Our household and a few guests were gathered around the flat screen for the debate Monday night, just as I’m sure most Mirror readers were. I think the general consensus was that even though the exchanges may have lacked a certain level of fireworks and drama, the flatness of the debate was almost soothing and even reassuring. They did not chew each other up like starving tigers, so maybe we can still run a democracy in America without having it look like cage match.
And yet, there were plenty of highlights that lingered and filled up video reels for days afterward. Among those moments was Trump’s assertion that not paying his federal income taxes made him “smart.”
To fairly quote the passage – although Trump was interrupting Clinton when it happened – we need to first write down what Clinton was saying, or trying to say. Clinton was citing possible reasons that Trump has not turned over his income taxes when she posited, “Or maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes. Because the only years that anybody has ever seen were a couple of years where he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license and they showed he didn’t pay any federal income tax. So (Trump interrupts: “That makes me smart.”) if he’s paid zero, that means zero for troops, zero for vets, zero for schools or health.”
There’s so much to chew on in just that one passage, you can be forgiven for feeling the debate was long by 80 minutes. First there’s the mystery of exactly what Trump is concealing in not releasing his taxes, a mystery I am almost certain will never be solved. Then there’s the reminder that Trump has always included gambling casinos – where the house always wins and gambling addicts help to make that happen – in his view of a “great” America. And there’s Clinton’s simple but accurate observation-cum-inference that if he hasn’t paid taxes, then what are we to make of his insistence that once he’s in office he’ll do right by the armed forces or veterans or schools or anything requiring federal funding?
He’ll get the money from us, I guess. Because he doesn’t pay taxes, and that makes him smart. What, then, does he make of us, the people that do pay their taxes?
On Tuesday one online wag referenced Trump’s insistence that in every instance where Trump stiffed a contractor or service provider in building his buildings he was doing so because the work done wasn’t good enough. The online satirist suggested that everyone go out to eat, then tell the waiter that the food wasn’t good enough and refuse to pay the check. If the waiter had any questions, they should contact Trump.
With both the taxes and the contractors, we get a look inside the very tiny black box in which Trump’s ethics are stored. Do we like what we see? How do we feel about the insinuation that those of us who do pay our taxes and fulfill our contractual obligations are suckers for doing so? Keep in mind this isn’t coming from some guy that wants to be on the board of directors of your local Chamber of Commerce. This bold fellow wants to be President of the United States.
Most people obey the laws of the land because that’s the easiest way to get along and not have your life disrupted. Way before we might consider any dimensions of morality, we drive the speed limit and don’t break laws because that’s one way to maintain an orderly life. And there’s no question we expect the same of others. We don’t want our children killed in a car accident because another driver thought it made him smart to push a red light.
Trump can’t be processed through use of any sort of moral compass without damage to the compass. Sure, he can bump you the wrong way on his ethics. But any charges you might throw at him could reasonably be answered by him this way: “Look, I do what I do, I mostly get away with it, and now you and the GOP took a nap while I seized the platform of Republican candidate for President. Where were your questions about my ethics as I was forcing the primary elections to bend to my will? If I’m the great Satan, why did a giant communications corporation like Comcast give me the hosting gig on “Saturday Night Live” after pretending they were banning me just because of some racist stuff I said?”
We are not dumb to pay our taxes. We are dumb to have surrendered the podium to a bully who thinks we are dumb for paying our taxes. We did make a mistake, but it’s not any of the mistakes Trump would have us feel blue about. When some of us were getting our faces pushed into the school yard asphalt by various childhood bullies, it did feel dumb not to surrender a few cigarettes or our lunch money and end the torture. We don’t have to do that this time. We can just vote and give the smart guy what he deserves.