While there is plenty of action happening inside the convention arena, for me the real action is what’s happening outside the arena on the streets. Each day I walk past street vendors lining the blocks selling shirts, buttons, hats, stickers, and just about anything you can put the word “TRUMP” on. Among the onslaught of “Make America Great Again” merchandise, other flagrant phrases like “BOMB THE SHI* OUT OF ISIS” or “HILLARY SUCKS BUT NOT LIKE MONICA” make noticeable appearances.
As hilarious as some of these items are (or frankly not hilarious at all) these street vendors are more than just people selling satirical merchandise. They are the manifestation of a political campaigning system that is dependent upon a capitalistic market. A political system that thrives on the commodification of politics and an electorate that not only indulges in these purchases (myself included), but also feels the need to publicly display their affections through means of political consumption.
I mean this isn’t anything new. Political propaganda has been used since the beginning, and people’s desire to want to express their political leanings with propaganda has almost always been apart of the political process. But this year’s nominees have been caricatured and productized more than any other year I’ve seen. The climate has created an almost perfect market for it. Divisiveness and passion have fueled an entire industry, where taking our politicians and our politics and manufacturing them into sellable products is almost more pervasive in our conversations than actual policies or the candidates themselves. It’s strategic (almost brilliant) fundraising and campaigning. And to add further harm to injury, our entire politic is only additionally commoditized through the overwhelming presence of the media.
Pretty much every other person on the street is carrying a camera, a microphone, or has press release credentials hanging around their neck. It’s like being in a bullpen of wild animals and the winner is whoever can get their camera up first. Traditional media outlets and big news names almost feel out shadowed by the sheer amount of new media present. People from every digital blog, to social media outlet to your average person with an iPhone camera are all ready to capture every moment of the RNC. And when you have a political climate and an electoral market that feeds off the commodification of politics, it makes it even easier for today’s media to foster that production process.
It pays for you to be the one guy who took the best picture of a protest, or for you to be the station that covered the breaking fight between police and protesters. The ironic part though is that there seems to be more media ready to capture events than there are actual events happening. The protests that I have seen or taken part in were honestly rather calm. But of course the number of counter protesters, spectators, and the slew of police platoons gave the media easy bait and click worthy news (or at least the perception of click worthy news) to produce and sell to the general public. The streets of Cleveland then emerge as a microcosm where politics and the production of “politics” intersect.
Reflecting on it now, I ask myself what are these media outlets and paraphernalia really selling to the American public? What are we really selling when politics is sold and fashioned in the form of “HILLARY FOR PRISON” t-shirts and 3 minuet viral videos of Melania Trump?
To me it feels like our media and these products have just created an environment where real news and real policies are worth less in a consumer market than a funny slogan on a t-shirt. Or similarly, where the number of clicks and retweets something gets is worth more in a political campaign than the actual content and message of the campaign.
While, there are obviously benefits to the strategic use of many of these products (for instance I think of Hillary’s “woman card” bit), the consequences of packaging and producing our politics like this to me are a slippery slope. There are many layers that can be applied here, but just walking around the streets I see how the campaign process is being funneled into small bits of easily digestible products. Subsequently, it feels like there is a loss of depth and true engagement with our elected officials and policy issues. Instead, it’s easier to just produce what sells. But what sells isn’t necessarily what American needs.