Last month marked four years of the MAGA hat, the Trump campaign merch item, often bootlegged, that has made squinting to determine the political affiliation of incoming red-cap wearers a regular habit for many Democratic voters. Initially, the campaign invested heavily in this piece of merch: As of September 2016, the Trump team spent more on hats
($3.2 million) than it did on polling ($1.8 million).
Since then, the official MAGA merch universe has expanded well beyond the head — “witch hunt” mugs, “no collusion” coozies, straws that are accidentally, if worthlessly, somewhat ecofriendly. Though the red hat remains the jewel of the empire — in June, the Trump team announced the sale of its millionth MAGA hat by auctioning one signed by the president — the campaign has found consistent success in shirts with pro-Trump slogans for all political occasions, including “Pencil-Neck Adam Schiff” T-shirts, “Stand Up for America” football jerseys, and “I Spy Trump” tank tops satirizing Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama. As Politico notes in its survey of Trump things, the sales of novelty items serve as a “strategy to stoke and validate the grievances of Trump’s base — and then turn them into hard cash.”
Case in point, the Trump straws designed for those who hate “liberal paper” ones that “don’t work.”
Brad Parscale had just boarded a Jet Blue flight earlier this month when the paper straw he was using ripped in half.
As he tried to keep his iced tea from spilling onto his suit, the annoyed Trump campaign manager tweeted that he was “so over paper straws.” Prodded by his wife not to leave it at that, Parscale emailed his staff from the air with an idea: Let’s sell plastic Trump straws.
In short order, the campaign sent an email to supporters with the subject line, “Making straws great again.” By the time Parscale landed in Florida, the presidential straws were already in production and an advertising campaign was up and running. The first batch sold out within hours.
Since they went on sale July 19, the straws have earned the Trump campaign over $456,000. Perhaps more important than a six-figure sum for a campaign that has already raised over $100 million, the novelty items help draw in new donors: 40 percent of the $250,000 pulled in from the Adam Schiff T-shirts have come from first-time donors to the campaign. (Still, the cash raised from merch shouldn’t be discounted: One consultant estimates that 30 percent of the Trump campaign’s contributions in 2017 and 2018 came from people buying stuff.)
The shirt-of-the-moment approach to campaign finance also helps fuel Trump’s forever-campaign. By breaking down politics into discreet moments and selling them on a quippy tee, the campaign helps build the sense that there’s always a new reason to give to Trump — plus, one can only buy a MAGA hat so many times. “We kind of let the news cycle pop,” Gary Coby, the campaign’s digital director, told Politico. “And when we have an idea around it, we just go.”
The idea of turning political moments into opportunities to hawk a T-shirt appears to be taking off: The campaign of Kamala Harris sold T-shirts referring to her criticism of Joe Biden the day after the first Democratic debate. And when Nike cut an American-flag sneaker after facing criticism from Colin Kaepernick, the Republican Senatorial Committee quickly turned around a “Betsy Ross Flag Shirt.”