There's been a lot of talk this campaign season about whether or not Donald Trump is a con man. But when it comes to turning his fan base into easy money, no one can beat the managers of the mogul's many Facebook fan pages, according to a recent analysis by Fusion.
The network found that a significant percentage of Trump's Facebook fan pages were selling Trump merchandise for private profit. Democrat and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton-themed Facebook pages were mostly not.
The difference, according to Fusion, was stark. "Half of the 25 most popular pro-Trump pages were selling Trump merchandise," the analysis found found. "By contrast, just four of the top 25 pro-Clinton pages had merchandise for sale." Out of more than 700 groups discussing Trump included in their research, more than half linked to pages that sold Trump-themed merchandise.
The items for sale included clothing, mugs, stickers, flags and in the case of the biggest Trump-themed Facebook page, Trump Nation, will soon also include a "14-carat-gold Trump lapel pin." Many of the pages selling the merchandise attracted clicks with racist, bigoted or otherwise offensive posts, such as one page that linked to a poll asking "should bacon be banned because it's offensive to Muslims?"
Trump Nation's in-Facebook store is only part of the picture. Another page, "Donald Trump for President 2016!!!!!!", linked to "TrumpNews.Strangled.net (a now dead site) that then redirected to a site that pays users to share links," Fusion wrote.
As the authors noted, Trump's name is particularly prone to cash-ins because of the candidate's own omnipresent branding. Trump has slapped his name on everything from Trump water and Trump steaks to high-priced properties including luxury hotels, casinos and golf courses.
But more generally, the wing of Republican politics where Trump is finding his support — the far right — has long been susceptible and even amenable to commercialization. InfoWars founder Alex Jones markets emergency rations and scientifically suspect natural cures. Conservative media hosts Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck have a mutually profitable relationship with sketchy gold dealers like Cash4Gold. One affiliate marketer, Food4Patriots, sells tens of millions in emergency food annually, despite misleading video ads. The entire Ben Carson presidential campaign was widely rumored to resemble a marketing scam, or at least a pretense to sell books.
"Subscriber lists to ideological organs are pure gold to the third-party interests who rent them as catchments for potential customers," author Rick Perlstein wrote in The Baffler. "Who better suits a marketing strategy than a group that voluntarily organizes itself according to their most passionately shared beliefs?"
"The Republican Party is constructed as a machine: Into one end are fed the atavistic fears of the white working class as grist, and out the other end pops The Wall Street Journal editorial-page agenda as the finished product," posited New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait. "Trump has shown movement conservatives how terrifyingly rickety that machine is and how easily it can be seized from them by a demagogue and repurposed toward some other goal."
But while Trump's goal might be to ascend to the presidency, it seems like others are more interested in just selling more of those Trump hats.