Whatever else you think of the mug shot — already being called the mug shot seen ’round the world  — it doesn’t really change much. It doesn’t make Donald Trump any more or less guilty. It doesn’t make him any more or less a scowling, bullying, thuggish demagogue.

And it doesn’t make him any more or less undignified, any more or less unfit for office, any more or less shamed by the actions that brought him to a crumbling, ramshackle Georgia jailhouse where a Fulton County employee snapped his mug shot as if Trump were a common criminal.

This booking photo provided by Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, shows former President Donald Trump on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023, after he surrendered and was booked at the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta. Trump is accused by District Attorney Fani Willis of scheming to subvert the will of Georgia voters in a desperate bid to keep Joe Biden out of the White House. (Fulton County Sheriff’s Office via AP)

Trump is not a common criminal, of course. He’s a decidedly uncommon criminal (if convicted) and a decidedly uncommon crook (even if he’s not). I mean, he has now been indicted on 91 counts, which is exactly 91 more than Richard “I Am Not a Crook” Nixon ever managed.

But whether or not the already iconic photograph — unremarkable except for its glowering likeness of a one-time and maybe-future president — actually changes anything, it still matters. Very much so.

It’s not just that the mug shot forever links Trump to, let’s say, Al Capone or O.J. Simpson. More to the point, in one photo, we get the clearest possible view of the modern-day clash of reality and propaganda. Do you have to wonder which side is winning?

Forget the cliché about a picture equaling a thousand words. This one takes us much farther down the path. We can use this one shot as a way to update the story of Trump’s political career—  the four indictments, the two impeachments, the Big Lie, the assault on the Capitol, the assault on the Constitution, the danger that despite it all he could still be elected president again.

It’s all there in one frozen moment that, like the Fulton County watermark, can never be erased.


Photos don’t always tell the truth, of course, and not only because they can be manipulated — darkened or lightened, for instance, or oranged or de-oranged — or Photoshopped or simply taken out of context. 

But this one? As the songwriter almost said, every mug shot tells a story, don’t it?

In this case, Trump arranged to be booked in prime time after arriving at the jail in a  mine-is-bigger-than-yours motorcade. He used the photograph, with its well-rehearsed show of defiance, to turn a perp-walk moment into a trademark Trump pose. The Trump campaign is already selling the booking shot on everything from T-shirts to tankards. Of course, everyone else is trying to get in on it. Something called the Bobblehead Hall of Fame is selling a bobblehead version of the mug shot. Why not?

Yes, it was a highly choreographed attempt to appear, at once, both powerful and persecuted. I’d say it’s working.

Trump even used the opportunity, for the first time in two years, to actually tweet (or X or whatever they call it now) the booking photo in what will almost certainly be an effective exercise in fleecing the cult-like flock. Last I looked, the tweet — I’m still saying tweet — had more than a million likes. Trump followers don’t need much encouragement to offer up millions to help fund his ever-growing legal fees, and this one seems like a sure winner.

For millions of others, the fact that after four indictments Trump was finally fingerprinted and photographed stands as a reminder that the case against Donald J. Trump is real and not just theater. It says he could actually go to prison, where he would definitely weigh in at slightly more than the laughable 216 pounds he claimed when booked. Is there any forum in which Trump won’t lie?

Politically, the photo can even be called on to represent the gathering storm that is the Trump presidential campaign. No president, or former president, has ever had a mug shot taken or had a prisoner ID number assigned.

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 And yet, if you watched the GOP presidential primary debate the night before Trump’s arraignment, you saw the unyielding grip Trump still has on the party. It was a full hour into Wednesday’s debate before the Fox News hosts finally mentioned Trump, asking the eight candidates whether they could support Trump if he were running as a convicted criminal. You saw what happened.

Vivek Ramaswamy, the preening, unserious-but-must-be-taken-seriously Trump fanboy who, to the delight of the crowd, made every effort to present himself as the future of Trumpism, was the first to raise his hand.

It was as if he were daring anyone not to follow. Five more did, if at varying speeds and with varying conviction. 

Nikki Haley, who had dared to briefly criticize Trump during the debate, seemed entirely unconflicted when raising her hand. Tim Scott, the family values candidate, also showed no hesitation in raising his. Mike Pence, who offered up his January 6th defiance of Trump as a show of his courage, reluctantly, if definitely uncourageously, raised his hand, too. 

And in a move that may get at least half a chapter in the 2024 campaign books detailing the unraveling of Ron DeSantis’ presidential movement, DeSantis peeked to his left and to his right before tentatively, painfully, unpresidentially raising his hand. It’s fair to guess that this is where his so-unwoke campaign came to die.

Only two candidates didn’t raise their hands, and each — Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson — had long been clear that Trump’s behavior, legal and/or illegal, disqualified him. Of course, if you look at the polling, or if you watched the crowd booing Christie, you know how effective that message has been.

But what if DeSantis, Pence, Haley and Scott had said what any normal human would say — that being a criminal, particularly if a jury had made it official, is disqualifying? It may be constitutional for a convicted felon to become president, but only because no one foresaw the possibility that America could someday elect a corrupt, malignant narcissist like Trump.

The debate offered one more chance, maybe the last chance, for the Republican Party to finally abandon Trump, at least in this campaign, and to leave him to the fanboys and the sycophants and the enablers and all those GOP voters who somehow can’t see the truth. 

Certainly, a mug shot wouldn’t change that. Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday pointed out that the National Gallery might as well use the mug shot as Trump’s official portrait. 

That’s a great idea. And for emphasis, maybe they could hang it crooked.

Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow. Sign up for Mike’s newsletter.

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