As soon as the horde of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, the die was cast and the deal was sealed: like all other political events of the past decade, there was absolutely bound to be some Etsy merch about it. A “Things harder to break into than the Capitol” shirt has across-the-aisle appeal, and could appeal to cynics anywhere on the political spectrum. “We the people are pissed,” a car decal reads.
The most ingenious thing about Etsy is it’s become a fast-reacting space for people to affirm and re-assert their ideologies, no matter how fringe or irresponsible; if you need validation for your belief that you should be allowed to have a wedding during the pandemic, Etsy sellers are only happy to help you lean into your choice. It’s a space where Nasty Women can unknowingly shop alongside anti-maskers, with everyone coming away with a t-shirt or lanyard or decorative cross-stitch that declares political affinity.
While there is plenty of insufferable #Resist-core merch (“In This House, Pussy Grabs Back”), Etsy was also, until this morning, a thriving marketplace for QAnon merch (after VICE contacted the site, it surreptitiously disabled “QAnon” as a search term). The platform offered an endless number of shirts and mugs that declare the owner is a “truth seeker free thinker conservative Jesus lover patriot”, or a believer that “the pandemic ends when you decide you’ve had enough and fight back against tyranny.”
Until Wednesday morning, Etsy returned over a thousand results for the term “qanon,” at least some of which don’t have the word in the description or product name, or tags. A spokesperson from Etsy attributed this to searchable keywords attached to product listings. After VICE contacted Etsy Wednesday, the company shut down the search term; now it returns only an error page, though much of the merchandise that surfaced for the search is still available.Screenshot of products returned with a search for "QAnon" via the Internet Archrive Screenshot of products returned with a search for "QAnon" via the Internet Archrive
A spokesperson for Etsy told VICE that it previously banned merchandise that “explicitly include[d] QAnon” but not merchandise that “used ‘QAnon’ as a keyword,” a distinction that nonetheless allowed hundreds of items espousing QAnon values to surface. The spokesperson added that a combination of human content moderators and algorithmic checks were in place to keep similar products from reemerging on the site. However, the spokesperson also added, “many buyers come to Etsy to find items that reflect their reactions to the zeitgeist.”
Etsy merch makes ephemeral political identity content physical and permanent, immortalizing them in the form of bobbleheads, coasters, laptop stickers, bastardized votive candles, and more. Remember when that bird landed on Bernie Sanders’ podium in 2015? When a young, hip Barack Obama smoked a cigarette on camera? When it was still funny to imply Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer? Etsy capitalized on each of these moments, selling products designed to become obsolete—or worse, harbingers of a darker political moment still to come.
More power to anyone able to anticipate the Next Big Political Meme fast enough to slap it on a mug—that’s a skill, and the hustle is real! But if consumers are so attached to the things they believe in that they’re willing to translate them into a wardrobe, it’s worth wondering how being able to buy merch, no matter how dangerous the ideology, might be reinforcing a warped worldview. Etsy is certainly not alone in its custom merchandise offerings; however, it has caché that the average algorithmically-generated t-shirt site does not. Times of political upheaval have historically proven to be a massive boon for the site, and it just had its biggest quarter which included both a holiday season and also some of the tensest political months in recent memory.
Moments of political upheaval (maybe even political… crisis), like the display of violence and hate at the U.S. Capitol building on Wednesday, make it crystal clear that politics is not a game. Our politicians’ faces don’t belong on our t-shirts; their pithy quotes aren’t meant to adorn our coffee mugs; and our affinity for them is not meant to help us accessorize. When there’s no bottom to what gets turned into a t-shirt on a popular marketplace, there’s no view too abhorrent to put on public display—a perspective we know has dire, real-world consequences.
In short, Etsy distills a certain strain of political affinity down to its most potent yet marketable essence. It’s no accident that this vision of American politics, which thrives on the platform where American consumers can buy and customize quirky, sassy, reductive political goods from their neighbors, is most vibrant in the suburbs. For its customers, wearing a ‘Notorious RBG’ shirt or hooking your car keys onto an ‘LEO wife’ key fob is now a way to send political signals at your local Food Lion or high school football game—leveling party alignment to support of a favorite sports team, tying the personal to the political in a way that subtly degrades both.
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