The Null Device
A few days ago, disgraced former US President Donald Trump announced that he was about to make a special announcement. Those paying attention to him speculated on what it was to be: was he picking a running mate? Perhaps the secret government agency he was covertly commanding was about to arrest the treacherous liberals who stole his election and were running the 5G nanochip adrenochrome trafficking biolabs? Could it be that his slew of legal problems was an elaborate feint to get the enemy right where he wanted him before he dealt them the death blow? Of course, when it came out, it was none of those things, but a set of “digital collectable cards” featuring cheesy portraits of Trump in superhero poses. Each one would cost $99, and confer literally nothing of value (as specified in the terms and conditions) other than acknowledgment that the purchaser paid $99 to be recognised as the purchaser of a picture (which, the terms stated, they did not own or have any rights to). In other words, a NFT, just after the Paris Hiltons of this world have abandoned that collapsing bubble. The announcement was met with pretty much universal scorn, from his former alt-right allies disowning him to everyone else rolling their eyes and putting on their best surprised face for the occasion.
So what does this portend? Obviously, Trump knows that his grift—the grift he accidentally won the presidency running—is running out of road. The law is closing in around him, and his core of true believers is dwindling. Whilst declaring his candidacy for 2024 could protect him to an extent (as the investigative institutions are loath to be seen to be politically biased), this only works if he is a credible candidate. He has been trailing in Republican polls by double digits, meaning that his formerly undisputable lock on the candidacy is more than in doubt. If he did run as the Republican candidate, he would be unlikely to improve on his 2020 performance, to say the least. Nonetheless, some 20% of the population still regard him as their champion (whether it's for being literally the lowest white man whose elevation to the presidency reinforces the white-supremacist racial hierarchy Obama's existence threatened, as the mythical leader of the secret spiritual war against vast, evil conspiracies, or the former rationalised as the latter), and as the con artist Canada Bill Jones once put it, it is morally wrong to allow a sucker to keep their money.
Trump's “digital collectible cards” fit the bill. As the writer K.W. Jeter observed, the one thing superior to the predatory capitalist ideal of the “turd in a can” (i.e., cheap garbage whose appeal comes from its packaging/presentation) is the “turd on a wire”, where there is no can and thus no manufacturing costs; the marks pay for the sizzle, and are momentarily happy even when it turns out there is no steak.
Of course, we have been through this very recently with the crypto crash, where people “invested” vast sums of money for receipts for ugly monkey cartoons only to find that, in the absence of a greater fool willing to pay them even more, their investments were literally nonexistent. However, it probably helps that the target audience for this grift, the typical rusted-on MAGA-hatted Trumpist, would be a TV-native boomer to whom the internet was essentially Facebook, and thus unlikely to have learned any lessons from the crypto crash. From their vantage point, in their La-Z-Boy in front of FoxNews, if they heard anything about people losing fortunes over ugly monkey pictures, it would have been indistinguishable from other stories about young people being stupid, also liberal, and have been filed away alongside stories of millennials snorting Tide pods and inchoate rage about genders and pronouns. And as such, the target demographic of this grift would be much like an isolated island of slow-moving megafauna, whose entire evolutionary history occurred in the absence of predators.