Hillary Clinton's plan to attack Donald Trump's wealth is a losing strategy—here's why


Listen, advisers to the Hillary Clinton campaign. I don’t know how to tell you this, but here it goes: Donald Trump is rich. Like, really rich.

The fact that Donald Trump is rich is not up for debate. Trump claims, dubiously, that he’s worth $10 billion. But even if the most skeptical estimates of his wealth were true—like those from journalist Timothy O’Brien, who claimed in a 2005 book that Trump’s net worth might be as low as $150 million, or from Fortune‘s Shawn Tully, who estimated more recently that Trump’s annual income is likely around $123 million—Trump would still be massively, absurdly wealthy.

Which is why it’s puzzling that the Clinton campaign seems hell-bent on sowing doubt about Trump’s wealth—the single most unassailable thing about him!—as part of its general-election attack strategy.

On Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” Clinton was asked about Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, and why it’s important that he does. She gave two answers. The first was that she wanted to see Trump’s tax returns because “it will expose the fact that he pays no federal income tax.”

Which, OK! Lots of rich people use sophisticated accounting strategies to lower their tax rates—like Mitt Romney, whose tax returns showed that he paid a 14% rate in 2011—and while not exactly immoral or illegal, a surprisingly low tax rate is the kind of embarrassing thing that can be used as a political bludgeon against a rich person.

But Clinton’s second suggestion, that Trump’s tax returns might help in disproving that “he actually has the level of success he claims to have”—is a worrisome preview of a totally unconvincing line of attack.

Jonathan Chait makes the case that attacking Trump’s wealth could help Clinton prove, more broadly, that Trump is a fraud, and that doing so might undermine his appeal with voters:

His entire appeal rests on the bedrock of his identity as a successful entrepreneur. The vast wealth Trump claims to have amassed allows him to supposedly fund his own campaign, escaping the influence of fundraisers who control his opponents. His alleged deal-making skill explains why he will be able to improve every trade deal, solve every legislative impasse, and finesse every diplomatic conflict. Trump’s endlessly repeated proposition is that he will take the skills that made him so rich and generously use them to make the country rich. Without that, he’s just a dumber version of Pat Buchanan.

But there’s an obvious problem with these theories: by any reasonable measure (and certainly compared to the average U.S. household income of around $53,000), Trump does have “vast wealth,” even if his net worth is a tiny fraction of its stated amount.

Let’s imagine that Trump released his tax returns tomorrow. Let’s say that they showed that his adjusted gross income for 2015 was merely $100 million, below even the lowball estimates, and that several of his businesses were deeply in debt.

What would that prove, exactly? That Trump is only extremely rich, rather than stupidly, incomprehensibly rich? That he might only be able to buy one private island with last year’s paycheck, not five?

To almost any American voter, $100 million is an unfathomably large sum of money. Entire TV franchises like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and Cribs have been devoted to lifestyle voyeurism of people who make far less. And Trump’s lifestyle, as gilded and high-maintenance as it looks, could be sustained even on a fraction of his current income.

Yes, some of Trump’s business ventures have failed spectacularly. Yes, Trump has licensed his name to imply ownership of properties he doesn’t own. But these specifics aren’t important. Trump’s aspirational image is predicated not on the specific details of his wealth, but on the signifiers of wealth he conveys—the private jets, gilded estates, model wife, and branded golf courses. These are the symbols that count, and they cost far less than $100 million a year to uphold. For appearance’s sake, the difference between Trump’s net worth being $10 billion and $1 billion is precisely nil.

If the point of implying that Trump isn’t as rich as he’s claimed is to suggest that Trump is dishonest about other things, too … well, you don’t exactly need tax returns for that, and it hasn’t proved a successful strategy for Trump’s opponents so far. If the point is purely to goad him into doing something stupid and self-destructive—knowing that Trump is deeply, emotionally concerned with lowball estimates of his wealth—perhaps that’s a gamble worth taking.

But if the point, as Clinton seemed to suggest, is to imply that Trump’s finances are a teetering house of cards, ready to fail at any moment, the strategy is deeply misguided. That’s just not how rich people’s finances work. Trump, who owns appreciating real estate assets in major markets, has branding deals worth millions, and will make residual income from “The Apprentice” franchise for years, is simply too rich to be impoverished by any plausible financial calamity. Even if a 2008-style crash took out Trump’s entire real estate portfolio, he would still have enough passive income from his other investments and licensing deals to remain extraordinarily well-off.

That’s what’s so baffling about this new Democratic line of attack—it betrays a misunderstanding about the fractal nature of income inequality, and how rich the world’s richest people really are compared to the merely well-off. Even if everything he’s claimed about his finances was exaggerated by a factor of ten, Trump would still be one of the richest people ever to have a legitimate shot at the presidency.

More important, Trump is the richest-seeming person ever to seek the presidency. And this perception, enforced through the trappings of wealth with which Trump surrounds himself, is more important than any Forbes estimate. If the Clinton campaign were to prove, unequivocally, that Trump’s net worth was a fraction of its stated total, voters would still see Trump’s private jets, his Mar-a-Lago estate, and his branded skyscrapers and make the obvious conclusion: this guy is rich.

There are plenty of legitimate avenues of attack against Donald Trump. The Clinton campaign’s apparent plan to suggest that he’s only kind of extraordinarily wealthy is as misguided as attacking an Olympic sprinter for not being as fast as Usain Bolt. It’s hitting him where he’s strongest, and to a normal person, it’s all pretty impressive.

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