Donald Trump’s one strength: He understands that we are a nation of conmen (and women)

The one moment in last night’s debate where I thought Trump might have had the upper hand was when Clinton suggested that he might not have ever payed federal income taxes and Trump interjected, “That makes me smart.”

Now for the pundit class, Trump admitting, implicitly, that he never paid income taxes is the kind of bombshell that puts him forever out of the running of respectability (if he wasn’t out of that running already). Not paying your taxes is a no-no, a failure of civic duty, a sign of his diremption from the little people he claims to represent.

I’m of two minds on this question.

On the one hand, I can see how it might seem to the average voter like Trump is just one more rich guy who gets away with murder.

On the other hand, there’s a not so small current in American politics that would hear that, that Trump didn’t pay his taxes, and think, with him, that he was indeed smart for having outsmarted the system. And would want to align themselves with him as a result. In the hope that they too could learn these tricks some day or that they too could one day be rich enough not to pay their taxes.

This is a nation of conmen (and women), as everyone from Melville to Mamet has understood. A nation that dreams of, and longs for, the quick buck. The more crooked the path, the more glorious the payoff.

If there was any one point last night where I thought to myself, Trump is connecting with the voters, it was this.



  1. linde4duende September 27, 2016 at 11:12 am | #

    So where does that leave those of us who aren’t conmen and don’t want to be?

    • Vince Diaz September 27, 2016 at 11:16 am | #

      probably fucked.

    • EmilianoZ September 27, 2016 at 4:38 pm | #

      A nation of conmen needs a lotta sheep to be fleeced.

      • Bill Michtom September 29, 2016 at 1:59 am | #

        I’m reminded of Hunter Thompson:
        “America… just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.”

  2. gigiistheone September 27, 2016 at 11:14 am | #

    Agree; and that’s why this is such a pivotal election!

  3. stevenjohnson September 27, 2016 at 11:29 am | #

    Trump has always been running as an owner who’s taking things in hand, a buyer. Paying taxes is irrelevant to that.

    Clinton is running for sales manager, director of the campaigns to sell the owners’ (finally agreed upon) policies to the official source of power. Like all stockholders, there are always lots of owners unhappy with the job sales is doing. And there are always some stockholders disturbed because there isn’t a perfect confluence of interests between the management and their desires. This is always deemed to be an urgent matter of principle, not personal interest. As to the employees paying taxes, well, of course.

  4. M. L. McLendon September 27, 2016 at 11:33 am | #

    Tocqueville is good on this point. In book I of Democracy, he claims Americans have a “guilty tolerance.” That is, they craft laws to the benefit of those likely to violate it because they assume that one day they might break the law. His examples are liquor and bankruptcies, but tax evasion would seem to fit in well.

    • Dan Knauss September 27, 2016 at 3:39 pm | #


      “…it must be added that in America legislation is made by the people and for the people. Consequently, in the United States the law favors those classes that elsewhere are most interested in evading it. It may therefore be supposed that an offensive law of which the majority should not see the immediate utility would either not be enacted or not be obeyed.

      “In America there is no law against fraudulent bankruptcies, not because they are few, but because they are many. The dread of being prosecuted as a bankrupt is greater in the minds of the majority than the fear of being ruined by the bankruptcy of others; and a sort of guilty tolerance is extended by the public conscience to an offense which everyone condemns in his individual capacity. In the new states of the Southwest the citizens generally take justice into their own hands, and murders are of frequent occurrence. This arises from the rude manners and the ignorance of the inhabitants of those deserts, who do not perceive the utility of strengthening the law, and who prefer duels to prosecutions.”

  5. John Maher September 27, 2016 at 11:46 am | #

    Trump’s position was strongest when he jumped on the Free Trade issue and nailed Bill Clinton for NAFTA and Hilary for vacilating on TPP.

    Speculation on the Intl Law Prof blog that Trump failed to disclose foreign ownership and must amend his tax returns and this is what drives failing to disclose.

    Neither discused the issue in detail which matters most: global warming.

  6. jonnybutter September 27, 2016 at 11:51 am | #

    Agree with you about this moment Corey. Trump used combination of Ronnie-esque disdain for gubmit, and Hearst-ish (and Mitt-like) smart = rich.

  7. Edward September 27, 2016 at 11:52 am | #

    I guess I feel less pessimistic about Trump’s debate performance. I think his criticism of the trade deals, political hacks, and complaints about American jobs going abroad could resonate with the many Americans experiencing economic stress and fed up with Washington. The debate was superficial and didn’t delve much into policies but that is normal.

  8. Edward September 27, 2016 at 11:54 am | #

    To some extent Trump reminds me of Ross Perot.

  9. Will G-R September 27, 2016 at 12:58 pm | #

    As a leftist I have to admit that Trump’s position here is not only totally consistent, it potentially has a lot more integrity than liberals’ objections to it. At least the way he’s talked about it meshes reasonably well with the standard leftist critique of liberals’ individualizing logic of “do your part” — if we’re going to deliberate collective problems like who should pay how much in taxes, we should do it explicitly and collectively through public policy, instead of leaving it to individual good will not to take advantage of available tax loopholes and such. It’s even easy to see how Trump could build a “takes a thief to catch a thief” type of case to make the issue an actual appeal to voters frustrated by upper-class tax evasion, and how this case would fly directly over the heads of a punditry that frowns less on upper-class tax evasion per se than on tax evaders openly admitting it. (In other words, pundits’ critique here is less a working-class critique of the ruling class for being evil than an aristocratic critique of the nouveau riche for being gauche.) Ultimately the discourse here is deep into Trump’s pseudo-populist comfort zone: keep the liberal ruling-class establishment talking about economic class issues even slightly more explicitly than they’re used to doing, and their obvious discomfort with the very topic will produce the desired effect without Trump himself having to say another word.

    That said, of course it’s silly to believe Trump is actually sincere about wanting to crack down on upper-class tax evasion, but ultimately this is the same species of silliness as believing any promises from any candidate, including Clinton. I doubt Trump’s working-class fans are any more starstruck by his perceived earnestness than Clinton’s professional-class fans are by hers; if anything it’s probably the other way around.

    • Dan Knauss September 27, 2016 at 1:28 pm | #

      Oh, I think he’d crack down on tax evaders and all kinds of elite misdoings — when it comes to people on his enemy list. He thinks he’s been targeted by the IRS, and he’s probably right. He will use it too if he can against his own targets. This is a guy driven by revenge. E.g., “When somebody screws you, screw them back in spades” and “Go for the jugular so that people watching will not want to mess with you. …. Some of the people who forgot to lift a finger when I needed them, when I was down, they need my help now, and I’m screwing them against the wall. I’m doing a number…. And I’m having so much fun.”

      Are the Clintons and others categorically different? Only insofar as they try to keep the screwing out of view. Trump would advertise it. He would brag, and he’d leak photos of people literally kneeling in front of him. Trump doesn’t care about keeping up the appearance of legitimacy.

    • Roquentin September 27, 2016 at 7:02 pm | #

      On the now defunct blog, The Last Psychiatrist, which was and still is one of the best things on the internet, in the last entry before he got doxxed he had this thing on Bernie Madoff I’ve never forgotten.

      Here’s a “class struggle” example: name one Wall Street type who went to jail post 2008, everyone picks Bernie Madoff. Now name one person you know who was harmed by Bernie Madoff. That’s weird. Note he didn’t cause the crash, his criminal empire was a “victim” of the crash. What got him jailed was stealing from the wrong people– that the media coded as either “celebrities” or “pension funds”. Look carefully at the result: you got a distraction to label as evil so you don’t have to feel any guilt about overusing your credit card; the rich guys get (some of) their money back; and the media makes millions of dollars engaging you in a “conversation.” “But he was symptomatic of Wall Street excesses.” Way to treat the symptoms. Hence the most important result: nothing changed. The whole thing is a defense against change, for the system and for you. Still have that credit card at max?

      Radical political action, radical as in “outside the frame” radical, the kind self-aggrandizing #OWS is incapable of, would be to demand Bernie Madoff be released, so that everyone would have to watch him in restaurants and hookers, an unignorable signal to the system and to yourself that things are not right. Not to settle for symbolism and scapegoats. But the media won’t let this happen, they thrive on symbolism and scapegoats; and you won’t let it happen as long as you can get an iphone.

      What you said about Trump immediately brought that to mind. His remark about evading taxes is a version of that, a big flashing neon sign that says “the tax system is hopelessly broken.” Getting rid of Trump and electing Clinton won’t make a damn bit of it go away, but we’ll all get to feel like it did. Everything will go on exactly as before.

      • Will G-R September 27, 2016 at 9:22 pm | #

        Of course it’s anachronistic of me, since after all part of the point of fascism is to be a fake revolution, but the sentiment Trump is going for here might as well be a variation on the old commie mantra: there is no ethical [taxpaying] under capitalism.

    • Chai T. Ch'uan September 28, 2016 at 10:20 pm | #

      The quadrennial right wing Republican standard-bearer’s positions are as unchanging as they are mutually incompatible: low taxes, a “strong” military, and a balanced budget. (Pick any two, as the ones who get elected are soon forced to admit.) Trump’s new contribution to the efforts to square this circle is his demand that allied NATO countries subsidize US military contractors directly.

  10. b. September 27, 2016 at 2:45 pm | #

    Trump’s works looks like the real estate deals of a local huckster compared to the global military-industrial-political complex edifice that is the Clinton Foundation. His opponent has him out-conned, dynastically so, yet nobody admires her for it. Is it because he owns his frauds, and proudly? No, not really. Maybe the target audience expects elites to succeed at the con – Bush dynasty – and will cheer only for the outsiders? But the Clinton’s are self-made. Shouldn’t the Clinton’s really be doing better in the United Cons of America?

    • paintedjaguar September 30, 2016 at 5:02 am | #

      No, there’s nothing “self-made” about the Clintons, not even their corruption. Everything they have is the result of sucking up to the right people, being willing tools, and getting rewarded for that behaviour. Even the Clinton Foundation stuff is a version of that. The only people the Clintons ever successfully conned were some of the voters, and they had political machine and financial backing doing the heavy lifting for that.

  11. EmilianoZ September 27, 2016 at 4:59 pm | #

    But what about Weber’s Protestant Ethic and Capitalism? I havent read the book but I was told Weber claimed that protestant honesty was critical for building large scale industrial capitalism. When did the puritans become conmen?

    • Dan Knauss September 27, 2016 at 7:26 pm | #

      John Stachniewski’s The Persecutory Imagination may be a better source on this than Weber, but Weber does suggest an answer in The Protestant Work Ethic. He suggests the virtues of honesty and hard work were always somewhat insincere means of securing credit that became recognized as such by the 18th century. He quotes Franklin openly saying the motives are irrelevant — whether the virtue is a surface or a sincere act, all that matters is the credit you get. Be honest because it is a culturally expected and customary means of securing credit, or for any other reason — it makes no difference. And once you have your honest man of credit status, you are free to put your feet up a bit, indulge in some vices, and cheat on your taxes. This isn’t being crooked, it’s being smart.

  12. jonnybutter September 27, 2016 at 6:39 pm | #

    When did the puritans become conmen?

    Are you kidding? Always! A good con always cons themselves, no? And a good con is also more easily conned by other people than are ‘regular’ ppl. Scrupulous honesty is the perfect mask for a vile person.

  13. Michael September 27, 2016 at 10:38 pm | #

    “Paid,” not “payed.” Con men everywhere, even in literary studies.

  14. Will Shetterly September 27, 2016 at 11:44 pm | #

    Don’t confuse the rich with the people.

  15. kwp September 28, 2016 at 4:59 pm | #

    While I won’t deny that strain is in American culture and mythology, I think it’s far too simplistic to say this is a nation of conmen and women. Moreover, we may love retribution for those conmen and women more than the con itself. Since you are intent on citing American literature, I’ll cite one myself:
    “…(A)s we struck into the town and up through the the middle of it–it was as much as half-after eight, then—here comes a raging rush of people with torches, and an awful whooping and yelling, and banging tin pans and blowing horns; and we jumped to one side to let them go by; and as they went by I see they had the king and the duke astraddle of a rail—that is, I knowed it was the king and the duke, though they was all over tar and feathers, and didn’t look like nothing in the world that was human—just looked like a couple of monstrous big soldier-plumes. Well, it made me sick to see it; and I was sorry for them poor pitiful rascals, it seemed like I couldn’t ever feel any hardness against them any more in the world. It was a dreadful thing to see. Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.”

    • Dan Knauss September 28, 2016 at 5:45 pm | #

      All true. A nation of conmen is also a nation of suckers, and people who don’t want to be either have invariably been one or both. Twain’s failed investment schemes come to mind.

  16. tw September 29, 2016 at 2:18 pm | #

    “At least he’s honest”:

  17. Roquentin October 1, 2016 at 10:55 pm | #

    This a really late comment, but after thinking about it some more, all at once it hit me. This is sideshow, a distraction. No one is arguing what Trump did is illegal, right? So that means the tax code fully allowed for Trump, and plenty of others exactly like him, to avoid paying taxes. Wouldn’t this indicate that the problem is with the tax laws rather than with Trump as a person, who has only kept as much as he was legally allowed? If what Trump did was so terrible, shouldn’t it be illegal? Shouldn’t the IRS be coming for him? They’re not? Well, then the problem is with the system rather than him.

    Notice how Clinton never follows this up with “we need to fundamentally rewrite the tax laws so this kind of avoidance is impossible.” It’s not even talked about. That would be genuine change, but that’s not what they want. She just wants to point out that Trump does what is relatively common among wealthy businessmen.

    More empty posturing and grandstanding in this bullshit circus we’re calling an election.

    • Phil Perspective October 2, 2016 at 1:44 am | #

      No one is arguing what Trump did is illegal, right?


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