What is behind the Trump merch?

Donald Trump. It seems safe to assume that almost everyone in the world has heard that name. After all, not only was he one of the most, if not the most, powerful leaders in the world, but he is a businessman “whose greatest product has always been himself”. So it is no surprise that Mr. Trump and his team constantly push his name, and face, into a lot of merch, a strategy they have definitely excelled at. From thousands of t-shirts, MAGA hats, and quips at Joe Biden to a $200 dollar blanket, every day the name Trump is bought by millions of Americans. So what does the merch in and around the Trump name show about him as a politician, American society, and Trump’s political and legal affairs?

Third-Party Stores

Around the United States (USA) hundreds of independent stores and dozens of Etsy vendors sell products supporting Donald Trump’s reelection bid. But perhaps none is more impressive than “Trump Town USA” in Boones Mill, Virginia owned by controversy-fueled Whitey Taylor. The store is located inside a 200-year-old church and contains thousands of pro-Trump merch. Elle Reeve, a CNN reporter that visited Taylor’s store, describes the place as “the Cave of Wonders from the movie Aladdin, except with more references to butts, poop and pee”. Inside the store, Reeve found a great variety of products, from Trump onesies, dart boards with Biden’s face on them, Trump bubble heads, MAGA hats, and Trump’s “silver balls” (a $75 keychain). The variety of the products, most of which could be considered vulgar or profane, show exactly what Trump’s supporters want: strong leadership and anything but subtlety.

Interestingly, while Taylor also offers many products denigrating Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and other Democrats, these don’t sell very well. Taylor explains that, while customers like the slogans and funny images, they don’t want to wear a Democrat’s name or face. If a face is to be worn, after all, it should be that of Trump, the one person they do support. This clearly demonstrates the customers’ “passion, pride and faith” in Trump.

Visiting Trump Town USA allowed Reeve to interact with some of the customers and discover some of the places that this passion comes from. Mary-Jean Palmer, one of the customers in the store, told her that, when looking at Democrats, she doesn’t “see a lot of kindness. I don’t see a lot of help for our country. And I see a lot of talk, no action. That’s why I like Trump”. Taylor himself also expressed that part of his admiration for the 45th President comes from his strong personality. In fact, the first Trump product he ever sold was a white t-shirt reading “Trump: finally someone with balls”. However, according to Melinda Williams, who works behind the cash register, the economy is the main issue in most customers’ minds. “They’re very scared, I think, because of the way things are going,” she said. “They feel like where we’re at right now is stagnant, like it’s not going anywhere. And it’s definitely not going in a positive direction”. His supporters see Trump as the person who can right this. 

This is definitely not an unreasonable thought. At the end of the day, the Republican Candidate was able to correct some of the country’s economic problems during his first term in office and has amassed a fortune of an estimated 2.6 billion dollars. Trump is definitely a savvy and skilled businessman, something that, as we will see, is represented in his own merch campaigns.

The Mugshot

Since Trump’s mugshot was released by Fulton County on August 23, 2023, it has become one of the forerunners in Trump merch. If you type in “Trump mugshot” on sites like Etsy, you will see over a dozen pages of products with the famous image, both anti-Trump and pro-Trump. 

Actually, various of the groups using this photo the most are anti-Trump. The most notable of these are the punk rock band Green Day and the Never Trumpers, also known as the Lincoln Project, a group of anti-Trump Republicans. The Never Trumpers will be using the proceeds generated from their mugshot products, which are already their best-selling product since 2020, to fuel their media campaign to raise awareness about the “threat to the Republic” that they see Trump as. Similarly, Green Day will be donating all the money gathered from their mugshot t-shirt to Greater Good Music, a charity helping victims of the wildfires in Hawaii. Rick Wilson, co-founder of the Lincoln Project, said that the merch is a way to capture a moment like this “in a way that turns Trump’s notoriety and infamy back on itself”.

However, Trump’s supporters don’t see this moment as something that reflects badly on the former President. They see it more as a great injustice and a “totally evil thing”. And, of course, they have also made a profit off it. Taylor and many other independent pro-Trump sellers have stamped the image on t-shirts, posters, hoodies and coffee mugs, with labels such as: “not guilty”, “never surrender” and “legend”.

While many of the sales of mugshot merch are done by third parties who don’t necessarily represent or share an economic profit with Mr. Trump, this does not mean that he is not the main person benefitting from this. After all, we are talking about a man who loves self-promotion and, as New York Times reporter Vanessa Friedman put it, has “views of the world [that] often seem to involve the monetization of all things”. It was with this opinion in mind, that Trump’s campaign quickly created some mugshot merch of their own. According to Business Insider, the Republican’s campaign claimed that, in just a week since the release of the image, they earned around $20 million US Dollars. This comes soon after it spent roughly $20 million in legal fees during the first half of 2023. Fox News (corroborated by Business Insider and a campaign spokesperson) revealed that, during that first week, the campaign sold almost 70,000 products with this image. All the money generated from this went directly to Trump’s campaign’s bank account, as according to federal law, these purchases are actually a direct donation. 

But that’s not all, Trump is also selling pieces of the suit he was wearing when the photo was taken. “It was a great suit, believe me, a really good suit. It’s all cut up, and you’re gonna get a piece of it”, he announced later in December 2023. According to the website where the suit is being sold, it is “the most historically important artefact in United States history”, and people can get a piece of it for $4,699.53 (USD). These two selling campaigns are another example of how Trump has tried to use his legal issues to his advantage. Additionally, they don’t only represent a possible economic benefit he could get, but also the steady and unwavering support he gets from the roughly 70,000 people buying his products.

However, seven months later, the mugshot’s effect is no longer what it once was. As Whitey Taylor explains, political memes are really hot and sell a lot at the beginning, but they fade away within weeks. Yet, as late-night TV hosts and comedians have shown, it takes little time for the former President to create another laughable and definitely sellable situation.

The Ultimate Best Seller: MAGA Hat

The infamous red hat with “Make America Great Again” inscribed on the front is without a doubt, the best-selling Trump product ever. Designed by Donald Trump himself, the hats have become a symbol of his movement. The strength of this symbol, however, wasn’t expected by the former president’s campaign. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, revealed in his 2022 memoir that, in the beginning, Trump’s team ordered just 100 hats. Yet, after the Republican candidate wore one of them on a visit to the Mexican border, the hats went viral and they were forced to produce more. Soon, the campaign was making $80,000 out of hats a day. This, according to Kushner, was enough to cover most of the campaign’s daily expenses. The newspaper Post estimates that, if the hats were sold for a full year at that rate, they would have contributed $29 million to Trump’s 2016 campaign.

But what do these successful sales mean?

New York Times’ Vanessa Friedman developed a harsh critique of the consumerist nature of America that Trump merch represents. She points out that, no matter what your political allegiance is or what you think about Donald Trump, Republicans and Democrats alike have actively participated in the spread of these products. Referring back to the mugshot, she shows how both sides of the aisle have sought to monetize from Trump merch and push it to create some sort of political advantage. However, focusing more on the consumer side, Friedman believes that this practice reveals the strong hold that consumerism has over the American people. Similarly, Wendy A. Woloson, a professor of history at Rutgers University-Camden, says that Trump merch represents the “cynicism of late capitalism”.

Woloson goes on to explain that advertising these historical and controversial moments is a way for Americans to “domesticate them and make them safe, by turning them into a commodity”. It shows that, to the average American and the country’s political parties, politics “aren’t real unless they are advertised. Or maybe they are too real, until they are reduced to the digestible level of advertising.” Consumerism has become a way to simplify strong and complicated messages, and for the people to process what would otherwise be an overwhelming experience involving criminal acts committed by the leader of the USA.

While this may make it easier to process a very complicated situation, such as the events that led to Trump’s mugshot, it poses a much bigger societal problem. This is because, by reducing such big issues to cheap souvenirs, both sides normalize situations like the Capitol insurrection. They create the idea that political turmoil is something to make money off of, but not confront. This could significantly pave the way for more dangerous events and scandals.

At the same time, Trump merch symbolizes the strong opinions the presidential hopeful brings out on people, especially his supporters. The fact that so many products praising him are sold around the country shows just how many people love and support him. The products themselves also symbolize some of the reasons behind this admiration. Most of the products sold represent Trump as a strong, economically savvy, and powerful man, someone with the capabilities of fixing the problems his supporters see in the USA, particularly economic issues. 

Does this solve Trump’s legal and financial troubles?

So far, Donald Trump has been charged with 91 criminal charges across four different cases. From the cases that have already been resolved, he is set to pay $450 million in fines. While he does make a lot of money from selling merch, it is not nearly close to the number he owes. So, in short, the answer to the question posed is no, solely selling merch will not cover Trump’s financial troubles. However, that money will, most likely, be used to pay his legal fees and, thus, contribute a little bit to the solution of this issue.

Yet, seeing as he will be allowed to remain on the voting ballots despite his many criminal charges, this small economic issue (to a billionaire) is the only big negative consequence Trump will have to face from his trials. And it appears that the trials will not pose a major political issue for his re-election campaign. In fact, the trials have had a positive impact on his base, as thousands of his supporters have expressed more admiration for him since the trial began, another idea reflected in the sales of Trump merch, particularly those involving the famous mugshot.

In conclusion, Trump merch represents the massive and powerful hold that Trump has on American society, both in garnering support and polarizing political opinions. It also demonstrates his business drive and ability to monetize even as he faces big problems. While the proceeds he makes off of merch may not be enough to cover his legal fees, they definitely pose a political advantage to the Republicans, as it symbolizes the love many have for him.

Picture by Kristina Blokhin via Adobe Stock