What Capitol Riot Merch Reveals About Our Culture
They tried to overthrow our government, and all they got was a stupid T-shirt
Object of the Week is a new column exploring the objects a culture obsesses over and what that reveals about us.
Nearly two weeks after the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol building that left five dead, including a law enforcement officer who was beaten to death by the mob, the New York Times wondered why it was still possible to buy — on Amazon, no less — T-shirts emblazoned with slogans such as “Battle for Capitol Hill Veteran.” As if an insurrection was just another souvenir-worthy event.
It’s a troubling question. And as much as sedition merch sounds like dark satire, it’s worth taking seriously. The objects a culture produces and consumes can tell stories and reveal truths; the stuff we buy both reflects and projects what has meaning to us. Taking objects and consumer culture seriously is a theme I’ve pursued for years, as a columnist, author, teacher, and occasional talking head. It’s what’s behind my annual Year in Objects roundups for Marker.
And it’s in that spirit that we’re launching a new column, Object of the Week, that aims to plumb the zeitgeist by exploring who is consuming what and why. And given this fraught, tentative, surreal moment, it seems somehow perversely appropriate to start by looking at designed objects that seek to commemorate — and profit from — the attempted overthrow of the government.
The merch all features slapdash or perfunctory design that suggests minimal effort at maximum speed, stuff cranked out on the fly to meet potential demand.
In addition to those Amazon T-shirts, the Times dug up Capitol Hill riot commemoration merch on Etsy, Zazzle, and independent sites using Shopify as their back-end e-commerce tool. While the specific examples were promptly scrubbed, there’s a whack-a-mole quality to the phenomenon. Much like social media platforms, e-commerce platforms tend to be built to make selling and buying as easy as possible, a friction-free process that encourages maximum participation. And as with social media, such ease of use invariably means ease of abuse — which is why every such service should be designed with bad actors in mind and how to minimize their access and impact.
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Maybe sometimes the problem is that digital design isn’t cynical enough.
That’s clearly a factor here; the Times points to a study by organizations focused on disinformation and extremism that addresses the ways hate groups exploit lax e-commerce systems as a merch-driven funding mechanism. But something about these objects suggests an additional explanation that is both more banal and somehow more disturbing.
The actual “Battle for Capitol Hill Veteran” shirts — treating a deadly riot like some kind of spring break equivalent — are absurd in a way that would be funny if they weren’t so chilling. The merch all features slapdash or perfunctory design that suggests minimal effort at maximum speed, stuff cranked out on the fly to meet potential demand. It’s so easy and risk-free to whip up such objects and make them available on-demand that if there’s even the perception of a possible market, it inspires supply that’s probably less ideological than opportunistic.
What really matters probably isn’t the audience for these objects. It’s the audience that opposes them.
It’s tempting to say there’s something distinctly American about such ruthless, anything-for-a-buck exploitation of perceived demand. But in our global economy, anyone anywhere can conclude (or hope) there’s an audience for this sort of object and try to cash in. And in a way, it hardly matters how big or small that market turns out to be; the mere availability of the merch is enough to cause alarm — as well as headaches for the platforms that enabled them.
And those platforms increasingly are learning to react as quickly as possible. In fact, what really matters probably isn’t the audience for these objects. It’s the audience that opposes them. That’s the market that causes these platforms to recognize that they are enabling something that most people consider toxic and that they need to do something about it immediately. In a sense, the most important thing about these objects is how quickly they are marginalized or banned. It matters which objects a culture embraces, but maybe it matters even more which objects it shuns.