A MAGA hat. A Trump sweatshirt. Pop-up Trump stores are not just business opportunities, they’re signs that Democrats have something to worry about
Entrepreneurs from Rhode Island and Missouri could portend a new strategy for the president and force other candidates to scramble to catch up, one political marketing specialist says.
MENDON, Mass. — Here in the heart of blue Massachusetts, Donald Trump sells.
Put a picture of the president, or the word Trump, on a T-shirt, mug or hat, and you can turn a nice profit in the right location.
For Keith Lambert, owner of a Rhode Island-based novelty business, the right location for the past couple of weeks has been a vacant lot at an intersection in Mendon, a town of about 6,000 people, an hour from Boston. There, his pop-up Trump shop, open only sporadically, has seen steady traffic, and the occasional expletive shouted from a passing car.
“Most of them, though, give us a thumbs-up,” Lambert said, which explains why, a year out from the 2020 election, he is opening three stores where people can buy Trump merchandise all week.
And he’s not the only one. Trump stores that are unaffiliated with the campaign are cropping up across the nation, in states as diverse as Louisiana and South Dakota, intriguing political analysts who have never seen a president become a product before.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever heard of this happening,” said Bruce Newman, a political marketing specialist and professor at Driehaus College of Business at DePaul University in Chicago. “Am I surprised? The answer is no.
“We live in a beautiful capitalist society that encourages people to become entrepreneurs and make money. If you can do that and at the same time, wax your political leanings and support the politician that you think deserves to lead the country, that’s a big bonus.”
Campaign-related merchandise is not new. Mass-produced buttons, for example, go back to 1896, when they were produced for William McKinley, the 25th president. And most of the presidential candidates hoping to win their party’s nomination in 2020 have a “merch” shop on their website.
Former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, one of two long-shot Republicans running against Trump, is selling hoodies, mugs and phone cases. The campaign of Democrat Andrew Yang has collected more than $1.2 million, about 8 percent of total revenue, from the sale of hats that say “MATH,” which stands for “Make America Think Harder.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s store sells, among other things, tote bags, dog handkerchiefs and cat collars.
But unlike Trump, the Democrats don’t have supporters opening merchandise stores specific to a candidate. Here’s what the phenomenon says about America right now, and why a similar pop-up shop could be coming soon to an intersection near you.
For Trump, it all started with the hat. More than 1 million red “Make America Great Again” hats have been sold across the country, fetching more than $45 million for the Trump campaign, re-election campaign manager Brad Parscale said in April on “Face the Nation.”
The hats, like the president they represent, are so controversial that some people have called them “emblems of hate” and called for people to stop wearing red hats of any kind, even if they represent a sports team.
But that only amuses the president’s ardent supporters, many of whom enjoy the negative responses to Trump merchandise.
“Some people really like the reaction it gets from others. So there’s a level of trolling going on here,” said Todd L. Belt, director of the political management program at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Belt said he’s never seen any other type of political merchandise take off the way the MAGA hats did, even though other candidates have used gimmicks in the past, such as Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander’s signature Buffalo-check flannel shirts, which were embraced by some supporters during Alexander’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1996.
The only thing that comes close to the MAGA hat are the yellow ribbons that people began displaying during the Gulf War. “But that was not partisan,” Belt noted.
What’s happening now is a a combination of “negative partisanship” — hating the other team even more than you love your own — and what Belt calls “the performance of identity.”
“Showing other people which side you’re on has become more magnified lately. And that’s part of the hyperpartisanship landscape we’re in,” he said.
Like Newman, Belt is not surprised by the emergence of Trump shops. “People that like him really, really, really like him. There is a market there, and I wouldn’t even call it a niche market. It’s a strong market. There’s a large number that say there is very little he could do to lose their trust.”
That’s what Lambert’s customers are telling him when they stop to examine his merchandise, which includes buttons, hats, shirts and flags.
“People stop and shake my hand and say, ‘Thank you for being here.’ Some say I’m doing God’s work,” Lambert said. “I’ve never had that happen selling (New England) Patriots or Red Sox stuff.”
A few people have also asked him, “What are you going to do with all this when he is impeached?”
If anything, the impeachment proceedings taking place in Washington, D.C., right now are making Trump supporters more resolute, said Jeremy Boyts, a 35-year-old from Springfield, Missouri, who is operating 13 pop-up Trump shops across the country, and also sells merchandise on the website Trumppopupshop.com.
“What impeachment has done is solidified the polarization. It’s forced people to do a hard break, and say, yes, I support him, or no, I don’t support him,” Boyts said.
Art of the brand
Lambert, 46, who lives in Pascoag, Rhode Island, has been in the novelty merchandise business for more than 20 years. His company, New England Novelty, sells toys and souvenirs at fairs and festivals and special events such as the Super Bowl or presidential inaugurations.
In the past, he said, merchandise related to a U.S. president would sell well in Washington around the time of an inauguration, then demand would fade. Not with this president, he said.
At fairs he worked over the summer, Trump merchandise did as well or better than his other products. So when the fair season ended on Columbus Day, he started selling Trump products at pop-up stores in Massachusetts and Rhode Island and found the demand strong enough to warrant opening retail stores.
Lambert is opening stores in three Massachusetts towns — Hanson, Easton and Bellingham — this month, and if things go well, he plans to keep them open through the 2020 election, and possibly even longer. “Who knows? I hear people talking about 2024. Maybe they’ll change the term-limit thing,” he said.
That’s the stuff of nightmares for people who despise Trump. But for his supporters, many of whom say they’ve never been so electrified by a politician, repealing the 22nd Amendment seems a reasonable thing to do. “I have never felt as strongly about any president as I do about this president. He needs to stay in power,” Sheri Auclair, a Trump supporter in Minnesota, told the Deseret News earlier this year.
Like Auclair, Lambert is a supporter, having become a fan of Trump through his 1997 book “The Art of the Comeback.” So is Boyts, in Missouri.
But Newman, at DePaul University, said he wouldn’t be surprised if people who aren’t Trump supporters started selling merchandise just to make money.
“This is the question one has to ask: When we see this, is it a phenomenon that is an outgrowth of what I call the Trump branding paradigm that exists today in this country and is moving around the world? Is it an outgrowth of the phenomenon of Donald Trump permeating the existence of people to the extent that they can’t help but get out there and push for him? We’ll have to wait and see,” he said.
“But if I were working or consulting for Donald Trump and I read about this, I would say, ‘Bingo, let’s go for it. Let’s move it around the country.’
“What this is doing is moving from social media back to front lawns, where we used to see representation of our support for a candidate. But it’s not the front lawn; it’s a busy street corner.”
Don’t try this at home
While anyone can create branded merchandise on websites such as Zazzle or CafePress, that doesn’t mean anyone can set up a shop selling political merchandise on their street.
Lambert has what’s known as a “hawker and peddler” license from the state of Massachusetts, which costs $62 a year. And before he sets up a pop-up shop, he checks in with the town to make sure that he is compliant with the municipal laws and pays any required fee.
Also, he has to get permission from the property owner, which could be challenging if the person is not a fan of the president. Hardly anyone is neutral about Trump. When making arrangements to move into the Bellingham store, Lambert encountered the former tenant, who was not happy about moving out, and even more unhappy about the merchandise that would be replacing hers. She wrote an expletive directed at Trump on the wall.
Lambert just shrugged. He noted, however, that he doesn’t just sell Trump merchandise; he also stocks Second Amendment merchandise and police and firefighter “lives matter” merchandise, consolidating it all under a “patriotic” umbrella.
“I call it a patriotic store. It’s all patriotic merchandise, about being proud of where you’re from,” he said. “That’s what I think Trump is. He’s trying to unite the country.”
In Chicago, where Newman lives, and in other large cities, it’s not unusual to come across street peddlers selling shirts and hats pegged to a political figure. But Lambert’s pop-up shop and retail stores specializing in Trumpware represent “the merging of politics and marketing in a new creative way,” Newman said.
“It’s a never-ending political surprise party that this country is in the midst of,” he said.
At George Washington University, Belt said that the expansion of political merchandising is natural in a culture where people now cherish their political allegiance in ways once reserved for their family or a favorite sports team.
“Politics is turning into a contact sport, metaphorically speaking,” Belt said. “We’re in a red-blue team world now.”