Trump’s arrival, booking and release in Atlanta made for 20 minutes of anti-climactic live television. (He saved his brief public remarks for the tarmac on his way out of town.) But his mug shot — anticipated with “Barbenheimer”-worthy breathlessness during the dog days of summer — had already managed to become compulsive chatter fodder. Would he smile, like some of his alleged co-conspirators who had already reported to authorities? Or deliver his trademark scowl? More to the point, are we really saying “U.S. president” and “mug shot” in the same sentence?
Once the image was released shortly after Trump’s exit from the jail, it seemed to be mostly of a piece with those of Trump’s rogues’ gallery of co-defendants: banal, badly lit, with the harsh flatness of a drugstore passport snapshot. Dressed in a blue suit with his usual red tie and posed against a gray backdrop, a sullen Trump went with the scowl, glaring up at the camera with beetle-browed fury in a weird mash-up of the 0.5 selfie aesthetic and “Wanted: Dead or Alive” classicism. In the upper left corner, the Fulton County sheriff’s watermark provided the only authorial signature on an otherwise featureless piece of dispiriting iconography.
Devoid of compositional flair, the photograph has nonetheless gone viral, exerting its own formal power — as a historic artifact (Trump has become the first U.S. president with a mug shot that isn’t photoshopped), and as a symbol of Trumpism at either its most bravely defiant or its most venal and violent.
Trump’s arrest photo now joins a dubious lineage that connects the likes of Al Capone, John Dillinger, Lee Harvey Oswald and Charles Manson to Hugh Grant, Lindsay Lohan, Luann de Lesseps and O.J. Simpson. As the first former U.S. president to be arrested — in this case on charges that he and 18 others conspired to overturn the 2020 presidential election — Trump has now expanded the queasy matrix of celebrity and criminality to include his own brand of petty, performative, reflexively pugilistic politics. The man who ran against Hillary Clinton leading chants of “Lock her up” is now the presidential candidate with four indictments to his name, while Clinton’s only mug shot is her picture on an “I’m With Her” coffee cup.
That irony is understandably delicious for Trump’s detractors — who for years have yearned for him to be held accountable for misdeeds that include his mistreatment of women, shady business and philanthropic practices, and behavior that sullied, if not corrupted, the country’s highest office. But for the critical mass of Republicans who unconditionally support the former president, the mug shot will most likely be greeted as more of the fan service they crave — an image to be quickly commodified so that they can be more efficiently fleeced for legal fees by someone they’ve come to adore, not as a statesman or conventional leader, but as a pop star-slash-political martyr. (Trump made haste to turn the image to his advantage, sharing it with his followers on social media; it has already earned pride of place on his reelection website.)
Whether people see him as a criminal deviant or canny disrupter, Trump’s mug shot might be the one image both constituencies can rally around, albeit for wildly different reasons. The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery hasn’t hung Trump’s official portrait, but the mug shot has almost made that installation an afterthought. With a digital click from a sheriff’s photographer, Trump’s most lasting and accurate image has now been permanently engraved in all its dull, bureaucratic non-glory.
Which is probably as it should be. Love Trump as someone who has taken American-style swagger, arrogance and impunity to brazen new extremes, or hate Trump as a one-man stress test of the country’s increasingly fragile norms, institutions and the Constitution itself — his mug shot will forever be the likeness that best holds those competing realities in uneasy balance.
Unlovely and drably utilitarian, the image conveys with blunt eloquence a singularly dismal chapter of American political history. The mug shot turns out to be its own kind of indictment. How reliably on-brand that Trump’s presidential portrait would find its highest expression in the visual language of Public Enemy No. 1.
POST AUTHOR: Ann Hornaday