How bootleg merchandise could bring down the Trump campaign

You don’t have to look hard to find merchandise you can buy and wear to show your support for Donald Trump’s re-election.

Hats, shirts, playing cards, wristbands, hair ties, sweatshirts – you name it. You can even get official Donald Trump beer glasses, a fun reminder that the president doesn’t drink. Maybe. None of this is a surprise, as Trump is, essentially, nothing more than a brand himself. It’s part and parcel of who he is. Now you can have that in the form of a shirt.

The Trump political brand is more than just gold steaks and struggling golf courses. Trump routinely espouses an “America First” ideology that calls for, among other things, supporting American manufacturing.

All four of those examples above, though, aren’t made in the United States, although some may be printed here. In fact, social media users frequently point out the apparent hypocrisy of Trump’s “America First” message and his overseas-made merchandise.

As has been fact-checked by others before, official Trump campaign merchandise is made in the United States. The campaign has been careful to ensure that its official messaging is in line with the “America First” ideology. But for scalpers, who seek to profit off the so-called Trump Train, the ideology isn’t as important as the money. Cheaper imported goods, almost always from Trump’s sworn enemy, China, can be used to put out quick, low-cost Trump merchandise that eager zealots will purchase to, as one website suggests, “trigger liberals whenever they see you showing your patriotism for our great country.”

To be sure, some of these Trump dealers do support the president. And you can find unofficial merchandise that’s made in the U.S. – although even then, much of it is simply printed in the U.S. on foreign-made apparel.

Campaigns usually don’t want to enforce their trademarks in the same way businesses do. Since the goal of a political campaign is awareness of the candidate, there’s no motivation to enforce trademarks or call out unlicensed merchandise. Even more than a business going after fan-made goods, a campaign that tried to silence what are theoretically its own supporters would be committing the dumbest sin in politics.

By not doing so, though, the Trump campaign is letting unauthorized merch makers undermine a key part of the president’s re-election bid. Whenever someone picks up a TRUMP 2020 shirt and sees a “Made in China” tag on it, they’re unlikely to make the distinction between official and unofficial campaign merchandise.

Since “America First” is key to Trump’s campaign, this phenomenon of bootleg merchandise is also more likely to hurt him than his opponent, Joe Biden. Biden’s campaign also uses American-made goods and, like Trump’s, it has spawned imitation goods that are not made in the United States.

This unofficial Biden shirt is simply marked “imported”

But Biden’s campaign is far less of a cult of personality than Trump’s, and so has far less unofficial merchandise. Biden has made supporting American manufacturing part of his platform, too, but not in the same way that it is central to the Trump ethos. Perhaps most importantly, the foreign-made products that support Biden don’t bear over-the-top pro-American slogans.

It’s unlikely that the Trump faithful have changed their mind about him just because their Trump Confederate Flag was made in China. But it is likely that the apparent hypocrisy has turned away undecided voters and contributed to the perception that Trump is a grifter. If he loses in November, it would be fair to say that this incongruity between message content and message delivery played at least a small factor.