Trading cards were not a big part of my life as a sports fan when I was a kid. I cared a lot about Ray Allen, Tino Martinez, and Juan Román Riquelme, but I did not care about collectible rectangular representations of them. I had maybe a couple hundred cards, all un-sleeved and rattling loose around a shoebox, mixed in with my comic books. The only one I really remember was a card that quite clearly should not exist. It was an autographed Travis Knight pre-rookie card, bolted at each corner into centimeter-thick blocks of protective lucite. My uncle had seen it somewhere and taken a flier. Maybe the kid’ll enjoy a cardboard picture of the most mediocre-but-draftable of UConn’s litany of mediocre-but-draftable centers, in his white Huskies home jersey, hoisting a probably-doomed jumper, he might have thought.
It was deeply improbable that such a card should have been printed at all. But crazier still, someone—a physical human being, with friends and dreams and deep-set insecurities sown in childhood—had gotten Knight himself to sign it after some game at Gampel Pavilion. Some adult approached Travis James Knight, who went on to average 3.4 points and 3.1 boards per game over six NBA seasons but who was at the time not yet even that prominent, and asked for his autograph.
A quarter-century later, there is stuff surfacing—and selling, and re-selling in a pandemic-fueled trading cards boom—that puts the preposterousness of that signed Travis Knight card to shame. What is either a boom or a bubble in trading cards is currently generating improbable, unnecessary, and plain-hilarious collectible rectangles at an alarming rate. Demand is apparently so high that publishers don’t merely see a margin in printing sixteen different versions of Randy Dobnak-grade Guys, but have lit out for uncolonized (and, crucially, unlicensed) lands of true derangement. I am talking about American politics trading cards, which exist.
Here are some physical objects you can currently purchase with the right bidding strategy on eBay, courtesy of the folks behind the Decision Trading Cards imprint, an offshoot/subsidiary of Bench Warmer that is distributed by Canadian trading card demi-giant Leaf. There is a card stuffed with real shredded U.S. currency and adorned with the name and likeness of former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg. Is that The Fucking MyPillow Guy in trading card form, with reverse copy noting that he “represented multiple businesses who have converted their factories to the production if [sic] PPEs?” Yep! Did you microdose this morning, or is that a card for Trump saying “Hillary Got Schlonged?” Certainly the second, can’t speak to the first. Is that a “Political Gems” card of former Attorney General Bill Barr, with little jewels stuck onto it? A “Trump Nicknames” insert series card of Rep. Adam Schiff? A commemorative Ruth Bader Ginsberg card featuring the abstract tri-color design common in Topps cards from the 90s? Yes and yes and yes. And fair warning to any Pete Buttigieg fans hoping to cop his likeness backed by the Blue Lives Matter flag: Competition for that one was fiery enough that a friend of mine recently lost out by 50 cents after several days of diligent bidding. Set an alert!
As is true elsewhere in the broader sports cards bubble, some of these items are commanding real money at auction. A handful of outlier Trump “rookie cards” have gone for four or five or six grand, but you can find a ton of others selling in the low hundreds of dollars. This special Red Foil edition of a Trump card posted at $1 and sold for $178.67 after a week of tense bidding, for instance.
Given the broader tenor of all of the aforementioned, or just given the delightfully all-American brazenness of creating and selling A Donald Trump Rookie Card, it is tempting to see this as the latest iteration of a long-running political grift perfected by but by no means unique to the American political right. But these trading cards aren’t Iraqi dinars or challenge coins or remaindered World War II carbines that simply must be purchased now, before Killary bans them forever. The market around these keepsakes isn’t intrinsically feverish and paranoid. It is, somehow, not even really political. It’s business, of a kind.
Most objects come to exist when someone decides they can be turned into more money than they cost to conjure. If there were an eBay speculation bubble on for those prayer candles of pop-culture icons, we’d be seeing similarly bizarre versions of those up for sale. That can be the end of our why, and we’ve already covered the where (on eBay, mostly) and what (buck-nutty rectangular collectibles).
The human brain, generally speaking, is bad at cognitive dissonance and excellent at pattern recognition. Years of wild norm-shattering public conduct have been compounded by the continued material immiseration of several hundred million have-nots of America’s latest gilded age. All of this has unfolded across the same media channels and platforms as usual, and somehow along the same beats, all alongside the humiliating and captivating experience of watching the most affluent people who have ever lived carrying on in not merely lavish but tacky and pointless comfort. This is quite clearly a breeding ground for social bacteria. It is too humid, too fecund, too rank not to start turning green around the edges.
Which is to say that how these cards exist is maybe the interesting mystery, here. Imagine an artistic phenomenon seemingly designed by a still-learning AI that’s been fed the entire deranged and deranging experience of the past five years of American public life, then tasked only with “make it rectangle.” The result does not scan, but then how would it? It is strange enough that, say, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the Three Percenters existed in the same frame of reference, which is “American politics,” broadly speaking; that they might also wind up on a trading card together is not really that much stranger.
The instinct is to make this chaos orderly, or at least legible. These cards seem like they’re trying to do that, but mostly do the opposite. Are you a fan of either the African-American Flag or U.S. Navy Rear Admiral John Polowyzck? Why not buy a card with both of them on it? Or one of fascism handmaiden Mark Meadows atop said flag? By stapling together various markers of the age that have broken briefly through the noise enough to be recognizable as A Thing, as randomly and as wantonly as those markers broke through in the first place, the people behind these cards have produced an aesthetic that is pure chaos, and artifacts that reflect that chaos. It is Pete Buttigieg, spooky avatar of Professional Managerial Class neoliberalism, sharing space with the blankly neofascist Blue Lives Matter Flag, on a trading card. You can keep it, or sell it.
Who is a good one to chase here, too.
These shards of shattered national psyche are the brainchild of Brian Wallos, CEO of the small trading card producer Bench Warmer. Wallos’s “Decision 2016” round of printings had slightly more coherent links to the traditional trading card ethos, as Darren Garnick noted that year in The Atlantic; they even included stats, like the precise date a candidate dropped out.
One Reince Priebus card from that edition is currently listed on eBay at $2.23 (plus five bucks S&H), but you’ll have to go at least $150 for this mint-condition Bernie Sanders from the same run. (One might imagine the Tulsi Gabbard Decision 2016 “Influencers” card would command a tidy sum today, but none are currently listed on the world’s largest auction site. This may be a buy-and-hold scenario.)
That five-year-old Atlantic profile reveals our hero as a simple bootstrapping everyman entrepreneur, proud to be serving a niche-market demand without any evident partisan bent. The 2016 Brian Wallos is concerned enough about our culture to wonder aloud, “Do [kids] build tree houses anymore?” He describes himself as a longtime fan of Trump, but in the blithely rube-ish style that was common half a decade ago—a fan of The Art of the Deal and its author’s brashness, with no mention of policy stances, and no trace of the resentment and rage that came to define Trump’s movement.
Years after his enthused-normie appearance in one of America’s most prestigious political magazines, though, Wallos now cuts quite a different figure online. He’s putting most of his attention into Instagram these days; a mid-January post celebrating Trump’s coup attempt includes a quote from the Book of Revelation and a warning that censors will soon delete it. Until late last year, Wallos could be found on Twitter amplifying QAnon hashtags, displaying outrage that the liberal media was covering up a cure for COVID, reply-guying to the effect that Michelle Obama has a penis, and expressing alarm at reports that “Drag Queen Story hour at local library is now teaching small children how to twerk.” (This last bit Wallos shared shortly after retweeting an ad for his company’s “National Bums” trading cards, which are collectible images of various women’s bikini’d asses.)
Wallos didn’t have time to talk to me because he’s closing work on the Series 2 run of Decision 2020 cards, which arrive in stores in May. But his business partner Dave Sliepka said the pair work hard to keep the cards even-keeled.
“He’s always been a political junkie, [but] his personal beliefs, I can’t speak to that,” Sliepka said. “We don’t use this platform to push our personal views at all. We’re not leaving something out because we don’t agree with it personally, or we’re not putting something in because we want to push that agenda. We’re trying to be as accurate to history as possible.”
Wallos’s personal politics are only blurrily visible in that first run, in insert sets like “Clinton Controversies”—yes there is a Benghazi hearings card—and “Trump Under Fire,” which commemorate moments in which he was briefly criticized for yelling at a baby, mocking a reporter’s disability, or other blaring outrages that quickly passed by the wayside. Sliepka offered this as an example of how the company’s political trading cards were not, in fact, actually all that political. “In 2016 we did Trump Under Fire, that was a 48-card set,” Sliepka said. “We did another one called Clinton Controversies, that one was only a 32-card set. So we’ll get people who criticize us on both sides, and that’s great.”
The two men are looking to achieve the same balance in the forthcoming second series of Decision 2020 cards. In addition to an insert set titled BIDEN GAFFES, Slipka said, “we obviously are gonna have Raiding Of The Capitol cards and stuff like that.”
It remains difficult to pin Wallos’s “Decision 2020” set as a whole to any single ideological position, but the chaos of his various feeds makes for a convincing mirror of circa-now American derangement, just as his more recently minted cards indicate that he has taken up residence in the scared, angry place to which so many tens of millions of Americans have retreated over the last four years. The new collection’s Mad-Libs approach to various signifiers of American political discourse, in that sense, is exactly what it should and would and could only be—nonsensical remixes of things that only the extremely online and floridly troubled would even be able to parse without first having to Google a bunch of random shit. There can be some accidental profundity, there—at roughly the same time that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was being targeted by right-wing militiamen in a kidnap-and-execution plot, Wallos’s team was stuffing its packs with a card showing Whitmer’s face beneath the logo of the neo-Nazi-adjacent Three Percenters militia group. But all of it feels like an accident.
Bench Warmers’ hardworking copywriter—Sliepka does all the writing himself—got let down a bit by the art team, it would seem. How else do you get Mike Pence on the breast cancer flag, or Elizabeth Warren on some sort of spartan-warriors version of the stars and stripes, or (I swear to god) Michelle Obama floating in front of the Punisher logo?
Sliepka puts these sometimes-chilling juxtapositions in the Super Flag Patch series down to happenstance. “Brian sourced all kinds of basically all the different flags that he could get, and it’s just randomized,” he said. “If you just see one, you might think they were intentionally that way or they’re all that way, when it wasn’t at all. It’s just random. So when you’re seeing a Whitmer with the 3 Percenter flag, that might only be one or two of those that exist.”
“I think we could be more intentional there,” he added. “I actually pulled a Michelle Obama with the 3 Percenter flag, and I was thinking, ‘Man, this just doesn’t look right.’”
One card from the Decision 2020 Elite run suggests Wallos’s editorial process retains some commitment to evenhandedness. The front is captioned simply “Civil Unrest.” A brief paragraph on the reverse uses the phrases “police killing of George Floyd” and “the fight for black equality.” If Bench Warmers printed any cards for Antifa, chemtrails, or mass-shooting crisis actors, they aren’t on eBay. By this standard, they’re downright moderate.
But mostly, finally, they are bizarre. My personal favorite of Wallos’s “Elite” run commemorates the “Trump Boat Parades.” The copy on the reverse mentions a half-dozen successful events, but not the follow-up parade in Texas where a half-dozen captains lost their skiffs to the rough chop of Lake Travis. One seller priced the boat parade card just under $10; five days later, it sold for just shy of $40.
So. These cards exist and people are buying them. Bored people. Confused people. Irony-poisoned people. Angry people. All of which is to say: regular Americans. It’s hard to see the crank-minded oddities in Decision 2020 packs as actually evil, or even notably stranger than the blighted moment they commemorate.
They are just what they are, I think—a driverless car of petty commerce, devoid of intention, circling the track. They are stupid, but somehow reflect quite a lot of thinking. They are harmless, yet sprung from the most harmful lies in living memory.
And if some UConn booster could make Travis Knight sign a card in 1996 so that my uncle would buy it for his Ray Allen-loving nephew, then surely it’s fair play for a guy who appeared in a 2011 episode of The Millionaire Matchmaker to mint and vend “Melania Trump 2020 Bench Warmer Decision 2020 SP Masked Photo Variation #384.”
If anything, Wallos’s work here looks downright noble next to the monetization of an unpaid student athlete’s likeness that I received as a gift long ago. Accidentally or on purpose, Bench Warmer’s editorial team have stumbled into a perfect encapsulation of the ethos of our crappy, silly, pain-soaked national collapse. An archaeologist wanting to understand how a reasonably advanced species vanished into dust within a few generations could hardly ask for more than to find an Ivanka Trump one-of-one signed rookie card with a Sandinista banner as a backdrop, or whatever else Wallos and Sliepka might be cooking up for 2024. In this sense, at least, one of our country’s many free-floating kooks has captured the pure essence of the thing that is happening to and in and around us all.