THE TYCOON is still making headlines but he will not risk losing once the primaries get under way, writes Joe Nocera
As part of his ongoing effort to make a mockery of the American political process, Donald Trump released his tax plan on Monday morning. This is the third official policy position he has laid out in the three and a half months he’s been running for president.
His opening salvo, of course, was his absurd proposal to round up the 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States and deport them, en masse, while also building an impenetrable wall along the US-Mexico border. “It’ll actually be a wall that will look good,” he told Scott Pelley on talk show 60 Minutes on Sunday night.
His second position paper, which hasn’t got nearly the attention it deserves, is a no-holds-barred defence of the Second Amendment that the National Rifle Association could have written. Among other things, Trump says that we don’t need expanded background checks, and that concealed carry permits – he has one himself, in case you were wondering – should be valid in all 50 states, just like a driver’s licence.
His tax plan, at least, is not completely irrational. Then again, “a broken clock is right twice a day”, as Edward Kleinbard, a law professor and tax expert at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law, puts it.
Kleinbard told me he likes the fact Trump wants to tax profits that companies earn abroad at the time they are earned, just like domestic profits. That would help end the practice of American companies parking their profits overseas, because they are now taxed only upon repatriation. (Trump also wants to impose a one-time tax on those overseas profits, which would raise some $200 billion.)
A second tax expert I spoke to, Robert Willens, noted that Trump’s plan would end corporate “inversions”, whereby companies list an overseas “headquarters” to take advantage of another country’s lower tax rate. The reason, though, is that Trump’s proposed 15 per cent corporate tax rate is so low that companies wouldn’t need to leave to enjoy drastically lower taxes.
Trump says his plan will also prevent American companies from moving jobs overseas. But it probably won’t. Companies might move their headquarters back to the US, but the main job sources – factories – will remain in countries that have lower labour costs, not lower taxes.
And neither Trump nor anyone else running for president can fix that.
What is irrational is Trump’s belief that he can cut corporate taxes to 15 per cent from 35, can cut the top income tax rate to 25 per cent from 39.6, can allow millions of additional Americans to go untaxed completely (they’ll be able to fill out a form that says “I win”), can abolish the estate tax and can lower the maximum capital gains tax to 20 per cent from 23.8 per cent, and still be “revenue neutral”.
Where will the revenue come from to make up for those tax cuts? It’s not going to come from whacking the “hedge fund guys”, as he likes to call them. Though Trump proposes to end their “carried interest” tax break, his new maximum individual rate of 25 per cent means their tax burden would barely budge. And though he claims he will get rid of various unspecified deductions, he didn’t dare touch the one individual deduction that matters: the mortgage interest deduction. Somebody must have told him that that would cost him in the polls.
Like almost everything else about the Trump campaign, his tax plan is hard to take seriously. (To be fair, most of the tax plans put forth by his Republican rivals are hard to take seriously.) During the 60 Minutes interview, Trump told Pelley he would force the Chinese to “do something” about North Korea’s nuclear programme – while also preventing them from devaluing their currency! – that he would get rid of Obamacare – while instituting universal coverage! – and that he was on more magazine covers than “almost any supermodel”.
You could see Pelley struggling to keep a straight face.
I wonder, in fact, whether, even now, Trump is a serious candidate, or whether this is all a giant publicity ploy. Once a real developer, Trump is largely a licenser today; the more famous he becomes, the more he can charge to slap his name on buildings or perfume or men’s suits.
I’m not alone in wondering this, of course. Several Republican consultants I spoke to openly questioned whether Trump is in it for the long haul. “You would see him spending a lot more money if he were putting together a true national infrastructure,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist.
There’s one other thing. All his life, Trump has had a deep need to be perceived as a “winner”. He always has to be perceived coming out on top. That’s why, ultimately, I don’t think he’ll ever put himself at the mercy of actual voters in a primary. To do so is to risk losing. And everyone will know it.
He’ll be out before Iowa.