DOnaldo Trump’s biggest concern right now may not be Congress releasing six years of his tax returns. But it’s an issue where Republicans can comfortably have it both ways: appeasing Trump’s base while vocally expressing outrage at Democrats’ behavior, even as they stop short of defending a politically weakened Trump against the committee’s Jan. 6 charges.
The Republican Party has all but said that the new Congress will be played around the clock – investigations, impeachments, whatever it takes to troll Democrats and distract the public with political theater, because Republicans are unlikely to follow through on campaign promises. So it’s crucial to understand what made the release of Trump’s tax returns legitimate—and why Trump can’t appeal to privacy as a trump card—and why we also need to set rules to prevent political witch-hunts.
Kevin Brady — the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, who voted along party lines to release the report — warned that “the era of political targeting and Congressional enemy lists is back and that every American, every American taxpayer, who would could get on the wrong side of the majority in Congress is now in jeopardy. Democrats, he claims, have created a “dangerous new political weapon that is undoing decades of privacy protections.”
But in what sense is privacy really at stake here? Privacy is ultimately the right to control what is known about us. That right is not absolute, but it is crucial for developing intimate relationships, for experimenting with new ways of life, and sometimes for a new beginning in circumstances when we need the luxury of showing ourselves to others as strangers. Privacy is important to our lives with those closest to us (and while many legal theorists have argued that the right to abortion should not be justified on the issue of privacy, few would argue that it does not matter at all); but it can also afford us anonymity, a key element in the arch-American enterprise of self-reinvention.
This understanding contrasts with the conventional view that certain areas of life are automatically considered private. For decades, feminists advocated that the family should not be a black box so that everything that happened in it would remain unknown to outsiders, including the state. Ultimately, setting up the distinction between private and public in this way allowed for the abuse of women and children by men who could use privacy as both a shield and a sword to minimize any criticism.
In the same way, it is a mistake to declare taxes automatically private. Of course, people have a legitimate interest in their neighbors not knowing their income, or the unusual items they claim as deductions. But – unlike intimate knowledge that really only a select few should know (so sharing that knowledge is precisely a sign of closeness) – most of us don’t mind that civil servants know something about us that most other people don’t. And that’s because bureaucrats, unlike our neighbors, are not particularly interested in us as individuals.
Most of us don’t happen to be public figures. Public figures willingly give up some control over what is known about them – in fact, many self-promoting celebrities force more information on us than we really want to know. But even public figures have an interest in privacy. After the footage leaked, the whole world stared this summer at Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin dancing and singing in what she had every reason to believe was private. She was right to complain about the leaked footage, and the (horribly misogynistic, needless to say) comments denying her right to private entertainment and release were wrong.
Yet politicians hold the levers of state power in a democracy and are accountable to us in a way that is simply not true of pop stars and other celebrities. (Supreme Court justices are an interesting case in between.) The norm for presidential candidates to release their tax returns is not about citizen ingenuity, but about their legitimate concern that powerful beings might be beholden to corporations and foreign powers—all red flags in Trump’s particular case. of course.
This reasoning is not new. Congress analyzed Nixon’s returns; The Carter administration instituted mandatory audits of sitting presidents and vice presidents. The Trump years demonstrate two things: that the informal norm for presidential candidates to release reports is too weak, and that the mandatory audit system is not working.
Both failed before Trump. Trump doesn’t appear to have personally prevented the audit during the early years of his presidency — but then again, that’s how autocracy works: subordinates know what’s expected without being told.
Congress should legislate to ensure both transparency and proper oversight of the most powerful in politics; none of this would have disastrous implications for other citizens, even the fabled ones.