I am the straw man: a closer look at Trump’s plastic straw campaign

Liberals have vacillated between fits of laughter and rage after Trump’s re-election campaign straws sold out. Yes, you heard right. Campaign straws. And the party of fiscal responsibility is willing to pay $15 for 10 of them. 

These straws are, of course, made of plastic. Extra strong, definitely not flimsy, durable, plastic. They are nine inches long, bright red, and have “TRUMP” branded on them in white lettering. It sounds like a long-winded Freudian joke, but sadly it’s just reality.

I hardly need mention that $15 for plastic straws is a bad deal, (for comparison, you can get a pack of 500 plastic drinking straws for $8 on Amazon with free shipping) so, clearly, price is not a selling point. The selling point is the Trump Straw slogan:

“Liberal paper straws don’t work.”

Let it sink in. Because while it’s not many words, there’s a whole lot there. 

But before we get into what the slogan means, let’s agree on what it doesn’t mean: It doesn’t mean what it actually says.

Because clearly, there is no such thing as a liberal straw. Straws don’t hold academic posts or have political views. A straw is a straw. A straw is long and cylindrical. A straw creates a vacuum when you suck on it due to natural forces I don’t understand (I’m not a physicist). 

But as far as straws go, that’s about all there is to them. Paper straws can’t “not work” because if a straw doesn’t work, then it ceases to be a straw. Like, ontologically. Do you see what I’m saying?

So regardless of how much you do, or do not, like paper straws, they inarguably do work. They probably work more consistently than your run-of-the-mill plastic straw. How many times has your plastic straw cracked at the movie theater? Unless you want to get up for a new one and miss part of the movie, you’ve got to locate the leak and find some way to plug it as you sip, or turn your straw around and submerge the defective part into your soda to create a suction again (that is, until your drink gets below the level of the leak, at which point your straw ceases, once again, to be a straw.)

What… ? That’s never happened to you?

Anyway, the slogan is nonsense. It’s barely even English. But the subtext inherent in “Liberal paper straws don’t work” speaks volumes, and it goes a little something like this:

Liberals want to force you to use a certain straw and these straws are made of paper and will get soggy and whatnot— and this is America and you shouldn’t have to stand for a soggy straw. 

The slogan itself doesn’t need to make sense, because it works entirely on a subconscious level. It makes immediate emotional sense, and the emotion speaks directly and expertly to Trump’s base. It is genius marketing.

And while, yes, it happens to be the kind of genius an idiot could have stumbled upon by accident, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of discussion. This slogan made a lot of people part ways with 15 dollars to buy 10 plastic straws. That is some powerful bullshit. 

For any liberals out there musing “well, to be fair, I don’t like the new paper straws either,” congratulations, you’ve fallen for the bullshit, too. Donald Trump is King Bullshit. But, perhaps more than any other kind of bullshit, he is king of the straw man fallacy. (He’d take that as a compliment, if he knew what it meant.)

Let’s lay out the slogan’s argument:

Paper straws are bad, therefore plastic straws are good.

Do you see the straw man?

Yeah. Paper straws are the straw man. Because the argument “paper straws are bad, therefore plastic straws are good” assumes that all straws that are not plastic must be paper.

And there’s the fallacy. Simple, yeah? Apart from the far-too-terrifying idea of just foregoing straws for lids, there’s actually an overwhelming amount of straw options out there.

One Mexican company is making straws and cutlery from avocado pits (which are apparently an otherwise completely useless nuisance). Maybe we’ll see those coming soon at Qdoba. And, unless you’ve tried an avocado straw yourself, you can’t tell me for certain that you wouldn’t like it better than plastic. Maybe they’ve got a good mouthfeel

I have tried “garbage straws” in Mexico (literally straws made out of sterilized plastic garbage), and personally loved them (as much as one can love a straw). They’re hardier than regular plastic straws, and while their appearance is a little shocking at first, (I thought: “oh dear, I’ve accidentally been given a dirty straw,”) once the bartender explained the concept and I put my mouth on it my mind’s reaction was, “Oh. So it’s just a fucking straw.

Yeah. They’re all just fucking straws.

Except one kind the plastic kind takes about a zillion years to decompose and is almost impossible to recycle. That’s the reality, despite Trump’s website’s claim that his straws are recyclable.

Like it or not, the future of plastic straw alternatives is here. There are sugar cane straws for your vanilla milkshake; grass straws and wheat straws for your homemade protein smoothie, and bamboo straws for when you want something a little more festive in your piña colada.

Want to be a hayseed? Why not try Hay Straws?

If your tastes run more upscale, three or four hundred dollars will buy you a sterling silver, gold, or rose-gold drinking straw from Tiffany & Co

Or, if you can’t imagine a world without the feeling of plastic straws in your mouth but you also wants to help the environment, how about these plant-based, biodegradable straws that work, feel, and taste exactly like plastic. Take it from one oddly excited Amazon customer who said: “they should rename this product I can’t believe it’s not plastic!”

My point here is that Trump’s slogan circumnavigates a reality of options to create a sinister, dichotomous world of paper vs plastic. It assumes a reality where we have only two choices, and one is about to be taken away. Suddenly, life is black and white, it’s us vs them, paper straws are tyranny and plastic straws symbolize freedom.

What! What just happened? Brilliant marketing happened.

I’m not calling Trump the new Edwards Bernays— Edward Bernays could speak in complete sentences and didn’t paint his face orange before leaving the house each day— but Trump does have some of that same instinct. How different is this straw campaign from Bernays rebranding cigarettes “torches of freedom”? 

While uniting folks against a common enemy is Propaganda 101, I believe Trump has outdone himself here. He’s managed to literally make a straw man enemy out of straws. You can’t not be just a little bit impressed.

To be clear, I am in no way saying that Trump is intelligent. We’re still talking about the guy who poses in photos with a “thumbs up” sign after every mass shooting. What I am saying is that he has an uncanny instinct for psychological marketing. I don’t think he can intellectualize any of it— I just think he smells it like a shark smells blood.

“Liberal straws don’t work” is not just a good slogan, it is the gold standard of slogans. It’s an idea that sells a product and a product that sells an idea. It’s a whole ideology encompassed in a pack of straws.

Trump supporters didn’t buy these straws because they love plastic. They bought them because they know when liberals look at a plastic straw they see it embedded in a sea turtle’s eyeball. A red plastic straw says loud and clear: “I am asserting my God-given right to be a prick.”

In Trump world (which has, to varying degrees, become all of our worlds) plastic straws have become a symbol of freedom. That’s why his supporters paid 15 bucks for a pack of ten— because they’re not straws anymore. They are freedom sticks. Hard, plastic, freedom sticks.

And you thought this wasn’t going to end up a Freudian nightmare.

To all those who feel emasculated, undermined, disenfranchised, threatened, or cheated by changing times, Trump offered a little red weapon— a quick, easy, and relatively cheap way to feel like they are fighting back.

The people who actually bought Trump straws aren’t millionaires or billionaires supporting Trump for the tax cuts; they’re the small donors whose few pleasures actually do include plopping a plastic straw into their paper cup at McDonald’s. (Question: because McDonald’s cups are paper, does that make them liberal cups?) 

These people don’t feel powerful. They’ll never be in a position to fire someone at will like Trump on The Apprentice. They’ll never know what it feels like to be Tiberius, throwing people off the cliffs of Capri just because he can. But they can chase that feeling.

And if you’re a Trump supporter, Trump straws will make you feel that kind of powerful, in a way. At least you’ll get a little taste.

That’ll be 15 dollars, please.

Author: Maria Jacqueline Hauser

Maria Jacqueline Hauser is a writer and Shakespeare scholar from Jackson, Mississippi.