Donald Trump’s NFTs Are the Perfect Symbol of American Capitalism in 2023

I bet you thought you were done hearing about non-fungible tokens. Well, Trump is bringing them back. The former president has never met a scam he didn’t love, and what’s a better scam than NFTs?

Art from one of Donald Trump’s new NFT trading cards. (Truth Social)

Having reportedly made six-figure profits on the first offering last year, Donald Trump has just released a new round of non-fungible tokens (NFTs). On an aesthetic level, the images are strangely fascinating in their gaudiness. In one, the former president is shown as George Washington crossing the Delaware. In another, he is clad in leather and hoisting an electric guitar. In a third, he is wearing camo while brandishing a crossbow and binoculars in front of a blurrily rendered forest.

Like the earlier Trump-themed NFTs, the latest batch is audaciously artificial in appearance, assembled from bland stock images and channeling a kitsch iconography of Americana, money, and machismo. Their constituent parts, recycled again and again across dozens of different NFTs, have all the elegance of Windows 98–era clip art, and some (like this one showing Trump standing in space wearing sunglasses with a basketball in hand) don’t even thematically make sense.

Aesthetically, the collection reflects a low-rent version of the burlesque pastiche that has become the house style of Trump-era conservatism. This peculiar genre of reactionary art fuses the idioms of a lachrymose American nationalism with the cheap superficiality of a late-night infomercial or motivational seminar. Best represented by the work of painter Jon McNaughton, it has yielded images that are both insipid in form and grandiose in ambition. In Trump’s NFTs, the style has evolved into what might as well be the punch line of a cruel joke originated by Andy Warhol: a kind of algorithmically generated, dadaist folk art that almost transcends value judgments like ugliness, truth, and beauty.

For the low, low price of about a hundred dollars, you can now buy an ersatz likeness of America’s forty-fifth president that cannot physically exist outside the digital ether. Even for Trump, a man whose entire life has consisted of a series of bullshit scams, it takes astonishing chutzpah to affix a price tag to something so obviously useless — especially in 2023, after the NFT bubble has already burst.

The paintings of Jon McNaughton, like Teach a Man to Fish, have yielded a style both insipid in form and grandiose in ambition. (McNaughton Fine Art)

Both Trump’s embrace of the medium and his timing, however, make the whole thing a perfect marriage. Much like Trump’s career, the crypto-NFT boom was a giant confidence trick that rode a wave of bloated perceptions and showbiz hype before leaving a trail of human misery in its wake. Speculative virtual commodities are the proverbial ripping-the-copper-wiring-out-of-the-walls stage of American capitalism, an effort at predatory rent seeking with zero pretense to social or use value. The legitimacy they briefly enjoyed was mostly owed to liberal celebrities paid truckloads of money to hawk Bored Ape gifs on social media and late-night TV. Thin as this was, it succeeded in lending the crypto-NFT racket a momentary sheen of chic and glitz.

The 2007 launch party of Trump Steaks, another Trump grift, in 2007. (Stephen Lovekin / WireImage for Hill & Knowlton via Getty Images)

It follows that someone like Trump would get in on the action only after this initial buzz had dissipated. Throughout his career, Trump has taken the structuring myths of American capitalism — national exceptionalism, free enterprise, the white patriarch, the self-made billionaire — and performed them as a baroque and vulgar pantomime shorn of subtext. He is a man more famous for playing a real estate tycoon than being one; a politician who projects the basest cruelties of the conservative psyche without any of the traditional appeals to unity, civility, or moral integrity. If NFTs are capitalism stripped to its barest transactional elements in a gilded era of monetized selfhood, artificial intelligence, and the blockchain, Trump represents the distillation of culture and politics into an ethos of shameless grift and boundless commodification.

Through his rhetoric and speech patterns, we have come to know what this sounds like. In his NFTs, and the broader aesthetic sensibility they reflect, we are offered the howlingly bleak portrait of what it looks like.

Not incidentally, the most authentic moments in Trump’s 1987 bestseller The Art of the Deal can be found in his lavish and sometimes even tender descriptions of surfaces. For Trump, then and now, life is fundamentally about perception and appearance rather than depth or substance. As a businessman, and then as a politician, he has thus innovated into existence a whole new language of exaggeration and hyperbole. “The point is that we got a lot of attention,” he writes in Art of the Deal of a never-fulfilled promise to build the world’s tallest building that could also double as an operating principle for American politics and culture today, “and that alone creates value.”