May 23, 2022

The Outsized Entrepreneurial World of Trump Merchandise

At the rally in Arizona, Trump’s first of the year, venders lined the path from the parking lot to the entrance of the venue, the Canyon Moon Ranch. They’d been in the game long enough to perfect their setups—comfortable camp chairs, well-stocked coolers, big speakers blasting classic rock. The area outside the gates had a festive, tailgate atmosphere. Kris Walden, who had a scraggly beard, weaved among the parked cars, towing a folding cart stocked with hats and hoodies. “Be deplorable—make yourself look adorable!” he called to potential customers. He used to work as a mover in South Carolina. After COVID-19 put a damper on that work, a friend recruited him to help sell Trump merch. At first, he thought he wasn’t suited for the job—“I was a shy individual,” he said—but soon “it became a whole life style.” For the past five months, he’s been living on the road in a new Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van he bought with his earnings, driving from rally to gun show to rally across Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama. “By next year, sales are going to skyrocket,” he said. “Trump is going to run again. He has to.”

Trump has a marketer’s instinct for catchphrases and in-jokes; the merchandising apparatus that’s sprung up around him is nimble enough that the meme of the moment—“Let’s Go, Brandon,” for example—can make its way onto shirts within days. The red MAGA hat, although still ubiquitous, is no longer the best-seller; several venders told me that, these days, anti-Biden merch is more popular than pro-Trump options. Shoppers like the “Jesus Is My King, Trump Is My President” shirts, but they also don’t mind a little vulgarity. I asked an elderly sovereign citizen in a salmon-colored sweater what his most popular items were. “Today, it’s ‘Fuck Biden,’ ” he said. “Sometimes it’s ‘Screw Biden,’ sometimes it’s ‘Biden Sucks and So Do You for Voting for Him,’ sometimes it’s ‘Fuck Biden, Fuck Harris, and Fuck You for Voting for Them.’ ” Then he corrected me: he didn’t sell his flags—he traded them, which meant, he believed, that he was not subject to commerce regulations. “Most people trade cash,” he admitted. “But I’ve been offered spare tires. I’ve been offered towing chains.”

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