Donald Trump’s Mugshot is PR Genius

His signature blonde comb-over is illuminated by the fluorescent lights. Bushy blonde eyebrows, furrowing forward, are plastered on a menacing expression filled with contempt, aimed at the camera. His crisp, freshly ironed blue jacket laid atop a white button-down shirt, paired with a red tie – red, white, and blue, how patriotic. 

I am sure you have this image engraved forever in your mind – I mean, the subject of the photo is the first United States President who has been charged with a felony. This image, the mugshot of Donald Trump taken on August 24, 2023, in Fulton County Jail, will be a part of the history of the United States henceforth. This could have been a public relations disaster for Donald Trump, however, it seems that he was able to turn it on its head and make it a loud and clear public statement. 

Former President of United States and businessman looking at the camera, behind him is a height inch measure

The Mugshot as a Political Statement

We all know what a mugshot is; a photograph of the suspect’s face, intended for law enforcement in relation to a crime. Yet throughout the years, as media and news become more accessible, we have seen that mugshots are not only intended for the police but also used as a directed and purposeful public statement. There is a long history of prominent public figures who have used their mugshot to their advantage: Joseph Stalin, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jane Fonda, to name a few. The sharp look in their eyes, the smugness (or lack thereof) on their face, and the “defiance” that is associated with the photo itself are all used to convey their message. 

For Stalin, in his 1911 mugshot, his glare seemed almost careless – suggesting that no establishment had authority over him. In the case of Martin Luther King Jr., the photo was taken after he was arrested during the bus boycotts in 1956. His eyes, filled with disdain, were not focused on the camera, but on the white police officer, and by extension, white America, snapping the photo. 

For these two political figures, their mugshot did not diminish their cause, but helped fuel a revolution; people who believed in what they were fighting for flocked to their side. 

 

Stalin's mugshot 1910 taken from Wikipedia

Donald Trump and His Calculated Pose 

Clearly, Donald Trump took notes from his political peers. His patriotic red white and blue apparel symbolizes that with his arrest, America is being put behind bars. According to Maggie Haberman, White House Correspondent for the New York Times, even Trump’s scowl is a deliberate choice; a calculated tactic aimed at projecting strength and avoiding any perception of weakness.  

Trump’s refusal to treat the mugshot as a moment of shame is evident as he actively seeks a second term in the White House while facing criminal charges in four jurisdictions. Notably, his campaign has experienced a surge in contributions each time he is indicted.

Furthermore, Trump’s campaign had foreseen the potential of a mugshot as a fundraising opportunity long before it became a reality. For a mere $36, anyone could purchase a T-shirt featuring a photoshopped booking photo of Trump with the proclamation, “not guilty.”

The Commercialization of the Mugshot 

After the mugshot was taken, the Trump campaign replaced their previously photoshopped mugshot merchandise, with merchandise of the real one. On August 26, Steven Cheung, a spokesperson for the Trump campaign, proudly declared that since the mugshot was taken, the campaign had raked in $7.1 million, with a staggering $4.18 million pouring in on the preceding Friday alone – marking the highest-grossing day of the entire campaign.

Trump mug shot inspired merch
Trump merchandise inspired by the infamous mugshot. Credit to Etsy

The Lincoln Project, also known as the Never Trumpers, released shot glasses with the image, bearing the acronym “F.A.F.O.” (F* Around and Find Out), and a rallying cry to “Raise a glass to justice.” Rick Wilson, one of the co-founders of the Lincoln Project, disclosed that the shot glasses, one of a variety of mugshot-themed products tested by the creative team, were flying off the shelves at an unprecedented rate. All proceeds, he confirmed, would be funneled towards their media campaign, designed to raise awareness of the perceived threat that Donald Trump poses to the United States.

Even the band Green Day joined in, offering an Instagram-exclusive T-shirt featuring the 1997 “Nimrod” (“nimrod” is a term that refers to a foolish or inept person) album cover overlaid with the mugshot.

In the midst of this hype, it’s worth recognizing that this merchandising frenzy has a broader implication. It’s a method of simplification, reducing a complex political situation into a digestible and easily marketable message.

Trump’s Political Rally in South Dakota

On Friday, September 8, 2023, Donald Trump held a political rally in Rapid City, South Dakota. There he addressed over 7,000 of his supporters, proclaiming, that the Democratic party is “destroying our country”.  He went on to emphasize the urgency of reclaiming the nation, “if we don’t take it back in ’24, I really believe we’re not going to have a country left.”

In reference to his now infamous four indictments and mugshot, Trump, in his signature candid and unapologetic fashion, asserted, “I’m being indicted for you”. He also claimed to be the “only person in the history of politics who has been indicted whose poll numbers went up.” Regardless of whether this claim is true or not (it isn’t), Trump has seen a significant increase in his poll numbers since the mugshot was published to the public, as a result of the brilliant strategic plays from his PR team.

Controlling the Narrative

In what could have easily spiraled into a public relations catastrophe, Trump and his PR team turned the situation on its head, transforming it into a resounding public statement. Their ability to shape and control the narrative was nothing short of remarkable. From the mugshot to the meticulously calculated merchandise, they defied adversity, and (possibly) changed the political landscape forever – giving ‘controversy’ a whole new political dimension.  Regardless of one’s personal opinions about Trump, the undeniable power of the narrative crafted through the mugshot cannot and should not be ignored.

For us communications professionals, the Trump mugshot saga offers a crucial lesson in purposeful narrative construction. It’s about seizing controversy with intentionality and harnessing the importance of symbolism in photography. Moreover, it’s the art of turning adversity into opportunity, maintaining unwavering message consistency, as well as ‘dumbing down’ a complex political issue for broader accessibility. It emphasizes the importance of truly comprehending and connecting with the audience.

The saga stands as an example of how strategic communication can efficiently navigate the terrain of political messaging and public perception, skillfully turning challenges into narratives with impactful significance.

Remember: it is not about the cards you’re dealt; it’s about how you play your hand.

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