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Dan Sinykin: The Trump Vendor’s Art of the Deal in Iowa

A report from the field in Iowa, where Trump gear is selling like hotcakes

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Image taken from Flickr user Darron Birgenheier

By Dan Sinykin

Outside Central College’s Central Hall in Pella, Iowa on Saturday, people waited in line for hours to see Donald J. Trump. This meant good business for Mike, an independent vendor who sells Trump hats, pins, and clothing. “Everywhere Trump is,” he said, “we’ll be.” When not on the campaign trail, he lives in Chassahowitzka, Florida, on the edge of a wildlife refuge where he’s a board member for the local soccer team. Today he wore a pair of insulated duck coveralls—official color, pecan—that he bought at Walmart on his way to Iowa. “I knew what to expect,” he said.

For Mike, selling merchandise is a family tradition. “My dad and grandpa were at the Kennedy inauguration. We’ve been doing this for…” He paused for emphasis. “My great-great-grandmother was at the Illinois State Fair in 1903.”

Turning to a tall young blonde man who was browsing, Mike asked, “Looking for a certain size, bud?”

“How much are they?” asked Angus Dibley, a student and soccer forward at nearby William Penn University.

“Twenty dollars.” Dibley decided on a blue Make America Great Again shirt. “You can get a shirt and a hat for thirty if you want a twofer deal,” said Mike.

“I’ll just get the shirt, man,” said Dibley.

I asked Dibley what he thought of Trump. “Honestly, I don’t really even know much about him. I’m from Australia, I don’t really follow—do you take card?—don’t really follow it at all. I just thought it was a cool-looking shirt for a laugh, to take home.”

“Australia’s on my bucket list,” said Mike. He noticed Australian currency in Dibley’s wallet and asked to buy a fifty cent coin.

“How much?” asked Dibley.

“I’ll give you a dollar for it.”

“Nah man,” said Dibley, “it’s something to remind me of home.”

Bomb the Shit out of ISIS is the number one selling button.

I asked Mike if he followed politics. “I’m a Trump supporter,” he said. “I’m not very politically correct. I mean, I make these buttons, and Bomb the Shit out of ISIS is the number one selling button. The first time I was old enough to vote I voted for Perot. We needed a businessman then and we need one now.”

Mike insisted that, though he supports Trump, he would peddle merch on behalf of any candidate whose merch sold. He’s tried Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders. “Trump right now is the only one getting any money,” he said. I pressed him on Sanders. He said that nobody had been buying at the event he’d been at.

He pointed to a group of students from Xavier University on a week-long field trip. “See,” he said, priming me for a lesson. “What happens at these events is they, the professors—and I don’t know if you’re one of ‘em—the professors give these kids credits to come out here, even though they’re most of them liberal.” (I am one of ‘em.) He went on, “All the infiltrators that the professors are sending in here are taking spots for people who really want to see him, and it’s crap.”

“Alright,” said Rachel Kleinpeter, a saleswoman from Des Moines, her tone implying a readiness to haggle. “How much is this onesie?”

“Twenty dollars,” said Mike.

“Twenty bucks?” she replied, incredulous.

“I’ll let it go for fifteen.”

“What about for a cute little newborn?”

“Two for twenty?”

“Well, I just need one,” Kleinpeter laughed.

“No,” said Mike, “you get one, and then another the next size up.”

“Fifteen for a onesie and a pin,” offered Mike’s associate.

Kleinpeter agreed, buying the Make America Great Again onesie and a pin that said “Trump,” topped with a Trump-style wig. “Those didn’t sell as good as I thought they were gonna,” said Mike, about the onesies, “so I’m actually losing a bit on that one.”

“I’m not really a Trump supporter,” Kleinpeter told me. “I’d say I’m an independent, just trying to get out and see as many people as possible.”

Mike was telling me about his life in Florida when he noticed a boy, who looked about ten years old, leaving the line for the event, crying. He, along with dozens of others, had been turned away because both the auditorium and the overflow space had reached capacity. The boy and his parents had waited for more than three hours, and he really wanted to see Trump.

“Hold on,” said Mike, “you gotta get that boy something. Pick whatever you want, it’s on me. I ain’t even gonna make you buy it. Take your pick there, buddy.”

“Let’s not get Hot Chicks for Trump,” said the boy’s father. “Mom might not like that.”

“I’ll get the hair one,” said the boy, pointing to one of the pins.

Mike gave the boy a Make America Great Again shirt, too. “Learn about politics,” Mike told him. “Don’t take anything for granted.”

Some are Trump enthusiasts, many others are spectators, but they all come to see the miracle, be a part of something—and to bring home a souvenir.

Earlier Saturday I saw Marco Rubio speak to about 250 people in Ames, a city of almost sixty thousand. Later I saw Ted Cruz speak to maybe a hundred people at a pizza joint just outside of Waterloo, population almost seventy thousand—half that crowd there purely for their routine Saturday night pizza. Ten thousand people live in Pella. Only Trump turned anyone away.

These pilgrims make their trips to feel the world as they know it fall away, to witness something that defies the narrative resources of pundits and media analysts. Some are Trump enthusiasts, many others are spectators, but they all come to see the miracle, be a part of something—and to bring home a souvenir.

Pella is known for its Dutch heritage. Old-world windmills decorate the town, and each spring it hosts a large tulip festival. My dad is a traveling salesman. When I was growing up in Minnesota, Pella was part of his territory. He would come back from the road with pastries called Dutch letters—a flaky crust filled with almond paste—that he’d buy at Jaarsma Bakery, where the large staff of women all wear white Dutch bonnets. I followed the crowds who’d failed to make it into the Trump event and went there.

I was in line next to a man wearing a Trump stocking cap.

“If you can’t see Trump,” he said, “you might as well pick up some pastries.”

Dan Sinykin is an assistant professor of English at Grinnell College.

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