A few years ago, during another U.S. presidential campaign cycle, Americans found themselves distracted by a fish sandwich.
It was mid-summer 2012, and that year’s Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, was on a handshake tour of Europe in an effort to bolster his foreign policy credentials. Nobody cared. Because, back home in America, the fact that the CEO of Chick-Fil-A did not support gay marriage proved a lot more interesting to talk about — especially after the Muppets got involved.
At the time, it seemed like a uniquely bizarre moment: that something as simple as buying a disgusting fast food sandwich might signify not only political affiliation, but a certain kind of moral vision for the future of America. Yet, here we are in the early days of the summer of 2016, and the same sort of thing is happening. Only this time, it’s even weirder.
Within all the headlines about the terrible state of Donald Trump’s finances Monday were details on the specific items Trump’s campaign spent money on in May. Trump’s campaign spent $179,000 that month on Secret Service and another $59,000 to a private security firm called XMark. It also shelled out $115,000 for online advertising (including $35,000 to something called “Draper Sterling”) and another $48,000 for data management. But among the biggest line items — right up there with the costs of flying Trump’s private jet ($350,000) and renting places “such as Mar-A-Lago, the Trump winery and two of his golf clubs,” ($493,000) — was the amount the campaign spent on hats.
The Trump campaign spent $208,000 in May on hats. Those hats. Those hats that say “Make America Great Again.” For perspective, those hats ate up 3% of all the money the Trump campaign spent the entire month.
And the craziest thing about it is that, in some sense, it is the furthest thing from crazy. Because despite all the bad news about his money situation, Trump is still doing remarkably well in the polls. A series of recent national polls put Hillary Clinton, whose war chest in may was $42 million, ahead of Trump by only five points.
Over at Esquire, Charles P. Pierce laments the hat expenses as possible proof that Trump “is probably bullshitting completely about his plans to ‘self-fund’ the general election,” and that if he can’t continue as the nominee, “somebody totally outside the bounds of political accountability will step up and do it”. This is something to which the American system is not supposed to be vulnerable, he writes.
“Imagine,” Pierce writes, “what will happen if it turns out the entire Trump campaign was an exercise in cheap graft from the jump.”
Well, aren’t most campaigns? Especially in the U.S., where even a failed bid for president often translates into a pretty nice cable news gig? Would it be so wild to suggest that Trump’s campaign might very likely be nonsense and completely serious at the same time? And, further, that Americans like it that way?
To Pierce, the hat is the sign of an immense failing of the American political system; to many, many, many other people, it is the best part. It may even be the only part that really matters.
If anything, the Trump campaign should probably spend more on hats. Maybe all the money should just go to making and selling those hats. Because here’s the thing about what we learned from the Chick-Fil-A imbroglio: people in the United States like to buy their politics as much as they like to talk about them or read about them, and as much as they like to buy just about anything else. That’s why those who can afford to, donate millions to fund people like Hillary Clinton. And that’s why those who can’t afford to, line up instead for hours to buy a pro-traditional-marriage fish sandwich.
Or a hat.
The dark truth at the heart of the 2016 presidential race is that the “Make America Great Again” hat is a better campaigner than Donald Trump — or Hillary Clinton. It may even prove to be a better campaigner than Barack Obama. And why wouldn’t it be? The sooner everyone accepts that, and accepts that they are all part of the system that made it so, the easier it will be in January for everyone when a hat is sworn in as president of the United States.