist. Tariffs were still, by far, the bulk of the national revenue. This spans Lincoln to Taft—twelve more presidents for whom “tax returns” could not have been applicable.

Finally, in 1913, at the beginning of President Wilson’s first term, the 16th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, which granted Congress the specific power to impose an income tax without regard to apportionment among the states by population. This was the beginning of the system we are now familiar with today. The very first IRS 1040 form, dated 1913, specified that only those with incomes of $3,000 (the equivalent of roughly $69,000 today) or more were instructed to file.

Now, the first instance of a president’s income tax returns being at issue occurred, not surprisingly, as a result of the Watergate scandal. Even in this case, though, Nixon did not release his tax returns. Rather, his returns were leaked to the public. Jack White of the Providence Journal won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting about Nixon's tax returns. Nixon, with a salary of $200,000, paid $792.81 in federal income tax in 1970 and $878.03 in 1971, with deductions of $571,000 for donating "vice-presidential papers." So controversial was this leak, that every*** candidate for US president has released his/her tax returns (at least for the most recent year or two) ever since, as a sign of good faith and in the interest of personal accountability and transparency. Before Nixon’s scandalous egress, it had simply never occurred to anyone how crucially important a president’s tax returns could be in revealing any potential conflicts of interest or unflattering activities. This spans Wilson to Nixon—ten more presidents for whom the release of their “tax returns” was not conventional or normative.

This leaves us with the seven presidents since Nixon, all of whom have complied in good faith, releasing their tax returns as a matter of course and in a timely manner.

And then there’s the eighth of these, who indignantly refuses to do so.

And so, even if an argument could be made that Trump does not have to release his tax return (I don’t see how it could, in good faith or in good conscience), the defense that Mr. Jeffrey Lord offered up on the Real Time program of Trump’s refusal is facile and disingenuous at best.

Nay, it is pure bullshit! It is tantamount to blaming President William Henry Harrison for not having a nuclear disarmament or proliferation policy. He should be ashamed of himself for treating the public like a bunch of uninformed idiots. And this is one of the “good” Trumpites!

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** A personal peeve of mine is the use of the word “America” to refer to the United States of America, which is but one nation among thirty-five which comprise North America and South America. “America” extends from Cape Columbia to Tierra del Fuego. Though I realize that this is a convention which is here to stay, I don’t mind being a minority of one on this issue. The precedent informing my phrasing is the analogous “estadounidense,” which is the preferred nomenclature in the Spanish-speaking countries in both of these continents when they refer to the U.S.A. specifically. This is neither here nor there re: this essay, except that I realize that it may cause confusion in some, and so I add this footnote.

*** The exception is Gerald Ford, who was not a candidate for either the vice-presidency or the presidency at the time of his appointment, though he did release a summary of his finances after the fact. Also, though FDR didn’t release his returns in his lifetime, his estate did release them after his death. This makes Lord’s claim re: FDR only partially correct. Moreover, President Truman did release his tax returns, which also poses a problem for Lord’s broad brush stroke assertion.

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