The economy is great right now, haven't you heard? Unemployment is near a record low, stocks are trading high, and jobs are so plentiful that even Amazon is raising its lowest wage to $15 an hour nationwide, at least in part to attract workers. Presiding over it all is Donald Trump, who won the presidency in part because America still stubbornly worships the rich and shameless. This worship infects "blue" as well as "red" regions: Michael Bloomberg benefited from it when he won three terms as mayor of New York City, a place full of poverty that got crueler and more unequal under his watch. Generations of politicians from both parties have done the same thing, from the Kennedys to the Bushes. That you have to be wealthy to run for president is such a fundamental truth of American politics that it usually goes unremarked upon.
But as the New York Times points out in a new investigation on his riches, Trump is a special case—no one had more of a mythology of self-made wealth, a made-for-TV Horatio Alger shtick, so indelibly stitched into the very fabric of their being. But not only did Trump come from immense privilege and have to be saved over and over again from his own awful business decisions, his family routinely stole from the American people by way of mass tax evasion. From the Times:
The Times’s investigation, based on a vast trove of confidential tax returns and financial records, reveals that Mr. Trump received the equivalent today of at least $413 million from his father’s real estate empire, starting when he was a toddler and continuing to this day.
Much of this money came to Mr. Trump because he helped his parents dodge taxes. He and his siblings set up a sham corporation to disguise millions of dollars in gifts from their parents, records and interviews show. Records indicate that Mr. Trump helped his father take improper tax deductions worth millions more. He also helped formulate a strategy to undervalue his parents’ real estate holdings by hundreds of millions of dollars on tax returns, sharply reducing the tax bill when those properties were transferred to him and his siblings.
As the piece points out, some of the blame here has to fall on an insanely inept (if also deeply overburdened) IRS and a tax code that has made carveouts for rich people its own cottage industry. As the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers showed, oligarchs both in the US and around the world have ready access to accountants and lawyers and other financial wizards who will bend or break rules to conceal money from governments. This is one of the fundamental scandals of our era, a massive crime that cries out for some kind of French Revolution-style response.
But the Trump family scheme was a lot more brazen than your run-of-the-mill shell company venture. Why bother stashing money offshore if, like Trump's father, you can just transfer your wealth to your kids without paying the requisite gift and estate taxes? The Trump family also benefited over and over again from federal and other subsidies and breaks related to things like affordable housing—programs they used to profit or limit losses at key points even as they discriminated against people of color.
A couple of facts in the Times story speak to just how much money Trump's father gave him: When he could barely walk, Trump was pulling in $200,000 a year in 2018 dollars; by the time he was 29, Trump had hauled in almost $9 million from his old man. Despite this, Trump has routinely claimed that the only assistance he got from his father was a $1 million loan.
The Times story is remarkable for showing just how dishonest Trump has been when discussing how he got his money. It was only through his father's real-estate empire that he had any resources at all, and the family went through contortions to fool the IRS. But politically, it's not likely to leave a mark. It won't sway Trump's MAGA supporters, it won't convince members of the Senate not to confirm a credibly accused sexual assailant to a lifetime gig on the Supreme Court, it won't reverse the living nightmare that is global warming, it won't halt the terrorizing of immigrants.
But the story does show us in very real terms how deeply implicated Trump personally is in the story of theft that has come to dominate America's imagination since the 2008 financial crisis exposed what generations before—in 1873, in 1929, in 1987, among other times—found out for themselves. Rich people steal. This is how the world works. And it's not like this is all past tense, either: Do you think all those Trump properties aren't unduly profiting from his perch in the White House? We know they at least plausibly might be, as a federal judge just ruled.
It remains to be seen whether Democrats or outside opposition groups can find a way to turn this generational warfare against the man who made his bones waging it. Given the complexities of tax fraud and the polarization that has come to define American discourse, I'm not holding my breath. But there is one simple strategy Democrats can employ as they hone in on a challenge to the president two years from now: relentlessly target the GOP not just as the party of the rich or the party of cruelty to immigrants or other marginalized groups, but the party of fraud, organized crime, and cheating. After all, if Trump lied so routinely—to the feds, to the media, to the business world—when he was in the real-estate game, it's fair to assume he's lying like hell to you, right now.
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