Campaigning on a Mugshot: From the County Jail to the White House

Campaigning on a Mugshot: From the County Jail to the White House September 1, 2023

Behold the face that launched “birtherism,” thousands of lies, a movement of millions of angry Americans, hundreds of times of taking the “fifth,” and incoherent speeches filled with emotional violence, racism, and hatred. And, of course, four indictments. One doesn’t need to be a world champion Poker player to recognize Donald Trump’s “tell.” Nor is it necessary to be a famous British detective to know when Donald is lying. One look at Donald’s mugshot in Atlanta tells you that, for Trump, the lights have gone out in Georgia, New York, and D. C. Yet there remains the possibility that Donald Trump may become the only candidate to go from posing for a mugshot to sitting for a presidential portrait. Not even the American dream ever considered a man going from the county jail to the White House.

The former president left the Fulton County Jail at 7:55 p.m. Thursday, August 25, and for the first time in his four indictments on felony charges, authorities took — and released — Trump’s mug shot. By 9:22 p.m., the Trump Save America Joint Fundraising Committee was selling T-shirts, mugs, beverage coolers, bumper stickers and other merchandise with Trump’s face and the words “never surrender.” The mug shot products range from $12 for a bumper sticker to $36 for long-sleeve T-shirts.

Only Donald Trump would think of putting his mugshot on mugs and t-shirts as a fund raiser. But then again Trump wanted to give himself the Congressional Medal of Honor, complained that he didn’t win a Nobel Peace Prize, and still considers himself the rightful president of the United States. Trump should be content with plastering his face and name on every possible mug, t-shirt, golf course, product, property that he owns. His mugshot will never be carved out of stone for placement on Mount Rushmore.

Trump’s face has limited range. His official portraits never show him smiling. He shows anger, hatred, smugness, sneers, stares, and glares. Trump was caught on tape practicing a speech on his way to address Congress in March 2017, but he was also rehearsing the facial expressions he would use to amplify the impact of his words. Rhetorical theorist Donovan O. Schaefer says, “In between reading the lines on the freshly printed pages in his hands, he exercised the specific affects he wanted to convey. We see Trump cycle through three practiced expressions: a sneer; an almost-ecstatic, ferocious pieta in which Trump stares upward with an open-mouth grimace; and a sort of triptych in which Trump mimes three glares in rapid succession, bobbing his head and sharpening his stare with each beat.” Trump knows that the root of his power is his face. The visual rhetoric of Trump’s body— “controlling, coercive, and conceited, a combination of traits that embody white privilege and hypermasculinity”—is a necessary augmentation to the Trump script. His mugshot makes the same intimidating pose for the camera.

Biblical Faces: Cain and Ahab

There are, two biblical references to the “face” that pertain to the face of Trump. The first story occurs when Cain has murdered his brother and God has judged him unworthy of remaining at home. Scripture reads, “Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.” Countenance is the biblical term for “face”. Cain, indicted for and found guilty of murder, was exiled to the land of Nod.

The second story tells us that Ahab, the king of Israel tried to make a real estate transaction with a local citizen named Naboth. The deal fell through. The narrator describes the reaction of the king. “Ahab set out toward home, resentful and sullen, and came to Samaria.” “He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.”

These are powerful analogies of Donald Trump’s response to losing the 2016 election. He tried to cut a deal with Georgia, Arizona, Congress. He went home resentful. His resentment still gushes after more than two years. He is resentful and sullen. The judges would not give him what he wanted. Vice-President Pence refused to give him what he wanted. Congress refused to stop the confirmation of the electoral college vote. Trump retreated to Mar Lago, lay down on his luxurious sheets, pulled the duvet over his head, turned away his face, and seethed with resentment.

The “Junk Food” President

There’s no indication that Trump is refusing to eat. Joshua Gunn reminds us, “Donald John Trump, is the junk food of presidents in many senses. His decision to serve burgers and fries from Wendy’s and Burger King to the 2019 national college football champions was widely derided as made in bad taste. His preference for the ‘clean’ (which is to say, less poisonous) cuisine of McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken is well known, it is his penchant for eating his steaks well done with a side of ketchup that first inspired popular indigestion and gobs of gastronomic grievances.”

While continuing to ingest “junk food,” Trump keeps feeding the public the “junk politics” of the Big Lie. Over and over, like the endless lyrics of “crimson and clover,” Trump chimes “fake news” and “stolen election.” “Stop the steal.” “Fight like hell.” “Save America.” “MAGA.”

Add the unceasing whining of the ex-President. In every speech, every tweet, every post he seems to be crying, “I’m under arrest. I have been charged with multiple felonies; vote for me. And send me money to help pay my legal bills”. This seems like a sure way to not raise money, but people are falling for this as easily as they fall for a televangelist requesting money to purchase an eighty-million-dollar jet.

Why does Trump insist on these acts of Barnum-worthy drama? One simple reason: It works. On the Friday after the mugshot, the Trump campaign announced it had raised $4 million in one day. Trump, the good guy being persecuted by the bad guys, makes him a hero in MAGA-land.

The Actor’s Face Tells Everything

What do the scholars of communication in media make of Trump’s face? “The non-symbolic parts of rhetorical performances” communicate as much as words. Trump’s glower or scowl attempts to show power.” Schaefer says, “Trump’s face, I would suggest, is a major component of his ability to orchestrate fear in others.” He’s not just having a mugshot for the sheriff; he’s campaigning on the power of his face.

The visual rhetoric of Trump’s body— “controlling, coercive, and conceited, a combination of traits that embody white privilege and hypermasculinity”—is a necessary augmentation to the Trump script. It consolidates his status as the humiliator-in-chief. This is the face that insults women, Muslims, immigrants, Mexicans, and African Americans.

Trump’s mugshot is right on brand. The ex-president has become wealthy in part because he has a genius for branding. His name appears on every building he has constructed. The tower on the Chicago River bears his name in 20-foot letters. During the presidential campaign, Trump engaged in positive and negative branding: “America First,” “Make America Great Again,” and in his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination, he said, “We will make America strong again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. We will make America great again.”

Trump supporters obviously see the mugshot differently. In their eyes, Trump is a very serious man for a serious time. He is the “Strong Man” – the only man who can save America. The intense evangelical campaign to portray Trump as “God’s chosen” and “God’s Strong Man” has worked beyond their wildest dreams.

Trump’s face reproduces, enables, sustains, challenges, subverts, critiques, and communicates his strong man imagery. Trump’s face answers the Rev. Robert Jeffress appealing for the toughest s.o.b. he could find to be our president. The mug shot is the best visual metaphor I have found to describe the evangelical commitment to a vision of God and Trump and the white male as the “Strict Father”/Savior/Strong Man appointed by God.

Perhaps the best way to understand Trump is to compare him to another television actor who played at being the president of the United States. Watch a few episodes of House of Cards, and in the rhetoric of President Underwood, you will hear the cynical, cold, calculating, angry voice and see the face of Trump.

President Trump and President Underwood

A few samples of Underwood’s ideology make the connection with Trump clear.

  • “The road to power is paved with hypocrisy, and casualties. Never regret.”
  • “I have zero tolerance for betrayal, which they will soon indelibly learn.”
  • “Democracy is so overrated.”
  • “For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted.”
  • “Of all things I hold in high regards, rules are not one of them.”
  • “Brave is never giving up. You fight no matter what.”
  • “All I need is just one more vote than the other guy.”
  • ‘You made this bed America. You voted for me. Are you confused? Are you afraid? Because what you thought you wanted is now here. And there you are, staring back, slackjawed, bewildered, wondering if this is why you actually asked for.” Here’s Trump secret: “Oh, don’t deny it. You’ve loved it. You don’t actually need me to stand for anything. You just need me to stand. To be the strong man. The man of action.”

Every practiced facial expression of Donald Trump reminds us that he came from the dressing room of a reality television show to the White House. Every scowl, sneer, and stare tell us all we need to know about Donald Trump

In case the face hasn’t said everything, think of Trump lip synching the lyrics of Sophie Xeon:

My face is the front of shop
My face is the real shop front
My shop is the face I front
I’m real when I shop my face.


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