This kind of quick reaction “allows you to meet people where they are, rather than trying to drag them over to where you are,” Ms. McLaughlin said. (The “Dark Brandon” phenomenon, which President Biden’s team has appropriated to great success, is a prime example.)
Arguably, where people are — in the middle of cancel culture, locked in their own social media echo chambers — is not the most positive place, and making it into merch is a cynical move to exploit our factionalism and us-versus-them mentality. But then, fashion is often the locale where culture and politics meet. Swag just makes it obvious.
Indeed, the shop has become so central to campaigning that not long after a group of Republican strategists created WinRed, the party’s donation-processing digital platform, in 2019, it has included support for opening storefronts available free of charge to every candidate. That helped erase any barrier to entry for a campaign that may not have the complex operations needed to design, source, produce and distribute merch. (Democrats have had a similar entity, ActBlue, since 2004.)
Every Republican candidate who has qualified for the debate on Wednesday night uses WinRed for their shop, except Chris Christie, the rare candidate, Republican or Democratic, to not have a store, viewing it as a drain on personnel resources. Donald J. Trump, who qualified for the debate but has decided not to appear, also uses the platform.
WinRed vets its recommended vendors, like Ace Specialties, “known for making the MAGA hat,” and Merch Raise, allowing candidates to state that products are “made in the U.S.A.” And all of them work on a drop-ship model, meaning they produce items only after they are ordered, so campaigns can test as many designs as they want without the expense of holding inventory.
That has allowed campaigns to be ultra-responsive to buzzword moments and to weaponize them for their own purposes. After all, sites like Redbubble and Etsy have built their business on exploiting virality, including viral political moments. Why shouldn’t the protagonists themselves profit from the give-and-take between publicity and product? Not to mention exploit our desire for stuff.