The bombshell New York Times reporting on Donald Trump’s taxes is perhaps too complex a subject for Joe Biden to use as an easy political attack. For all that led “Trump’s taxes” to become a sort of Holy Grail among certain Democratic activists, the returns would never have been able to reveal the full extent of his finances and business dealings, for the simple reason that these are the documents he actually filed with the government, not some secret internal ledger. There was never going to be a line item labeled “bribe,” or itemized deductions for expenses incurred in committing financial fraud. And his returns, as described by the Times, do not tell one simple narrative; they can be interpreted in different ways.
The Times says, basically, that Trump made a lot of money from his television fame but wasted much of it on money-losing golf courses, and he is now deep in debt, with a ruinous bill coming due very soon, especially if he loses a protracted battle with the IRS over a refund he received in 2010.
He is, in other words, a bad business guy, even though his whole deal is that he is supposed to be a good business guy. He took a lot of income and turned it into a lot of debt. But regardless of whether his actual financial state resembles the picture painted by the Times, and even though many Americans are quite morally averse to debt, Trump has never shied away from admitting his reliance on it, in part to, as he did here, avoid taxes.
If my Twitter feed is any indication (I am not foolish enough to believe it is indicative of the electorate, but it is certainly representative of a selection of the elite conversation), there will be a strong impulse, among Democrats, to attack Trump as a Phony Billionaire, as opposed to the real ones. People imagine, with glee, Joe Biden standing on stage tonight, pointing to Trump’s paper losses, saying “Dumb Donald is so poor,” and waiting for the audience at home to shout back, “how poor is he?”
I’ve no doubt that some focus group data somewhere or other shows that these taunts could be effective. (Hillary Clinton’s campaign tried a version of this tactic in 2016.) It plays on, and heightens, Trump’s very real resentments about being disrespected by the power elite. But it is not challenging or tricky to make Donald Trump feel resentful, and Donald Trump is not poor. Poor people do not own golf courses in Scotland that lose curious amounts of money every year. To have access to the trappings of wealth despite being deeply indebted and possibly at the mercy of creditors is still to have access to the trappings of wealth. Donald Trump is rich until the moment the credit dries up and he starts losing his stuff.