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It’s not really a victory for anybody, this photograph, but lots of us will insist on reading it that way. Before it ever existed—when it was only a twinkle in the insistent eye of the Fulton County district attorney, Fani Willis—the mug shot of former President Donald Trump, released Thursday night, had already been combed for meaning by the political observers who sat impatiently refreshing their Twitter feeds, waiting for the picture to “drop” as if it were a hot album. Much of the anticipation seemed to come from liberals who hoped that the sight of the mug shot would bring home just how surreal Trump’s alleged criminal attempts to overturn the 2020 election were. Maybe a national trance would lift and the remaining dead-enders would shake their delusions.
The Harsh Glare of Justice
Susan B. Glasser on the ex-President’s snarly mug shot from Fulton County Jail.
But anybody inclined, at this late date, to follow Trump and lend him a vote won’t mind this new image too much—read innocently, it looks like a passport photo taken on a bad day, of some twerpy kid who doesn’t feel like flying anyway. It’s hard to parse the mug shot because our desire to see Trump get his just deserts keeps getting thwarted, and each fresh hope makes us interpret before we really see.
On cable news, the hosts and panelists made sure to emphasize how “unprecedented” this image is, how none of the forty-three men who preceded Trump in office were ever booked and made to say cheese. But—well, that’s not the great point that it’s made out to be. I can think of a few other Presidents who deserved a turn in the clink. Trump’s great distinction is that, even more flagrantly than Richard Nixon, he advertises his alleged crimes on the phone—he’s the unstoppable gabber who talks himself possibly unfree. It’s good that justice, just this once, seems to be coursing in the right direction; not so great that the same flow of talk that earned Trump the honor of this jarring image also continues to whip much of the United States into rabid and directionless rage.
Just look at the impenitent subject: the deep furrow between his eyebrows and the one that contours his cheek seem to want to connect and form a kind of scar in shadow. One thing that the picture makes plain—not for the first time, but in a definitive way that won’t soon be forgotten—is how many of Trump’s cues are cribbed directly and consciously from the cinematic literature of romanticized criminals. Trump’s the kind of guy who thinks Scorsese movies are straightforward celebrations of tough guys on the come-up; here’s how you make it in America if you’ve got enough guff and a high tolerance for trouble. He seems to have styled himself, for a long time now, after the “goodfellas,” let some of their leering rhythms slip into his facial bearing and his speech. (His actual ties to the Mob, which he has denied, in its palsying days in eighties and nineties New York and New Jersey have been a rich field of speculation, but that’s a topic for another day.) This mug shot’s been a long time coming—it is, perhaps, the point toward which the entire asymptote of Trump’s life has bowed. He might be angry in the mug shot; he may well be scared. But he damn sure doesn’t look surprised. Nobody is.
Photograph by Mark Peterson / Redux
Far from surprise: can there be any doubt that, hours before his surrender, before the camera ever flashed, Trump stood in front of some gold-framed mirror and practiced this lipless pout? He knows better than anybody that his supporters—who still make up the formidable majority of the Republican primary electorate—will take this picture and make it a banner. He’s a gossipy seventy-seven-year-old man who allegedly makes weird, lusty comments about his daughter, dances like a windup toy whenever he hears the song “Macho Man,” and still, in the autumn of his life, needlessly lies about his weight whenever he gets a chance. (In Georgia, when he gave himself up, Trump—whose form was reportedly filled out in advance by aides—was listed as six-three and two hundred and fifteen pounds; if this were true, he’d be the same weight and an inch taller than Lamar Jackson, the über-athletic Baltimore Ravens quarterback, who looks like a contemporary update of Michelangelo’s David.) Still, displaying a pathology that feels libidinal in deep origin, his supporters, throughout the past eight years, have tended to insist on a vision of Trump as a somewhat hunky fighting figure, ready to re-tame the American frontier and take the country back from his enemies on behalf of the “forgotten man.” Trump has incorporated this veneration into his idea of himself, reminding audiences everywhere that he is fighting for them, has been striped by a whip meant for their backs, is on the front line, taking oncoming fire to secure their freedom.
And so, of course, he must have stood for countless minutes at the sink, perfecting his sourpuss expression, hoping it would convey manly disapproval and unshakable belief. Here I go again, he’s saying to his people through the pose, doing this for you. His eyes are ringed with an irascible red. He’s got other audiences in mind, too, of course. Naturally, the mug shot made the front page of the New York Post, the paper that is his muse, and Trump will also probably figure out a way to use the photo to sell countless T-shirts and mugs—the proceeds headed to his campaign coffers, or to his legal defense, or, most likely, both.
About an hour after the mug shot’s initial release, Trump sent a tweet—his first use of the service since the aftermath of January 6th; he was banned from the site, then reinstated by its new overlord Elon Musk. He shared the image, along with a few choice utterances picked from his id:
MUG SHOT—AUGUST 24, 2023
The marketer that he is, he also shared a link to his Web site, which also featured the already famous image, in addition to—of course—a plea to contribute to his fund-raising committee.
The hatred that Trump has long displayed for his predecessor, Barack Obama, has tended to shroud a more interesting reality: the forty-fifth President is the single best student of the forty-fourth. Trump knows from symbols, knows that this new one will stand more as a Rorschach than as an automatic indictment, knows that it works as well for him as it does for his adversaries. And let’s face it: he can be perversely funny, and the picture will give him a new, tight five minutes of fascistic standup material.
Good on Willis for setting up this tawdry head-shot session—it’s nice to see Trump subject to a process through which so many nameless faces pass. But, to bring Trump low, we’ll need not a sight but a sound—a verdict spoken, a door slammed, a key turned. ♦