Donald Trump's tax returns seemed like the kind of second- or third-tier issue that people might have opinions about, but that wouldn't ever rise to the top of the list of their concerns. Sure, most Americans (as many as three-quarters) say he ought to release them. But it isn't something people will march in the streets about, right?
Well, actually, it is. On Saturday, tens of thousands of Americans turned out in cities and towns all over the country (in 48 states in all) to demand that the president release his tax returns to the public, which he has steadfastly refused to do. No amount of protesting could convince him to change his mind; Trump long ago decided that whatever is contained in those returns is so embarrassing or damaging that avoiding the revelation is worth whatever political fallout he gets from keeping them secret. But it shows that Americans haven't lost their ability to be outraged at this president and that liberal activist energy isn't dissipating.
That's a more optimistic way to look at this issue. The less optimistic interpretation is that Trump is going to get away with breaking this norm—and in the process, undermining the norm itself.
But we know he was bothered by the mass mobilization, and not just because he had to take the long way home from golf to avoid the protesters gathered near his Florida resort. Afterward he sent out this bizarre pair of tweets:
I did what was an almost an impossible thing to do for a Republican-easily won the Electoral College! Now Tax Returns are brought up again?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 16, 2017
Someone should look into who paid for the small organized rallies yesterday. The election is over!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 16, 2017
We can pause and marvel that the president thinks people are being paid to protest him, which only the most idiotic of conservatives actually believes (if George Soros were really paying protesters, he'd be bankrupt by now). He says "The election is over!" six whole minutes after tweeting that "I did what was an almost an impossible thing to do for a Republican-easily won the Electoral College!" Which, by the way, is not impossible at all; not that long ago George W. Bush did it twice. But why does Trump think that the election being over has something to do with whether he should release his returns?
The answer can be found in his own statements: Since he won, he therefore has been granted immunity from any criticism that was aired during the campaign. As he said at a press conference in January when asked whether he understood that the public cares about this issue, "No, I don't think so. I won. I mean, I became president. No, I don't think they care at all." His victory can only mean that any prior criticisms are moot, even if they concern ongoing efforts by him and his family to use the presidency to enrich themselves.
In fact, Trump was the extreme case that showed us the value the norm had in the first place. We didn't learn much of great consequence from Barack Obama's tax returns, or George W. Bush's, or Bill Clinton's. It's when we have a president who has constructed for himself a complex financial empire with tentacles reaching all over the world, associations with questionable characters, and intricate ways to funnel money into his pockets, that it becomes absolutely vital to know everything we can about his finances. Yet the president who brought that web of financial interests with him to the Oval Office just happens to also be the one with no qualms about telling the public, when it asks to know who might be paying him, to buzz off.
The tax returns were just one of many instances in which Trump looked at a longstanding norm and said, "Well what if I just don't do that?" From where he sits, he probably believes he can get away with anything. Hell, the guy was caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women and he still got elected. And if he looks at his approval ratings and experiences a moment of doubt, he'll just rehash his glorious election victory, assuring himself that the ordinary rules are for losers, and he's a winner.
So what happens four or eight or twelve years from now? The next Democratic nominee, and future nominees of both parties, might release their tax returns to show they're more transparent than Trump. But if they've got something questionable in there, they might decide not to—after all, now we know that candidates don't actually have to release their returns, and Trump got away with not doing it.
Or let's take another example. The Trump administration recently decided that in a break with the Obama administration's policy, it will no longer release the logs of who visits the White House. Given everything else that's happening, it was a relatively minor story. But the next president, whether it's a Democrat or a Republican, may decide that making the logs public is more trouble than it's worth—and whatever criticism they get will be minor and temporary. Which means that not only will we not know who's meeting with Trump administration officials, the default choice going forward could be to keep the information secret.
It's an illustration of the fact that the norms and expectations of government aren't built on an unchanging foundation; they evolve over time. The commonly heard refrain about Trump—"This is not normal"—may not seem like the most biting criticism, but it can be as much a warning about the future as a cry of frustration about the present. It's not only that this isn't normal, but that it shouldn't become normal.
But that's up to all of us. So if Trump's opponents can manage it, they should go out into the streets and demand his tax returns every April 15, not only to keep imposing a political cost on Trump himself, but to warn the next president that they won't get away with following Trump's lead. The more they do that, the more Trump will be considered an aberration and not a precedent future presidents can follow.