Monday, November 18, 2019

The newest Trump card: just another grift, or another step down the road to fascism?

 As impeachment proceedings continue, #NotMyPresident aka #Dolt45 Donald J. Trump continues to go on the defensive and the offensive (mostly offensive). One of his latest gimmicks, launched earlier this month, is, in the view of some, both defensive and offensive. It's a personalized "Impeachment Defense Membership Card," which can be yours -- with your own name on it and everything! -- for the low, low price of only $35.

From Reuters, November 13, 2019:

The contrast between the president and the Democratic field is a sign that Trump is betting the Democratic-led congressional impeachment inquiry, which entered a new phase on Wednesday with public hearings, could help him win the November 2020 election. Public opinion polls show support for impeachment is concentrated among Democrats. [Duh]

Last Friday alone, the president sent out more than 400 Facebook ads asking for donations that would be rewarded with a personalized “Impeachment Defense Membership Card.”
Chauncey DeVega, a politics staff writer at, sounded the alarm about the card in a November 14 essay. The teaser blurb declared that while Trump's "Impeachment Defense" team is a joke, Trump's true goal -- the dismantling of American democracy -- is no joke at all.

DeVega begins his essay by making note of some of Trump's smaller scams...

For example, Donald Trump continues to run contests where in exchange for an online donation he promises supporters that they can “win” an exclusive meal with him. Apparently, no one has ever received this prize.
Then he mentions the larger scams, such as Trump University and the Trump Foundation, two scams that ended up costing Trump many millions of dollars in settlements and punitive fines.

But one of Trump's most lucrative and ongoing cons, DeVega adds, is the "issuing of membership cards in exchange for campaign donations from his cult-like followers." In addition to the Facebook ads, the Impeachment Defense Membership Cards were announced in a dramatic campaign email sent the same week:


Did you see the President’s email?

He’s calling on his fiercest, most loyal defenders to come together and stand firm against these nasty WITCH HUNTS from the Left and the Lamestream media.

As one of his strongest supporters, he was disappointed to see you hadn’t already activated your status as a Charter Member and ordered your
Official Impeachment Defense Membership card.

We haven’t shipped out the first round of membership cards yet because we wanted to give you ONE MORE CHANCE to become a CHARTER MEMBER and to get on the FIRST list that we send President Trump.

We are in the fight of our lives right now, and the President is counting on YOU to be there with him on the front lines of this nasty impeachment battle.

Remember, your card will be PERSONALIZED with your information on it so that you can proudly display it and show America that you stand with President Trump against the baseless Impeachment Scam!

The deadline to become a Charter Member is 11:59 PM TONIGHT, so you need to act NOW!

Please contribute $35 TODAY to get your Official Impeachment Defense Membership Card which will be PERSONALIZED with your name and Defense Member ID number.
DeVega continues:
Is this a grift? Absolutely. But it is also something much worse and far more dangerous. Trump is a lawless president who imagines himself to be a king or emperor who is above the law. In TrumpWorld, he is the state and nation. He is the law...

...Donald Trump’s “Official Impeachment Defense Membership Cards” are a loyalty oath, sworn by those who stand with Donald Trump against the rule of law, democracy, and the U.S. Constitution. By implication, Trump’s membership cards signify membership in a quasi-secret organization that deems itself superior to outsiders.
There's a lot more to the essay than that, and I think it's worth a read.

Unpresidential gimmick is not unprecedented
As DeVega insinuated in the piece cited above, this is not the first time that the Trump campaign has offered exclusive "membership cards" to people gullible enough to send him money. It's been done before.

Many of you may remember the Trump Gold Card, issued during the 2016 presidential campaign. Here's Ian Lang, writing in
an August 17, 2016 post on the site:
When you think of Donald Trump, one word comes to mind: Deal. He opposes trade deals. He's gonna make deals. He wrote The Art of the Deal. But lest you think those are the extent of Trump's deal prowess, think again — he's also keen to offer fabulous deals to his friends and supporters.

Thanks to the Trump campaign text messages I signed up for that have never ceased to be a source of unintentional comedy, I
was recently notified that for the low, low price of $49 (a discount of over 75%!!), I could become a gold-card-carrying official member of Trump's campaign.
That link in the second paragraph of the snippet above no longer works. Fortunately Lang preserved the basic info for posterity, not only posting a screen grab from the Trump promo page, but also quoting the text in full:
Please know that not just anyone is eligible for Executive Membership. It’s a power, duty, and responsibility reserved only for those supporters who have displayed a steadfast commitment to our movement.

They will be the reason we WIN. And I want YOU to join them.

$200 $49 to become an Executive Member of the Donald J. Trump for President campaign.
Lang mulled the meaning of it all.
It's not clear what perks... come with being an Executive Member of Trump's campaign, nor are the restrictions for membership beyond "having $49" and knowing a bargain when you see one.
What is clear, however, is that the Trump campaign shamelessly used a ploy well-loved by hucksters everywhere: the fake discount, which arbitrarily listed a struck-through "regular price," followed by a "discount price." There was also the blatant appeal to a (profoundly misguided) sense of elitism and exclusivity, i.e., an attempt to convince potential donors that they were Very Special People. (Imprisoned serial scammer Kevin Trudeau, to cite just one example, took this popular scammer strategy to new lows a few years back with his massive Global Information Network (GIN) scheme, which he promoted as an exclusive club offering seekrit knowledge previously available only to the world's elite.) But that should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following Donald Trump's own Scamworld career, which has been documented by numerous journalists in recent years, but was first seriously lambasted by my pal Jason "Salty Droid" Jones.

Even the Trump U playbook drew on Scamworld traditions,
as I mentioned in a May 2016 Whirled post. The surprise would have been if Trump and his minions had run his political campaign in a non-scammy way.

One of the marks who fell for the Gold Card scheme ahead of the 2016 election was fake doctor/cancer quack/conspiracy fan/neo-Nazi/hopelessly devoted Trumpanzee
Leonard Coldwell. I made a brief graphic reference to Lenny's Gold Card purchase in an October 2016 post, but if you want more substantial proof than a composite photo-illustration created by someone who is clearly neither a Trump nor a Coldwell fan (which of course is putting it mildly), Lenny provided the proof himself. He boasted about his acquisition of this exclusive gem, and shared a picture of it, in a brief blog post on August 19, 2016, evidence of which you'll quickly see if you Google "dr. leonard coldwell gold trump card." Alas, if you follow the actual link, you will be met with the disappointing message:

No Results Found

The page you requested could not be found. Try refining your search, or use the navigation above to locate the post.
But Google Image results still display the card with LoonyC's name on it.

If you know anything about exclusive and elite people, however, you know that they are never satisfied and are always in search of something better. That's what makes them so elite, unlike all the rest of us loser sheeple. Accordingly, the Trump campaign came up with an even eliter and more exclusive card than the Gold Card in October 2016, as the campaign was coming down to the wire: the Limited Edition Trump Black Card. (And Trump has been lamely trying to play the black card ever since. But I digress.)

The Trump Black Card was more than likely a play on the American Express black card, the Centurion Card, for which, at the time the AdAge article linked to above was posted in October 2016, one had to pay a $7,500 initiation fee and a $2,500 annual fee. But an exclusively elite Trump supporter could obtain a Trump Black Card for a one-time donation of only $35.00 or more. The "more" part was definitely encouraged, and donors were also given the option to make it a monthly donation. The ad copy centered, not surprisingly, around attacks on Trump's opponent in the 2016 race.

Mr. Trump also uses indelicate language to suggest that the card signifies membership in a group that will menace Hillary Clinton: "You'll be on a team that will be sending a message to Crooked Hillary to watch out, that we're coming for her," Mr. Trump continues.
What the Black Card was at its core, though, was an indication of desperation as the campaign ran low on funds. On November 1, 2016, a week before the disastrous election that paved the way to the living-nightmare "reality" show in which we're now participating, the site posted a piece by Harmon Leon, looking at Trump's increasingly unhinged fundraising emails. It traces the arc of Trump's campaign messages, from essentially optimistic and rah-rah to "apocalyptic."

Early in the campaign, as you may recall, Trump continually boasted about his wealth and the fact that since he was a gazillionaire, he was self-funding his campaign and couldn't be bought by special-interest groups and donors. Those of us who'd been paying attention knew he was full of it even then, but as the months went by, the money ran low, and the begging began. Harmon Leon wrote:

By the end of June [2016]... the press was reporting that the Trump campaign was dangerously low on cash. All of a sudden, the Trump of the emails went from being a man on an amazing journey to being a man on an amazing journey who wanted you to pay for it...

...Soon, the whole self-funding thing was forgotten. Trump is first and foremost a salesman, and soon his fundraising efforts—the MOST SUCCESSFUL fundraising in HISTORY, he reminded me—had baroque bells and whistles attached. In early August, I was being asked to become an Executive Member of his campaign with a Trump campaign Gold Card, which could be mine for a one-time induction fee of $100. Trump didn't really specify what perks you'd get with a Trump Gold Card—but I assume the card would confirm I hated ISIS and Hillary Clinton...
By August, Leon noted, Gold Cards were cheaper; you could now get one for only $35, down from $100.00. And, I might add, down from even the $49 price that was supposedly a discount from the original $200 price. I'm a little confused about what the "original" price was really supposed to be, but I guess it doesn't really matter, since more than likely those prices were made-up numbers anyway. I'm pretty sure that Loony Coldwell got his Gold Card at a fake discount, since it was fake-discounted in August, and that's when he posted about it.

Leon continued, noting that the Gold Card was replaced by the Black Card in October.

(...Trump didn't explain what the difference was between the Trump Gold Card and the Trump Black Card—but he implied that the Trump Black Card was of a higher status than the Trump Gold Card, which would make me really angry if I already invested in a goddamn Trump Gold Card...)

Oh, and I was also offered the chance to win a coffee with Ivanka Trump at Trump Tower, or lunch with Eric Trump. This is the sort of literal selling of access that is OK to do, I guess...
There's more, and I urge you to read the entire piece. In hindsight, though, and despite the implication at the end of Leon's article that Trump would lose the election, the unhinged fundraising campaigns did help push him to victory.

My point is that there's a definite precedent for the Impeachment Defense Membership Card gimmick. This is not the first time Trump supporters have been offered an "exclusive" card in exchange for forking over some of their hard-earned bucks.

So what's different now? Isn't this just another routine Trump grift?
Those are reasonable questions, as is the question of how the Impeachment Defense Card, as silly as it might be, differs from any campaign merch -- like a MAGA hat, a T-shirt, or, for that matter,
Elizabeth Warren's Billionaire Tears coffee mug.

As much of a fan as I am of Chauncey DeVega's writing, I think he sometimes errs a bit on the side of drama, to the point of alarmism. Even so, I think that, given the entire context of Trumpism, he's right to be a bit alarmed by this latest "membership card" scheme. I was pretty disturbed about it myself, which is why I'm writing this post.

Back in April of this year, when the Trump campaign was apparently reviving the Black Card, rebranding it as the Official 2019 Trump Executive Membership Card, DeVega wrote another alarm post for,
"Echoes of history: Trump's 'movement' now has a uniform and membership cards." Granted, the "uniform" to which he alluded is at best an unofficial one: MAGA caps and the infamous tan khaki pants worn by so many of the "white supremacist hooligans in Charlottesville and elsewhere." DeVega said then, as he's saying now about the most recent Trump card, that these cards function "both as a loyalty oath and marker of belonging."

As per usual, the Trump campaign had promoted those "new" Executive Membership Cards with an email blast vilifying the liberals, the "witch hunt," and so forth, and employing the usual inflammatory language. DeVega put it in context:

When viewed in isolation Trump's messaging is dangerous enough: these are clear threats to America's democratic norms, an encouragement to political violence against liberals, nonwhites, LGBT people and other "enemies," and reinforcing a cult of personality led by a man who has contempt for American democracy and the Constitution, is clearly a pathological liar and is likely a malignant narcissist who is unmoored from reality.

When viewed in total, however, this fundraising email is something far worse. Trump is promising an authoritarian "national renewal" to his white supporters through a fake populism that nurtures feelings of grievance and victimhood -- feelings that can only be remedied through loyalty to the Great Leader and Dear Father...
And DeVega emphasized that this focus on "movement" above party was used by the Nazis and the Third Reich "to mobilize their base and its destructive energies."

This is not a mere foray into
Godwin's law territory. (For that matter, even Mike Godwin himself said that not every Nazi comparison breaks his famous rule. His declaration was a response to the 2017 Charlottesville awfulness. And even before that, back in 2015, he didn't categorically dismiss the Trump/Hitler comparisons. Not that Trump was particularly bothered, at least in 2015, to those Hitler analogies .)

In any case, DeVega, whose April essay I also urge you to read, is far from the only person who has compared Trump and America under GOP leadership with Hitler and Nazi Germany. In October 2018,
Christopher Browning, a respected historian specializing in the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, penned an essay for The New York Review of Books, noting "several troubling similarities and and one important but equally troubling difference" between then and now. Trump isn't the only culpable one in Browning's essay; Browning describes Mitch McConnell as "the gravedigger of American democracy." Browning is clearly worried about the legacy of Trumpism.
No matter how and when the Trump presidency ends, the specter of illiberalism will continue to haunt American politics. A highly politicized judiciary will remain, in which close Supreme Court decisions will be viewed by many as of dubious legitimacy, and future judicial appointments will be fiercely contested. The racial division, cultural conflict, and political polarization Trump has encouraged and intensified will be difficult to heal. Gerrymandering, voter suppression, and uncontrolled campaign spending will continue to result in elections skewed in an unrepresentative and undemocratic direction. Growing income disparity will be extremely difficult to halt, much less reverse.
It's another essay that's well worth reading.

For those who defend Trump by saying that his fascist/authoritarian talk is "just rhetoric"... well, words can and do hurt, as Jonathan Chait pointed out in
a June 2019 essay in New York's Intelligencer section. Chait concludes his short piece with a swipe at right-wing double standards.
What is interesting is the way conservatives have used the largely rhetorical nature of Trump’s fascistic politics a defense. Trump can call the media “enemies of the people” all day long, and we should shrug because it’s just words. Fascist rhetoric is meaningless, but anti-fascist rhetoric is an outrageous slander. What reasonable case is there to hold the president of the United States to the lowest standard of any public official?
While left-leaning hyper-partisans often tend to err on the side of histrionics when it comes to anything involving Trump, and while I think that's a mistake, I also think that it's an even graver mistake to err on the side of accepting all of the disruption and destruction as "the new normal." Granted, politics has become ever more about tribalism in the past couple of decades, and more and more folks are donning partisan blinders and refusing to take them off. Trump didn't start that. But he has undoubtedly amplified and accelerated the process. Some insist that even political tribalism may have its limits, and that there still might be hope if people are willing to emerge from their social media echo chambers. Maybe so, but the problem is pretty complex, and is intertwined with cultural and religious as well as economic issues. That's a bit beyond the scope of this blog, or at least beyond the scope of a single post. 

As things stand now, I think that Chauncey DeVega and others who are sounding alarms are nailing it. Donald Trump's latest "membership cards" awarded to his "impeachment defense Army" may be just another gimmick, a Trumpian grift modeled on so many other Scamworld schemes. That's actually bad enough, or at least it's bad if you don't care for scams. But there's a larger and more disturbing context as well, and it goes far beyond the endless hawking of political merch, which is common enough these days and mostly harmless -- although, I should add, there's a valid case to be made that those infamous Trump MAGA caps aren't just campaign swag but are also symbols of hate and divisiveness. I hope I never reach the point where I accept the train wreck that is Trumpism as "normal."

Related on this Whirled:

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