IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Donald Trump is getting back to his roots: grifting

The "digital trading cards" being offered up at $99 a pop give us a glimpse at a world where Trump had never won the White House.

Sometimes you have to sit back and appreciate former President Donald Trump’s steadfast resistance to change. This is a man who has let nothing — not repeated bankruptcies, not two divorces, not even the actual presidency — alter who he is as a person. Trump’s commitment to his core self was again on display Wednesday when he teased a “major announcement” on Truth Social, the right-wing social media app he owns.

The tagline of his tease — "America needs a superhero" — certainly got the folks over at Truth Social buzzing. My favorite theory that bounced around: a possible challenge to Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to become the new speaker of the House. (Did I think that would be the case? No. Was I excited about the chance to write about how few requirements there are to be speaker? Yes.) But Thursday morning’s revelation was much, much more in line with the Trump we would have recognized in 2015, before his improbable campaign changed American politics.

This is a man who has let nothing — not repeated bankruptcies, not two divorces, not even the actual presidency — alter who he is as a person.

Rather than anything remotely involving government, we got the premiere of the “official Donald Trump Digital Trading Card collection.” That’s right, Trump has decided that now is the perfect time to slap his name and image on a set of non-fungible tokens, or NFTs. Trump proudly declared that the digital art was “very much like a baseball card, but hopefully much more exciting,” which I’m relatively sure is word for word how the idea was explained to him.

But don’t take it from me. Let the master salesman himself give you his two-minute pitch for why you should spend $99 each on these digital images of him as every role in the Village People and then some:

For some observers, like my MSNBC colleague Steve Benen, this is a baffling choice for someone who is theoretically running for president. Yes, it’s true his 2024 campaign has been somehow even more shambolic than his initial run — not exactly a promising sign for his supporters. But to me this latest grift is a window into an alternate universe. These NFTs, in all their shoddy glory, represent Trump as he would have been had he never won the White House in 2016.

While he began as a humble real estate heir, Trump has made a fair chunk of money over the years from monetizing his brand in licensing agreements. Though the ill-fated Trump Steaks were clearly the first (and best) example that leapt to mind, I’d actually forgotten how much stuff Trump slapped his name on over the years: Trump menswear! Trump coffee pods! Trump mattresses! Trump lamps and wall sconces! And much more! There was even briefly Trump Ice Water. There’s a reason that for a moment I was sure Trump Knives were a real thing that he sold. (They weren’t — it was a 2016 bit on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” featuring Will Ferrell and Ryan Gosling.)

There was also his practice of slapping his name on real estate projects in which he had no actual investment, including some that would fail. And that is why it totally makes sense that he made this deal with NFT INT LLC, the producers of these atrocities. According to the website hawking these climate-warming wastes of carbon emissions, none of the funds from their sale are going to the Trump campaign.

And again, for Trump this is entirely on brand, if you’ll excuse the pun. So what that the bottom fell out of the NFT market months ago? So what if the products themselves are objectively worse than even the most incompetent art-thieving AI could cobble together? So what if even the folks at the Trump-centric Reddit spinoff Patriots.Win couldn’t believe what they were seeing? None of that matters to the Donald Trump, who once had his name on both a vodka and a cologne.

It was reported years ago that Trump’s 2016 run was potentially a branding exercise that went horribly right. He then spent the next four years destroying his own brand’s longevity and the Republican Party’s with it. That’s why this latest move is, in my view, a regression to the norm for Trump after years of having to pretend he wanted to be presidential.

This is the Trump we would be dealing with had “The Apprentice” been a flop or had he never gotten into the race in 2015. We maybe wouldn’t know his feelings about immigrants or his authoritarian streak or the danger he presents to democracy as a whole. We’d just know him as the guy telling us that spending a C-note on a poorly rendered JPG file of him in a Santa costume makes for a great Christmas gift.