Nobody Wants Your RBG Candle Anymore newsbhunt


The odds are probably even longer for the Elena Kagan socks — a distinguished jurist, but someone whose less-blazing trailblazer credentials (fourth woman on the Supreme Court?) and consensus-building tendencies make her an unlikely folk hero for the resistance merch set.

Alas, the same is also true of the action figures depicting Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

“He’s not a move-merch type, he’s a good manager type,” says Mike Draper, the founder of the progressive T-shirt maker Raygun, of the president. As for the veep, “We [produce] Kamala Harris stuff, which doesn’t sell at all.”

In fact, a lot of the most prominently displayed political icons this season have been dead a lot longer than Ginsburg: Abigail Adams, Alice Paul, Harriet Tubman. “For this gifting season, oh boy, we have a real lack of names,” Bridget Barrett, a University of Colorado advertising professor who researches political merchandise, told me.

There is no tote bag equivalent of the New York Times bestseller list, something that tracks customer data and offers a glimpse into where our culture and politics are headed. That’s a pity. It turns out you can learn a lot from what people buy while they’re waiting for the cash register.

Not so long ago, Blue America was in a moment of peak merch. Partly it was a function of new technology: Direct-to-garment digital printing lets creators print shirts on demand, meaning they can respond to the news and not worry about having to warehouse the gear. It also was an accident of marketing: Progressive organizations popularized novelty gifts as a fundraising vehicle.

And it naturally owed a lot to our much-discussed national polarization: In Barrett’s surveys, one of the top reasons people gave for buying political sideline items was to bother specific family members.

But the boom was also a function of two people: Ginsburg and Donald Trump. The justice’s late-life emergence as a meme machine was irresistible for merch-makers and bag-buyers.

“Seven years ago, I heard the story about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent collar,” said Nick Jehlen, who runs Resistance Pins, a top source of left-leaning novelties. “I knew an illustrator, made 100 of them, gave them to my friends. Someone said you should sell it.” His company was born. “That was pretty much our business for the first two and a half years.” Even today, RBG iconography, from shirts to Halloween costumes, is the most recognizable part of the national liberal gift market.

Trump, meanwhile, supercharged the liberal desire to advertise loyalties, spurring into being an entire resistance economy of clever (they hope) content creators who set out to turn the 45th president’s antagonists into real-time heroes. “We had a ‘Nevertheless She Persisted’ T-shirt for sale within 24 hours,” of the Senate silencing Warren over her speech against Trump’s attorney general nominee, said Draper.

Like any consumer trend, it wasn’t going to last forever. A few years back, “there were a lot of individuals you could make product for,” Draper told me. The fall-off “almost gets back to the mystery for Democrats” flummoxed by sagging poll numbers. “I think everything on the progressive side of things kind of peaked last summer with the overturning of Roe,” he said of the T-shirt market. “That was the last big thing. It had been one big run kind of starting with the Women’s March.”

Draper, whose Des Moines flagship store has the same status with campaign-season Democrats as Politics & Prose does with bookish Beltway-ites, told me he’s not too worried about the business implications of the resistance-merch dropoff. “We’ve always had these three pillars — funny, Midwestern, progressive,” he said. When the progressive stuff ebbs, the funny and Midwestern goods prop things up with KELCE/SWIFT ’24 and MY FAVORITE RESTAURANT IS THE GAS STATION tees.

All the same, he makes a good case that people who care about politics ought to pay more attention to just whose tchotchkes are selling. “When people say, ‘Oh, who could be president other than Biden, I say, ‘Well, who would you buy on a T-shirt?’”

With fewer heroes, the goods that seem to be moving on the left this year are ones that poke fun at the right. Jehlen says big sellers this season include a pair of Trump-themed handcuffs, a “No one’s treading on you” flag, and a build-your-own-conspiracy-theory kit. “We saw a lot more sincere gifts” before, he said. “It was much more straightforward. You’d make a product that was saying what a person wants to show. Now it’s more clever. More jokes.” (He said a Katie Porter-themed whiteboard that he thought would be a top seller “sells fine, but hasn’t been a big hit.”)

Draper, for his part, says they’ve had good luck around themes like opposition to book bans (he was particularly keen on a shirt reading “FILTHY LIBERAL BOOK-HUGGER”). And he’s perpetually scanning the news for new opportunities. When we spoke late last month, a few days after the Senate hearing-room dust-up between Oklahoma Republican Sen. Markwayne Mullin and Teamsters chief Sean O’Brien, he was pondering ways to make merch off of “STAND YOUR BUTT UP,” the awkward line Mullin used when he dared O’Brien to brawl.

“Our main rule, we’re content-based,” he said. “We sometimes go through slow news days, too. You can’t force anything. You have to go to where interest is. And right now, it’s less interest in the progressive stuff.”


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