Portrait of a Frightened Boy-Man

Former President Donald Trump’s booking mug shot at the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, Georgia (courtesy the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office)

It has already been called “the mug shot seen round the world” by the Washington Post, “a historic image that will be seared into the public record and referred to in perpetuity” by the New York Times, and “the most iconic photograph in American history,” by Ali Velshi on MSNBC. It will almost certainly become one of the most recognizable images of this most famous person. In my 2020 book on Trump, I channel him claiming that he is the most famous person on earth. “In fact, I am the most famous person the world has ever seen,” the fictional Trump says.

In this image, ostensibly taken in the entry room to the notorious Fulton County jail, the photographer aims down at his subjects, with a bright light above, so if the subject leans forward, their face is cast in shadow, with side lighting for dramatic effect. Trump clearly rehearsed his pose in front of a mirror assiduously, to present himself with piercing eyes, set jaw, and “strawberry blond” hair prominently displayed. He clearly wanted to look strong, youthful, fierce, and, most importantly, defiant. The pose was pre-set to appear on a T-shirt over the words “NEVER SURRENDER!” as well as on coffee mugs, koozies, bumper stickers, and other Trump merch that went on sale seemingly minutes after the booking. A few days later, Trump sent out an indignant fundraising email to his followers, stating that his mugshot “had taken over the WORLD,” and that “Everyone is printing it on shirts, hats, blankets […] You name the item — and someone out there is selling it! BUT […] many of those vendors are just trying to profit off of President Trump’s persecution without even supporting him! Not nice!” In other words: “It’s fine to get in on the action, but don’t forget to pay Papa the juice!” Or, as Warhol wrote about Trump in his Diaries after Trump commissioned the artist to make paintings of Trump Tower in Manhattan and then stiffed him on the deal, “I think Trump’s sort of cheap, though, I get that feeling.”

Just as Trump was allowed, unlike other inmates, to submit his own version of his vital statistics (hence the “strawberry blond” hair, and the enhanced height and reduced weight in the vitals), was he also allowed to try out different poses before settling on this image? Or to bring in his own photo beforehand? Or was his hair stylist, make-up person, and Photoshop retoucher part of his entourage that day, along with the comically large motorcade of Secret Service Suburbans and motorcycle cops?

Trump has long been a better actor than he is given credit for, and this was, in his terms, a “perfect” performance image. It seems that he even persuaded the photographer to make the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office insignia smaller in his image than in his co-conspirators’ mug shots, and then removed it entirely from the merch version of the icon. Thou shalt have no other signs, sigils, or symbols before me.

In addition to its evangelical thrust, this mug shot is obviously an attempt to put Trump squarely in the long American tradition of outlaw heroes like Jesse James, John Dillinger, and the Dapper/Teflon Don, John Gotti — killers with a heart of gold and a feeling for the people, standing up to the law. It’s a very American mytheme. But these figures were actual killers. Trump is a metaphorical one, striving to be a “killer,” so as not to be a “loser.”

The success of this carefully constructed image is all the more remarkable because of all that it is intended to conceal — the actual work it is doing as an image. Because it is, in fact, a speaking portrait (the inventor of the mug shot, Alphonse Bertillon, called his invention a portrait parlé, or “speaking portrait”) of someone who has finally been caught, red-handed, and is scared to death. Trump is a lifelong liar, conman, and wannabe mob boss, who has repeatedly broken the law under cover of wealth and celebrity. “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything,” he famously said. This is someone who has spent his entire life committing crimes, lying about them, and then accusing his accusers of committing those very same crimes, using his personal form of quasi-rhetorical ju-jitsu. As a kind of Houdini of white-collar crime, he has been able to miraculously escape legal consequences over and over again. But now, finally, he has been caught — cornered by a group of career prosecutors who have gone up against international mass murderers and hardened drug lords. And Trump’s only way out of incarceration is to be re-elected President of the United States. The criminal indictments are not a problem for Trump’s 2024 campaign, they are its principal reason for existence. The chief motivation is fear.

If you look very closely at this mug shot, you can see that fear in Trump’s bloodshot eyes. These are the eyes of a little boy caught in the act, facing punishment. This boy-man is still putting on the act of aggrieved victimhood, but it’s wearing thin, and even he is beginning to doubt its efficacy as a deflection. In an interview right after his booking in Atlanta, he told the host, “I took a mug shot, which I never heard the words ‘mug shot.’ They didn’t teach me that at the Wharton School of Finance.” Trump’s Wharton background is, like almost every other part of his biography, inflated and mostly fictive. His father convinced an admissions officer at the Wharton School who was best friends with his son Fred, Jr. (who had been rejected by the Wharton School) to let his other son, Donald, transfer in from Fordham for his junior year. Donald Trump has threatened the school with lawsuits if they ever release his transcripts. But here he is presenting himself as a brilliant but callow little rich boy, innocent as a lamb, who’s never even heard of something as low-class as a “mug shot;” heaven forfend! 

This mug shot is also an extraordinary document in the history of male pattern posturing, which Trump has taken to a whole new level. In the mug shot, Trump leads with his fake hair. Trump is bald, but he has built a ludicrous “strawberry blond” monument to his lost youth and vigor on top of his head, which he wears proudly, and his supporters agree to pretend with him that it’s not ridiculous. 

The Trump mug shot is not a Deep Fake, but a shallow one, from a common liar and narcissist. When I look hard at the image as it exists, I see a frightened little man who’s been caught in the act, and is scared to death about what is about to come down. The law is not justice, but it is the closest thing we have to it in the public realm. 

As with any iconic image, people will see the mug shot differently depending on their beliefs. Seeing is believing. But now the die is cast, and people have to make a choice about Trump’s attempt to overthrow American democracy and whether that is something worth fighting for. Some Americans, including many of those I grew up with, believe Trump when he says he’s being persecuted for them, like Jesus was crucified for them. But Jesus was not a two-bit conman. Imagine, for a moment, what would have happened if Trump had decided to pose for this image, not with his “I am your retribution” scowl, but with an open and compassionate face. 

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