In the annals of American history, few mugshots are so iconic that they end up in history books. When they do, though, they become cultural touchstones, evocative of the times and tumult in which they were taken. Certainly, the mugshot of the 45th President of the United States, indicted for his alleged role in conspiring to subvert the 2020 election in Georgia, is one of those images. Future historians will look at it as one of the defining photos of our era, one marked by deep divisions and the irreconcilable realities the two Americas – that of the Trumpian movement, and that of the rest of us – find ourselves in.
I find myself deeply conflicted over this image and its potency. Instead, I find myself more circumspect, as does the legendary journalist Dan Rather. “Sometimes, an image appears that you know will be one history will long remember. Trump’s mugshot is one of those. It is menacing, foreboding, and speaks to a future that is, as of now, unpredictable,” he tweeted last night. Notably, Rather did not share the mugshot.
I agree that our future is menacing, foreboding, and unpredictable – at least, in all but one regard. I think it is entirely predictable how this image will be used in the immediate future, and it is deeply concerning to me as someone who cares about our democracy. Trump’s mugshot will go down in history, of that there is no doubt, but first it will be used as potent political propaganda to galvanize his base, endangering the entire American experiment at this crucial hour in its survival.
For its part, the left is intoxicated from the heady euphoria of what it sees as justice being served. “We got you!” Democratic Congressman Jamaal Bowman of New York says through, depending on your point of view, vindictive or vindicated laughter. He posted the video to his Twitter account last night, calling the indicted former president a “clown” in the process. It was indicative of the progressives’ general elation at seeing Trump booked like a common criminal.
Of course, many of them think he is. For that matter, so do I; Trump is a uniquely despicable and villainous character in modern American history, and though he is innocent until proven guilty, it is my sincerest wish that he will indeed be proven guilty. Still, I do not share Congressman Bowman’s exuberance, as much as I wish I did.
The Fulton County District Attorney’s office, in treating Donald Trump like any other defendant, has forgotten that he is not any other defendant. He is a former president, one who is the de facto leader of one of the two mainstream and viable political parties – a party which has leapt headfirst into authoritarianism and autocracy.
Like it or not, there are political and social ramifications to everything concerning this man that simply are not there for most defendants. Never before has a former president been indicted, let alone for trying to steal an election and remain in power despite the will of the voters. We’re in unchartered territory.
Perhaps that is why the federal prosecutors did not force Trump to have his mugshot taken. The former president is hardly unrecognizable – he has been one of the most famous men in the world for decades, and perhaps the most famous for the past eight years – and his photograph is readily available in the public domain by dint of his time in office. There simply was no need to give his supporters such a potent image to which to cling.
Treating Trump and his indictments otherwise is a grave mistake. That includes giving him and his base this very powerful political weapon. In 2016, a poll of Trump voters found that nine out of 10 of them felt their “beliefs and values are under attack.” Things have not changed much since then. A CBS News/YouGov poll from earlier this month found that a majority of Republicans see Trump’s indictments as a direct attack on them personally. In another CBS/YouGov poll from last week, Trump voters reported higher levels of trust in the former president (71 per cent) than religious leaders (42 per cent), conservative media figures (56 per cent), or even their friends and family (63 per cent).
It is here I would encourage my fellow leftists to step back from their own hatred for Trump and consider what this means. Clearly, the cult of personality around Trump has not abated. His core voters, at least, identify more strongly with him than with even their own families – a terrifying finding to anyone hoping to break the fascistic fever convulsing our body politic. They see an attack on him as an attack on them.
The mugshot, then, serves as a stark reminder of what they view – wrongly and utterly devoid of reality, mind you – as what will happen not to Donald Trump himself, but to them, if Trump is not again elected. Trump himself has said as much. “I’m being indicted for you,” he has said to his supporters. “They want to take away my freedom because I will never let them take away your freedom. They want to silence me because I will never let them silence you.”
Already, the mugshot is being appropriated by the Trumpian movement as a rallying cry to galvanize its foot soldiers. The influential rightwing troll Catturd2 (who Rolling Stone once dubbed “the s***posting king of MAGA Twitter” and who boasts over a million followers) claimed correctly that the right is “using the mugshot as a rallying cry…” and calling it the “world’s biggest backfire.” As an example, committed Trumpian Marjorie Taylor Green, the controversial Republican Congresswoman from Georgia, quickly posted a photoshopped mugshot image of herself in solidarity with the former president.
No one of the left should underestimate the power of this mugshot to stir up the passions and prejudices of the Trumpian base. Images, after all, are incredibly potent tools of political propaganda. There’s a reason the Gadsden Flag has become ubiquitous at rightwing events, and that the Confederate battle flag persisted long past Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. This iconography emboldens the far-right movement, serving as both a rallying cry and a touchstone and inspiring in them something akin to the fervor of the troops at Iwo Jima raising the stars and stripes in the heat of battle.
The American left should understand this. We have effectively used images to advance our cause. Alice Paul understood this when she planned the 1913 suffrage march in D.C. and picketed the White House. Mamie Till understood this when she opened her son Emmett’s coffin to “let the world see what they did to my child.”
More recently, the 2008 campaign of Barack Obama – the nation’s first Black president – understood this. Artist Shephard Fairey’s “Hope” poster – the iconic red, white, and blue image of Obama peering into the distance and seemingly the future, is one of the most iconic images of the 2000s. It perfectly summed up the ethos of Obama’s campaign, one that progressives and young people, especially, clung to, responded to, and carried to the polls. The rest is history.
Now, the Trumpian movement has its own iconic image. This one is not of hope, but of a scowling, vindictive, and deeply embittered man bent on revenge. Yet it speaks to their movement the same way Fairey’s spoke to Millennials 15 years ago. Underestimating its potency is a perilous mistake.