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Fighting the Urge to Shop at the End of the World

In the era of Trump, consumer nihilism is an alluring (if empty) temptation.

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The week after Donald Trump was elected, my friend Jennifer Wright tweeted about wanting a handbag. We engaged in a back-and-forth of mutual enabling of the purchases we were tempted to make with the justification that they would make us happy, culminating in me concluding “I think we might be trapped as flawed, sympathetic characters in a dystopian novel on nihilism at the core of capitalism?!?” At the time, I thought I was joking.

But as each day of the Trump presidency brings on a fresh onslaught of political news that is as terrifying as it is indecipherable, I find myself seeking solace once I’m done fulfilling my civic duty of learning what humiliations Trump has visited on himself and the world each day. From his diminishing of the threats posed by climate change to being hamfisted in situations where precision of statecraft is most needed, there is never a shortage of fresh existential threats to immobilize me. I’ve been told by lots of self-help articles on the internet (and a few times by my mom) to take walks and read fiction and KonMari my closet again. But instead I find myself gazing for hours on end at e-commerce platforms, loading up my carts, clicking on the hearts next to items to save for future browsing, presenting more and more offerings to the consumerist alter-ego, that hedonistic usurper of my most logical, practical self who beholds my “Will Make Me Happy” wishlist and calls it “self-care” rather than self-sabotage.

Occasionally, I succumb to temptation and buy something. Look, I have no aspirations to minimalism, and I think that anyone who says “the best things in life aren’t things” just doesn’t know how to shop properly, but these items still feel out of place in my normal consumption patterns. I bought Armani sunglasses (on sale from consignment site TheRealReal) when I’m usually content with drugstore shades that qualify as, like, two steps above actual garbage. I bought the Neapolitan series by Elena Ferrante despite being behind on books I already own, and then I bought aqua polyresin bookends with an antique finish in the shape of a whale to put around them. I’m not even much of a whale person. I bought an oversized pink sweatshirt with “1-800-HARRYSTYLES” printed on it 10 times on Depop. (Okay, that one absolutely made sense in my general shopping patterns and has brought me actual joy, but I wanted to let you know about it anyway, you know, to brag.) The total cost of these items was $157 altogether; not pocket change, but hardly a Givenchy gown I have no gala for.

I asked friends if they experienced the same consumer impulses in response to Trump news and was pleasantly surprised to find answers that went beyond my own sense of these indulgences as nihilistic surrender to the forces of capital. It still felt like an impulse we were having at the end of the world, but there was a fight in it, however fleeting or shallow. My first stop was Jennifer, asking whether she ended up going with the handbag. She hadn’t, she told me, but she had indulged in a dress. “It's not making anything better,” she said of this desire to look good and collect beautiful things, “but maybe it's providing us with some armor that makes facing the onslaught of Trump supporters seem marginally less awful. I literally bought the dress because I could imagine myself cussing out Tucker Carlson on TV in it.”

My friends Suzan Eraslan and Morgan Jerkins have both turned to beauty products. Suzan bought enough sheet masks to last her through the year. “I’m not sure, with his totally weird and unfounded ideas about ‘free trade’ being bad, that I’d be able to afford Korean sheet masks at all later this year,” she told me. “Like, it’s the most trivial of things, but it’s a synecdoche for the things that aren’t trivial.”

Morgan told me that her fixation on beauty products was born of the fear that her stress over Trump’s poisonous, belligerent directives was showing up on her face. “I feel like I want to consume and consume and consume. It's that feeling when you feel pushed out of a space and you gotta hoard before it's all taken away and it's too late but it was never mine to begin with,” she said of a $178 vitamin C serum she was fixated on. The day after our talk, she settled on a Vitamin C Suspension 23% + HA Spheres 2% from Deciem Project’s The Ordinary Line and a pair of overalls. Morgan hasn’t worn overalls since grade school but, as she put it over GChat, “This is Trump's America and I'm taking it all."

It is at this point that many readers have readied their pitchforks and guillotines to come and slay those of us indulging consumer fantasies when the country is in chaos and every last dollar belongs to your local civil liberties defense fund and reproductive healthcare clinic. But unless you have surrendered willingly all the comforts of modernity, you too are still chained to the empty promises of capital. We are giving to funds and protesting and reading and organizing, too. Everyone with whom I spoke is financially and personally active in some kind of political action to resist this regime (privileges, of course, only afforded to those with the time, money, and types of employment that enable such activism). It also means we can gaze at these sites and occasionally take action on these impulses, which makes it feel doubly tasteless and even unethical when we do. But though the gazing itself may be mindless and the impulse to buy these things as salves for very real wounds misguided, the impetuses for directing our attentions this way are worth considering.

“I think there’s also something to be said about elevating the importance of physical integrity right now when you feel like you have no control over anything else — as if these are the last days we will have control over our bodily autonomy and self-expression, so going really hardcore with it,” Suzan said. I recognized this sense of urgency in my own habits, this desire to have all of the things I wouldn’t normally indulge in lest they become inaccessible, or you know, the world ends without me getting to have them.

I oscillate between believing that every object or outfit that catches my eye has the potential to be my Holy Grail, the one magical consumer product that will bring me solace, and believing that since nothing matters and the world is doomed, I might as well go out surrounded by adorable shit I found on the internet. If I am to resist nihilistic consumption, I have to tell myself stories about each of these objects.

My most recent indulgence was a porch swing to hang on the covered front porch of my house. I don’t need a porch swing, of course. But with the exception of elaborate grilling apparatuses, I can think of no homegood more associated with old people than a porch swing. It was not bought as a front seat from which to witness the end of the world; it was a statement of my intention to step away from my objects and observe the world as it passes by me. It does not whisper to me that it will make me feel better. Instead, I quietly declare with it my intention to get old, to survive long enough until something feels like it matters again.

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