This past December while we were locked in our rooms cramming for finals, President Donald Trump accomplished what many conservative pundits will label as the most significant accomplishment of the first year of his tumultuous administration: Tax Reform. This odyssey began on September 27 when President Trump delivered a speech in Indiana, the home state of the Vice President, Mike Pence. In the speech, he laid out the framework for his long-awaited plan to reform the American tax system. Although the last time the tax code was significantly altered was in 1986 under then President, Ronald Reagan, taxes are nothing new to the American experience. Indeed the “Whiskey Rebellion” in 1791 was an armed response to the new government’s tax on whiskey; furthermore, Benjamin Franklin himself once wrote, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”. This brings us to 2017 where once again an attempt is being made to change how the government raises its revenue. Without a doubt, whatever or whoever the United States chooses to tax or not to tax is surely a reflection of one’s American values, and thus carries with it a powerful historical meaning far beyond the numbers.
According to the President’s rhetoric, the American tax system should be built first and foremost around rewarding a hardworking, forgotten class of Americans. In his speech in Indiana, the President states, “Your government is working for you once again, not for the donors, not the special interests, but the hardworking tax-paying citizens of our country.” This statement is reminiscent of a populist aversion of wealthy and powerful interests that are favored over the “common man.” Trump is currently attempting to frame his tax policy as populistic. The President’s statements on this matter continually references the “common,” “hardworking,” or “forgotten” American time after time, stating that “they’re not forgotten anymore.” Furthermore, the language Trump employs in this speech is congruent with the language he used during both his campaign and inauguration speeches. Trump’s populism, however, seems to be distinctly different than the populism of yesterday. Populists of eras past were anti-corporation and would likely demand a higher tax on both corporations and “wealthy elites, as seen in the rhetoric of liberals like Senator Bernie Sanders, while in the speech the President stresses the importance of a lower corporate tax that he says will stimulate economic growth which will in turn pay itself back in the form of increased tax revenue.
Trump has, through his tax framework, demonstrated his commitment to a conservative vision of populism: a vision that focuses its animosity on a large, inaccessible, overly-complex, unrepresentative Federal Government, as well as the populist enemies of old, the “Donors and Special Interests.” For the President and his base, how they are taxed is a symbol of this enemy, and changing the tax system is not only important to them for its prophesied positive effects on their wallets, but also in its symbolic value as an attack against a nebulous power structure. This idea is not only seen in President Trump’s rhetoric on taxes, but also in other areas of his policy such as health care, which he takes time to mention at the beginning of his speech: “Having local health-care representatives is far better than having health care managed from Washington, D.C. Not even a contest.” These statements are consistent with the President’s anti-establishment mantra, which feeds into the animosity towards the “inaccessible” Federal Government.
Following this, the core philosophy underlying the ideas in President Trump’s speech are not solely exclusive to past American Populist movements, but they are also emblematic of an American tradition of resistance and rebellion that dates back to the birth of the republic. This idea is an aversion to power structures that are seen as being altogether unreachable, and so complex and massive in their structure so as to be perceived as being unfamiliar, or “other” and therefore foreign. Indeed, our country was founded on a “revolution” against one such foreign and unreachable power structure— think “Taxation without representation.”