Trump & GOP Tax Plans: All Humbug

Frank Morgan as the Wizard of Oz

Frank Morgan as the Wizard of Oz


Why were we shocked when Donald Trump once again “played us all for suckers” (as the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent put it)? Word was that, in the spirit of his “populist campaign,” the Donald would break with Republican orthodoxy and deliver a tax plan that would help lower and middle class families while soaking the rich.

So what did we get? Well, we got what Dorothy got when the screen came down: a conman behaving like any other conman.

To set the scene, here’s Sargent explaining why we may have thought that, this time, things would be  different:

Not long ago, Donald Trump claimed that his rivals would allow “Wall Street” and the “hedge fund guys” to continue to “rip off the people by paying no or very little in taxes.” The implication was that Trump would raise the tax burden on top earners, which he seemed to underscore at the most recent GOP debate, when he ridiculed an opponent’s suggestion that raising taxes on the wealthy would constitute “socialism,” adding: “I know people that are making a tremendous amount of money and paying virtually no tax, and I think it’s unfair.”

As I had argued, if Trump’s plan really did raise the overall tax burden on top taxpayers — which very much remained to be seen — it would have made him a real outlier in the GOP field.

So what does Trump’s plan call for? As Jon Chait of New York Magazine observes,

Trump’s proposal is extremely similar to all the other Republican plans. He would cut the top tax rate to 25 percent, even lower than the 28 percent rate proposed by Jeb Bush. While Trump would not eliminate taxes on investment income, as Marco Rubio proposes, he likewise plans to eliminate the estate tax, which currently applies only to inheritances over $10 million. Trump says he will pay for all this by eliminating “loopholes,” but fails to identify these loopholes. Even if he cleaned out every deduction in the tax code, there is not enough revenue to make up for the enormous tax cuts he would supply to the rich.

The conservative Tax Foundation predicts that the plan would add somewhere between 10 and 12 trillion dollars to the deficit. That’s trillion with a “t.”

In case you’re keeping score, here’s what we have so far regarding deficit-funded tax plans, as Kevin Jones of Mother Jones tabulates it:

Marco Rubio has a tax plan with a top rate of 35 percent that promises to boost our economic growth rate to 3.5 percent per year. Jeb Bush then came out with his plan, which has a top rate of 28 percent and a growth rate percent of 4 percent a year. Then Donald Trump announced his plan, which has a top rate of 25 percent and a growth rate of 6 percent per year.

To which Drum sarcastically asks,

Who’s next? Carly? I advise her to announce a plan that has a top rate of 20 percent and promises growth of 8 percent per year. Ridiculous? Sure, but who’s going to call her on it? I mean, what’s Bush going to do? Get into an argument about whose supply-side growth assumptions are the most out of touch with reality?

Apparently, all one needs to do in the GOP presidential primary race is don a populist mantle, claim that your tax plan helps the middle class, and ignore those who add up the figures. Once politics becomes a fact-free affair where whoever sounds most convincing wins, then reality television hosts like Trump and P.R. savvy CEOs like Carla Fiorina (and Trump again) will prosper. No wonder the Republican base is so angry with the Republican establishment and is current enthralled with people who have never held office.

The irony is that Trump, who has been profiting from their anger, is pulling the same stunt as the other faux populists.

L. Frank Baum was well acquainted with populist politicians, and I have written about how both the Cowardly Lion and the Wizard may symbolize politicians of the 1890s during the period of the Long Depression. The resemblances between the Wizard of Oz and Trump are therefore no accident.

When Dorothy and her companions first encounter Oz, we see him using the Trumpian strategy of proclaiming his awesomeness: “I am the great and terrible Oz.” Then, like Trump in a debate, he becomes a moving target so that no one can pin him down. He is a talking head with Dorothy, a beautiful woman with the Scarecrow, a hideous monster with the Tin Woodman, and a ball of fire with the Cowardly Lion. Later, after they have killed the witch, he is invisible, allowing everyone to project whatever they want upon him.

The Wizard even sounds like Trump-the-realtor. Here’s how he came to build the Emerald City—or shall we say, Trump Tower in Manhattan:

[The balloon] came down gradually, and I was not hurt a bit. But I found myself in the midst of a strange people, who, seeing me come from the clouds, thought I was a great Wizard. Of course I let them think so, because they were afraid of me, and promised to do anything I wished them to.

Just to amuse myself, and keep the good people busy, I ordered them to build this City, and my Palace; and they did it all willingly and well. Then I thought, as the country was so green and beautiful, I would call it the Emerald City; and to make the name fit better I put green spectacles on all the people, so that everything they saw was green.

Think of green as greenbacks—that’s part of Baum’s economic parable—and as Trump’s assurance that everyone can be rich. This is especially true of those who attend Trump University or sign on with ACN. If Trump is elected president, money will shower down upon us all. Or at least, upon those of us who aren’t losers.

Baum, of course, gives us the very satisfying scene of the conman exposed. May Trump and all those who make phony populist claims be similarly exposed:

Hush, my dear,” he said. “Don’t speak so loud, or you will be overheard–and I should be ruined. I’m supposed to be a Great Wizard.”

“And aren’t you?” she asked.

“Not a bit of it, my dear; I’m just a common man.”

“You’re more than that,” said the Scarecrow, in a grieved tone; “you’re a humbug.”

“Exactly so!” declared the little man, rubbing his hands together as if it pleased him. “I am a humbug.”

Someday, I suspect, Trump will proudly take us behind the scenes, as the Wizard does, and show off how he pulled his scam.

Someone once said of P.T. Barnum’s success, “There’s a sucker born  every minute.” Pray that enough of us wake up by election day.

Further thought: Here’s the New Yorker’s John Cassidy summing up Trump’s tax plan and exposing his self-proclaimed concern for the lower classes:

According to an analysis by the liberal group Citizens for Tax Justice, [under Trump’s plan] households in the bottom twenty per cent of the income distribution would save about two hundred and fifty dollars a year. Households in the top one per cent would save, on average, nearly a hundred and eighty-five thousand dollars. So much for Donald Trump as the tribune of the masses.

Why did I refer to this cop-out as predictable? Because I doubted all along that Trump had the depth and gumption to be a genuine American populist—a Huey Long for the Internet age. Such a figure, if he had channeled worries about immigration, ISIS, and national decline, then combined these with some seriously populist proposals designed to exploit resentment of corrupt financial and political élites, could perhaps have emerged as a genuinely potent and dangerous force. But Trump isn’t that guy. A self-satisfied showman and self-promoter rather than a real insurrectionary, he ultimately hasn’t got much to offer. This tax plan makes it painfully clear.

And here’s Paul Krugman:

But I do want to weigh in for a minute on Donald Trump’s tax plan — which would, surprise, lavish huge cuts on the wealthy while blowing up the deficit. That’s in contrast to Jeb Bush’s plan, which would lavish huge cuts on the wealthy while blowing up the deficit, and Marco Rubio’s plan, which would lavish huge cuts on the wealthy while blowing up the deficit.


At this point there are no Republican candidates deviating at all from the usual pattern. Why, it’s almost as if nobody in the party ever cared about deficits except as an excuse to slash social spending, and is totally committed to redistributing income upward.

And there is, of course, no evidence — zero, nada, zilch — that cutting taxes on the rich will yield large economic benefits.

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