Republican nominee Donald Trump has gotten away with a lot during this election cycle: making racist remarks, attacking a federal judge's ability to do his job because of his Mexican heritage, going after a Gold Star family... and the list goes on and on. But despite the outlandishness of his campaign, with less than 50 days to go before the election, Trump’s continued refusal to release his tax returns remains a stunning departure from standard operating procedure. Even as his critics thump him for hypocritically keeping his return secret — he criticized previous GOP candidate Mitt Romney in 2012 for doing the same thing — Trump continues to do better in the polls than pretty much any analysts expected this time last month. So, has Trump gotten away with it, or will he eventually cave to popular pressure?
Before we can answer that question, we need to tighten our definition of what “getting away with it” means. The most obvious one would be, “Can he not release his tax returns and still win the election?” Clearly, in 2012, Romney didn’t think he could. The returns he released, while not devastating, did show he paid an effective tax rate of only 14.1 percent — thanks mostly to the fact that nearly all of his income came from capital gains, which are taxed at a much lower rate than income.
The notion that Trump has a similar tax-return problem — that he pays little (or zero) taxes — has long been a part of the political conversation. The thinking goes that, if he released his taxes and they show that he loopholed his way out giving the IRS a dime, it would damage his standing with his supporters.
I honestly believe that the crucial difference here when it comes to the tax return issue is that Romney really wanted to be president. Even now at this late stage of the election cycle, one of the questions still floating around is whether Trump genuinely wants the job. It seems pretty hard to conceive of someone wanting to endure the agony of a presidential campaign if they didn’t want it, but then, Trump seems to be having a pretty good time, even smiling broadly as boxing promoter-slash-convicted murderer Don King dropped the N-word at a campaign event on Wednesday.
So if becoming president isn’t necessarily Trump’s end-game, he has a lot more to lose in releasing his tax returns. Sure, Trump may lose a critical segment of voters who find him just too hypocritical and untrustworthy if he doesn't release them; however, I believe that more than any desire to be president or expand his brand or start his own television network, Trump wants to be admired. And he believes, with crippling desperation, that his most admirable quality is his wealth. The worst thing that Trump’s return could reveal isn’t that he’s dodged taxes, but that he’s not rich. And if Trump’s not rich, then what even is he? Just another ordinary schmo, possibly even a loser.
Losing the presidency is one thing, and possibly not that big of a deal to a man who has not been in politics all that long in the first place. Losing your identity as a "winner" and a model of "success," on the other hand? That’s the kind of devastation that someone might never come back from.