Why Trump voters just don't care about his taxes
The revelation, per Sunday's New York Times report, that President Trump paid little to no federal income tax in recent years will redirect the conversation at Tuesday night's general election debate. But will it redirect any meaningful number of votes?
I suspect not, not even among the president's most reluctant supporters.
In broad strokes, there are two reasons to vote for Trump in 2020: liking who he is or liking what (you think) he'll do. This is an artificial separation of two rationales that often overlap, but let's call them the personality voter and the transactional voter.
The personality voter likes how crude and cunning Trump is. She proudly brands herself "a deplorable" in reference to Hillary Clinton's infamous 2016 remark. She thinks it's funny when Trump riles his enemies, who, not coincidentally, are her enemies, too. This strain of Trump support tends to have a strong populist flavor, where supporting Trump gives "a collective middle finger" to political and cultural elites this voter despises and whom she believes despise her in turn.
For the personality voter, Trump's ability to avoid paying income taxes is untroubling. It's far from the first violation of establishment norms she has vicariously enjoyed through her candidate. If anything, she agrees, as he said at a 2016 debate with Clinton, that successful tax avoidance "makes [him] smart." The populist hypocrisy Trump's critics see here won't register.
Personality isn't necessarily relevant for the transactional voter, our second type. In some cases, Trump's personality helps him deliver on his side of the transaction. If the thing a voter wants from Trump is to own the libs, for example, his personality is an asset. But if the thing desired involves a policy or program, Trump's personality might be immaterial or actually detrimental. Many purely transactional voters would willingly — maybe far more willingly — vote for any candidate who would do what they want Trump to do. Their vote isn't for Trump qua Trump but for Trump qua the candidate they think is most likely to provide what they want.
"I voted for the Supreme Court. I didn't want to vote for Trump," an archetypal transactional Trump voter named Jim George told The Washington Post in 2017. "With Trump, you just hold your nose."
A transactional Trump voter in 2020 is already holding his nose too firmly to catch a whiff of these tax returns. If he's decided everything Trump has said and done over the past four years does not tip the scales against whatever good he believes will come from re-electing the president, the tax story won't do it, either. It definitely won't turn him into a Joe Biden voter, and I'm skeptical that it could even keep him home, because Trump's personal life is irrelevant to his provision of whatever benefit(s) is anticipated.
The transactional voter is already under contract. He's had ample time to inspect Trump, and he didn't find anything that made him want to back out of the deal.
There is one scenario in which that arrangement might fall through, and that's if Trump's personal financial circumstances rendered him unable to hold up his end of the imagined bargain. But how would that happen? Or rather, how would the transactional voter become convinced it had happened were he satisfied with Trump's performance to date?
The Times reported Trump has hundreds of millions of dollars in debt for which he is personally liable coming due over the next four years, possibly including around $100 million owed to the IRS should the agency decide a large tax rebate was improperly obtained. These are staggering numbers for us little people to contemplate, but if he holds onto the presidency, Trump is expected simply to obtain extensions on his loans and use his office however he can to mitigate his personal financial catastrophe. It would be an enormous debacle, very possibly leading to another impeachment or special counsel investigation and distracting the president from whatever his part of the transaction is supposed to be.
Well, so what? Trump's first four years have had an enormous debacle every week, and an impeachment and special counsel investigation, too. Trump accomplished relatively little of his policy promises, certainly none of the headlines. The wall is not built; the swamp is not drained; not a single one of the "endless wars" is ended; the American steel industry did not come roaring back to life. Trump's most significant fulfilled promise — nominating conservative justices to the Supreme Court — was the one over which he arguably had the least influence: He could not know whether or when there would be a vacancy, and he was undoubtedly responsible for few, if any, of the names on his shortlist.
If this level of distraction and failure is acceptable to the transactional voter, a second-term Trump fighting foreclosure and the IRS is too.