RNC Day 1: Commerce Over Politics At The T-Shirt Table

Culture Writer Bim Adewunmi will be reporting from the Republican National Convention all week.

Matt Rourke / AP

It’s Sunday night in Cleveland, Ohio, and my press credentials are banging against my chest as I walk. All over town I see other chests – in blazers and blouses, among other sartorial choices – adorned with laminated passes in 36-point font. This city is pumped for the Republican National Convention, and even if you don’t have one of those passes that will get you a little bit closer to air-conditioned corridors of (relative) power, people here are happy to dress you.

Enter the humble T-shirt vendor.

Around 11pm Sunday on Euclid Avenue – home to the Arcade, one of the United States' oldest indoor shopping malls – I see three men (two white, one black) and a woman (white), standing behind a long table. They are selling Trump apparel – T-shirts of different colours (but with relatively tame messages in comparison to the misogyny-heavy ones that go viral on Twitter every so often), buttons (in my country we call them “badges”, a fact that, in conjunction with my London accent, momentarily stumps one of the sellers), and the now-famous red “Make America Great Again” caps. “It’ll go good with that Texas shirt you’re wearing!” says one of the men to a passerby.

A few moments later, a trio of uniformed cops stop to dawdle a bit and look at the foursome’s wares. “We shoulda made a ‘Blue Lives Matter’ T-shirt!” jokes one of the men behind the table, and everyone laughs.

One of the vendors, a compact and leanly built black man of indeterminate age, approaches me after I’ve been observing for a while and asks, “Are you media?” “BuzzFeed,” I answer. “Ah, internet,” he says. He is Scott Jefferson (he flashes his selling licence ID very nicely to confirm his retailing legitimacy). I ask him if he sells only Trump merchandise. “Hell, no,” he says, sliding me a sly side-eye. Capitalism rumbles on, and he is an “equal opportunities” kind of man. In fact, politics isn’t really Jefferson’s game – he sells his football shirts all over: Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Columbus, and so on. He only got into political T-shirt production eight years ago, thanks to a charming and fresh-faced Illinois state senator.

It’s been days since his running mate announcement, but Pence’s name is awkwardly missing from their wares.

“I stumbled across Obama by accident in ’08,” he says. “I make football shirts, you know?” When it comes to choosing designs and colours, he falls back on experience. “I’ve been selling shirts for 30 years. The nice, clean, plain ones sell the best,” he says. “There’s no trademark on Trump, except for maybe that ‘Make America Great Again’ thing.”

Speaking of America, are these T-shirts – white and blue and grey and pink, effectively but benignly trumpeting Trump – and only Trump (it’s been days since his running mate announcement, but Pence’s name is awkwardly missing from their wares) – made in China? It bears checking, after the revelations about some merchandise produced by the companies belonging to Donald “Made in China/Honduras/Indonesia etc” Trump. These Euclid Avenue T-shirts, unaffiliated with the presumptive nominee in any way, are locally sourced and made. “I’m one of the suppliers. They make ’em here. The lag time in China is too long; it’s like 30 days. We make ’em right here in Cleveland.”

Back in 2008, Barack Obama T-shirts were a very popular seller, even more than Trump in 2016. But for Jefferson, Trump is still more profitable. The reason? His price point has changed: What was $15 in 2008 is now $20 in 2016. We are all dancing a jig to the music of market forces. And while Trump is his biggest seller now, it wasn’t always so. Bernie was the main man for a good while. Now that Hillary Clinton is the Democratic presumptive nominee, surely he must be doing brisk business? How are the numbers? “Weak, man. Weak. [Democrats] buy buttons. You can do a lot in buttons, but I like those 20-dollar hits.”

Jefferson is literally a traveling salesman, and he has been at pretty much all the big rallies, zigzagging across the country to be in California and Iowa and South Carolina and so on. He’s baffled by Bernie’s second place in the race to become the Democrats’ candidate. He saw the crowds that came out for both candidates, and he has a theory. “I think the election is rigged. I think [Clinton] is boring. No enthusiasm. I was there when Bernie endorsed her in New Hampshire. Half the crowd walked out.” Coincidentally, New Hampshire has consistently been his biggest market. Why does he think that is? “It’s like a suburb of Boston,” he tells me. “It’s big. People don’t really have a lot of other options. They buy.”

For his wallet, he much prefers Republican buyers, because they spend more. “Obama was more popular in ’08 than Trump, for sure,” he says. But the Trump people spend more on Trump. “The difference between Democrats and Republicans: The Democrats spend $20 a pop while Republicans spend $80.” He gestures at one his associates walking back to the table, empty-handed from a recent sale. “See? He just sold a bunch of T-shirts to a family. They buy one for everyone.”

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“We got one in your size,” one man calls to an older couple walking past the table. “Sexy small!” he says to the woman, then wolf-whistles jokily. There are buttons pinned down one side of the table. “OBAMA, YOU’RE FIRED,” nine buttons neatly arranged in three rows read over and over. The same badge also features Trump’s puckered mouth and pointy finger, both sending the message even more urgently. It’s a whole buffet, though, and there are other options, if Trump’s The Apprentice persona isn’t exactly your jam: Another violently bright pink button bears the legend “Hot chicks for Trump” (no definitive word on what more mildly heated chicks are into). Jefferson says his two best-selling buttons (3 for $10) are “Hillary for Prison” (the smiling candidate photoshopped behind bars) and “Bomb the hell out of ISIS”, featuring a bright orange fire cloud and jaunty meme-style Impact font. Out of politeness, I buy one of the latter, even if I do not personally believe a bombing campaign is the way forward in this particular world issue.

I have to ask. Would Mr. Jefferson ever actually vote for Donald Trump? His reply is immediate and clear-eyed. “No,” he says with a firm little shake of his head.

“He’s too much of a loose cannon. I’m too scared.”