The scandal at the center of the damning ProPublica investigation into the tax avoidance habits of the 25 richest Americans is so obvious it almost doesn’t need to be restated: “According to Forbes, those 25 people saw their worth rise a collective $401 billion from 2014 to 2018,” the authors of the story, which was based on a sizable cache of leaked IRS materials, write. “They paid a total of $13.6 billion in federal income taxes in those five years, the IRS data shows. That’s a staggering sum, but it amounts to a true tax rate of only 3.4 percent.” The reporters then describe the extraordinary lengths that figures like Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates go to avoid paying their fair share—the tax rate for individuals making between $40,000 and $85,000 is six times higher than that paid by America’s wealthiest. The IRS, meanwhile, spends most of its investigatory resources cracking down on the poor, all while the fortunes of these oligarchs grow exponentially.
As is often the case, the crime is what’s legal: The wealthy elite are coddled and venerated while the woefully underfunded IRS is weaponized against those with infinitesimally less. It’s also an issue of good governance. As my colleague Matt Ford wrote in The New Republic two years ago, more robust tax enforcement of America’s wealthy would help pay for all kinds of bold, badly needed policies: universal health care, more funding for public schools, or, to use the public policy white whale of the last few years, infrastructure.
The right, however, does not view the ProPublica blockbuster in this light. Instead, its response has been muddled. The conservative media’s institutional outlets insist there is no cause to scandalize the wealthy: After all, we all know the rich excel at tax avoidance, and there’s nothing wrong with using every legal avenue at your disposal to pay less. The more populism-inclined outlets on the right have barely covered it at all, despite the fact that this all ostensibly resides squarely within their wheelhouse. The result is a telling portrait of the right, six years after Donald Trump became a presidential candidate: For all the talk of a new, populist, “working-class” GOP, the party’s fiscal agenda is essentially unchanged from the one it advanced 40 years ago.
Tax avoidance has, of course, been the cornerstone of the Trump-era GOP. Trump is a well-known cheat, but an infamous tax cheat, in particular. Accused by Hillary Clinton of not paying any income tax at all in a 2016 debate, Trump didn’t even bother issuing a denial. “That makes me smart,” he quipped. While the truth about Trump’s finances remains murky, we have since learned, thanks to a 2019 New York Times investigation, that he wasn’t lying. He paid $750 in income taxes in 2016, and nothing at all in the previous decade, despite claiming to be worth billions.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal would applaud tax avoidance. Its editorial board declared on Wednesday that it had unearthed the real scandal in the story: that someone had leaked the documents to reporters at ProPublica for the purpose of advancing the Democratic agenda. (In this case, to make rich people pay more to fund social programs. The horror!) “The striking fact of the initial ProPublica story—it says the disclosures will continue for months—is how undramatic the findings are,” the editorial board insists. “It turns out that billionaires are very good at reducing their taxable income. Who knew?”
Meanwhile, National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke and Town Hall’s Katie Pavlich advanced conservatives’ parallel narrative: The real scandal was that these documents were disclosed at all. After all, leaking IRS materials in this fashion is illegal; tax avoidance is not. It is a naked attempt to blot out one scandal with another: in this instance, that liberals are happy to sacrifice Jeff Bezos’s privacy to advance their agenda. The fact that this happened as the White House is working to expand the size and capabilities of the IRS made it something more significant: the first real Biden scandal.
The fact that billionaires’ tax avoidance is seen as a political scandal at all is revealing, even if it really is just conservative orthodoxy boiled down to its essence. The rich should be rewarded, in this narrative, for not paying more; as Trump said, their tax avoidance merely proves how intelligent they are. Not only that, but these leaks show that they are also the real victims, having had their privacy violated merely to expose the Herculean efforts they undergo to pay a significantly lower tax rate than a public school teacher.
For all the talk of the right’s populist turn, there has been little mention of this scandal in the more Trump-friendly circles. Breitbart did publish a story on it—highlighting Bezos’s and George Soros’s tax avoidance, naturally—but has been far more invested in the inspector general’s report about the clearing of Lafayette Square Park last June, as well as alleged crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. Fox News has mentioned “critical race theory” dozens of times in the last few hours, but its opinion hosts—including the supposed leader of the populist right, Tucker Carlson—have barely issued a peep about it. There is, on the culture-war-obsessed right, nothing to see here.
The right’s fraught response to the ProPublica story crystallizes something that’s been apparent for years. Marco Rubio and Donald Trump may talk about transforming the GOP into a workers’ party, but in lieu of actually retrieving material wealth for this cohort, the only compensation on offer is the promise of continually affirming its presumed cultural grievances. For all the talk about the need to hold America’s new tech oligarchs accountable, there’s no interest in hitting them where it hurts. Instead, the silence on the right reveals the emptiness of the right’s claim to represent workers. Institutional conservatives successfully trimmed and tamed Trump’s flirtations with populism and brought him around to the same project the Republican Party has pursued for generations: making sure that the rich keep getting richer, while everyone else suffers.