What do redneck hillbillies do with their caps?

What happens to campaign merch after the votes are counted?

A crowd wearing MAGA hats watches as President Donald Trump delivers remarks during a 2018 Make America Great Again Rally in Wisconsin.Credit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

By John Herrman

Most often, unsold leftovers are donated to charities, recycled, or given to staff and volunteers as keepsakes. Optimistic candidates tuck away excess inventory for possible reuse. Items already in circulation are converted overnight into memorabilia, tokens of victory or defeat. A few bumper stickers hang on to say “I told you so,” or just because they’re a pain to peel off.

Mostly, shirts and buttons languish in closets and drawers. Next stop: thrift store, then the vintage store. Finally, they’re collectible, even if only as ironic accessories. The afterlife of campaign merchandise is unusually literal, because, after Election Day, these objects experience something like death.

All of this relies, though, on the campaign actually coming to an end. What if it doesn’t?

Donald Trump greets supporters at a campaign rally in Albuquerque, NM in 2016.
Donald Trump greets supporters at a campaign rally in Albuquerque, NM in 2016.Credit…Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

From the earliest days of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 campaign, it was clear that the red “Make America Great Again” hat was here to stay. It was an unusual item from the start, promoting a slogan rather than a logo or a name, and frequently worn by the candidate himself. On Mr. Trump, the cap perched incongruously atop a laboriously manufactured image: expensive suit, expensive tie, the face, the hair and then, suddenly, siren red.

Most campaign merchandise simply inhabits a generic garment and leaves it unchanged. This year, the Biden-Harris campaign distributed enormous numbers of signs, shirts, buttons and accessories to supporters around the country, but to the extent they’ll be remembered, it’s for what they said — “Truth Over Lies,” for instance — not the form they took.

The MAGA hat, in contrast, claimed a shape and a color. By 2016, red hats of any variety drew double takes. In late 2019, the Trump campaign announced it was about to sell its millionth MAGA hat, but the true count — including unauthorized Trump hats sold at rallies, in gift shops and around Washington, D.C. — is surely much higher. These hats aren’t so much souvenirs or keepsakes; they’re part of an ongoing show and continue to be produced.

On Amazon, unofficial MAGA hats are sold by the thousand by Chinese e-commerce entrepreneurs, under brands such as VPCOK (trademark of Shenzhenshi Nuobei Muying Yongpin Youxian Gongsi; top-rated Amazon review: “I’ll be wearing mine to go vote :)”) and AMASSLOVE (trademark of Shenzhen Longhua New area Yemili GarmentFactory; 1,000 reviews). These hats vary in design and text, decorated with additional flags, or with subtly different typography, but they get the point across. On Nov. 9, the AMASSLOVE hat was week’s top seller in Amazon’s “Men’s Novelty Baseball Caps” section.

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