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For RNC Merch Vendors, Business Is Business

Talking to the people selling Trump buttons and anti-Hillary T-shirts

On the third day of the Republican National Convention this week, the streets leading toward the Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland teemed with delegates, reporters, curious citizens, and swaths of police officers in every variation of a blue uniform imaginable. Tables lined the sidewalks, slowing the crowd's movements as people paused to the ogle and discuss the merchandise stacked atop them.

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For every type of Donald Trump supporter and Hillary Clinton detractor, there was something to commemorate the upcoming presidential election.

To target the female population, apparently, there were bedazzled, hot pink shirts reading "Women for Trump." (A version on sale down the street: "Hot Chicks for Donald Trump.") For the classicists, there were vintage Nixon-Agnew buttons from 1968 available for just $2. For the misogynists and those thrilled by Trump's rejection of political correctness, t-shirts proclaimed "Hillary Sucks But Not Like Monica."

Bedazzled "Women for Trump" shirts from vendor Travis Cook. Photo: Eliza Brooke

Passers-by could purchase playing cards with Trump's face on them, Trump bobble head dolls, and Trump knives. Multiple stands prominently displayed "Hillary for Prison" shirts.

"Ice cold beer! Right here! One dollar!" an older man who identified himself as Mr. J called, lifting the end of each phrase with a songsong inflection. It wasn't yet noon, and he was sitting in front of a cooler filled with water bottles, no beer in sight.

"Ice cold beer! Use your imagination!"

Mr. J came up to Cleveland from his home in Charlotte, North Carolina to sell merch at the RNC. His $15 "Anybody But Hillary" and "El Chapo for President" t-shirts had been doing particularly well. He planned to be at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia the following week, too, pro-Clinton and anti-Trump stock in hand.

Anti-Hillary and pro-Trump buttons. Photo: Eliza Brooke

Though Mr. J called the current election "slim pickings" as far as candidates are concerned, the shirts he's bringing to Philly might be better aligned with his own political views.

"Bernie Sanders, whoever he says," Mr. J responded when I asked who was likely to get his vote. "That's who I'll be voting for, for the moment."

For the moment, then, that's the former Secretary of State, who Sanders endorsed earlier this month.

Down the street, a middle-aged woman named Carole Anthony manned a table covered in neat stacks of white t-shirts depicting a muscular elephant beating the shit out of a donkey.

"As far as the electoral process goes, I really hope people are educating themselves on the issues that are not being talked about. I would love for this to be the election where people exercise their complete right to vote and write in whatever candidate they feel is best," Anthony, who works as an event planner, said. "But at the end of the day, I’m voting for Hillary."

Nonetheless, she was happy to cater to Trump fans this week. At an event as overwhelmingly white as Trump's convention, Anthony was one of a relatively high proportion of people of color who showed up to sell merchandise.

"With regard to the RNC, I’m a capitalist," she added. "I mean, this is my city. There are so many people who came in from out of town to capitalize on this situation, so why not me?"

Decked out in a red, white, and blue cowboy hat and a star-spangled denim vest with an eagle painted across the back, Travis Cook easily could have been mistaken for a young delegate. Many of those strolling past his merchandise booth and toward the arena were styled in similarly over-the-top Americana.

More pro-Trump paraphernalia outside the RNC in Cleveland. Photo: Eliza Brooke

Cook, a registered democrat from Pennsylvania, echoed Anthony's sentiment about the importance of thinking for oneself when it comes time for the election. People tend to revisit the same news sources over and over again, he said, and wind up with opinions deeply influenced by partisan media outlets. As of Thursday, Cook was still swaying back and forth between Trump and Clinton.

His women's shirts featuring a rhinestone elephant in a swooping yellow toupée had, however, been a definitive success over the last few days. At $30, it was one of the event's more expensive shirts, many of which went for $20 and as little as $10.

A gray-haired graphic artist named Bob Alexander, who lives in Detroit and sells buttons under the name Guardfrog, handled a steady stream of customers with good-natured reservation. He described himself as "totally neutral" politically and fashions buttons for those on both sides of the party line.

Vintage-looking pins from graphic artist Bob Alexander, aka Guardfrog. Photo: Eliza Brooke

While much of the convention's merchandise was duplicative from one vendor to the next, Alexander's pins, which are digitally generated but mimic the look of vintage illustrations, were wholly unique. "I used to collect antique advertising. From 1890 to about 1930 is the best time period," Alexander explained. Some buttons take him up to two weeks to complete.

Though he was at the RNC on business, Alexander seemed somewhat more lenient than his peers on the issue of profitability. "Gimme two bucks," he said quietly to a man buying a pin, which was advertised for $5. "That's fine."

On Wednesday and Thursday of the convention, protest merchandise was in much shorter supply, though one young man named Preston had set up a table selling Black Lives Matter t-shirts near the square where many of the week's demonstrations took place. While other vendors were selling clothing that could be seen as a diminishing riff on the movement, including "Blue Lives Matter" and "Hillary's Lies Matter" tees, he said the public's attitude toward his shirts had been largely positive.

In return, Preston didn't begrudge other sellers their business.

"I’m a business man, so I can just say, supply and demand," he said. "If people want Trump merchandise and Make America Great Again merchandise, that’s fine with me."



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