When Donald Trump turned himself in at the Fulton County Jail in Georgia on Friday, he made history by becoming the first former US president to have a mugshot taken.
Trump was booked on felony charges connected to efforts to overturn his 2020 presidential election loss in Georgia. He was booked, fingerprinted, and photographed for a mugshot in a process that took only 20 minutes before he was released under the terms of a $200,000 bond agreement.
The mugshot was circulated widely online within hours and both supporters and critics of the former president have made merchandise displaying the image. Trump’s supporters have embraced it as a symbol to rally around, while Trump’s critics have mocked it and used it for memes.
Political science and public relations experts at Virginia Tech believe that Trump and his team carefully planned out how he should look in the mugshot.
“Trump’s mugshot expression tries to convey strength and defiance, likely a strategy used to rile up his base,” says Chad Hankinson, a political science expert at Virginia Tech. “The likely interpretation for them is that he is fearless, powerful, confident, and undeterred by efforts to undermine him.”
Message of the mugshot
Hankinson believes Trump aims to capitalize on his arrest in order to raise funds for his 2024 presidential campaign, a theory supported by the fact that Trump’s team released the mugshot alongside donation requests.
“Overall, he views this as a win that will net him more campaign contributions and supporters, and further the narrative that he is the target of politically motivated investigations that are meant to derail his chances of regaining the presidency.”
“Former President Trump has long been said to claim that any publicity is ‘good’ publicity,” according to Virginia Tech political expert Karen Hult. “This is another historic ‘first’ for US presidents and arguably another step along the path of a collapsing constitutional republic.”
https://t.co/MlIKklPSJT pic.twitter.com/Mcbf2xozsY— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 25, 2023
Cayce Myers, a public relations professor at Virginia Tech’s School of Communication, explained that mugshots in high-profile cases are used to send a message and promote a narrative.
“Often thought of as a degrading experience, mugshots frequently are thought to be unflattering and frequently present the subject as a guilty person who got caught,” says Myers. “In high profile cases, there is a strategy for taking a mugshot where the person arrested attempts to send a message to the public with their picture.”
“Trump's expression in his Fulton County Jail mugshot expresses a certain disgust and contempt, which helps promote his narrative that this is an unjust, politically motivated arrest,” says Myers. “Trump's mugshot may become a defining visual for the 2024 presidential campaign, perhaps not surprisingly on both sides.”
While critics of Trump expect the mugshot will be used to undermine his credibility in the 2024 presidential election campaign, Myers agrees with Hankinson’s belief that Trump will likely use the visual of the mugshot to promote his campaign.
“His indictments have become a rallying cry and platform for his 2024 presidential campaign, and polling in the Republican primary shows that his sizable lead has not diminished despite these legal problems.”