Dressed as the “Real Chicken Don,” Shawn Frye takes part in a Sacramento demonstration on Wednesday to call for President Trump to release his tax returns. (Rich Pedroncelli / AP)

With everything that is happening in the world, it might seem superficial to focus on Donald Trump’s tax returns, as Tax Day protesters will be doing on Saturday. Organizers around the country are expecting thousands of people to gather on the streets of their cities to demand that the president make his tax returns public in order to better determine his business dealings and judge his policy positions. But, just as importantly, they will be calling attention to income inequality and demanding tax justice. Taxes are the most tangible mode of interaction between a government and its people. In an ideal world, a democratically elected government collects taxes from its residents and uses them to better their lives. In the real world, wealthy elites use their financial clout to minimize their taxes while maximizing the profits they earn using publicly funded infrastructure or investments. Our controversial new president fits squarely in the elite club. The presidential practice of releasing tax returns goes back to Richard Nixon, who was found to have committed tax fraud to benefit his personal finances. Nixon refused to release his returns and was eventually exposed by an investigative journalist. Trump’s refusal to divulge his finances is highly suggestive of wrongdoing. After all, if he has nothing to hide, there ought to be no reason for the wealthiest president in American history to keep secret just how much he has been paying into the U.S.Treasury. At the very least it would indicate in stark terms how wildly different an economic plane he resides on compared to the rest of us. So curious are Americans to understand the nuts and bolts of Trump’s fortune that last month MSNBC host Rachel Maddow touted a major expose of Trump’s 1040 tax form from 2005, garnering her one of the highest ratings spikes of her career. While the manner of Maddow’s sensationalist scoop was roundly criticized and the actual content of the tax form dismissed, there was one revelation. Joe Dinkin of the Working Families Party told me in an interview that “if Trump had been able to implement one of the tax reforms that he’s talked about, which is eliminating the alternative minimum tax, if he had been able to do that on his 2005 returns, he would have paid almost nothing.” On the issue of public accountability, Dinkin said the goal of the tax marches “isn’t just an issue about decorum or tradition … it’s really an issue about maintaining the public trust and integrity in knowing who Trump is really working for.” The depth of financial entanglements that Trump’s businesses have with his presidential power is unprecedented. The public needs to know for certain that financial policies that Trump might champion are not being implemented for his personal financial gain. The institution of the presidency will mean nothing if the position is being milked for profit. By extension American democracy will become meaningless. Americans get this. More than a million people signed a White House petition that was started on the day that Trump took office, demanding the release of his tax returns. That is why the tax marches may prove to be among the biggest expressions of mass dissent during Trump’s first 100 days, alongside the Jan. 21 Women’s March and the coming March for Science and workers rights (May Day). There are two Americas: one that pays taxes for the public good and one that works hard to ensure that taxes are minimal and often succeeds in paying as little as possible. Trump’s tax returns from a decade earlier, exposed by The New York Times, show that he declared losses so huge that he could have potentially avoided paying any taxes for nearly two decades. In fact, paying almost nothing in taxes is a proud achievement of America’s wealthy—one that affords bragging rights, as Trump revealed in a debate last year with Hillary Clinton. “That makes me smart,” Trump said in response to Clinton’s assertion that he may not have paid any federal taxes.
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