Selling Trash to Trumpers

The nation is swimming in Trump junk: where is it coming from, and what does it mean?

It’s Day 6 of the midsummer special, and I am delighted to welcome everyone who signed up as a paid subscriber last week. You should have an email from me asking for your address: your book will be on its way as soon as I know where to send it.

For those of you who have just checked in, here’s the deal, as Joey would say. Until Wednesday, July 21, anyone reading for free who converts to an annual subscription, any new annual subscriber, or any paid subscriber who gifts a yearly subscription to someone else will receive a free copy of the 2020 book that explains our contemporary media world to you: Political JunkiesFrom Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). 

And as always, please share this post with an interested friend.

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Photo credit: melissamn/Shutterstock.com

I have heard people grumping about on the right and the left because the federal tax case against the Trump Organization is only a tax case. I’m not sure when tax evasion became so cool (rather than, say, wackadoodle libertarian) that this seems trivial to either liberals or mainstream conservatives. I’m also unsure why it would better satisfy anti-Trumpers to put Donald in an orange jumpsuit for a juicier crime, like his attempted coup d’état—whatever walks him through the gates of Danbury is fine with me.

And I say: let’s look at all the political income streams too, particularly those that have emerged in the post-presidency that could lead back to Trump.

In case you have forgotten that Donald J. Trump’s presidency was one of the biggest grifts since the Harding administration, last week’s news about the “Freedom Phone” being pushed by MAGA influencers like Roger Stone, Dinesh D’Souza, Anna Khait, and Candace Owens should remind you that he is at the center of a network of grifters.

These grifts have political as well as financial implications. At a price tag of $500, the Freedom Phone is yet another way of reassuring the calcified Trump faithful that protecting themselves from the deep state, vaccines, critical race theory, and the liberal media are only another purchase away. Preloaded with conservative social media and news apps, the Freedom Phone can help MAGA men and maidens to live safely in an alternative reality where Joe Biden is not president and Democrats are in charge of a child trafficking operation that permits liberal elites to indulge their pedophilia—and then eat the children if they have post-coital munchies.

So that’s all good. But, more importantly, the Freedom Phone frees the MAGA true believer from Google or Apple. “Free yourself from captivity with the Freedom phone,” declares D’Souza on Rumble, the right-wing YouTube alternative.

Freedom Phone marketing also claims to liberate customers from tracking and data collection, but there is no evidence on the website that this is true. Furthermore, all mobile phones, by nature, produce metadata and geographical tracking by pinging off cell towers.

Here’s what Will Sommer of the Daily Beast (July 15, 2021) learned about the Freedom Phone: it is a transparent consumer rip-off with a liberal dose of America First hypocrisy. It is a Umidigi A9 Pro made by a Shenzen-based Chinese tech company and can be purchased—without pre-installed but free apps—on the Chinese platform Ali Express for about $120.00.

But it is manufactured and sold in bulk for far less than $120, of course. A cautious assessment would put the markup on this piece of electronic junk at $440. Tech entrepreneur Erik Finman admitted all of these facts to Sommer, and when asked what justified the price tag, “claimed vaguely

that the Freedom Phone features customized hardware and improved memory. He committed Wednesday to publishing the phone’s technical specifications — basic details any company selling a phone should be able to provide. As of Thursday afternoon, however, no technical specifications had been provided to The Daily Beast or added to the Freedom Phone’s website.

Finman also asserted that the phone was manufactured in Hong Kong, which is a lie and not a material distinction since China is in full control of Hong Kong.

And what is the Freedom Phone not? Made in the United States by American workers, which is worth emphasizing only because the MAGA-faithful claim a commitment to American workers but seem to have no idea how this works in practice.

Now, let’s move to the grifts that take us directly to Trump and his businesses.

China is also an important player here, but not the only one. Except for the iconic MAGA hat and items sold on the official Trump campaign website, most Trump merch, cheap and pricey, is not made in the United States. It is hard to imagine that a man who is so aggressive about marketing his name and image that he tried to copyright the phrase “Make America Great Again” is not licensing all of it.

At a 2020 campaign rally, a television news crew sampled junk available from the people who traveled from rally to rally selling it. They learned that most items originated in China, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Honduras. And less than 15% of the far more expensive merch sold at the Trump online store, established in 2017 and not a campaign site, is made in the United States.

But campaign gear, like the Freedom phone, has added value beyond the original transaction. As I detail in my book, Political Junkies, merch has been a big deal for political campaigns since 1964, when Richard Viguerie pushed targeted mailing lists to the center of political campaigning. Other than the free publicity that it garners, as people and their homes become free billboards, delivering the merch is a way of identifying supporters the campaign doesn’t know about yet.

The bonus round is that each order of Trump junk comes with a name, phone number, email, and home address. The Freedom Phone, if it flies, can raise this to a high art in the run-up to the 2022 and 2024 elections, allowing the MAGA apparatus to track hardcore supporters between addresses, harvest exclusive data about them, and then—here’s the beauty of this multi-layered grift—sell it back to the Republican party and individual campaigns.

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All of the items sold on Trump’s official Save America website, except for two unspeakably ugly hats, are priced at less than $30. The site is supported by the GOP digital fundraising arm, WinRed, which allows you to make a direct donation to a political party that has basically leased itself out to the Trump brand. So technically, the money goes to the Former Guy’s campaign war chest.

Now, here’s the second bonus round that takes us back to the tax case. In practice, many of those dollars only made a pitstop in the campaign before being redirected to one of the Trump organization’s properties.

How much? As of July 2022, that number was $2 million. For the untutored, this is what we call a “money-laundering operation.” And one of the crucial advantages of a money-laundering operation is that it transforms vast amounts of personal income into business income at a much lower tax rate.

I’m just spit-balling here, but there are hard numbers that can give us a sense of the scope of what such a gift would look like. Let’s take 2020 as a sample since it was an election year. The Make America Great Again Super PAC alone hauled in over $880 million. It raised almost a quarter of that money from retired people, and—here’s what takes us back to all these tchotchkes—of that sum, $534,617,818.39 represents unitemized contributions, donations from single contributors that do not add up, individually or in aggregate, to more than $200. This could be cash; it could also be 6 hats, tee shirts, flags, mugs, beer glasses, and lawn signs—with a smaller item like a set of plastic Trump straws for trolling the libs at $15.

There are undoubtedly many people who donate a small sum without expecting a tee-shirt, sign, hat, or flag in return. But because carefully cultivated identity politics have driven the Trump movement, we can guess that somewhere in the neighborhood of half a billion dollars worth of Trump junk was sold through a single channel in one year alone.

That’s a big honeypot, and if even a portion of that money is funneling back into the Trump Organization, and it isn’t all accounted for, that’s also a much, much bigger tax case. And if anyone knows where that money is, it is Alan Weisselberg, the Trump organization’s chief financial officer, currently in federal custody.

Believe me.

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Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).


Short takes:

  • Republican Representatives Matt Gaetz (FL-1) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (GA-14) keep trying—and failing—to hold “America First” rallies in southern California. Three different venues have canceled on them, leading the inflammatory pair to declare that they are the victims of—wait for it!—"cancel culture.” But, refusing to be defeated, they harangued 100 bystanders outside Riverside City Hall. (Summer Concepcion, Talking Points Memo, July 18, 2021)

  • The corpse of the Trump presidency is still warm and playing golf in Bedminster, New Jersey, but Republican wannabes are teeing up for Iowa this summer. None say outright that they are running for president, but they are, and Boston Globe reporter James Pindell reports that even some Trumpers who believe the Big Lie are ready to move on to another candidate. GOP political consultant David Kochel insists that Trump will win the Iowa Caucuses if he runs but, Kochel added, “who knows where we will all be in six months.” (July 16, 2021)

  • At the Cook Political Report, Charlie Cook has speculated that nothing Joe Biden does—or does not do—will woo Republicans or alienate Democrats in the run-up to the 2022 midterms. “The reality is that Democratic voters are so locked into the support/approval column, it is hard to imagine this making much difference,” Cook writes. “Conversely, Republicans are cemented into opposition and disapproval.” It’s independents who will make all the difference, and currently, Joey has a grip on them: “55 percent of independents approved of Biden’s job performance, and 43 percent disapproved. More specifically, 15 percent strongly approved, 41 percent somewhat approved, 17 percent somewhat disapproved, and 26 percent strongly disapproved.” (July 2, 2021)