Trump Is Changing the Political Game In New Ways, and His Supporters Love It
Trump Is Changing the Political Game In New Ways, and His Supporters Love It

By Terri Wu, Jackson Richman and Nathan Worcester

Holding a pair of golden sneakers, former President Donald Trump took to the stage to give a different kind of campaign speech.

“I’ve wanted to do this for a long time. I think it’s gonna be a big success,” he said as he introduced his new official sneaker line at Sneaker Con in Philadelphia on Feb. 17.

The high tops he debuted featured an all-gold body embossed with a “T” on the side, an American flag collar, and white and red soles.

“We have to go out and vote. We have got to get young people out to vote,” he said.

It was an unprecedented move—launching a sneaker line for his personal enterprise and soliciting votes for his presidential campaign at the same time.

By doing that, he was converging the identities of Trump the celebrity and Trump the candidate. While Democrat and independent voters scoffed at it as a “joke,” they told The Epoch Times that they expect the MAGA base to follow along, and they were correct.

“I would support anything he wants to do to acquire money to fight the illegal lawsuits that have been brought against him,” Stephen Robinson from Virginia told The Epoch Times at the 2024 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a major gathering of Trump supporters. 

The cumulative legal judgments against President Trump stand at about half a billion, including a $355 million fine handed down the day before the sneaker launch.

Mr. Robinson said he would love to have a pair of Trump sneakers, but not at the high prices listed in the secondary market after the limited edition of 1,000 pairs up for presale sold out at $399 a pop. One pair is listed on eBay for $45,000.

He said paying for Trump products is no different than supporting the Trump campaign because a Trump presidency is the solution he needs.

“I would stop being depressed every day and worried about the future of the country and worried about my daughter’s future,” Mr. Robinson said. 

“Ten grand” for Trump products is how much he said he’s ready to pay. “That’s what we’re gonna end up giving him between now and November.”

Stephen Robinson, a Trump supporter, attends the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., on Feb. 23, 2024. (Jackson Richman/The Epoch Times)

Monetizing Votes

Within hours of the sneaker launch, the sales website announced that “The Never Surrender Hi-Top Sneakers” were sold out. The website is still selling two other styles for $199 apiece, a red-and-silver T-Red Wave and a white-and-gold POTUS 45.

Although presidential merchandise has been around for decades, a candidate selling products during his political campaign is an unfamiliar scene.

For the general public, the political world and the commercial world have largely remained separate.

“I am unaware of any former president who has actively turned to merchandizing to support either himself personally or his own legal defense,” Russell Riley, a professor and co-chair of the presidential oral history program at the University of Virginia, told The Epoch Times.

“The political conventions among former presidents have long discouraged this kind of behavior—but for the publishing of memoirs/books and the practice of paid speechmaking,” he said.

Richmond-based veteran political analyst Bob Holsworth agrees with Mr. Riley’s assessment.

“Trump has broken all the political rules and generated some level of support among people who are frustrated with the establishment, but this is taking it to another level,” Mr. Holsworth told The Epoch Times.

Legal Rulings

The day before Sneaker Con, the former president was fined more than $355 million in a New York State civil fraud case, which he has since appealed.

However, the appeals process still requires the president to front the penalty amount into an escrow account under the court’s supervision. The judge ruled that President Trump had fraudulently inflated his wealth to secure more favorable loans.

The sneakers are sold by a firm called 45Footwear LLC, licensing Trump trademarks through CIC Ventures LLC. Its website states that it “is not political and has nothing to do with any political campaign” and that the shoes are not “designed, manufactured, distributed, or sold” by President Trump or The Trump Organization. 

That means, unlike donations to political action committees that might cover legal fees but not penalties, the money from merchandise could be used to pay President Trump’s legal judgments.

The sale of 1,000 pairs only generates $399,000, and it’s unclear how much of it will go to the Trump Organization. The Epoch Times has contacted 45Footwear LLC about its plans and expected revenue cut.

Shortly after President Trump’s sneaker launch, Michael Tyler, the Biden–Harris 2024 communications director, reacted in a statement, “Donald Trump showing up to hawk bootleg Off-Whites is the closest he’ll get to any Air Force Ones ever again for the rest of his life.”

(Left) Presales of the 1,000 pairs of limited edition ‘The Never Surrender Hi-Top Sneakers’ sold out within hours of being launched. (Right) Former President Donald Trump carries a pair of his new signature shoes before taking the stage at Sneaker Con at the Philadelphia Convention Center on Feb. 17, 2024. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Blending Celebrity, Consumerism, and Politics

Robert Shapiro, a political science professor at Columbia University, doesn’t see Trump’s sneaker line as launching just another product.

Trump-brand merchandise, such as steak and wine, existed even before he launched his first presidential bid in 2015. Before that, he was a celebrity in the entertainment industry, where profiting from one’s individual brand is the norm.

He has already launched other products during his 2024 campaign, for example, the “mugshot edition” of digital trading cards featuring his mugshot taken in Atlanta last August. However, those products weren’t introduced at campaign events.

By launching the new sneakers and soliciting votes at the same time, Mr. Shapiro said President Trump is blending celebrity, consumerism, and politics in a “much more direct and blatant” way, and that is “really extraordinary and unusual.” 

He predicts that President Trump will sell more products with a subliminal message, “save me and save the country.” 

Republican campaign consultant John McLaughlin of McLaughlin & Associates in Blauvelt, New York, told The Epoch Times that the sneaker launch was “no surprise” because President Trump’s “marketing acumen and his branding” made him successful in business and in the entertainment industry long before he ran for president.

“He’s unique. He’s a totally unique and historic candidate in that he is a businessman and not a career politician, not a typical political candidate” running for president, Mr. McLaughlin said.

Mr. Holsworth said that by promoting the official sneakers, President Trump is “basically blurring the distinction between the political realm and the commercial realm with the voters.”

Mr. Shapiro agreed and considers the convergence of the two realms an exception that only President Trump can pull off.

“Trump is an exceptional case here. And I think if he were to disappear from the political scene, at least those kinds of things would become more normalized in the old way where business and politics were not supposed to mix,” Mr. Shapiro told The Epoch Times.

He added that by attempting to appeal to younger voters at a major sneaker conference, President Trump was also “widening his reach” by venturing into the consumer goods or sports world, whose population may or may not have been following politics.

Attendees listen to former President Donald Trump deliver remarks at Sneaker Con in Philadelphia on Feb. 17, 2024. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

‘A Lot of Emotion’

Indeed, the sneaker conference attendees were not the usual crowd at Trump rallies.

As the former president took the stage, some booed him, and some chanted supportively: “USA! USA!” He acknowledged the reactions and said, “Wow, a lot of emotion! There’s a lot of emotion in this room.”

“It’s a slightly different audience than I’m used to. But I love this audience,” he said later.

Part of the reason that President Trump is able to merge the political and commercial realms is because the society is so divided, Mr. Holsworth said.

“On both sides right now, I talk to a lot of people; maybe they’re not in the MAGA base. You’ve people who wish that Biden wouldn’t have run on the Democratic side; you’ve people on the Republican side saying, ‘The drama is too much.’”

As a political analyst who grew up in the tri-state area of New York and spent most of his adult life in the South, Mr. Holsworth said that he would have never assumed a New York City real estate tycoon to be “strongly supported by southern Christian evangelicals.”

But, Mr. Holsworth said, President Trump’s Supreme Court appointments and his being on the evangelicals’ side of the general worldview have caused these voters to be “willing to say, ‘Well, God works through imperfect vessels.’”

“That has happened more and more in politics today that there’s less of a focus on the individual foibles of a candidate and more on which tribe they’re identified with,” Mr. Holsworth said. He sees the Trump sneakers as more of a way to further extract support from the MAGA base, rather than attracting additional voters.

Jack, a northern Virginia IT professional in his 60s and a registered Democrat, doesn’t believe President Trump employs much strategic planning. He called the new product launch a “joke,” and said President Trump went with his gut feelings because he needs money to pay legal penalties.

(Top) Trump merchandise is on display at a store in Trump Tower in New York City on Jan. 4, 2022. (Bottom) Donald Trump chocolate bars for sale in a gift shop the day before inauguration day in Washington on Jan. 19, 2017. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images, Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

“I personally will not help Trump (or anyone else) individually in order to help Trump the candidate (or any other candidate). I find the behavior of mixing politics and personal financial goals unethical and unbecoming the office of the president of the United States,” Jack told The Epoch Times. He uses an alias to avoid any potential repercussions in today’s society.

However, Jack expects the MAGA base to “100 percent” support President Trump and not mind the mix of politics and the candidate’s personal finances.

That’s the sentiment of MAGA voters.

At Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport in South Carolina on Feb. 20, Trump supporters waiting for his arrival on “Trump Force One” were unsurprisingly enthusiastic about his sneakers.

“I’d love to have a pair of those. I guess they’re not going to be selling any here,” said Jackie Waldrop, a retiree who worked in process engineering.

She told The Epoch Times that the sneaker release was “a great idea” by the former president.

“It’s a free world, right? It’s a great way to make money,” said Charles Hibbs, a South Dakotan who was wearing a “Front Row Joe” tee shirt and a MAGA cap with gold-rimmed letters.

At the Republican presidential primary in South Carolina on Feb. 24, President Trump defeated Nikki Haley, a former governor of the state, by 20 points. More than 70 percent of white evangelical Christians voted for him, and more than 65 percent of primary voters in South Carolina considered “fights for people like me” or “shares my values” as the most important candidate quality, according to an exit poll conducted by Edison Research.

The exit poll showed President Trump as the overwhelmingly dominant choice for South Carolinian voters who want a candidate with shared views.

Carol Zarkowski, a Trump supporter, attends the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., on Feb. 23, 2024. (Jackson Richman/The Epoch Times)

Carol Zarkowski, a real estate agent attending this year’s CPAC near Washington, said she doesn’t wear sneakers but considers the Trump ones “beautiful.”

“I would definitely support it if it was something that I wanted or needed,” she told The Epoch Times when asked if she would buy Trump merchandise to help pay off his legal fines.

“Trump believes in America, and I believe in America. That’s why I support him so much,” she said.

President Trump sounded optimistic at Sneaker Con, “This is something that I’ve been talking about for 12 years, 13 years. And I think it’s going to be a big success.”

“We’re going to remember the young people, and we’re going to remember Sneaker Con.”

Jacob Burg, John Haughey, and Janice Hisle contributed to this article.

USNN World News (USNN) USNN World News Corporation is a media company consisting of a series of sites specializing in the collection, publication and distribution of public opinion information, local,...