Cheap Trump crap: the performative grift of modern conservatism.

Why do you have to buy so much worthless garbage to show your fealty to Trump? Because these days conservatism is a con.

Take a look at the above photo, which went viral on social media in late August and early September of 2021. It depicts a man from Mississippi—who I understand is a minor hip hop artist—posing proudly, or perhaps menacingly, with a plastic dummy of former President Donald Trump. The dummy, which looks like the creepy “My Buddy” dolls from the 1980s, is a nightmare version of those unsettling mannequins that people sometimes put in the passenger’s seat of their cars so they can drive in HOV lanes on the highway without being pulled over by police. Most of the buzzing on social media about this picture focused on the human being in the picture: imagine the kind of guy who’s so far down the Trump rabbit hole that he drives around with a life-size doll of Trump in his car! But there’s much we can say here by focusing not on the person but on the doll. Who manufactured this abomination? What toy company executive green-lighted this project, and what were they thinking? Was their motive for doing so political, or purely because they knew that somebody, somewhere would buy them—or perhaps a mix of both? It’s impossible to know, but there are some thing we can say about the kitschy grift of modern conservatism that this photo embodies.

Taking a look around the charnel house of fascist propaganda and coronavirus-fueled death that is the United States in fall 2021, nearly a year after the election, it’s hard not to see evidence everywhere that Trumpism is largely performative in nature. Lawn signs, bumper stickers, life-sized cardboard cut-outs, and flags—the bigger and bluer the better, evidently, and preferably bolted to pickup trucks—are the standard-issue demonstrative weapons of the MAGA set, along with their standard-issue red hats which I’ll talk about in a moment. There’s almost as much Trump-related swag on public display now than there was before the election. Its purpose, like Mississippi Trump Rap Guy’s fulsome “My Buddy” doll, is entirely performative. It’s certainly not intended to persuade. Public adulation of Trump is a political statement in itself: “I love Trump and I hope it makes you uncomfortable!” Flying Trump-related flags is a retail-level version of “owning the libs,” now the favorite pastime of conservatives. Indeed, “owning the libs” is a goal unto itself, disconnected from the advancement of any sort of policy proposal. Republicans have no policy proposals. “Owning the libs” is what they do. And it’s all they do.

This has been a development long in the making. American conservatism began collapsing as a political movement arguably in the Clinton years, but Trump stripped it of any real political content and made it a proto-fascist cult of personality dedicated, not to any real ideas (at least none besides white supremacy), but to him personally. I remember the embryonic days of “owning the libs” culture back in the 1990s, when bumper stickers with slogans like “Impeach Clinton…AND Her Husband” and “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted For Bush” were popular. (The “Don’t-Blame-Me” merchandise gets a new lease on life with every election, and it is sometimes seen, though not nearly as often, on the left. “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted For Kerry” was a thing in 2005). But compared to demonstrative Trump crap, this kind of vaguely mean-spirited merchandising seems kind of like the background radiation political rancor that has always been with us. Trump took it to a new level. Fealty to him has commoditized the performative nature of conservatism. To show how much you love Trump, you must purchase crap that would be worthless in any other context. This phenomenon does not exist on the left.

The performative nature of conservatism is demonstrated by a couple of examples. Take a look at how right-wingers “boycott” companies who take political stances they don’t like. I put “boycott” in quotes because they are almost never real boycotts at all. In 2018 Yeti, a maker of high-end coolers for sporting and camping use, declined to accept advertising from the gun manufacturers’ lobby NRA (now bankrupt). Inflamed by Fox News, right-wingers flooded social media with videos of themselves blowing up Yeti coolers to “punish” the company for being “woke.” Similarly, and also in 2018, right-wings made a spectacle of setting Nike shoes and merchandise on fire to “punish” the company for siding with anti-racist athlete Colin Kaepernick, and previously they destroyed Keurig coffee machines when the Keurig company pulled their ads from the Fox News show of conservative blabber and Trump acolyte Sean Hannity. More recently, an anti-vaxxer, thinking she was making a statement about COVID-19 vaccines, tore up a card from the game Cards Against Humanity that referred positively to vaccines; her post on Twitter of the torn-up card went viral. Unlike real boycotts, these “campaigns” inflicted no economic pain on the companies that manufactured these products. Aggrieved right-wingers were simply destroying objects they had already bought. This has no economic component at all. It’s pure performance.

Similarly, look at the “career” (again in quotes) of U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, perhaps the leading neo-fascist and QAnon representative in Congress. She sits on no committees, has never drafted a piece of legislation so far as I’m aware, and shows no interest whatsoever in actually passing laws or influencing policy. She believes her job is to make outrageous statements and garner media attention saying things that anger people she perceives as political enemies. Greene, a major supporter of Trump, has gone so far as to harass a fellow member of Congress who has a transgender child. We needn’t worry that bad laws will come out of Washington at the hands of Marjorie Taylor Greene. She’s not even aware that the job of a member of Congress is to pass laws, so she will never be in the same room as an actual piece of legislation. She thinks “owning the libs” is what she was sent by her constituents to do, and she’s probably right about that. Again, Greene is entirely engaged in performance artistry.

These flags showing pop star Nicky Minaj, which predated the coronavirus pandemic, had a brief spike in sales in September 2021 when Minaj came out as a vaccine denier. The buyers, overwhelmingly Trump supporters, eagerly took them to anti-vaccine demonstrations like this one in New York.

The griftiness of Trump’s operations, which found a home in the modern Republican Party, turned conservative performance art into a lucrative commercial enterprise. Trump developed the now-infamous red “Make America Great Again” hat when he was running for President in 2015 largely as a means to prevent his thinning flyaway hair—which he must keep long to conceal the hideous results of a botched scalp-reduction surgery in 1989—from being blown around by jet and helicopter engines at airport campaign stops, thus providing laughable news pictures. Throughout his campaigns and presidency, the red hats (which are, contrary to a rumor, made in the United States, not China) were sold for $25 a pop, and all proceeds were classified as campaign contributions. The original hats, and other more or less “official” Trump campaign merchandise, were effectively banned from online sale by web hosting companies who took down the sales portals after Trump incited the fascist insurrection of January 6, but there are plenty of smaller-scale, unofficial and foreign-based outfits selling knockoffs of the hats and other Trump-related items. In summer 2020 an artist from Arkansas famously sold an artisanal life-sized Donald Trump doll on Ebay for $895. Despite some web-based research, I couldn’t find exactly where Mississippi rap guy got his HOV-lane/”My Buddy” Trump companion, but my guess is that these toys are manufactured in China, now the go-to source of worthless Trump-related crap.

There are other grifts too. Numerous outfits have been marketing gold coins with Trump’s face on them. A company called “GOPBOX” on Amazon pushes a Trump-headed coin for only $9.95—a best-seller—which evidently comes with a “Certificate of Authenticity” to thwart all those other villains who are apparently out there counterfeiting $10 Trump coins. The Trump coin has no currency value, but it’s sort of a double grift. The target purchasers are heavy consumers not merely of Fox News but more extremist conspiracy content like Alex Jones’s Infowars, which relentlessly push narratives of impending financial collapse that will invalidate paper money and make gold the only true means of economic exchange. One of the major purveyors of this scam in the 2010-12 time frame was a company called Goldline, heavily advertised by former Fox News talking head Glenn Beck, but many have picked it up since. I’m not sure how many purchasers of Trump coins honestly believe they’ll be worth anything in a post-apocalyptic future, but it doesn’t matter, because they can have gold coins with Trump’s face on them. What possible purpose would these items serve if not for performance art?

This grift simply doesn’t exist among non-conservatives. While Biden flags clearly do exist—you can find them on Amazon, although be prepared to see plenty of “F*ck Biden” merchandise also come up in the search results—I can’t recall the last time I saw one in the wild, but I do know it was before the 2020 election. I can’t quite imagine a such thing as a life-sized HOV-lane/”My Buddy” doll of Joe Biden. If anybody would even want such a thing, they probably want it for the sole purpose of counter-trolling Trump supporters. The lack of merchandising grift in Biden’s favor is itself interpreted by Trump’s fans as “evidence” that Trump won the election. Biden campaigned for President mainly from his basement in Wilmington. How could a guy who didn’t have rabid rallies, acres of lawn signs or pickup trucks flying flags with his name on it have truly won against the guy who did? They don’t understand they themselves are the marks: of Trump, of Alex Jones, of Fox News shareholders, of toy manufacturers in China and fly-by-night coin-minting operations in Arkansas or Illinois. The whole thing is a scam from start to finish.

In thinking about the kitschy grift of the right wing, I can’t help imagining what’s going to happen when the people who buy this kind of crap die. Many already have, from coronavirus, because often they’re anti-vaxxers who refuse to protect themselves against a disease that’s more or less preventable. What do grieving family members think when they’re cleaning out garages and basements full of Trump flags, coins, dolls and other assorted tchotchkes? It must be a sad experience. The Mississippi rap star’s “My Buddy” Trump doll will undoubtedly end up in a landfill someday, where it will probably last 10,000 years because the planet-killing plastics used in its manufacture will never decay. I hope the toy company executives in China enjoy the $29.98 or however much they made from it after costs are recouped. That’s the only benefit anyone will ever get from such nonsensical objects.

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