It was only a mumble during the debate, but it spoke volumes about what Donald Trump knew he could get away with in the current political climate: ‘That makes me smart,’ he’d said.
Hillary Clinton had just hit him with what seemed like a zinger about tax. Evidence suggested he wasn’t paying what he should. While regular Americans were following the strict rules of the IRS each year, Trump appeared to be skimping wherever he could.
But Trump didn’t deny this like any candidate of the past would have. He unabashedly embraced the notion of being a tax avoider. It was ‘smart.’ He was a businessman, after all.
This was another jaw-dropping statement from Trump, albeit one that has the counter intuitive, surreal effect of actually resonating with many Americans – just like his pledge to build a wall on the border with Mexico, or ban all Muslims from entering the United States.
Confronting the tax avoidance issue was bold. Voters like this about Trump, but they also like what it points to: that by whatever means necessary, he can get America what it finally deserves.
He skirted ethical rules around paying taxes so that he could reap the benefits of a near $1billion loss and keep more money for himself. According to a damning report in The New York Times, it’s likely that Trump ‘smartly’ avoided paying federal income take for two decades.
For some, that’s a dishonourable approach to finance and a morally repugnant admission, even for a politician. For many, many others, Trump’s me-first approach to the tax system raises the tantalising prospect that he could do the same for America’s coffers and regular wages.
That is not only a dangerous assumption, but a sad reflection of American insecurity. So jaded has Middle America become about their jobs, national economy and their country’s standing in the world, they would trade in the nation’s founding principles of integrity to hire a shady operator to get them a better deal, no matter how unscrupulous his methods may be. Instead of hiring Superman to turn America around, they want Walter White; they want a Machiavellian anti-hero.
A few decades ago it might have seemed preposterous for a billionaire television personality who lives in unimaginable luxury, and who is known to stiff his contractors, to become America’s next top public servant. (Even crazier than when Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1981, at a time when he was best known for being a Hollywood actor.) But 2016 is turning into the year you couldn’t make up.
It seems that the more Trump puts himself and middle- and working-class America before their responsibilities to the rest of the world, or to the poor and minorities, the more they want him to be president.
Trump has slipped in the polls since the debate, but not by much. That is because his fundamental mandate to heal Middle America’s sense of victimhood with his sick brand of vengeance against immigrants and Muslims, is so powerful.
It’s already been said that large swathes of America have lost interest in the value of facts. Present all the evidence you like to many Trump supporters and they simply will not budge on their points of view. The evidence and opinions of ‘experts’ do little to shift people’s ideas, and purveyors of facts and figures are viewed with increasing suspicion.
You can almost hear the echoes of this from the campaign for Brexit, when the very idea of facts and experts was turned paradoxically into something you weren’t supposed to listen to. It was much better to trust powerful white men like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, who were going to ‘take back’ control of Britain’s borders and take back the country’s sovereignty.
See, Americans aren’t the only self-obsessed people who have grown tired of their role as a global role model. They aren’t the only country that wants a better deal at the expense of those outside their borders and the minorities living within them. This is isolationism at its ugliest, and as many commentators have already pointed out, it appears to be spreading throughout other parts of the developed world.
Trump’s tax avoidance, and the unethical business practices that ‘make him smart,’ also make him the perfect poster boy for the modern-day isolationism that is sweeping rich, seemingly-sane countries like the US and Britain. It is ugly and not at all smart in the long run. What it gains in followers and attention, it makes us lose in honour and integrity.
Parmy Olson is a writer for Forbes