How many of us have gotten caught up in the excitement of the campaign season over the past year and decided to smash the donate button and buy some merch? Candidates have been pumping out the branded stuff for months now: “I Like Mike” buttons, “Cup O’Joe” coffee mugs, “Bailey for first dog,” leashes, and of course, Bernie-Ts and caps galore. Some of these items were banal, others ridiculous, but each encapsulated a strange alternate reality in which your candidate of choice ascended through the primary to capture the nomination, and ultimately the White House.
eBay and Etsy are littered with flotsam from campaigns past. In a way, they’re like vintage band T-shirts for the political managerial class. A kind of souvenir, but more than that, proof that you’d been supporting the winner way back when–that you liked them “before they were cool.” There are wacko Richard Nixon buttons that read “They Can’t Lick Our Dick” and “super rare” Jesse Jackson ‘88 T-shirts. W. David Marx has written about the strange popularity of Jackson gear in Asia, a trend popularized by South Korean e-girls that has spread around the region as a hot fashion item. It’s unclear to me if these Korean zoomers even know who Jackson is, or the import of his campaign as an insurgent, left-wing African American candidate. But the brand lives on.
And amidst so much politics, even luxury houses have joined in the fray. Since 2015, Balenciaga has been obsessed with campaign graphics, when under Demna Gvasalia’s direction, the fashion house started slapping every item they made with a Bernie-inspired logo that has become synonymous with a certain kind of ironic normcore sensibility. I haven’t been able to figure out whether the people rich enough to actually buy these hats and T-shirts are aware of Bernie’s democratic socialist agenda, or if they think the whole thing is a joke. Or perhaps they’re class traitors who have somehow embraced the revolution? It doesn’t seem to matter because these symbols and garments have taken on a life of their own, like unruly campaign surrogates who have stopped taking their talking points from the DNC.
Now, it’s a one man race. If you bought Kamala beads or a Kloubachar koozie, it’s time to pick a side. I made the same choice a few weeks ago, while browsing the Bernie Sanders page. The campaign had just held an event for the New Hampshire primary with the early 2,000-era indie rock band The Strokes. To mark the occasion, they were releasing a limited edition T-shirt reimagining Bernie Sanders’ name in their classic shiny font. I raced to pull out my credit card, enter my info, and cop a shirt in my size before the other Bernie-bros and jawnz enthusiasts beat me to it. And now, after three weeks of waiting (is this a preview of the dysfunction that will come with socialism?) my shirt arrived Tuesday. That night, Biden crushed my man in almost every state that voted, all but guaranteeing that Bernie will not be the democratic party’s candidate. I bought my shirt in the heady moment of victory, and after owning it for a mere 24 hours, it’s already a token of a different world that never quite materialized.