Fred Trump’s craven tax schemes are just more evidence of the conveyor belt of white male privilege

His son’s GOP axis of avarice seeks a further concentration of wealth at a time of unpitying wage inequality

Published October 7, 2018 10:00AM (EDT)

Fred Trump; Donald Trump  (AP/Adam Scull)
Fred Trump; Donald Trump (AP/Adam Scull)

That massive gag reflex felt across so much of the nation with Trump and the GOP forcing the intemperate Judge Kavanaugh down our throats is not just about the Supreme Court.

It is about the continued domination of our political economy by inherited white male privilege and wealth that no matter how badly it behaves publicly has always gotten the best of whatever our society has collectively created because they have always owned it.

In Kavanaugh’s last appearance before the court he spewed partisan venom and disrespected a female U.S. Senator while menacing the Democrats in Congress with an enigmatic “what goes around comes around” veiled threat.

READ MORE: Lindsey Graham and Brett Kavanaugh: Welcome to the smoldering ruins of American democracy

He was playing to President Donald Trump, whose hold on political power is made possible only by him stoking the great geyser of white male rage that Kavanaugh’s performance so epitomized.

There was no need for the judge to worry that such an abusive public performance would knock him off the inheritance conveyor belt to greater power. In fact, in order to keep the President in his corner he had to demonstrate he was ‘man enough to” deliver it.

This display of white male privilege on steroids comes as the biggest economic challenge facing the nation, indeed the world, is how to deal with the consequences of accelerating wealth inequality and income disparity. We are on our way to creating a kind of 21st century feudalism where a tiny sliver of obscenely rich individuals call the shots and frame it as philanthropy for taking the time to address us.

As Robert Samuelson wrote in the Washington Post,  new economic research shows that not even today’s upper-middle class children can count on higher living standards than those enjoyed by their parents. 

Among many young Americans, there is downward mobility” and “an underlying worry about the future” where “economic anxiety is increasingly an equal-opportunity affliction,” he writes. “No one can escape it. The poor worry about staying poor. The lower-middle class worries about paying bills or losing jobs. Now upper-middle class parents have joined the crowd, because their own well-being is often judged by how well their children are doing.”

Seems it is hardly a good time to re-enforce the further concentration of wealth. Yet, that’s just what the Trump GOP axis of avarice wants to do by ending the estate tax. That way they and their campaign contributing patrons will be able to pass on their wealth to their descendants.   

As it is, as the New York Times noted in its tour de force on the Trump family dynastic pass  through, the “richest Americans almost never pay anything close to full freight” when it comes to taxes because “there is no shortage of clever tax avoidance tricks that have been blessed by either the courts or the I.R.S. itself.” 

It is an open question how many of these families are as aggressive as the Trumps were when the “president’s parents, Fred and Mary Trump, transferred well over $1 billion in wealth to their children, which could have produced a tax bill of at least $550 million under the 55 percent tax rate then imposed on gifts and inheritances” but paid only $52.2 million, or about 5 percent.

And be sure this hoarding wealth to pass on in perpetuity to your descendants is a bi-partisan non-ideological pursuit. It is all about shifting the tax burden to somebody, anybody else. As Forbes reported the Kennedy family has used  a labyrinth of trusts to protect a $1 billion family fortune from “Uncle Sam’s prying fingers” with so called “dynasty trusts.”

From the founding of the republic there has been a lingering stench of aristocracy and inherited entitlement for white males enforced by private property rights. That so many of the nation’s founders built their fortunes with slave labor and land taken from Native-Americans is more than just a footnote when we consider how the ability to hand down that ill-gotten wealth generation after generation only magnified the original sin.

“Does allowing a small number of families to accumulate great wealth — increasing from generation to generation — harm democracy?” asks historian Andrew M. Schocket. “The United States Constitution's ban on inherited titles met with unanimous approval because of the perceived threat posed by lords and earls to a democratic republic.”  

He continues, “Similarly, Americans have always understood that establishing a small group of families with seemingly unlimited wealth, social privilege, and political power undermines a fundamental American principle:  that all citizens are legally and politically equal.”

The first such estate tax was passed in 1797 by Congress and signed by President John Adams to fund the building of a federal navy.

But Schocket notes there was still a real range in opinion about the concept of inherited wealth in Revolutionary America.

“Some founders wanted to eliminate inheritance entirely. In a letter to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson suggested that all property be redistributed every fifty years, because "the earth belongs in usufruct to the living." Madison gently pointed out the plan's impracticality. Benjamin Franklin unsuccessfully pushed for the first Pennsylvania constitution to declare concentrated wealth "a danger to the happiness of mankind."

 And yet so enamored of private property were the framers that the  Constitutional Convention could not bring itself to follow the English practice of the government seize the entire estate of a person convicted of treason. “They reasoned that the property even of citizens who had committed the highest crimes against the nation should not be wholly confiscated,” according to Schocket.

 By the 19th century, long before women won the right to vote and were still considered chattel under English Common Law, it was English political economist John Stuart Mills who noted that even though that slavery as a racial institution had been abolished, marriage between a man and a woman was the “the only actual bondage known to our law. There remain no legal slaves, except the mistress of every house.”

It was also Mills, according to Hans Jansen, that believed that wealth distribution was a function of a tight collaboration between the state,  educational institutions and business interests to “malignantly skew the distribution of income to the advantage of the propertied classes and to the extreme disadvantage of the working class.” 

Yet even now, well over 150 years after the abolition of slavery and barely a hundred years since women got the vote, both women and people of color remain economically marginalized earning less and struggling harder to make ends meet. 

What does endure is that white male conveyor belt of inherited wealth and power that needs to be dismantled. 

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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Donald Trump Fred Trump Real Estate Tax Evasion Tax Fraud The New York Times