In just a single instant—one soft push on the shutter release and a lightning flash—the state of modern America was immortalized in a photograph. The mugshot of a Former President had been taken.
Once this image had been downloaded, first onto the computer systems of the Fulton County, Georgia Sheriff’s Office and before long the rest of the outside world, the likeness of Former President Donald Trump will now almost certainly be forever tied to his mugshot. Thin, flat lips devoid of expression, sharply daggered eyebrows, and eyes that stare with a pinpointed intensity, Trump’s face in the photograph perfectly encapsulates his disobedience of the establishment.
It would be easy to see why one might think Trump’s career would quickly topple over after receiving an honor exclusively given to criminals. One might also expect an almost unified outrage across the nation, and the consistent sound of people crying out “thug” or “crook”. But instead, public opinion has remained fairly static. Trump has been surrounded by two camps of vehement haters and almost religious followers since his original campaign back in 2016. Not much has changed, and it seems as if the recent onslaught of four criminal indictments and Fulton County mugshot have even added to his popularity.
The most recent polling from the Wall Street Journal sees Trump at 59% in the race to grasp the Republican Presidential Nomination, with his closest adversary being Ron Desantis who barely scrapes into double digits at 13% — 46 points below Trump. Looking beyond that into the General Election, the Wall Street Journal predicts a current tie between President Biden and Trump, balancing at an equilibrium of 46, while the polling of the Economist puts Trump in a one-point lead, along with yet another tie calculated by the New York Times. While Biden is not without numerous advantages in many other polls not listed, the staggering fact remains that Trump’s campaign has not lost any drop of steam as he continues to pursue his way back to Washington. Coupled with the fact that not a single source sees another Republican candidate overtaking Trump for the nomination, the question still looms at how the Former President has seemingly overcome his criminal baggage.
If P.T. Barnum’s age-old adage of any press is good press has any modern manifestation it may be in the life of Donald Trump. Media outlets, whether an ally of his or an adversary in his war waged against “fake news,” report about him constantly—to the point where there is hardly such a thing as an American without an opinion about Donald Trump. When Trump was Impeached by the House in 2019, his face flooded the news channels, an event which repeated itself with his second Impeachment in 2021 and now once more through his growing list of indictments. Whenever the Former President finds himself in hot water a new enemy is born as well as another fight: a highly reported fight that dominates every channel.
Creating a persona was priority number one for the New York Billionaire, a persona not built upon Midtown Cocktail parties and global hospitality conglomerates, but rather the trappings of a folk hero for the downtrodden common American. Backed by constant screen time, personal outlets such as Twitter to share his ideas, and large stadiums transformed into rallies, Trump tapped into the psyche of the American mind and grew to achieve the role of anti-establishment warrior and drainer of the great Washington Swamp. He would, and still does, say and do what his competitors would never dream of: creating nicknames for high-level politicians, speaking far more candidly than anyone else, and even oftentimes replacing facts for quick-witted insults in early debates. The American Public saw something that they had never seen before, and many likely believed they were watching a man more like themselves. Regardless of any corruption he might be involved in, Trump spoke out against government corruption, and regardless of his 2.5 Billion dollar net worth, he appealed mainly to working-class Americans. So it is hardly a surprise that when handed his recent charges, many Americans saw yet another attack against the underdog, gaining respect for the former President or even picking up to follow him.
Trump, now frozen in a mugshot scowl, has tapped into what I call the phenomena of the American Outlaw. For hundreds of years, public opinion has looked favorably on those perceived to be crusaders against imposing governing forces. And this idea of America’s near obsession with outlaws grows far beyond the likes of Butch Cassidy and Jesse James, those train robbing, hightailing it across the desert mythos of the West where the term is most commonly used. Outlaws exist in the political sense, dating back even to the Jeffersonian age, where a well-educated, wealthy landowner from Virginia employed the image of a common farmer who fought against the imposition of a strong central government. And Trump knows about this phenomenon all too well. His campaign released a statement not long after the visit to the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office remarking that “the very image that […] the radical left all hoped would mark the end of the America First Movement has become something else entirely,” and vehemently announced that “Trump’s unmistakable mugshot […] has become a symbol of an unbreakable movement triumphing over tyranny.”
In the United States the statute of Innocent until proven guilty extends itself to every man, woman, and child brought up on charges in its judicial system. But this presumed innocence rarely blankets reputation as well. Yet Trump has pried his image away from a leader that has been impeached twice and has been riddled with numerous legal bullet holes including accusations of inciting an insurrection. He has declined the mantle of criminal and accepted that of outlaw. He has embraced his mugshot and capitalized off it, riding the polls to the top and selling t-shirts, hats, stickers, mugs, and other merchandise sporting the image along with a new campaign slogan to hang from off his MAGA doorpost: “Never Surrender.”
This latest solidification of his persona has reinforced the means by which he gained supporters in the first place. Trump capitalizes off of an America where so many of its citizens feel nailed to the daily cycle of working in the shadow of corporations and government, who feel left out and search for a candidate that frames the false promises of classical politicians in a more uninhibited way. And Trump is their outlaw (despite making over 2 million dollars from monetizing his mugshot) who fights tooth and nail against the establishment (despite also promoting policies of law and order). Behind the eyes of Trump’s scowl they see the promise of some vicarious last stand, and who’s to blame the surrendered for following a man who tells them to never surrender?
The opinions expressed within this piece represent the views of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jefferson Independent.