Trump's trading cards are stupid: Ha ha. But who gets the last laugh?

Trump's "digital trading cards" are worthless crap, to you and me. To his loyal followers, they're pure gold

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published December 20, 2022 9:56AM (EST)

Former President Donald Trump prepares to leave after speaking during an event at his Mar-a-Lago home on Nov. 15, 2022. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump prepares to leave after speaking during an event at his Mar-a-Lago home on Nov. 15, 2022. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Fascism and right-wing populism are, by definition, a political con job.

Such movements and their leaders manipulate the emotional vulnerabilities of their followers as a way of amassing political power, financial resources and other forms of influence and control.

In the end, those followers are usually left disappointed, used up by the movement and then cast aside. In the worst such examples, both leaders and followers of such fake populist movements suffer literal destruction. Leaders of these fake populist movements almost always have unlimited contempt for their followers and anyone who is so gullible as to trust them.

In the climax of Elia Kazan's memorable 1957 film "A Face in the Crowd," Andy Griffith, in his iconic role as "Lonesome" Rhodes, a folksy down-home populist entertainer who combines elements of Father Coughlin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and many other right-wing pop-culture figures, unwittingly tells the truth about how he really feels about his followers:

Those morons out there? Shucks, I could take chicken fertilizer and sell it to them as caviar. I could make them eat dog food and think it was steak. Sure, I got 'em like this... You know what the public's like? A cage of guinea pigs. Good night, you stupid idiots. Good Night, you miserable slobs. They're a lot of trained seals. I toss them a dead fish and they'll flap their flippers.

As others have observed, Donald Trump is a more dangerous real-life version of Lonesome Rhodes. (Griffith's character is deeply cynical and amoral, but not actively malicious.) Indeed, Trump is an almost ideal-typical example of the cult leader and confidence man: He is an apparent narcissist and sociopath, profoundly Machiavellian and with no moral core or fundamental decency.

The confidence man (or woman) is by definition a practical expert in human psychology. In a widely read 2019 interview with psychologist Maria Konnikova at the Harvard Gazette, she explained this:

Every single con, no matter what the con is, has the same backbone. You have to tell a story. Con artists, at the end of the day, are confident storytellers. They're the best storytellers in the world, the good ones. They tell us the stories that we want to hear, not the stories that are true. But we believe them because it's what we already think is true and the way that we already see the world.

Not a single human being sees the world objectively. We have all sorts of self-serving biases. Con artists understand what yours are, they're able to figure that out, and then that's what they use in order to sell you their con. And because it's a story,  it gets you emotionally engaged. The moment you're emotional, you're no longer logical, you're no longer rational. And the moment the con artist is able to engage you emotionally, the con artist has won because you're already roped in, you're already part of the story and it's going to be really hard for you, if not impossible, to disengage. So: Storytelling to engage emotion, to create a link, to create rapport. That's the way all cons, with different variations on that theme, will operate to ultimately sell you your vision of the world that you already believe in.

The reason that cons are successful has nothing to do with intelligence, nothing to do with integrity, nothing to do with anything other than a very basic human tendency to hope and to be optimistic and to think that tomorrow is going to be better than today was. Con artists prey on hope. So it's great that con artists exist because that means we're still hoping and we're still willing to believe. The moment con artists stop existing is the moment humanity dies.

Konnikova's insights provide an important guide to understanding the dark charisma of Donald Trump and his control over his followers. Those most vulnerable to the con usually have unmet emotional needs: They are lonely and yearn for family and community, they are overly trusting and naive, they are struggling financially or facing mental or physical illness, they are undergoing a crisis of identity and meaning, or they are experiencing some other existential or personal crisis. Other victims of the con artist, of course, are simply greedy and too ready to believe that a simple act of trickery or opportunism will make them wealthy and successful. 

What is Trump's latest con? Last Thursday, in what he billed as a "major announcement," the ex-president told his followers that he was selling a series of "limited edition" NFTs, or "digital trading cards," that can supposedly be sold on cryptocurrency markets. These cards feature poorly-executed cartoon images of Trump in heroic or ultra-masculine garb — as a wrestler or boxer, a fighter pilot, a superhero, an Old West sheriff and various other fantasy depictions. His angle here is twofold: an appeal to greed and the desire by Trump's followers to gain approval from (and potential access) to their cult leader. Writing at The Young Turks, Matthew Sheffield explains the sourcing and quality of these images, which he suggests "appear to be assembled randomly and automatically by a computer program from a pre-defined collection of backgrounds, costumes, and heads":

"These cards feature some of the really incredible artwork pertaining to my life and career, it's been very exciting," Trump said in the video, also noting that only a limited number of the virtual cards would be released. He also offered several sweepstakes incentives to people who purchased, including a dinner and a chance to speak to him on the Zoom video conference service.

Several of the paper doll-style images used in the cards appear to be barely modified copies of widely available photos seen on clothing retailer and stock photo websites.

One image of the ex-president wearing a formal tuxedo appears to have been constructed from an oversized Trump head superimposed onto a body of a model featured on the website of the clothing retailer Men's Wearhouse.

Another image depicting Trump as a cowboy sheriff seems to be based almost entirely on a photo of a model wearing duster-style jacket made by Scully Leather that is currently available for sale at Walmart and Amazon.

A third Trump NFT showing an imaginary scene of the ex-president as a fighter pilot standing on a globe appears to be derived from an image offered for sale by the stock photo company Shutterstock. On Twitter, several users discovered that the some of the NFTs were using background images that were freely available.

How did professional pundits and many among the public respond to Trump's NFT auction and "major announcement"? With the usual mockery and laughter, calling Trump a "joke" and a "loser" and suggesting this latest scam offers further proof that he's a has-been who is "desperate for attention." That attitude was widely shared across the political spectrum from former Trump adviser and coup plotter Steve Bannon to President Biden. 

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As I have demonstrated throughout the Age of Trump and beyond, such reactive mockery and defensive contempt may feel good in the moment but ignores the most obvious fact: Trump and his movement remain be an existential threat to American democracy, and Trump still has tens of millions of loyal followers who love to give him money.

On Thursday Trump continued to threaten his critics with censorship or other forms of punishment if he manages to return to power in 2025. In an essay at the Mary Sue, Julia Glassman issues a warning:

Now that we're all done (or not) laughing over Trump's collection of NFT trading cards, let's turn to a second announcement he made on Thursday: a deeply concerning promise to "shatter the left-wing censorship regime and to reclaim the right to free speech for all Americans."

In a six-minute video posted to Truth Social and shared with The New York Post, Trump engaged in conspiracy theories about a secret group of shadowy figures stifling conservative posts on social media.

"In recent weeks, bombshell reports have confirmed that a sinister group of deep-state bureaucrats, Silicon Valley tyrants, left-wing activists, and depraved corporate news media have been conspiring to manipulate and silence the American people," Trump said in the video….

While Trump's trading cards reveal what a clown he is, his second announcement is a sharp reminder that he's only the visible face of a thriving white nationalism movement in the United States.

Trump's NFTs reportedly sold immediately, netting his operation almost $4.5 million. Those who continue to mock Trump and his movement have failed to understand, even after seven years of this, that they are not his target audience.

In fact, Donald Trump and the MAGAverse generally thrive on the mockery and disdain of "elites" and those they deem not to be "real Americans" — that only fuels their collective sense that they have been oppressed, disenfranchised and robbed of their true birthright.

It may be indeed be true that Trump's popularity is on the decline, at least for the moment. But he remains the actual and symbolic leader of the Republican Party, the larger neofascist movement and the global white right. His millions of followers have cumulatively given him hundreds of millions of dollars, and at least some of them are willing to actively participate in or support acts of political violence and terrorism.

Donald Trump knows his public. The secret to his power is his ability to mine their bottomless rage and resentment towards a society they feel has passed them by and rendered them obsolete. Trump himself may be fading, although we cannot take that for granted. But the angry white Americans (and a not-insignificant number of Black and brown people too) eager for a demagogue who gives them permission to be their worst possible selves, and who promises easy solutions to complex problems, are not going away. 

Mockery and liberal schadenfreude toward the "rubes" who bought Trump's scam trading cards may partly be fueled by wonder and envy at his enduring power over his followers. It will do nothing to address the cultural force of American neofascism, which is certain to outlast Donald Trump and his con games.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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