Who could’ve known that Donald Trump isn’t always on the level?
While we can’t yet say for sure, this week we were provided the strongest evidence to date that the presumptive GOP nominee has something to hide. Namely, his taxes.
During one of the many Republican debates earlier this year, Trump assured us that he will disclose his most recent tax returns just as soon as the IRS completes an audit. Then, just a few days ago, he informed us that, on second thought, he might not release them at all—or at least not until after November’s election. If he makes good on this non-promise, he would be the first presidential nominee in 40 years to keep his tax information to himself.
Ordinarily, our leaders’ income would not necessarily be an object of our immediate interest. However, Donald Trump has made his apparently bottomless wealth the centerpiece of his candidacy—the centerpiece of himself, really—and so when he suddenly becomes squeamish about actually showing us the state of his finances, we are justified in assuming that something shady is afoot.
Is he not nearly as rich as he claims? Has he been stowing his taxable income in a covert hideaway in Panama or the Cayman Islands? Does he donate little or nothing to charity? Does he count some secret love child among his dependents?
Unless and until Trump comes clean, we have no choice but to speculate.
In any case, it’s worth noting how brazenly and completely Trump brought this impending scandal upon himself—that is, by bragging about his income and then refusing to publish his 1099s. His evasiveness on this issue—apart from being just one more demonstration of what a rotten president he would be—signals just how unprepared he is for the world of electoral politics—in particular, the art of managing expectations.
Up to now, Trump has built and sustained his shocking popularity among GOP primary voters largely through an endless stream of hyperbolic claims and impossible promises. Whether in a debate, TV appearance or campaign rally, Trump only ever speaks in the vaguest and most extravagant terms when trying to sell or explain his policy platform, constantly employing words like “great,” “big,” “utterly,” “beautiful,” “wonderful” and “tremendous,” leaving himself precious little time for details, nuance or substance. Unfailingly, when asked, “How will you solve issue X?” Trump responds with some version of, “By doing something terrific.”
On the one hand, this admixture of ignorance and cynicism is—like everything else about this man—almost too ridiculous to take seriously. On the other hand, it indicates that Trump understands the same fundamental truth that Barack Obama understood in 2008 (and Ronald Reagan in 1980), which is that in a presidential campaign, hope conquers all. That if you successfully conjure the image of America as a shining city on a hill on which the Lord’s blessings will never cease (with or without a big, beautiful wall around it), the public just may forget all the hard work that goes into making such a prosperous American Eden possible and will vote their dreams at the expense of reality.
However, what Trump apparently doesn’t grasp is that once the election is won and the burden of governing begins, the people will gradually regain their senses and expect at least a few of their dreams to come true. And when none of those happy fantasies come to pass, they will begin to wonder just what they voted for in the first place.
Sure: Every president in history has made pledges he was not able to fulfill—either because circumstances (read: Congress) wouldn’t allow it or because—gasp!—he was an opportunist who never really meant it in the first place. Sooner or later—whether by accident or design—the president is going to disappoint every last person in America.
The difference with Trump is that he genuinely believes he is invincible and that all checks on presidential power can be transcended through the sheer force of his libido. From his various statements on immigration and foreign policy, he is either completely ignorant about the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions (among other things) or he simply considers them negotiable. Why listen to Madison and Hamilton when you’re the guy who wrote The Art of the Deal?
In other words, for all his confidence tricks and bluster, Trump basically believes his own nonsense. He promises his supporters the moon and the stars because, in some corner of his psyche, he thinks he can deliver both.
Well, he can’t—at least not without violating the Constitution and committing several war crimes along the way.
Which means that, should Trump become president, one of two things will happen: Either he will succeed at rendering our founding documents moot and establishing himself as emperor, or he will discover that 229 years of institutional checks and balances are more powerful than one man’s ego.
Indeed, if there is a silver lining to Trump’s most reprehensible ideas, it’s the impossibility of them ever getting passed. By setting the bar so very high, Trump has set himself up to fail. Snake oil salesman that he is, he has planted ideas in the minds of his supporters that, by definition, will never come to pass.
Here, then, is the best argument yet that Trump is truly not a politician. If he were, he would’ve caught on by now that campaign pledges are more than just words. That once he’s in power, he just might be held to account for them and be judged accordingly. That after four years of disappointment, those video clips of him saying, “We’ll have so much winning if I’m elected that you may get bored with winning,” will look even dumber than they look now.
It is my continued belief that Trump had no intention of doing this well in the primaries—let alone of becoming the nominee—and he therefore never saw any reason to calibrate his vision for America to how the government actually functions. So long as his candidacy remained a manic pipe dream, he could swing for the fences without consequence.
However, now that he is effectively the face of the Republican Party, he is in the unenviable position of having to put up or shut up. And we know full well that he is incapable of either one.