IF THERE were ever a time for a wholesale shift in Donald Trump’s campaign, this is it. Now, almost a week after a breathtakingly awful performance at the Hofstra presidential debate — the most-watched debate in history — and days after The New York Times unearths a 1995 tax return that appears to show Trump paid no federal taxes for 18 years, Team Trump faces a kind of bad-news carryforward from last week to this one.
The pressure’s on Trump to do what he can’t do: reinvent himself from the ground up for a general-election audience ... and do it in the next 36 days.
It doesn’t look good.
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First, even before the Times story broke, there were a multitude of swing-state Republicans who apparently won’t even consider the idea of holding their noses and downing the Trumpian medicine.
“This guy is not qualified for this job,” Bill Urbanski, former head of the GOP in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, told Politico. “He presents himself that way every time I see him. I can’t get over that hurdle.”
Sandra Kase, a lifelong Republican who serves on the Kingston municipal council in Luzerne County, agrees. “Just his attitude toward women, sexism, everything that comes out of his mouth turns me off. I’m sorry, I can’t say a good thing about him,” she told Politico. “I don’t think he has the temperament. As soon as someone goads him into something, he blasts out what we wants to say and feels that’s OK, and it’s not.”
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THEN THERE’S the Times report, which was published Saturday. According to the Times story, which took four reporters to write and a group of hired tax experts to analyze the records underpinning the story, “tax rules that are especially advantageous to wealthy filers would have allowed Mr. Trump to use his $916 million loss to cancel out an equivalent amount of taxable income over an 18-year period.” That comes to more than $50 million a year.
For Trump, there are two yuuuge perceptual problems with the Times report: There’s apparently no denying the legality of Trump’s 1995 tax move, but the way it’s likely to look to the American public — Trump as another rich guy loopholing his way to getting even richer — is not helpful, and certainly not populist in any current definition of the word.
It heavily reinforces the social and economic distinctions between Trump and the nation he hopes to lead. In its own way, it’s as classist and elitist as Romney’s “47 percent” comment, but it shows Trump making use of tax legerdemain that 97 percent of Americans can only dream of.
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Politico, “is the little guy is getting screwed and I’m the guy who’s going to look after you. It is hard to make that argument when there is evidence now in front of everybody about how he has benefited personally, how he has gamed the system.”
The second problem is that the news in the Times story directly undercuts Trump’s unique selling proposition, his reason for being in the campaign: It suggests there is no there there when it comes to Trump being a sound fiscal manager. Never mind how he mitigated the loss: The idea that one company could lose $916 million in a year in the first place — a company helmed by a recklessly lavish, lavishly reckless entrepreneur who’s been through four bankruptcies in his working lifetime — can’t inspire confidence in Americans looking for fiscal responsibility in the next president.
Americans want a steward of the economy as intelligent with money as they try to be. With a failed casino, a failed airline, a failed university and a possibly fraudulent foundation in his wake, The Donald makes people ask: What on earth would stop him from trying to do with the national purse what he’s already done with his own?
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TRUMP’S ONLY real way forward now is to hunker down behind the persona he’s carefully crafted for himself, and hope that the remaining undecideds and independents out there will give him the underdog benefit of the doubt.
Because there aren’t many other options open now. In order to punch through with the voters still on the fence, he's got to resolve his central dilemma right now: how to be someone he’s never been before to achieve something he’s never achieved before. That requires reinvention, and reinvention requires imagination.
And — something Trump still doesn’t seem to understand — it requires the time and the heart needed to communicate that reinvention to the voters, in a way that's organic, chronologically verifiable, experientially truthful — and not just cosmetics.
Because in American politics, you can adopt a guise for a while, put on a different face for the public, but sooner or later, the mask falls off. There are few things in this world that will rip the bark off a bullshit tree like the relentless, ravenous, high-velocity, balls-to-the-wall environment of a major presidential campaign.
That veteran political analyst William Shakespeare was right: Truth will out. When you run, you can’t hide — your taxes or anything else.
Image credits: Trump tax returns: via The New York Times. Trump: Reuters.