Denying, Defending and Numb: Voters Not Moved by Trump Taxes

OSHKOSH, Wisconsin — Danielle Fairbank closed the tailgate of her fire-engine red pickup truck in a Target parking lot in Oshkosh, Wisconsin and offered a hearty "Fake news!" to dismiss reports that President Donald Trump paid only $750 in income taxes in 2017. 

The assembly worker at a nearby military vehicle plant just as swiftly brushed aside the notion that Trump's tiny tax bill put him out of touch with blue-collar workers like herself. Her job — which she's held throughout the recession and pandemic — is proof to her that the billionaire president is on the side of the working-class. 

"I know in my heart he's doing more for this economy, for people like me and for me personally, than anyone is giving him credit," Fairbank said. "That stuff is made up, and it would have come out by now if it were true."

Trump's standing with white, working-class voters has proven resilient through federal investigations, impeachment and countless episodes of chaotic governing. But if those issues were too distant — centered on complicated foreign entanglements — reports about his tax avoidance might have had the potential to hit closer to home during a time of economic upheaval. 

Yet, interviews with voters in swing-voting Wisconsin show scant evidence of damaging impact from The New York Times' reporting this week on Trump's long-secret tax returns. 

In the hub of swing-voting Winnebago County and Milwaukee's dynamic suburbs, the reactions fit into categories of flat-out disbelief, like Fairbanks, defense of a tax strategy as smart business and an overall fatigue many voters feel with every revelation. 

If there is was one common reaction, it's laughter, though not joyful. 

Seth Willer snickered from the front porch of his home in the upscale neighborhood of Bellhaven Estates near the shores of Lake Winnebago on Oshkosh's east side when asked what he thought about Trump's income taxes. 

"Nah, that's the game, right?" said the 40-year-old industrial laundry equipment distributor who supports Trump. "We all try to lower our tax burden. You can't blame him." 

Likewise, Cathy Gerring, a 60-year-old part-time employee from the north Milwaukee suburb of Shorewood echoed, "I just feel he's a smart business owner."

Mary Herrick, down the street from Willer in Oshkosh's upscale subdivision notes Trump's donation of the president's salary as a counter to criticism of his tax burden. "That's giving back to the country," said Herrick, who works from home. 

In fact, Trump donates his salary to charities, and continues to earn income from his real estate interests. In 2018, he reported making more than $434 million in a federal disclosure. That same year he reported losses to the IRS of $47 million, according to the New York Times report. 

Some national polls have shown esteem for Trump's performance in business ebbing somewhat after similar stories that have suggested tax avoidance in the past. However, national polls have shown the president's support to be relatively stable at roughly 42 to 45 percent of voters nationally throughout the tumultuous summer and into the fall. 

Amy Helmers also laughed about Trump's tax records, which he has refused to release as other presidents have, but out of exasperation. 

"None of it surprises me," the 49-year-old mental health counselor said unloading her groceries outside Pick 'n Save on Oshkosh's middle-income south side. "He's got supporters thinking he's a patriot. But it's another example of the fraud he is."

Even before the coronavirus pandemic's economic upheaval, Trump's trade war with China slowed production of steel and machined parts in Oshkosh and the surrounding Fox River Valley, among the most politically competitive regions in the country. 

Bob Poeschl, a politically independent member of Oshkosh's city council, calls revelations of Trump's tax maneuvers "appalling, but typical of this president."

"I find it out of touch with the American public and how hard they have to work to get," Poeschl, a low-income housing manager, said on the front porch in Oshkosh's politically mixed Washington Avenue neighborhood. "I have a hard time accepting my independently conservative friends who say how much he is doing for the economy."

Trump campaigned in Oshkosh in mid-August and is expected in Green Bay, the northern end of the valley, on Saturday. Democratic nominee Joe Biden campaigned in Manitowoc, part of the same media market, last week. 

Wendy Taylor says no one she knows in her tiny hometown of Clintonville, east of Oshkosh, trust reports Trump has avoided paying taxes. 

"It's not true," the 57-year-old retired information technology manager said. "He's not the miser and cheat the media make him out to be." 

She noted the $72,000 in coronavirus relief her town of about 4,300 received was proof Trump was concerned about the well-being of low and middle-income Americans. "That was a lot of frickin' money for our little city."

Retiree Lee Houk of Pewaukee, a booming exurb west of Milwaukee, was just as dismissive of the tax claims. "I think it's just games being played by the Democrats," Houk, 69, said. 


WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden launched into his second year in office Thursday with a new focus on making fatigued Americans believe they're better off under his leadership as he embraces a pared-back agenda before the midterm elections.

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