The New York Times published an explosive new story on Sunday, revealing that President Donald Trump paid just $750 in federal income taxes in 2016, another $750 in 2017, and didn’t pay a single penny for at least 10 other years dating back to 2000. The article also alleges Trump owes over $400 million to unnamed creditors. You know who else didn’t pay his taxes? That’s right, President Richard Nixon. And, if we really want to go back in history, Adolf Hitler.
Every presidential nominee of a major political party since Jimmy Carter has released their tax returns before taking office, a precedent that started because Richard Nixon was a crook, something he rather famously disputed. But it only became the norm for presidents to release their income tax returns after Nixon resigned and many Americans wondered later why Nixon was never audited by the IRS. Trump has never released his tax returns.
Nixon paid $792 in federal income tax in 1970, just a tad more than Trump paid in 2016, but there’s an important distinction that makes Trump even worse than Nixon. These numbers are not adjusted for inflation. Adjusted for inflation, Nixon’s $792 in 1970 is equivalent to $5,305 today. Even with that context, it was considered a huge scandal that Nixon was paying so little on $262,942 of his reported income that year.
But let’s take another right-wing historical figure and see what he personally thought of taxes. Say, Adolf Hitler, for example. According to the scholarship in this area, Hitler was a tax delinquent in the 1920s and early 1930s, making most of his money from the publication of his book Mein Kampf and failing to pay much in taxes. The first volume of the book was published in 1925, and the second volume came out in December 1926, but it took a few years to truly become a hit. By 1930, the book was such a success that Hitler’s income had tripled from the previous year and rose steadily after that.
According to surviving documents, Hitler constantly complained about Germany’s Ministry of Finance, the equivalent to America’s IRS, and didn’t pay substantial sums he owed for his profits on Mein Kampf. Hitler made partial payments until 1934, but after he became chancellor of Germany in 1933, his tax situation as a dictator was obviously going to change.
By 1934, Hitler unilaterally stopped paying taxes altogether, though he told the German people he was donating his salary as chancellor to the families of pro-Nazi police officers who had been killed during riots against anti-fascist forces. But donating his salary created an accounting problem for the Ministry of Finance because technically Hitler still owed a lot of money, not just in back-payments, but on private income he was receiving from Mein Kampf while he was the leader of Germany.
From the 1955 paper “Adolf Hitler: Taxpayer,” by Oron James Hale in the American Historical Review:
The first problem that arose in connection with the Chancellor’s tax affairs concerned Hitler’s state salary. Shortly after his appointment it was announced in the press that Hitler would donate his salary as Chancellor to a fund for assistance to dependents of members of the SA, SS, and police who had been killed in political riots of the preceding years. At the end of March the Finance Office Munich-East, where Hitler continued to make his returns, took cognizance of the report and the tax problem raised by this well-publicized gesture.
The answer was pretty straightforward. Even though the unpaid taxes would be kept on the books, the finance ministry simply wouldn’t ask Hitler for payment. Ludwog Mirre, president of the State Finance Office in Munich, wrote a letter to a colleague saying as much. And, with that, there was no need to pass any legislation to make Hitler tax-exempt. It was all done with a new “interpretation” of the German constitution.
Hale’s 1955 paper on Hitler (the Fuhrer, as referenced below) quotes a memo from the tax office, written in 1935, about the new “constitutional interpretation”:
On the occasion of a recent conversation with President Mirre, I urged him to see that the Fuhrer was informed of the planned tax exemption, since he certainly would not be indifferent to what happened to his tax affairs. President Mirre promised to speak to Herr Reinhardt about it. On February 25, 1935, President Mirre informed me by telephone that State Secretary Reinhardt had reported to the Fuhrer on the legal and constitutional interpretation of his tax exemption in his position as Chief of State, and that the Fuhrer was in agreement with the views of Herrn Mirre and Reinhardt. The order to declare the Fuhrer tax exempt was therefore final. There upon I with drew all the Fuhrer’s records, including the tax cards, from official circulation and placed them under lock and key.
Even though he wasn’t paying taxes anymore, Hitler still complained about the complexity of his own Finance Ministry during World War II. On the night of January 24, 1942, Hitler whined to Himmler about taxes, according to the book Hitler’s Table Talk, 1941-1944. The book, which is based on notes taken during private conversations between Hitler and his associates, quotes Hitler that night:
As regards direct taxes, the simplest is to take as a basis the amount paid the previous year. The tax-payer is told: “You’ll pay the same sum as last year. If this year your earnings are lower, you’ll report that fact. If they’re higher, you’ll immediately pay a proportionate supplement. If you forget to announce the increase in your income, you’ll be severely punished.”
If I explain this system to the Ministry of Finance or to Reinhardt, the reply will be, after an instant’s reflection: “My Fuehrer, you’re right.” But within six months they’ll certainly have forgotten everything!
Thanks to this method, one might reduce the bureaucracy to a third of its present importance. The snag is that a tax which is easy to collect doesn’t suit these gentlemen of the administration. ‘What would be the use of having been to a University? Where would one find jobs for the jurists? There’d be no more work for them, for everything could be done by means of an extremely simple piece of apparatus, and the Chinese puzzle of declaring one’s taxes would be done away with.
Apparently Hitler believed the only reason taxes were so complicated was because accountants had to justify their salaries.
To be clear, and it goes without saying, but Adolf Hitler was much more evil than Trump. Hitler engaged in the systematic murder of 10 million people during the Holocaust, including 6 million Jews; Trump has only killed roughly 121,000 people through gross negligence, another 3,000 through incompetence, and at least seven children through callous indifference.
Trump has perhaps killed large numbers of civilians through drone strikes and other military incursions, but the Trump regime abolished transparency requirements put in place during the Obama era, so we actually don’t know much about the exact death toll there.
Hitler was clearly and unequivocally the more evil person. But it’s curious how authoritarian-minded leaders, wherever they land on the sliding scale from wannabe fascists like Nixon and Trump to the historical extremes of fascism like Hitler, always hate taxes. Income taxes are a necessary part of life and have a long history in the U.S., no matter how much modern-day Republicans complain. America’s first income tax was a flat 3% tax in 1861 imposed by President Abraham Lincoln to help pay for the Civil War. Congress passed new tax legislation on July 1, 1862, to turn that flat tax into a progressive tax, where people who made more money paid a higher percentage of their income above a specific figure.
As University of Connecticut historian Brad Simpson pointed out on Twitter yesterday, Lincoln even paid more in income taxes back in 1864, during the Civil War, than Trump paid in 2016 and 2017. Lincoln paid $1,981.67 in taxes on a salary of $25,000. And much like our Nixon example, that’s before inflation. It gets tougher to calculate inflation from the 19th century, but it might conservatively be called over $35,000 in today’s money.
No one likes paying taxes. But they’re something modern societies impose to pay for things that contribute to the common good. Whether it’s roads, or the military, or food stamps, the government needs to provide basic services for people so that we all benefit. And while some Republicans don’t see the point of food stamps or universal health care or other things that leftists want to see in the federal budget, these are also regarded as the common good in other wealthy nations.
If we’ve learned anything in 2020 during mass civil unrest, double-digit unemployment, and a pandemic, it’s that making sure your neighbor is doing okay contributes to the common good. Because if your barista has covid-19 and is afraid to get tested because it might bankrupt them, everyone in that coffee shop has a problem. If you don’t have empathy for your neighbor and their ability to eat, to have clothes on their back and a roof over their head, then at least understand their deprivation will come back to impact you one day. I promise. And that’s why we pay our taxes. Or, at least some of us do, anyway.