The first time I encountered Donald Trump was on my TV screen. It was 1994, and it happened in an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Will Smith’s popular coming-of-age sitcom about class assimilation that ran on NBC for six seasons. There was nothing particularly memorable about the episode or Trump’s appearance in it—he played a relatively tame version of himself—but for much of my early life this was how I made sense of him. As a real estate dealmaker. As a reality TV star. And eventually as 45th president of the United States. Then and now, Trump best communicates through the medium of images.
The latest transmission from his visual onslaught began making rounds on the internet last Thursday, just past the 8 pm Eastern primetime hour, when Georgia’s Fulton County Jail released his mug shot to the public. It has since been described as one of the most historic images of our time. And rightly so. There is no parallel for it in our visual lexicon. It is, in every sense of the phrase, a Trump original.
Along with 18 codefendants—which include his former White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, a DOJ official, a stable of attorneys, a publicist, and a pastor—Trump is being charged as the lead actor in a conspiracy to overthrow the 2020 election in Georgia, where the law requires a mug shot be taken for a felony offense. Like most images of Trump, this one does not pretend to soften its collision. His grimace is absolute aggression—all venom and intimidation.
On its own, the photograph is nothing to call home about. Were it not infused with so much meaning—his is the first presidential mug shot in history—it would barely register as remarkable. (In fairness, he set the bar pretty high during his presidency. Remember the orb?!) But its aesthetics are classic Trump. The furrowed brows. The chromatic cloud of hair. That unyielding glare, his eyes like darts, in search of a target. The camera struggles to capture proper light, but that feels strangely fitting: His darkness is in full view.
Trump is a savvy counterprogrammer, a showman with a taste for political rebranding. He understands that images endure, the imprint they can leave. He understands that sometimes the image is the message. It’s why, in the hours following his release, he used his mug shot as an opportunity to raise funds by posting it on X (formerly Twitter). “Never surrender,” he tweeted, without a pinch of irony, after surrendering. The photo has raised more than $7 million since last week, according to Politico. This is all part of the Trump allure. The amphitheater of social media is where he excels, as meme and messiah.
Online, Trump exists across an explosive vernacular of media. His identity is a patchwork of zany interview clips, Photoshopped images, and antagonistic sound bites meant engineered to go viral. It is why the story of Donald Trump will always be a story best told in pictures. Pictures that are brash and erratic, unfading and unpredictable. And as the front-runner for the Republican nomination, his mug shot is a picture that demands interrogation. It demands that many of us continue to challenge the image of America he is working to bring back. We should not look away. We can’t afford to look away. This time, Trump should not be allowed to so easily evade the lens of reality.
That, more than anything, is what the mug shot makes plain. Whether Georgia district attorney Fanni Willis can make her case or not, the mug shot implies an air of criminality. Some will call that implication into question. They’ll say it’s unfair. They’ll again label it a witch hunt. For others, it validates what they already believe to be true: In his loss to President Joe Biden, he conspired to overturn the results of the 2020 election, and now he must go on trial to prove otherwise. Trump and his codefendants are set to be arraigned next week. The court of public opinion will be watching.