Alan and Angela Seales don’t seem like rabid anti-Obama profiteers. They seem like ordinary New Yorkers: They moved here to be actors, got married, and now live in Washington Heights, where he heads the IT department at a midtown film company and she studies sociology full-time at Columbia. You know, part of the demographic that helped the president win almost every single vote in the city.
And yet, together with Alan’s college friend Matt Senter, they’ve become part of the vast right-wing tchotchke conspiracy. Log on to their website or their Facebook page and you come across the sort of incoherent ravings about Nazis, liberal fascism, and the children of Israel that could, in a weak moment, make Glenn Beck blush. But it’s also a marketing tool for their Obamunism branded merchandise, all featuring the glowing, sky-blue “O” of President Obama’s campaign melded with the hammer and sickle of the former Soviet Union.
“Call us capitalists, but opportunists is probably a better word,” Alan says. Of course, none of them have yet to brave the streets of New York wearing the design.
Matt Senter first visualized the design that began sweeping the redder parts of the Internet last fall as soon as it was clear that Hillary wouldn’t be the one making history. A college buddy of Alan’s, Matt had been hanging out with the Sealeses at Disney World when the three of them decided to turn their time-passing-while-in-lines game — making up slogans they’d love to see on T-shirts and “booty shorts” (not yet in production) — into a start-up company. Conch Tees went online in January 2008 with a handful of designs, which by summer included “Obamunism,” “President Evil” (Hillary with zombie eyes), and “McCaingsta” (a bling-draped McCain in a wheelchair). As the race heated up in September, the company targeted “Obamunism” ads at Republicans on Facebook — and a storm erupted.
Almost overnight, the T-shirt got glowing reviews on conservative blogs, and sales jumped from about one per month to roughly 50 per day. (The tees sell for $16 each; they’ve brought in around $50,000 so far this year.) Sometimes an order would arrive in the in-box and, ten minutes later, another would arrive from a customer with the same last name but a different address. Two went to Wasilla, Alaska, land of the Palin tribe. But “by far” most of the orders shipped to Texas and California. The shirt’s earliest admirers were gun-rights bloggers, one of whom posted a picture of an attractive woman posing in the T-shirt with her blonde locks tossed back and an AK-47 resting on her hip.
Both the term “Obamunism” (the right’s paraphrase of Obama’s domestic agenda) and the pairing of his logo with Communist symbols have gradually multiplied on the Internet this year. Several independent sites sell “Obamunism” tees with similar logos, and Café Press, an online on-demand retailer, has an “anti-Obama store” with slogans like “The Obama Wreckovery,” and “Don’t Tax Me, Bro.” It hasn’t proliferated as quickly as pro-Obama kitsch — Café Press has much more of that than the sickles and sarcasm — but seems to be a major hit with the talk-radio crowd.
None of the enterprising Conch crew seems to mind that their anti-Obama shirt put them on the map, though they had no intention of becoming a political company. “We get e-mails saying it’s our social responsibility to not say these things,” says Angela, “but clearly this is a website with jokes. We try to be an equal opportunity offender.” Both grew up in relatively conservative states, Alan in North Carolina and Angela in Kansas. Angela’s family is Catholic, and Alan’s dad recently showed off the Obamunism tee at a local music festival. Angela is a registered Republican planning on becoming an independent, Matt and Alan are registered independents, and the most the three will say about their own voting is that they “all voted differently” (one for Obama). The shirts they dream are less about their political views and more about their collegiate irreverence: Who can we make fun of today?
Still, this is New York, so they intentionally left their Obama wares behind when they set up a T-shirt booth in Union Square. Angela also keeps Obamunism out of her social life. “When I meet new people at Columbia and start talking to them about my life, I want to tell them about the shirts, but I’m literally afraid to say anything unless I give it a big preface, like, ‘Listen, we’re just out to make money here.’ I have to feel them out.”
Meanwhile, Matt continues to stoke the fires on the website, as curator of its discussion. There he tries to wield with a wry, even hand. “I think we should drop the birth-certificate thing as all it does is cause a disruption from the real issues,” he recently replied to a commenter, adding a Snopes link to her complaint that “God and Obama have only one thing in common: NO BIRTH CERTIFICATE!” But all of this user interaction ultimately serves the bottom line: It’s peppered with links to Conch designs, Twitter reminders, and cleavage-heavy sale advertisements. Capitalism thrives, even under Obama.