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A Royal Grift

In political terms, the purchasers of Trump’s NFTs are not citizens but subjects.

· 8 min read
A Royal Grift

Kitsch pretends to demand nothing from its customers except their money—not even their time.
~Clement Greenberg, Avant-Garde and Kitsch

Non-fungible tokens are so passé. The initial furor prompted in March 2021 by Christie’s sale of Beeple’s opus for the princely sum of $69,346,250 has long since subsided. Damien Hirst has had enough time to wrap up his year-long Currency project—an experiment which pitted unique physical paintings against their blockchain inscriptions. Donald J. Trump is a conspicuous latecomer to this party, a fact that he was oddly eager to emphasize when he announced his initial drop of NFT trading cards in December, 2022. Trump admitted that NFTs were no longer a “hot category. … Everyone said ‘what’s he doing it for—that’s so cold.’” Normally, Trump presents himself as a leader not a follower, so what could have led him to jump into this game so late, and even to boast about his tardiness? More perplexing still, why would he issue a second series of NFTs in mid-April of this year, thereby causing the value of the initial collection to promptly collapse?

In the aftermath of the original drop, Trump claimed that his motives were purely aesthetic, a point he reiterated in a Truth Social post on April 19th: “My New Trump Digital Trading Cards Series 2 is the Number One Collection in the World. It must be that people love the art.” From its purported triumph, Trump deduced that this “really incredible artwork” must be “very beautiful and interesting.” Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but the cards are certainly interesting. The first collection of 45,000 NFTs comprised extravagantly camp and heroic portraits of Trump as a musclebound cowboy, a rockstar, and even an astronaut—quintessentially American images. In sharp contrast, a number of images in Series 2 have a distinctly monarchical flavor.

This grafting of royal iconography onto the archetypal representations of republican masculinity exemplifies Trump’s recurrent translation of pop-cultural icons into political power. Unlike the nostalgic imagery of the first drop, the new series is aggressively forward-looking, as if to signal Trump’s electoral ambition. The number of NFTs in the latest drop has increased from 45,000 to 47,000, a likely reference to Trump as an erstwhile 45th and hopeful 47th POTUS. In addition to the selection of familiar cosplay options, the cards feature Trump in an impressive variety of monarchical guises. In one of them, Trump is represented as a solitary, golden chess king holding the orb of the Earth in his right hand, while his scepter doubles as a pole for the American flag. He also features as each of the four kings from the deck of cards, his crowns and ermine customized with the patterns for their respective suits. In another, Trump appears to hover above the clouds, arms crossed, fronted by a fiery crowned Lion Rampant soaring above the Milky Way. The Lion is the leitmotif of Series 2, often reprised and alluded to in renditions of Firefighter Trump, Superhero Trump, Surfer Trump, and so on.

Each of these cards imposes Trump’s image upon a well-established archetype. And yet, the archetypes themselves are jumbled and confused because the focus of attention is the central personality. Trump is what unites the Quarterback and the Surfer, the Cowboy and the Billionaire. As usual, the unmistakable message is: TRUMP. He is the series’ protagonist and sole attraction; the King-pin. It seems unlikely that the allusion is intentional, but this monarchical valence recalls an earlier American populist politician who made use of similar imagery: Huey Long, the “Kingfish” of Louisiana. And while the dedicated website has more in common with QVC than with any other NFT platform, it appears that Trump has devised the perfect way to exploit this new technology in a truly Trumpian fashion—by systematically undermining its core principles.

Until this point in their extremely brief history, the central, indispensable premise of any successful NFT drop has been that the medium is founded on a “community” of NFT-holders, and on that community’s consensus about economic and aesthetic value. Damien Hirst’s project used chatrooms, bulletin boards, special offers, enhanced access, real-life meet-ups, and analogue publications to foster a sense of fellowship among buyers. The construction of this community was central to the project’s strategy for value accumulation. In the case of Hirst’s Currency, the sense of community became part of the artwork itself, easily recognized and instantly monetized at each individual point of sale or re-sale.

So far, art-world violators of the community principle have tended to bring immediate disaster upon themselves. In the summer of 2022, as part of a widely publicized, ill-fated drop of 10,000 Non-fungible Tokens, the Miami-based entrepreneur Martin Mobarak burned a drawing by Frida Kahlo. As we wrote elsewhere, that stunt cost Mobarak a lot of money (he valued the drawing he destroyed at $10 million), and put him at risk of criminal prosecution for destroying artwork considered a national treasure by Mexico. It also proved that paying lip service to the NFT “community,” while exploiting it as a passive back-drop for a one-man show, would fail to produce either financial or aesthetic value.

Trump is hoping to establish an exception to this rule. Unlike the hapless Miami businessman, Trump is a recognizable cultural icon. He is a brand, as is evident from the sales pitch for his NFTs, recently delivered on the OpenSea platform: “The collection features unique Trump Trading Cards, Limited One-of-Ones, Gold & Silver Autographed Cards. Cowboy Trump, Astronaut Trump, Business Trump … Which Trump are you?” The audience is invited to project its own fantasies onto Trump’s image, in a neatly postmodern reversal of the Sun King’s l’etat c’est moi. Trump’s NFTs derive all of their value from a single source—Trump himself. This allows him to reduce his “community” to a mere branding vehicle powered by his admirers. They relate to him as subjects relate to a monarch but also, incongruously, as consumers relate to a product.

The product-to-consumer relationship is vital here. Trump’s QVC approach to the “bonus” features of his NFTs (dinner with Trump, golf rounds on his course, etc.) permits him to translate intangible assets into the material or experiential in a way that consumer-fans can understand. This may also explain why, in defiance of expectations, both of his drops sold out in under 24 hours. Trump addressed the core weakness of crypto-art—its impalpability—by offering old-fashioned sweepstakes, and the brief history of NFTs has followed a comparable arc of materialization. When NFTs first blazed into public consciousness, it was often remarked that they lacked all utility. Their content generally involved simplistic variations on youth subculture, comic-books, sci-fi, fan fiction, or fantasy art. They did not even give their owners exclusive access to the images they represent, which can be enjoyed (or endured) by anyone online. The only benefit received by the owner of an NFT is the ability to luxuriate in the sheer joy of ownership, perhaps by using the image for their social-media avatar. NFTs were understood to be definitively intangible assets—the apotheosis of symbolic exchange-value.

Yet the last couple of years have seen strenuous efforts to bestow some kind of substantive use-value on NFTs. Consumption and marketing bleed into each other. Buyers collaborate with producers on projects, the only purpose of which is profit. The creation of aesthetic value is conceptually and empirically inseparable from the creation of financial value. This is why building a self-publicizing community is now the crucial element of any NFT issue. This addition of use-value to the pure exchange-value embodied in NFTs is perceived as a moral advance. Crypto-commenters have long been troubled by NFTs’ lack of any tangible content, so it is a relief to think that consumers are now receiving something real for their money. By making a sense of community integral to the process of profit, the issuers of NFTs could conceive of themselves as challenging the amoral individualism of the traditional capitalist entrepreneur.

Of course, Trump has no problem with amoral individualism. Nor should the mere existence of NFT communities be construed as an egalitarian or progressive development. In some cases, their emergence facilitates branding and exclusivity. There are, after all, many kinds of community. Aristotle identified three: democracies, oligarchies, and monarchies. The idealistic libertarians behind early NFTs saw their communities as democratic and proudly egalitarian: every member was allowed equal access to all areas, accorded an equal voice in debates, treated with equal respect in real life.

As in real life, however, these democracies tended to degenerate into oligarchies, ruled by the rich. Thus, the Bored Apes Yacht Club enforces exclusivity by limiting membership to 10,000—mostly tech billionaires, early crypto investors, and A-list celebrities. By tweaking the demographics of their communities, NFT issuers can associate their brands with particular social groups and cultural attitudes. The communities can then become echo chambers encouraging groupthink consensus, in which members imagine themselves in possession of superior knowledge or cultural power to excluded “normies.” Exclusivity increases desirability, which in turn increases profit. As the Bored Ape Yacht Club puts it:

When you buy a Bored Ape, you’re not simply buying an avatar or a provably-rare piece of art. You are gaining membership access to a club whose benefits and offerings will increase over time. Your Bored Ape can serve as your digital identity, and open digital doors for you.

Donald Trump understands the value of exclusivity. In the promotional video for his second series, he promised exactly that: “When you buy one you’ll be joining a very exclusive community—it’s my community.” The putative benefits include the chance to win a one-night seat at Trump’s dinner table, which seemed to give him pause: “I’m not sure if that’s an amazing prize but it’s what we have.” This is the blasé false modesty of a monarch. And while a benign monarchy serves the interests of the people, it invariably degenerates into tyranny once the selfish interests of the monarch prevail.

Perhaps Trump’s belated appearance on the NFT stage is best construed as an unintended but nonetheless significant intervention in the debate between the relative merits of aesthetic and financial value. All NFTs bear witness to the convergence of aesthetics and economics, however Trump’s project also offers an ironic commentary on the process. In economic terms, the purchasers of Trump’s NFTs are not producers but consumers. They play no part in the creation of the cards’ value, which they only enjoy passively. In political terms, they are not citizens but subjects. They do not constitute a self-governing community; they have projected their own power onto an alien idol. In aesthetic terms, they are not critics but fans. Their role is not evaluation but praise, for by praising the product in public they increase its value.

It would be a mistake to dismiss the postmodern irony of Trump’s NFTs as simply naff or kitsch. They function as a serum that reveals the profound truth beneath incredulous accusations or spoof commentaries like the “King Me” Time magazine cover from 2018, or Vox’s satirical piece, “The Case for Making Donald Trump America’s First King” from 2016. This time, as they like to say on MSNBC, he was finally able to say the quiet part out loud, by posing as the King of Hearts, a Chessboard King, a Lion Rampant. The symbols he uses are incoherent, but this is by design. They allow Trump, the consummate salesman, to be all things to all people. Before our eyes, a heraldic lion morphs into the MAGA lion summoning his subjects/consumers/fans into Trump’s ersatz monarchy.

Julia Friedman

Julia Friedman is an independent art historian.

David Hawkes

David Hawkes is Professor of English Literature at Arizona State University. His work has appeared in The Nation, the Times Literary Supplement, The New Criterion, and numerous scholarly journals.

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