Donald Trump is, apparently, still running for president. His candidacy has already brought so many things to our fair country: Fuel for the tail end of Jon Stewart’s run on The Daily Show, a little more racism than usual in the national discourse, and, most vital of all, a hat.
You have seen this hat. It’s the “Make America Great Again” hat. The slogan is blue on a white background, in all caps, the chosen font of people who want you to feel like they’re yelling at you. The hat is everywhere. The hat, once only available for purchase at Trump Tower in Manhattan, sold out from that brick-and-mortar location within hours. The hat is in the ironic Twitter profile pictures of your liberal friends. The hat is in Tom Brady’s locker.
And now, the hat is at the Strand Book Store in New York, with one tiny amendment. A parody hat, available at the Strand website, says, “Make America Read Again.” To get the backstory to what’s sure to be fall’s must-have accessory, I called up Whitney Hu, marketing director of Strand.
Where did the idea for these hats come from? Has this been in the works for a while?
The design team, to give them full credit for their genius, were just going around with ideas, and they wanted to do something around the election season. It’s kind of hard to miss right now. It’s everywhere. And through a lot of bantering and going back and forth, and picking on some of our favorite GOP candidates, with Donald Trump and his hat, we thought, we should make our own hat: Make America Read Again. I didn’t come in until the end, to say, “Yes, I need this hat.” And we were a little hesitant because this is sort of coming out with a strong satire; how will people react?
We pushed it two weeks ago and we got really overwhelming, positive responses from a lot of our content partners and community members, so we were feeling really good about it. We brought it to the Brooklyn Book Festival this weekend, and people loved it. I don’t know why, we only brought five with us — our mistake — and people were wearing them around the festival.
Had Strand done anything in the political space before? Other candidate-themed merchandise?
This was our first foray. That’s part of why we were a little hesitant.
What’s the Strand’s political stance? Can the bookstore come out as being for or against any candidates, or you have to stay outside of that and not choose sides?
To be completely honest, we’ve had Elizabeth Warren at the Strand and we’ve had Rand Paul at the Strand. Luckily, New York City is a pretty liberal-thinking place, so when it came time to make fun of Donald Trump, we didn’t feel bad about it. Our readers and customers are smart and they’re savvy, and this just seemed right.
Why do you think the original hat has become such a popular meme, both with people who support Trump and people who hate him? It almost sounds like it couldn’t actually be real. It reminds me of Stephen Colbert’s Super PAC: Americans for Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.
It’s so broad. This idea of “making America great,” just the connotations that it has, it’s almost like a throwback: We’re taking America back by making it great again. And I think that’s where people are kind of struggling with it, because Trump doesn’t lend himself to a progressive view. He feeds into old fears and thoughts. So I think, when we initially posted it, we were like, “Did you know reading fights prejudice? It makes you smart!” We thought “read” was the perfect foil to his “great.”
Did you anticipate the hats would be a hit? How are sales?
We ordered a rather small shipment of hats initially. I know Donald Trump’s initial hat was the white and blue and he’s spun off to the red and white, and we might keep following his hat colors. That’s something we’re talking about internally. They’re actually selling pretty quickly. I’d say in the last few days, we’ve seen really fast movement compared to our other merchandise. I think in the next week, we’re going to have a conversation about whether we order more hats or not. I’m hoping we do!
Will you be branching into merchandise themed around the other candidates? Or is Trump an exceptional case?
Other candidates don’t have that kind of slogan. No one has something that lends itself to be reused and remodeled. We were talking about just doing a “Read 2016,” like our own imaginary candidate.
I love this concept you’re raising, about “read” as the perfect contrast to Trump’s idea of “great.”
I think a lot of the things that people struggle with when it comes to Trump is all the misinformation. And it’s misinformation that you could Google and figure out the truth. And that’s where a lot of people have been frustrated with Trump.
There was this wonderful study that came out recently, people who read Harry Potter tended to be a lot less prejudiced and more understanding of small, outside groups, versus people who didn’t read the books. And that makes sense. Reading makes you a better person. It keeps you smart and clever. It fights prejudice and it increases empathy. And it also chills you out. Reading is great! Everyone should just be reading. And be savvier about who they support.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.