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A Taxing Lesson for Trump From 40 Years Ago

It’s a 40-year-old political story about a trifling amount of money—one-eighteen thousandth of the losses Donald Trump declared back in 1995—but it holds a lesson that should have his campaign ordering bulk quantities of Pepto-Bismol— especially if someone on the other side decides to start stamping out campaign buttons that read: “I paid more taxes than Donald Trump.”

Something like that is what happened to Tennessee Senator Bill Brock, a Republican, in 1976, when he was up for re-election. Scion of an affluent family—owners of a successful candy company—Brock had spent eight years in the U.S. House before defeating Democratic Senator Albert Gore, the father of the future vice president, in 1970, a race in which hot button issues like busing, school prayer and the Vietnam War were key.

It wasn’t going to be an easy race; not with Jimmy Carter, a Southerner, at the top of the Democratic ticket. And Brock’s occasional moves to the political center—he’d voted for the Equal Rights Amendment and bucked the National Rifle Association on a bill or two—had disillusioned some of his more conservative backers.

But the issue that came to dominate the fall was Brock’s taxes; more specifically, his refusal to release them. In the post-Watergate climate of 1976, the question had special resonance—just as income inequality does today in the post-Great Recession era. While it’s all but forgotten now, one of the issues that helped undermine Richard Nixon was his use (or misuse) of the tax laws. It turned out Nixon had taken a $575,000 deduction for gifting his pre-Presidential papers to the government. The gift, including everything from home movies to dinner menus to speech drafts, helped reduce his tax liability to near zero, and triggered a radical change in just how much a donor can value such gifts.

Brock suffered from a similar controversy. After he belatedly acknowledged guaranteeing a $1.25 million loan for an airport development project in Atlanta, the press began demanding a look at his tax returns. He rejected the idea for weeks. When he finally did make his 1975 returns public, it turned out that he had paid $2,026 in taxes on a 1975 income of $51,670—less than 5 percent. The reason the he got such a big break was not entirely clear—since he never released his returns from earlier years—but (as with Trump) it appeared to be through the skillful use of loopholes by his accountants. As Rowland Evans and Robert Novak noted in their column at the time: “In post-Watergate politics, how much taxes Bill Brock pays is more important than what he thinks. By refusing to reveal the taxes paid in earlier years, he keeps alive an issue that could have been disposed of weeks ago by full disclosure.”

It was all perfectly legal (just as Trump’s $900 million-plus loss appears to be squarely within what our broken tax code permits). But the idea that a wealthy U.S. senator was paying a rate far below that of a middle-class factory worker proved devastating politically—especially when across Tennessee, buttons appeared reading: “I paid more taxes than Bill Brock.”

In November, Brock lost his seat to Jim Sasser by 5 points; and while he ran well ahead of President Gerald Ford (who lost to Carter in Tennessee by 13 points), without question, the tax issue was a key factor in his defeat.

Now, flash forward 40 years, to a presidential race in which a huge turnout by white working class voters is the sine qua non of a Trump victory. So far, nothing—not his demeanor, not his breathtaking ignorance, not his policies—has dented his support among this key constituency.

But it is at least plausible that a reworking of that decades-old taunt—“I paid more taxes than Donald Trump”—could at least unsettle the belief that Donald Trump is the champion, the tribune, of the ordinary working stiff. It’s at least conceivable that Trump’s taxes, when linked to his own tax proposals that expand the gimmicks available to the real-estate industry—might trigger a question or two about just who the real beneficiaries of a Trump presidency might be.

For the business community, Trump’s taxes provide one possible lesson: that he is a genuinely lousy businessman. (It’s not easy to lose almost a billion dollars during one of the best economic expansions in U.S. history, which was the mid-90s). For the men and women on the factory floor and on the construction site, it may provide a different one: Am I being played for a sucker?

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