The week after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Abby, a 37-year-old filmmaker, was sitting at home with her young son in Portland, Oregon, growing increasingly frustrated watching the news. As executive orders started flying out of the White House, Abby felt something more drastic was called for than her family’s regular donations to Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. She pulled out her phone and fired off a text message to her tax preparer in Brooklyn: “Hey, what if we don’t pay our federal taxes? Are other people considering this?”
Tax resistance as a form of protest has been around as long as taxes themselves, gaining particular notoriety during the 1960s, when hundreds of thousands of people are believed to have refused to pay at least some taxes in protest of the Vietnam War. Trump himself seemed to endorse the tactic during the first presidential debate, when he parried a charge from Hillary Clinton that he hadn’t paid federal income taxes for years with, “It would be squandered, too, believe me.”
With that proud tax-dodger now in office, more Americans like Abby (who asked that her name be changed for fear of legal consequences) are considering not paying their taxes, either. These protestors are split in their goals: Some say they hope to vote with their dollars to remove support from the Trump administration, the federal government version of the #DeleteUber campaign. Others say they don’t expect it to have a tangible effect — the government can always print more money (something Trump has already mentioned doing, however flippantly) or borrow from foreign lenders — and instead see their refusal as a form of nonviolent resistance.
For Abby, she thinks withholding cold, hard cash may be the only thing Trump responds to at this point. “Donald Trump is a businessman, right?” she pointed out. “If we start getting incredibly intentional with every nickel and dime, that is more effective than anything else we can do.”
But tax protesting is not as simple as refusing to send a check to the IRS. In fact, it’s almost as complicated and varied as the tax code itself.
The Brooklyn-based National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, which was founded in 1982 as a response to Reagan-era militarism, offers a menu of options of how to withhold taxes from the government, starting with the entirely legal method of living below the taxable income threshold ($10,300 in 2016). The rest is an escalating series of maneuvers: adding extra allowances to a W4, adding extra deductions or tax credits, or targeting specific disagreeable line items in the federal budget and withholding the same amount from end-of-year filing. (This was easier during the Vietnam War, when Congress added a 10 percent income tax surcharge to pay for the war; Trump hasn’t set up a tax just to pay for his proposed border wall.)
Ruth Benn, NWTRCC’s coordinator, has resisted paying her taxes, in various dollar amounts, since the Eighties. She includes a note with each return explaining why she’s not paying and that she’s donating the amount to charity. She currently refuses to pay 100 percent of her federal income tax.
“That is general fund money, and some of it goes to war-making,” she said. “There are others who do choose a set amount, often something symbolic.” She mentions the 1040 for Peace campaign, which encourages withholding $10.40 from your 1040 tax form.
David Gross, the author of 99 Tactics of Successful Tax Resistance Campaigns, said he stopped paying federal income tax when “the U.S. launched its shock-and-awe attack against the people living in Iraq” in 2003. “I was having a hard time living with myself knowing that my tax dollars were supporting such a vicious and repulsive act.” Since then, he’s kept his income below the minimum taxable amount; in 2006, he also stopped paying self-employment taxes for Medicare and Social Security.
Some tax experts would tell Gross his methods aren’t as effective as he hopes. “There’s a lot of energy out there saying we can’t just sit back and watch these things happen, but I don’t think saying, ‘I’m not paying my taxes’ is at this point sensible,” said NYU Law School taxation professor Daniel N. Shaviro. “It would discredit and divert more sensible ways to respond.”
The size of protest needed to make a dent in the federal budget would have to be massive. Based on the average income tax burden, 1,400 people would need to refuse to pay all income tax for a year to equal the cost of a single Reaper, the deadlier drone that the Pentagon has been purchasing to replace the infamous Predator. To cancel out the estimated $12–$15 billion cost of Trump’s proposed border wall, the entire state of West Virginia would have to refuse to pay taxes.
“If you look at the budget line for bad things Trump is doing, it’s probably very low as a percentage,” Shaviro said. “Especially since he doesn’t do anything but issue tweets.”
Indeed, the largest chunk of tax money — 25 percent — goes to Medicare, Medicaid, and other health subsidies, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; 24 percent goes to Social Security; defense/security comes in third with 16 percent.
But that won’t deter protestors like Shashi, a 47-year-old university professor in Oakland (who asked that his full name be withheld), who said he’s attracted a few dozen friends to commit to a tax strike this year. “It seems that there is a lot of momentum toward this,” he says. “[Resisting Trump] is not partisan. If you think of what happens in a lot of African countries, heads of states don’t do any good for the country, but they enrich themselves. It’s insulting every constitutional principle we have.”
His goal is to set aside the money until Trump is out of office. “It’s perfectly legal to owe the government money and pay it later,” he said. “None of the people I’ve spoken to have an objection to paying taxes. We won’t pay it now; we will pay it later.”
Not quite: Skipping taxes is illegal and has consequences. The government can seize funds from your bank account, or collect overdue money from your future Social Security payments. But unless you’re Wesley Snipes, jail time is unlikely.
“Although I have been stubbornly resisting for many years now, my run-ins with the IRS have been few,” Gross said. He now has a $50,000 debt to the IRS; tax collectors managed to seize one of his bank accounts and withdraw a few thousand dollars years ago, but he hasn’t heard much from them lately. “They’ve never contacted me in person. I’ve gotten many letters. Over time the use of boldface and exclamation points increases.”
Asked for comment, an IRS spokeswoman cited a page on the agency’s website that notes that “frivolous tax arguments” can be punished with a $5,000 penalty. But tax resisters trying to avoid trouble may have an unlikely ally: Republican-led cuts have cost the IRS 18 percent of its budget and 14 percent of its workforce in the past seven years, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. And Trump has proposed an additional 14 percent cut. All that will take a toll on audits, which already fell last year to their lowest volume since 2003 — and encourage both tax cheats and tax resisters to roll the dice on shirking their bill.
“This is a particularly good time not to pay,” Gross said.