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Death of a Salesman
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Death of a Salesman

Is Trump 2024 just another grift?

President Donald Trump speaks during an event at Mar-a-Lago. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.)

Where were you when Trump made his second “major announcement” of 2022?

I can’t remember where I was when he made his first. Chances are you can’t either. “Low energy” events seldom stick in the mind.

His second “major announcement” may linger, though.

Wednesday on Truth Social he touted something big in the works: “AMERICA NEEDS A SUPERHERO! I will be making a MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT tomorrow. Thank you!” That came accompanied by a brief, cryptic video featuring a drawing of Trump revealing a Superman-style costume underneath his suit.

Maybe he was about to reveal a schedule of upcoming campaign rallies, of which there have been precisely zero since he declared his presidential candidacy. Or maybe he would declare that he was returning to Twitter at last to do battle with the new owner and settle once and for all who the platform’s true “main character” is.

Perhaps he’d do something bolder, like name crazy Kari Lake as his 2024 running mate. Or, boldest of all, he might follow Kyrsten Sinema’s lead and declare himself a political independent, having concluded from the early polling that winning a party primary might be harder than he thought.

This morning he made his major announcement. Here it is: He’s selling NFTs. Of himself.

Visit the URL at the bottom of that image and you’ll find digital “cards” of Trump kitted out in various attire. He looks especially natty as an astronaut in aviators, don’t you agree?

Lest you think this is a standard Trump grift in which his name is attached to a product in order to move units but the man himself isn’t otherwise involved, note that he’s already cut an ad.

After the big reveal, my editor, Rachael Larimore, compared it to the letdown of the “major award” won by the old man in A Christmas Story. We were promised momentous political news and we got a leg lamp. It’s a fine analogy, although I think the episode in the same film with Ralphie and the Little Orphan Annie decoder ring works just as well. All that suspense—for a crummy commercial.

We shouldn’t feel let down, though. In time, his second “major announcement” of the year might prove to be more significant than his first.

The entire first month of Trump’s third run for president has been conspicuously “low energy,” enough so to have caught the attention of multiple media outlets. “Where are the events? Where are the rallies? Where’s the staff?” a former Trump staffer said to Semafor. One senior 2020 adviser called the launch an “unmitigated disaster” while others wondered who would conceivably end up joining, let alone managing, the new campaign. 

It’s not just that Trump hasn’t held rallies yet. He’s barely leaving the house. All of his recent politicking has come either at events held at Mar-a-Lago or via remote appearances streamed from Mar-a-Lago, per the Washington Post in a story about his “seclusion.” CNN noticed too:

“I don’t know why he rushed this. It doesn’t make sense,” one Trump adviser said of his lackluster announcement speech last month, which came one week after Republicans delivered an underwhelming performance in the midterm elections and as the rest of the party turned its attention to the Senate runoff contest in Georgia.

“So far, he has gone down from his bedroom, made an announcement, gone back up to his bedroom and hasn’t been seen since except to have dinner with a White supremacist,” said a 2020 Trump campaign adviser.

“It’s 1000% a ho-hum campaign,” the adviser added.

If you had asked me a month ago what I expected from the first few weeks of Trump 2024, I would have answered sarcastically with various cartoonish possibilities. “Oh, he’ll probably start using a lame nickname for DeSantis. He might casually call for suspending the Constitution. He could get caught hanging out with Nazis. And he’ll come up with a new way to fleece his fans à la Trump Steaks.”

He’s done all of those things in the past month, for real. After today’s grift, there’s no longer any difference between the actual Trump and the broadest, snarkiest Never Trump caricatures of his persona.

The only surprise is that he opted for NFTs instead of starting his own corrupt crypto exchange, a somewhat more au courant scam. Maybe that’ll be the next “major announcement.”

I thought Trump getting into the race early would pay off for him. He’d have the field to himself for months, giving him a chance to consolidate populist support, and he’d scare the Justice Department away from indicting him. But that’s backfired on both fronts, the Post notes. His weak showing in the midterm and even weaker campaign launch hasn’t scared off anyone. To the contrary, his polling against Ron DeSantis is worse now than it was before he announced. And rather than the DOJ running scared, Trump’s candidacy inspired Merrick Garland to name a special counsel to investigate him. There’s more heat on him now than there used to be and less of an inclination among populists to circle the wagons as they face the reality that he’s a drag on the party.

As fate would have it, just hours before Trump made Thursday morning’s “major announcement,” Politico published a story titled, “DeSantis builds his conservative resume as Trump flounders.” The governor will spend the next few months spearheading legislation in Florida on guns and abortion, among other subjects. Trump will spend the same period doing … what? Sh-tposting on Truth Social?

Well, yes. And selling digital drawings of himself dressed up as a cowboy, it turns out.

The contrast between the young can-do culture warrior who’s using state power to move the right’s agenda and the tired huckster who can’t resist a cash grab when he’s supposed to be running for presidency is so glaring that even otherwise loyal Trump fans/apologists sound annoyed this afternoon. Merry Griftmas, MAGA:

“Thank God, the digital trading cards are here. It was indeed a MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT,” Ben Shapiro sneered. Commenters at Free Republic are also unhappy. “Is this supposed to be a joke?” said one. “The country is falling apart, desperate for some good news, and the major announcement is trading cards? I love Trump, but this is really causing me to wonder what he’s thinking.”

This may be the first time since Trump entered politics that right-wing populists and Joe Biden are dunking on him at the same time for the same thing.

DeSantis aides must be biting their tongues, wishing they could post something similar to contrast the governor’s policy accomplishments with Trump’s facile greed. But they’re following the Brian Kemp strategy for now, refusing to make an enemy of him even if he insists on making an enemy of them. I wonder how long they’ll be able to maintain that discipline if Trump continues to make a fool of himself. Or rather, more of a fool of himself than usual.

The huge amount of hype for such an underwhelming “major announcement” is so incongruous that Trump and his team must have anticipated the letdown. They had to know that it would leave his fans disappointed and his enemies awash in schadenfreude. Yet they followed through anyway.

It makes me wonder if Trump 2024 is actually just one last grift, a grand Trump University-esque fleecing o’ the rubes before retirement.

I don’t think the campaign began as a grift. But it may be, to borrow a term, “transitioning.”

Remember that Trump’s first run for president was also cracked up to be a scam, perhaps correctly. His narcissism is all but boundless, yet even he must have doubted his odds of beating a huge field of practiced Republican politicians in the primary and then Hillary Clinton in the general election. The smart read at the time was that he was running as a form of—what else?—self-promotion. He’d spend six months on TV every day, restore some luster to his stale celebrity, eventually find a pretext to withdraw from the primary after his polls finally went south, and parlay the exposure into a new primetime television gig.

The Republican base, in its infinite wisdom, had other plans. To everyone’s surprise, and probably his too, Trump floated to the top of the polls and never came down. Like Pinocchio turning into a real boy, at some point the grift became a bona fide election-winning presidential campaign.

What if his third and last run for office sees that metamorphosis in reverse? “I think we might be underrating the odds that the 2024 Trump campaign will be what everyone initially assumed the 2016 Trump campaign would be,” McKay Coppins tweeted after this morning’s “major announcement.” He has a point.

Trump is running, for now, because he hopes and expects to win another term. He wants revenge on his enemies on the left, in the media, and within the “deep state,” and regaining power is the first step to exacting that revenge. As recently as six weeks ago, it was reasonable for him to think he’d have an easy time in the next primary. The midterm would bring about a red wave, Trump’s candidates would do well, and news coverage about his stature within the party being greater than ever would flower. DeSantis might end up concluding that there’s no point in challenging him. Which would mean Trump could proceed more or less directly to the next general election, where he’d have no worse than roughly 50/50 odds of winning.

But there was no red wave except in DeSantis’ Florida. Trump’s statewide candidates performed abysmally. Post-midterm polling shows Republican enthusiasm for a third Trump run fading already, before anyone else has entered the race. It must be dawning on him and his cronies that there’s a fair chance he’ll end up either losing the primary or having to contrive some embarrassing pretext to withdraw to spare himself the ignominy of an impending loss.

If they’re not going to get a second term in the White House out of this, they need to get something out of it. And that something, obviously, is to turn the MAGA base upside down and shake it until the loose change has fallen out of its pockets. They’ve been doing that all year, in fact, sometimes with the false pretense that they’d be sharing their wealth with Republican midterm candidates.

The coup-attempting former president in October transferred $60 million from his Save America “leadership” PAC to his Make America Great Again Inc. super PAC, which was ostensibly created to boost GOP candidates in tight races. It collected another $9 million from an existing pro-Trump super PAC and $4 million from new contributions.

Of that $73 million total, though, only $15 million went toward electing Republicans in five Senate races, according to a HuffPost analysis of Federal Election Commission filings, with not a dime spent helping Herschel Walker in Georgia for his Dec. 6 runoff. A full $54 million remains available for the super PAC’s new stated goal, helping Trump win back the White House.

“It’s so obvious to the point of cliche at this point that Trump is in this for one person and one person alone, himself,” said Rory Cooper, once a top aide to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. “He steals fundraising, picks lousy candidates, and is an anchor in competitive races, so one would wonder how much longer the party tolerates this loser nonsense.”

Shaking down his fans isn’t the only reason for Trump to keep up a campaign, at least formally. Being a declared candidate makes it more politically painful for the DOJ to indict him, although I don’t suspect that’ll stop Garland and special counsel Jack Smith from doing so if they think they have the goods. And as long as Trump is officially running, squatting on the 35 percent of the primary electorate that considers itself diehard MAGA, he makes it impossible for voters to converge on an alternative. Had he waited until later to get in, after DeSantis and others had declared, he might have found to his dismay that some of his loyal supporters had already gone off and joined new cults.

Yet what was once a semi-serious campaign when he seemed poised to win the nomination by acclamation may be reorienting into part-campaign/part-grift as DeSantis ascends in the polls and political reality sets in. Trump will remain a declared candidate unless and until the prospect of losing becomes overwhelmingly likely, but it won’t surprise me if he ends up holding rallies sparingly and keeping only a skeleton staff in the name of reducing costs. Think of it as him entering his Sgt. Pepper phase: He no longer tours, but he compensates for it by putting out more ambitious and baroque material.

There are two takeaways from today’s “major announcement,” then. It may be an insight into how Trump’s approach to 2024 is shifting from an earnest bid for power to the grift to end all grifts as his odds at a second term decrease. And by exploiting his national-savior candidacy to hawk cringy merchandise, he’s finally giving even true-blue fans cause to wonder if populism wouldn’t do better with a more focused ideologue as its champion. Shaking his head at the new NFT scam, my colleague David French put it this way: “One of the worst aspects of Trumpism is the constant argument that any criticism of Trump is also a personal attack on his supporters. Call Trump ridiculous and you’re somehow also calling his voters ridiculous. But can he get *so* absurd that he breaks that link? We’ll find out.”

Indeed. Watching edgelords dip a toe into Trump criticism, particularly criticism that he’s embarrassing and unserious, would make me nervous if I worked at Mar-a-Lago. All the more so at a moment when polls are suggesting that Republican voters have a real choice before them in the next primary.

At long last, we may be witnessing the death of a salesman. A political death, at least.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.