T-SHIRT DIPLOMACY

Selling US-themed souvenirs used to be straightforward. Then Trump got elected

Obsession
"America First"
Obsession
"America First"

In AMERICA! people get into shouting matches over slogans. In AMERICA! some people want to hug Donald Trump and others want to strangle him. In AMERICA! all politics is a joke, except when it’s not, and sometimes it’s very hard to tell the difference.

Those things happen in America, but also in AMERICA!, a chain of gift shops populating casinos and airports from Los Angeles to Boston. The brand launched 25 years ago as a nationwide version of the sort of USA-themed souvenir shops that cluster around landmarks in Washington, DC, selling things like FBI T-shirts, presidential Pez dispensers, and travel pillows emblazoned with the preamble to the Constitution. But then 2016 happened, and telling the story of America through T-shirts and tchotchkes suddenly got a lot harder.

The chain still sells generic USA gear—if you need to grab a gift at the airport and a baseball crammed with miniscule portraits of all 45 presidents fits the bill, you’re in luck. But it also sells Trump’s signature red “Make America Great Again” hats, “Love Trumps Hate” T-shirts (a phrase from one of Clinton’s campaign speeches), and refrigerator magnets that read “Comey Don’t Play That!” under a photo of the former FBI director. It sells shirts with an illustration of Trump astride a tank, and shirts with the poop emoji wearing the president’s signature comb-over.

Merchandise at an AMERICA! gift shop in Las Vegas.
This is AMERICA! (Quartz/Corinne Purtill)

The brand has always catered to a spectrum of political biases. In the Barack Obama years its stores stocked hagiographic Obama-family paraphernalia alongside toilet paper imprinted with the then-president’s face. During the 2016 presidential campaign, AMERICA! stores sold gear acknowledging the dissatisfaction many Americans felt with their choices, like a T-shirt emblazoned with a version of the Dumb and Dumber movie poster with Trump and Hillary Clinton substituted for Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels.

But since the election, store clerks say, people see AMERICA! differently. Foreign shoppers are bemused and baffled by it. American customers no longer view T-shirts and refrigerator magnets just as T-shirts and refrigerator magnets. Now these items signal membership in opposing tribes, each possessing a very specific vision of what the United States should be and where the country is heading.

As the rest of America has found, it’s possible for these contrasting viewpoints to exist alongside one another. Just not without conflict.

* * *

The capital of America is Washington, DC. The capital of AMERICA! is Las Vegas. Vegas is home to five AMERICA! outlets, plus the corporate offices of the brand’s parent company, the Marshall Retail Group, or MRG. Founded in Vegas in 1955, the privately-held company specializes in branded retail shops stationed in airports, hotels, and casinos across the US. Brentwood Associates, a private equity firm, acquired the business in 2014, leaving CEO Michael C. Wilkins in place.

MRG operates more than 160 stores in the US and Canada. About half of them are in Vegas. Brands run by the company in Sin City include Lick, a brightly-decorated candy store; Marshall Rousso, which offers the kind of sparkly sandals and clingy knit tops favored by Real Housewives; and a ubiquitous souvenir shop called Welcome to Las Vegas, which sells about 400 different products with the city’s famous sign on them, plus T-shirts that say “Beer Me” and “Drink Up, Bitches.”

The company specializes in stores that get a lot of foot traffic from out-of-town visitors, selling more to flights of fancy than to any specific need. According to MRG’s website, AMERICA!’s merchandise is a “carefully curated” mix reflecting “ever-changing American trends in the market, the local experience, pop culture, politics, and current events.” The details of this curation process, however, are a mystery. MRG eschews press, senior vice president Marguerite Panetta tells me the first time I call the company in August. She says she’ll forward some questions to Wilkins and then never takes any of my calls again. On a visit to Vegas I stop by their boxy office in an industrial park on the city’s outskirts and am politely rebuffed by a friendly receptionist. If you want to understand AMERICA! you have to go see it for yourself.

An AMERICA! gift shop at the Shoppes at Mandalay Place, Las Vegas.
The AMERICA! store at the Shoppes at Mandalay Place, Las Vegas. (Quartz/Corinne Purtill)

The biggest of the five AMERICA! outposts in Las Vegas is in a mall called The Shoppes at Mandalay Place. It’s around a bend from a sports memorabilia store where on a recent Wednesday the disgraced former baseball player Pete Rose was sitting slumped at a card table, waiting for autograph seekers who had not yet materialized.

The shop is wide and airy, with painted brick walls. A display in the entry is piled with an assortment of gear telling the convoluted story of America in 2017: MAGA hats; Trump-themed condoms; a T-shirt with Trump’s head superimposed on a shirtless, tattooed torso; toilet paper with the president’s face; novelty mugs with super-tiny handles for Trump’s allegedly undersized paws; mint tins adorned with a mock election ballot with three choices: Clinton, Trump, and “Vote for Pedro”; and a spray bottle labeled “Vladimir Pootin, the Lavatory Mist: Make Problems Disappear.”

Merchandise at an AMERICA! gift shop
“Make Problems Disappear.” (Quartz/Corinne Purtill)

As I browse, the store clerk approaches. Her name is Brenda and she’s wearing a rhinestone-encrusted cross the size of a deck of cards. She says I can take pictures of anything, and that she’ll take my picture if I want, that she likes this store but wishes it had better air-conditioning, and that if I go to the Planet Hollywood mall I should eat at this one spot next to the Rainforest Café where lunch is only $5 and you can park for free.

 “I’m like, ‘You’re not supposed to touch the Donald Trump.’” 

Brenda has been with the company for just over a year, with a six-month break after a glass sliding door shattered on top of her and left her temporarily disabled. Brenda treats the people who happen to wander into her shop like guests she is thrilled to host. They take pictures with her. Sometimes drunk people kiss her on the cheek. If you happen to be shopping in AMERICA! and Brenda learns that it’s your birthday, she’ll stop what she’s doing and sing to you.

“I sing pretty good,” she says, and then she does, singing “Happy Birthday” in a low voice while maintaining direct eye contact with me the whole time. Her voice is pretty, with a loungey quality to it, and getting serenaded by this stranger in a casino gift shop does not feel as weird as it probably should.

 “I’ve got a stinking hangover, and this has cheered me up.” 

Brenda was on disability leave for most of the last presidential campaign. She returned around the inauguration to a changed AMERICA! It wasn’t just the merchandise, which now reflected the entrenched views the country had settled into: T-shirts reading “I Lived Through Obama, Now You Can Live Through Trump” and “A Woman’s Place Is In the Resistance.” The customers were acting different too. Earlier this year, a man stormed in and told Brenda she’d go to hell for selling merchandise critical of his political beliefs. People shout at her from the walkway outside the store that they won’t be coming in once they spy a T-shirt that offends their politics. She’s had to break up arguments between strangers (and married couples) over the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency. That doesn’t happen across the corridor at the Las Vegas Sock Market.

The life-size cardboard cutout of Trump ($49.95) stationed in the back of the store is a particular point of contention. It sits on a fake presidential podium, so shoppers can pose for photos with it. There’s one installed in every AMERICA! “Some people try to choke the cut-out,” says Brenda. “Some people will put their hand on his groin. And I’m like, ‘You’re not supposed to touch the Donald Trump.’” She shakes her head. “I had to pry it at 2 o’clock in the afternoon from a middle-aged woman who’s drunk, who was kissing it.”

Merchandise at an AMERICA! gift shop
“I’m like, you’re not supposed to touch the Donald Trump.” (Quartz/Corinne Purtill)

About one-fifth of Vegas visitors come from outside the US, and they are particularly fascinated by AMERICA! Most of the company’s outposts are in international airports, and it’s hard to imagine the impression a visitor to the country takes away after browsing the shelves. At the Los Angeles International Airport branch a few weeks ago, a bobblehead doll of Hillary Clinton wearing a pantsuit was on sale for $14.95. A different bobblehead of Clinton wearing a black-and-white striped prison jumpsuit had sold out. Brenda says that a Swiss student shopping for materials to illustrate an assigned presentation about American politics settled on a MAGA hat and an updated Dumb and Dumber parody T-shirt, now featuring Trump and vice president Mike Pence in the title roles.

A couple wandering by the entrance to the Mandalay Place location spies the shirt featuring Donald Trump as a tattooed gangster and doubles over with laughter. “I’ve got a stinking hangover, and this has cheered me up,” says Phillip, a 37-year-old trader from Shrewsbury, England. AMERICA! is a hard place to take seriously these days.

Merchandise for sale at the AMERICA! gift shop in Las Vegas.
T-shirts and toilet paper. (Quartz/Corinne Purtill)

AMERICA! wasn’t where Brenda thought she’d be at this point in her life. Last year, she was 64 and retired when her roommate died of a heart attack in their kitchen. Brenda couldn’t make rent anymore, so now she’s back at work, playing referee to shoppers who come on vacation and end up arguing over politics in the casino mall.

“When we walk through the world we should leave a positive path behind us. We need to get rid of the anger in this country right now,” she says. “You can have your opinion and they can have their opinion and that’s what makes America great.”

She looks at me. “My personal opinion? He didn’t make America great again. It was already great.”

* * *

“Hello! Welcome to AMERICA!” says Ginger, the sales clerk working the location on the ground floor of the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace, near the spiral escalator.

Ginger loves AMERICA! She also loves America, where she’d wanted to live since she was a young girl in Indonesia. At the age of 10 she saw the The Big Valley, a Wild West series set in California’s San Joaquin Valley—and told her mother she would marry an American man and move to the US. She did, and when she and the American man divorced after 14 years, she moved from Colorado to Vegas. “This is my playground. I love nightlife, I love entertainment,” she says with a smile.

She also loves Trump. The president’s favorite book is the Bible, she explains. “I read it in a book—here,” she says, and fetches from a shelf a child’s coloring book entitled Donald Trump: America’s 45th President! Sure enough, on page eight there’s a list of Trump’s favorite things, including the bible, next to a cartoon drawing of the president. (The list also names Saturday Night Live his favorite television show.)

A coloring book sold at the AMERICA! gift shop.
From “Donald Trump: America’s 45th President!” (Quartz/Corinne Purtill)

“He’s humble,” she continues. I say I don’t hear that word used often to describe this president, but Ginger is adamant. “How can you not be humble if you want to work for 300 million people, who tell you what to do? He’s humble because he loves God. I think Jesus transferred to him. He has to serve the American people, after this mess,” she says, gesturing to an Obama T-shirt.

Ginger sees the Obama era as a period of erosion of free speech, free expression, and the rule of law. The debate over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is dominating the news that day, but she sees no connection between the plight of people brought to the country as children and her experience as an immigrant.

“I came legally. I want people who come to America to respect the law. Their own president don’t care about them. Why should my president care about those illegals? Our president should care about American citizens only,” she says.

Something for everyone. (Quartz/Corinne Purtill)

It infuriates her to see people walk into the store and make snide comments about Trump. Ginger says she’s glad to see someone in the White House who shares her beliefs about how this country should work. She is sick of being told she’s wrong.

“I only watch Fox News. I don’t watch the fake news. I pay my cable bill so I don’t have to watch fake news,” she says. “They’re against him! That’s why it’s fake news, because they’re against him. The reason I know they are fake news is because they’re haters. If you’re mean, they are fake news. I’m done with Hollywood. I’m not going to spend my money on it. They don’t like my president, they don’t like me. They are mean people. They are terrorists. They say they want to move to Canada, they don’t even move to Canada.” She shakes her head.

“I reject people who want to change this country. It’s already great.”

* * *

Las Vegas positions itself as a place unfettered by time or geography. A ceiling in Caesar’s Forum cycles through Roman sunrises and sunsets multiple times a day; fresh air is pumped into smoke-filled casinos; at the Bellagio, a 460-foot-high fountain spray erupts in a parched desert.

But it can’t escape the fact that it is in America in 2017. Hurricane Irma, whipped up to devastating size and speed by a changing climate, is bearing down on the Gulf Coast and the friendly but worried-looking couple from Florida on the tram to the Excalibur Hotel isn’t sure if Southwest will still fly them home on Friday as planned, or what they’ll find when—if—they get there. Two weeks earlier, Las Vegas police grabbed professional football player Michael Bennett as he ran away from a shooter at a local nightclub, pinned him to the ground and pointed a gun at his head for, Bennett later wrote, “nothing more than simply being a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, the educator Neil Postman argued that of all America’s cities, the one most symbolic of the country’s “national character and aspiration” was Las Vegas:

For Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education, and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice.

“As I write,” he noted grimly, “the president of the United States is a former Hollywood movie actor.” The president of the United States now, of course, is a former reality TV star, who maintains a presence in Vegas as the co-owner of the hulking, gold-tinted Trump International Hotel off the Strip.

Trump’s candidacy and presidency, and the vast commentary surrounding it, have blurred the lines between entertainment and politics. Likewise, it’s hard to tell in AMERICA! what’s being consumed ironically and what in earnest. Who is a shirt with a photo illustration of Trump astride a tank for? Is a magnet with the paraphrased Alexander Hamilton quote, “Great Ambition, unchecked by principle, is an unruly Tyrant” a subtle call to revolution, or just a piece of kitsch? The store also sells mugs and an “Underwood 2016” shirt from the Netflix series House of Cards, a fictional drama about a deranged president. It looks more sober and presidential than most of the merchandise featuring the actual president. AMERICA!, like its namesake, is a baffling place.

“Some people buy the Make America Great Again stuff as a joke, others because they like it,” said a clerk in the chain’s location at Vegas’s McCarran International Airport. “Either way, it sells.”

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