We now live in a world where reality is indistinguishable from parody, which is why I must tell you that the words I am about to write are entirely true. You can – if you so wish – now purchase a £3.50 cotton thong emblazoned with an American flag and the words “Grab me by the pussy!”.
This thong – which is available on the community marketplace Etsy – is not an anomaly. Well, it is anomalous in its sheer gross-factor (ten out of ten, if you’re wondering), but it is just one of thousands of pieces of political merchandise that have flooded the internet in recent months. You’ve probably seen the “Liberal Tears” mug that has been promoted by Twitter bots, and you might have clocked the “Nasty Woman” T-shirts that went viral after the final presidential debate, but did you also know you can get Donald Trump nail decals, Bernie Sanders blankets, and a Hillary Clinton cookie cutter?
“You Must Buy this T-Shirt To Show Your Support To Donald Trump For America,” reads the description on a black t-shirt featuring a bleeding American flag and Donald Trump’s smiling face. “You Can’t find this t-shirt in other store.” Many pro-Trump merchandisers use this same rhetoric to sell their items on social media. “Show your Support & Pride,” commands the Trump Tee Shop; “Buy my T-shirts and support America,” instructs the “Trumps Country” Twitter account; Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist behind the fake news website InfoWars, takes it one step further when selling his health supplements. “With the profit we make we fight the new world order,” he says at the end of his videos advertising “male vitality” formula and “brain force” pills.
— Lindsey Leake (@NewsyLindsey) January 20, 2017
The internet has a huge part to play in this extreme rise of this political merchandise, as it allows anyone to both make products on design-your-own printing websites, and sell them on via social media. But Paul Baines, a professor of political marketing at Cranfield University, believes these items are also a product of our era in other ways.
“We are operating in a world where politics is very divisive, where there’s an almost 50/50 split,” he says. “We are entering a kind of binary world of politics where you’re either with someone or you’re against them. This is encouraging people to affiliate one way or another and this is partly manifested in buying goods.
“Some people have always bought some of this merchandise, but the fact politics is so divisive now means it’s easier to sell it to a lot more people.”
Baines speculates that this new market place could in turn create more divides. “There’s so much of it [merchandise] displayed that people start to feel what we call in psychology ‘social proof’ – if they have similar views to their friend and then the friend has got this hat on then that reinforces their view.”
But who are the entrepreneurs who have so effectively capitalised on this market? Many pro-Trump websites have little in the way of contact details, and The Outline already exposed that the “Liberal Tears” mug was a scam. I almost accidentally email the address “email@example.com” before realising that the Trump Tee Shop has not, in fact, filled out the contact details on its WordPress site and has left the default email address unchanged.
— Scott Presler VA (@ScottPresler) December 29, 2016
“I have been designing sports-related t-shirts for two years and with the help of a more politically-charged friend of mine, we decided to start Resistance Tees about a month ago,” says Dan, a 34-year-old New Yorker who started a company selling anti-Trump t-shirts online. “I truly do get enjoyment out of sitting down with a blank canvas and creating these designs,” he says when I ask about his motivations, noting that his day job as a corporate graphic artist has “no room for creativity”.
Although Dan makes a profit, he tells me that money is not his primary motivation and says he is not “comfortable” disclosing the amount he has earned. “Any financial success that comes from these designs is really just the cherry on top,” he adds, explaining that Resistance Tees are just that – an act of resistance. “We would like to create specific shirts for marches, causes and events,” he says. “I have been in situations where I met a stranger with a Make America Great Again hat and although I didn’t say anything, it would have been nice if I had our ‘No Twitler’ or ‘Back to Obama’ shirt to let him know where I stood as well.” In many ways, then, the rhetoric behind both pro- and anti- Trump merchandise is the same: buying something is a political act.
— Resistance Apparel (@ResistanceTees) February 2, 2017
But can wearing a t-shirt really be an act of resistance? Dan notes that some of his profits are currently donated to the ACLU, and Amanda Brinkman, the owner of Google Ghost – an anti-Trump online shop favoured by Katy Perry – has donated $125,165 to Planned Parenthood to date.
“I definitely see the products as a form of political resistance,” Brinkman says. “Some, like the Year of the Nasty Woman planner, were created specifically as tools. The planner has biographies of important women throughout American history who in various ways challenged the status quo, and it offers activities and exercises to help people find their own voice politically.”
Nonetheless, the abundance of “unofficial” political merchandise does pose a threat to political parties. Since the time of George Washington, selling merchandise has been seen as a good way to raise revenue and Baines speculates that parties will now have to slash prices to compete.
“[Running for president] is like a large business,” he says. “You have got to have a lot of cash. It’s very different from the UK where much of the communication – party election broadcasts, party political broadcasts – is free.”
By now you might have noticed that there is not an “I Heart Theresa May” t-shirt doing the rounds (there is, however, a baby’s bib). Although Corbyn’s particular brand of personality politics has inspired a few shirts, Baines notes that UK politics doesn’t leave room for merchandise in the same way. “Americans like to exhibit affiliation to a particular candidate and that is a personality-based element,” he says. “Whereas we have a more party-based system.”
This also extends to other spaces, he argues, noting Americans are much more likely to buy their university’s hoodies and hats. “The reinforcing of identity [in the UK] is not quite as strong.”
Thongs, shirts, and even beer steins are therefore the product of a politically turbulent era, but not everyone capitalising on this is as altruistic as Dan and Amanda. As well as those who create products as a form of politics, there are those who shamelessly capitalise from either side. The Etsy store, GirlPowerPendants, for example, at once sells bracelets emblazoned with Clinton’s signature, and ornaments that simply say “TRUMP“. TheVoyageBird, an Etsy shop in York, of all places, sells an engraved wooden Trump ornament. “Great for both the Don lovers and haters alike,” they write.
Mike, the owner of the store, explains that Obama’s presidency caused the largest surge in political merchandise. “We’re used to seeing quirky t-shirts and bad taste presidential gifts,” he says, citing “Yes we can” spatulas and “Cats for Obama” collars. “Those involved in the gifting/merchandise industry will tell you following current trends is our perogative.
“Noticing the plethora of anti-Trump gifts swamping the market, I decided to put a few neutral Trump gifts together and see how they sell. Most of the orders were shipped to the US and were well-received by both Trump lovers and haters alike. [I have] no political motive, I simply saw a gap in the market but do recognise this to be a really exciting time in history.”
In many ways, all of this can therefore be traced back to the man himself. As a polarising figure, he has provoked many to wear their affiliation for all to see. Brexit also inspired a similar movement, with one man disowned by his family for wearing a t-shirt that read: “Yes! We won! Now send them back”. Across the States, stories repeatedly emerge of people abused for wearing Trump’s own “Make America Great Again” hats. Political merchandise, then, is emblematic of our era. It’s far more important what’s on your head than what’s in it.