The clock started ticking the moment Donald Trump was elected president by a margin of negative 3 million votes in 2016: When would he be arrested and how, exactly, would a man who famously resembles a pile of melted traffic cones appear in his mugshot?
The arc of the moral universe is long, we’ve been told, but it bends toward justice. And while that truth seemed to hold throughout 2023, with Trump being indicted three times, it appeared that the suddenly stingy moral universe wasn’t all that concerned with giving us that Trump mugshot.
Well, fourth time’s the charm, as it turns out, because Trump’s newest indictment finally got us the picture that will soon be plastered on every conceivable, sellable surface on the planet. We’re going to see Trump mug shot coffee mugs, t-shirts, pillowcases, gardening shears, laundry hampers, surgical gloves, pancake makers, maglev trains, and more. Many will be sold by Trump himself.
Every generation gets the mugshot it deserves.
The Greatest Generation had Frank Sinatra, looking so impossibly young, handsome and cool that it instantly became iconic. Frank’s was the kind of mugshot you took with you to win a World War. To this day, if an American of a certain age finishes his basement, Sinatra’s mugshot simply manifests above the bumper pool table of its own accord.
My parents’ mugshot was Hugh Grant: a boomer with a wildly fabulous life who was still, somehow, unbelievably dissatisfied and determined to blow it all up with a sexual indiscretion. Hugh isn’t quite smiling in his picture, but his eyes tell the story of a man who knows he won’t face any real consequences. You can imagine Bill Clinton hanging Grant’s mugshot in his office for inspiration.
My generation got Nick Nolte, wearing a shirt that could only be described as “Every Fabric, Everywhere, All at Once”, and sporting a haircut that made him look like the lead singer of a hair metal band after a wiring accident. Nick’s pic was passed around a lot on the early internet, the Gen-X penchant to ironically enjoy any pop-cultural oddity making the 18-minute download worth it.
Millennials had Jeremy Meeks, someone who wasn’t famous BEFORE his picture was taken, but whose picture instantly went viral as the “hot mugshot guy” after it was released to the public. His picture tells the story of the changing nature of celebrity in the early 2010s. If you had nice eyes and enough Facebook likes, you could turn a felony weapons charge into a modeling contract.
Which brings us to this moment in time, right now, and the picture that will no doubt take its place as this generation’s emblematic mugshot: Donald Trump.
Fulton County released Trump’s mugshot at 9pm on Thursday night, and the pose Trump chose to strike was somewhere between “old guy working at a haunted hayride, trying to be scary, but without putting out a lot of effort” and “grandfather who’s mad at you because he forgot why he came into the room.”
For as goofy and self-serious as his mugshot turned out to be, it carries a different kind of weight than the pictures listed above, not least of which because soliciting a prostitute is a little less damaging to the country than, y’know, attempting to systematically dismantle the world’s oldest democracy.
But beyond that, there has never been a mugshot that has acted as such a powerful Rorschach Test for your political beliefs.
For people on the left, this visual signifier of Trump’s legal woes, denied to us in his three (THREE!) other indictments, is a long-awaited comeuppance for a man who has spent a lifetime dodging consequences the same way he avoids vegetables on his Big Boy Burger Plate.
There is also a certain satisfaction in watching a man with such regressive beliefs about masculinity be forced, finally, into a vulnerable position. We’re talking about Trump, here, a man more fragile than an Italian leg-lamp shipped at Christmas. This is a guy so vain that he once skipped out on honoring the fallen Americans of World War II because he was worried about the rain messing up his hair.
When one considers the long list of problems Trump’s toxic masculinity has caused — from his baby-lost-his-rattle screaming at reporters who challenged him, to his stubborn refusal to wear a mask at the height of a global pandemic, to his using a sharpie to alter the predicted path of a hurricane like the dumbest kid in your high school trying to turn an “F” into a “B” on their report card — a moment of vulnerability forced on him by authorities holding him accountable feels like the universe realigning itself towards sanity.
On the other hand, there has been the response from MAGA and, like everything associated with a cult whose preferred method of worship seems to be “airbrushing pictures of a shirtless, muscular Trump onto the sides of their conversion vans”, it’s a little weird and ultimately very unnerving.
As the mugshots of Trump’s co-defendants have trickled out of Fulton County, the MAGA faithful have been showing their support by creating their own, fake mugshots, complete with the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office badge in the upper left corner, under the hashtag “MAGAMugshot”. This phenomenon is sure to accelerate after Trump’s picture begins to circulate, both online and through the inevitable, too-poorly-made-for-Spencer’s-Gifts merch that will soon be everywhere.
It’s a perfect metaphor for Trump’s effect on the Republican Party. Instead of looking at Donald Trump’s half-deflated volleyball head and lazy, scorpion eyes and seeing him as the wannabe dictator with doll-baby hands that he is, MAGA sees a style guide – something to emulate.
And that’s the main difference. Previous generations had mugshots they thought were cooly insouciant or laughably odd or just plain embarrassing.
But no other generation looked at those pictures and thought, man I wish that were me. Until this one.
For as frightening as it might be to contemplate a former president being arrested for attacking democracy, what his picture reveals about his followers is what’s truly worrying.