Republicans calling Trump’s tax returns ‘private’ don’t understand privacy | Jan-Werner Müller

The Trump years demonstrated that the norm of presidential candidates voluntarily releasing their returns is too weak

Donald Trump’s biggest worries right now might not be about Congress having released six years of his tax returns. But it is an issue where Republicans can comfortably have it both ways: please Trump’s base, as they loudly perform indignation about Democrats’ conduct, even as they cease defending a politically weakened Trump against the charges of the January 6 committee.

The Republican party has all but said that they will play tit-for-tat in the new Congress – investigations, impeachments, whatever it takes to troll Democrats and distract the public with political theater, as Republicans are unlikely to make good on campaign promises. Hence it is crucial to understand what made the release of Trump’s tax returns legitimate – and why Trump cannot appeal to privacy as a trump card – and why we must also put rules in place to prevent political witch-hunts.

Kevin Brady – the top Republican on the House ways and means committee, which voted along partisan lines to release the returns – has warned that “the era of political targeting, and of Congress’s enemies list, is back and every American, every American taxpayer, who may get on the wrong side of the majority in Congress is now at risk.” Democrats, he alleges, have created “a dangerous new political weapon that overturns decades of privacy protections”.

But in what sense is privacy really at stake here? Privacy is ultimately the right to control what is known about us. That right is not absolute, but it is crucial for developing intimate relationships, for experimenting with new ways of life, and, sometimes, for making a new start in circumstances when we need the luxury of appearing to others as strangers. Privacy matters for our lives with our nearest and dearest (while many legal theorists thought the right to abortion should not be justified as a matter of privacy, few would say there is no link at all); but it can also afford us anonymity, a key element in the arch-American enterprise of self-reinvention.

This understanding contrasts with a conventional view according to which particular areas of life are automatically deemed private. Feminists spent decades arguing that the family should not be a black box such that everything happening inside it would remain unknown to outsiders, including the state. After all, deploying the private-public distinction this way enabled abuse of women and children by men who could deploy privacy as both shield and sword to cut down any criticism.

In the same manner, it is a mistake to declare taxes automatically private. To be sure, people have a legitimate interest in not having their neighbors know their income, or the peculiar items they claim as deductions. But – unlike with intimate knowledge that really only a chosen few should know (such that sharing that knowledge is precisely a sign of intimacy) – most of us don’t mind that civil servants know something about us most other people don’t know. And that is because bureaucrats, unlike our neighbors, take no particular interest in us as individuals.

Most of us happen not to be public figures. Public figures voluntarily give up some control over what is known about them – in fact, plenty of self-promoting celebrities force more information on us than we really care to know. But even public figures have an interest in privacy. After a recording was leaked, the whole world gawked at the Finnish prime minister, Sanna Marin, dancing and singing this summer, in a setting she had every reason to assume was private. She was right to complain about the leaked recording, and the (horrendously misogynist, needless to say) comments denying her the right to some private fun and release were wrong.

Yet politicians wield the levers of state power in a democracy and are accountable to us in a way simply not true of pop stars and other famous figures. (Supreme court justices are an interesting case in-between.) The norm that presidential candidates release their tax returns is not about citizens’ nosiness, but their rightful concerns that powerful beings might be beholden to corporations and foreign powers – all red flags in Trump’s case in particular, of course.

This rationale is not new. Nixon’s returns were analyzed by Congress; the Carter administration introduced mandatory audits of sitting presidents and vice-presidents. The Trump years demonstrate two things: that the informal norm of presidential candidates releasing returns is too weak, and that the system of mandatory auditing is not working.

Both failed in the face of Trump. Trump appears not to have personally prevented the auditing during the first years of his presidency – but then again, that’s how autocracy works: underlings know what is expected without being told.

Congress should pass laws to ensure both transparency and proper auditing of the most powerful in politics; none of that would have pernicious implications for other citizens, even fabulously famous ones.

  • Jan-Werner Mueller teaches at Princeton and is a Guardian US columnist. His most recent book is Democracy Rules


Jan-Werner Müller

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Republicans will defend their Caesar but new revelations show Trump’s true threat | Lloyd Green
The DoJ has dealt two blows and the 6 January committee is winding up for more. They know democracy is in danger

Lloyd Green

01, Aug, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Trump’s tax avoidance is a national disgrace. Don't let him blame 'the system' | Nathan Robinson
Americans paid for Trump’s $73m tax refund – and he’s laughing all the way to the bank

Nathan Robinson

28, Sep, 2020 @10:12 AM

Article image
Why Republicans won’t agree to Biden’s big plans and why he should ignore them | Robert Reich
The new president can achieve huge and vital reform and relief without the party of Trump – and they know it

Robert Reich

31, Jan, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Trump's tax breaks for the rich won't trickle down to help working Americans | Steven Greenhouse
Spending on infrastructure would be a better way to create jobs than tax breaks for the richest people, says former New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse

Steven Greenhouse

14, Nov, 2017 @1:37 PM

Article image
The shutdown has exposed Trumponomics for what it is: a disaster | Robert Reich
When the president is proud to close government and proud to slash taxes for the rich, American workers get shafted

Robert Reich

20, Jan, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
We need tax police – and they should go after the likes of Donald Trump | David Cay Johnston
A staggering New York Times report on Trump family tax payments proved it: Congress must let the Internal Revenue Service do its job

David Cay Johnston

13, Oct, 2018 @11:00 AM

Article image
The first 100 days of Biden were also the first 100 without Trump – that’s telling | Robert Reich
The new president is benefiting not just from bold proposals and actions but from his predecessor’s catastrophic record

Robert Reich

02, May, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Bidenomics beats Reaganomics and I should know – I saw Clintonomics fail | Robert Reich
When I was labor secretary welfare ended but now it’s back and three-quarters of Americans – and many Republicans – approve

Robert Reich

14, Mar, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Why is Donald Trump launching a withering attack on nonprofits? | David Callahan
The administration’s tax proposals are a blunt attack on civil society that will ultimately damage American life

David Callahan

20, Nov, 2017 @1:59 PM

Article image
Trump, Bankman-Fried and Musk are the monsters of American capitalism | Robert Reich
For them, and for everyone who still regards them as heroes, there is no morality in business or economics. The winnings go to the most ruthless

Robert Reich

24, Dec, 2022 @6:00 AM