The release of former President Trump’s mug shot could serve as his sharpest tool yet in beefing up his political brand ahead of his bid to recapture the presidency next year.
Trump began fundraising off his mug shot, taken in Georgia in connection with his efforts to overturn the state’s election result, almost as soon as it was taken, and his campaign has raked in more than $2 million since its release.
The photograph of Trump, taken against a washed-out light brown background and displaying the Fulton County Jail insignia in the top left corner, shows the former president sporting a suit coat, a dark red tie, and a defiant scowl framed by his signature strawberry blonde comb-over.
It’s quickly become a point of pride to his supporters, and a huge marketing opportunity for a campaign to sell T-shirts, posters, coffee mugs, and even a beer koozie – all with Trump’s new informal portrait. Each image is accompanied with the slogan “Never Surrender!”
Experts and observers say the way the former president and his campaign have capitalized on the mug shot is textbook Trump and follows a familiar playbook.
“This is a very clever strategy to be able to get your point across,” said Wendy Melillo, a professor of journalism at American University.
“To say, ‘I am being persecuted. I did not lose the election.’ Regardless of the facts – facts have nothing to do with this. This is all about how you manipulate people using propaganda to get them to believe what you want them to believe.”
Trump is the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, despite the mug shot and four indictments. He decided not to take part in the first GOP presidential debate in August but appears to have lost little if any ground to his closest competitors.
He’s widely seen as a runaway favorite to win the GOP nomination, and the indictments appear to be drawing his base closer to him rather than pushing it apart. The mug shot, in this context, becomes something to champion even as Democrats mock the former president and decry his actions.
To say that Trump’s campaign has leaned into the mug shot would be an understatement.
“The very image that Crooked Joe, the Deep State, and the radical Left all hoped would mark the END of the America First Movement, has become something else entirely,” the campaign wrote in its most recent fundraising blast Thursday – referencing President Joe Biden.
“President Trump’s unmistakable mugshot taken as an innocent man has become a symbol of an UNBREAKABLE MOVEMENT triumphing over tyranny,” it said.
Press coverage of the indictments and Trump’s court battles in general have crowded out other GOP candidates, making it that much harder for them to win attention.
The mug shot was taken the day after the debate, with Trump controlling the news cycle less than 24 hours after he skipped the chance to be on stage with his GOP opponents.
Trump’s scowl in the mug shot led The New York Times to suggest he might have been trying to emulate Winston Churchill in his pose. Trump similarly scowled for a White House photo before he became president, and according to The Times, he said he thought he looked “like Churchill” in the pose.
Trump has raised $9.4 million overall since the mug shot was published, surpassing the $20 million mark in fundraising for the month of August alone, the campaign said.
On the evening he was processed at the Fulton County Jail, and with his mug shot seemingly everywhere, Trump took part in a series of interviews to react in real time to his arrest. all while keeping a news cycle focused squarely on him churning at full blast.
“They insisted on a mug shot, and I agreed to do that,” he told Fox Digital. “This is the only time I’ve ever taken a mug shot.”
He also posted the image in his first tweet since January 2021. Trump is getting some help in spinning his mug shot from his allies in the media.
Popular Fox News host Jesse Watters during one broadcast this week said Trump looked “good” and “hard” in the photograph.
“The mug shot is up on the side of buildings in the inner-city,” Watters said, suggesting the mugshot could help Trump get elected president again.
“The 2016 phenomenon is happening all over again. Trump won that election because of a laser-like focus on the forgotten man. A bond was formed back then that can never be broken.”
But others caution Trump could be turning off independents with his indictments – and his embrace of them.
“It allows him to maintain his presence in the media, his image,” said New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, a frequent Trump critic, during a recent interview with MSNBC.
However, Sununu noted, “Independents hate it.”
“There’s no way Donald Trump will win anything above 31 percent of the independents, which is why Republicans as a whole will get crushed if he’s on [the ticket].”