America’s Mugshot

On the Symbolism of a Presidential Mugshot

“Donald Trump has transcended parties, polls, and politics and now moves freely again in the world of symbols.”
– Lafayette Lee

If someone had told me 10 years ago that the host of The Apprentice was going to emerge as an important freedom fighter of the 21st Century, I’m not sure if I would have even laughed. A freedom fighter? The man I was at 25 – a drug-addled, arrogant grad student – still conceived the figure of the freedom fighter in modernist and Leftist terms: Lenin, MLK, Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela, and so on. Whether militant or peaceable, all these guys correspond to an archetype: Literate. Intellectual. Inspiring. Appealing to Enlightenment principles. Fighting for emancipation… Donald Trump, on the other hand, is brash and provocative: the pinnacle of the trash heap of late imperial entertainment: reality TV. But at the time I was stuck in the past, or not even the past, but a version of history as relayed to me by my leftist professors: a fantasy past. I now recognize that Donald Trump is the American freedom fighter of the 21st Century precisely because of his vulgar, loud qualities.

In the wake of Trump’s latest bullshit indictment, his fourth – this time for allegedly attempting “to overturn” the 2020 presidential election results in Georgia by contesting them through the courts – it could not be more obvious how united the US political establishment is against him. Not since the days of COINTELPRO and coordinated FBI assaults on (and occasional murders of) radical political leaders has there been such a naked attempt by the permanent government to destroy an American political leader. The twist is that for contemporary leftists Trump represents a reactionary return to a white Christian power structure they tell themselves they have not already defeated. In reality, they represent, or rather serve, the establishment power elite while Trump and his base represent the anti-establishment opposition.

Hunter S. Thompson once called Las Vegas, the pinnacle of excess and joyous trash, “The heart of the American dream.” Trump, every bit as excessive as Vegas, is like the navel of the dream. He wants it to survive. And he knows that’s what we all want, too. Trump represents a return to the American dream, to the principle of American aspiration — and progress — and to a functioning, prospering, and free America, all at once. From this point of view, the fact that Trump’s recent mugshot has instantly become his most iconic image is not surprising. The picture is an ultimate fault line. Do you love America, and do you want it to live up to its dream, or do you hate it and want to dominate and control those who want to keep chasing that dream? 

The mugshot has already proven to have material benefit: Trump has boosted fundraising through its proliferation. But its cultural and symbolic value is even greater. It’s a rallying cry for the future and an indictment of the present-day betrayal of the past. In round three, there will be no compromise. And what a magnificent image it is! Trump glares and grimaces, looking dominant, charismatic, and confident, his trademark tousled hair parted to one side. He looks like he’s hardly aged since 2016 – extremely impressive considering what he’s been up against: the spies, the impeachments, the investigations, the betrayals, and the bullshit arrests… It’s an image of strength, resilience, and refusal.

What’s fascinating about Trump is that he’s easily the most covered man alive, and has been now for seven years, yet we still don’t fully understand him. Never before has an American presidential candidate – let alone a President – emerged from the world of celebrity to come to represent the discontent of a vast swathe of a population. Trump’s ideology isn’t necessarily radical, nor revolutionary, and not even reactionary. He is essentially a right-wing liberal who articulates the collapse of American promise. His vulgarity embodies the discontent of a people that feels held in contempt by the elites who claim to represent them, and who hold them in contempt in return. 

Although there’s not much more annoying than too-online critical theory nerds who attempt to position Trump as a 21st Century Marxist, there is a Situationist element in his rise to contemporary prominence. Throughout the 2010s, the American media has taken the enabler stereotype of “offering you a drink with one hand, pointing the finger at and judging you for taking it with the other” to absurdist levels. They sell us garbage — bad food, reality TV, mind-altering pharmaceuticals, and brain-numbing entertainment, and then scold us for indulging in it. They sell, and then shame, and then they politically capitalize upon that shame. 

Trump, as part of that media and also someone at war with it, recognized this dynamic and turned it around. He doesn’t want people to feel shame for enjoying American life. On the contrary, he thinks that our forefathers died in order so that we could enjoy our excess prosperity. Trump recognized that prosperity was seriously declining, and that a real American political vision should be rooted in restoring it. He channeled the discontent of the broken American dream, and rallied support through his uniquely eloquent, and utterly hilarious method of communicating that discontent back to those who felt it. It was, and still is, the most aesthetically compelling movement of political dissent in decades, perhaps in history. 

There’s a delicious irony in a Trump mugshot that beautifully outlines the unfathomable cultural shifts that have transpired over the last three decades. So many of the figures that once represented transgression in the cultural underground are now perfectly in lockstep with the dominant ideology. Since the death of its legendary publisher Adam Parfrey in 2018 and perhaps even a bit earlier, the alternative publishing house Feral House — infamous for publishing controversial and often extremist voices from across the political spectrum, from NAMBLA enthusiasts to Satanists to Holocaust deniers — has reduced itself to an imprint enthusiastic about “female trailblazers,” the stories of “overlooked LGBT contributors” to culture, and “black and indigenous experiences in post-Civil War US.” In other words: a publishing house indistinguishable from the mainstream imprints that wind up on Time Magazine’s “Best-Of” book lists every year. 

The record engineer and musician of bands Big Black and Rapeman, Steve Albini, endlessly tweets political statements that are hardly distinguishable from the political moralizing of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Just recently, he was deeply “concerned” about the end of Affirmative Action and the decline in usage of Covid masks. In 2013 William Bennett of pioneering power electronics group Whitehouse, once a collaborator of Albini, apologized publicly for his entire career. What made Whitehouse special was the manner in which it often took the perspectives of various evildoers — misogynist rapists, serial killers, Nazi war criminals — and refused to ascribe the content any moralizing signifiers to reassure the listener. Whitehouse’s content allowed for the possibility that it was sick, and that we might be sick for enjoying it. Bennett’s letter negated the whole artistic concept of Whitehouse by telling his readers directly: “I am not a nazi/fascist/racist.” Although more intelligent Whitehouse fans already knew this, here was Bennett ascribing the moralizing content to his work that Whitehouse had always refused to supply. He ended the letter with a long list of positions that sounded like a campaign document for a candidate of the DNC or Labour Party. 

So the transgressive figures of yesteryear are the loyal party-liners of now. But Trump has risen from the peak of mainstream garbage culture to adopt a contemporary positioning as a radically transgressive figure. Artists who once opined on murder and child molestation now espouse ideas in lockstep with Democratic political leaders and their propagandists in the corporate media. Meanwhile, a reality star turned President espousing common-sense ideas about freedom of speech and border security is met with extreme ideological pushback and even the threat of jail time?

John Dillinger’s 1934 Wanted poster and mugshot

Trump’s mugshot also joins a lineage of mugshots that are synonymous with American freedom and its promises of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Though I refuse to compare Trump directly to any outlaw or criminal, it is fascinating the extent to which his mugshot has summoned the same kind of energy that the mugshots of outlaws like John Dillinger once did. This doesn’t mean that Trump is a criminal, it rather alludes to the fact that what Trump represents to his supporters — rejection of the ruling order’s propaganda, sensible foreign policy positions, speaking from the gut and not from the narrow minds of political science graduate speechwriters — have been literally criminalized. After all, it was only yesterday that former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio was sentenced to 22 years for “seditious conspiracy to disrupt the 2020 presidential election,” while legendary pro-Trump shitposter Ricky Vaughn is facing 10 years in jail for posting memes on the internet. The political mainstream hasn’t just problematized its political dissent, they’ve criminalized it. 

The mugshot is also reminiscent of what Lenny Bruce represented in the 1960s. Like Trump, Bruce wasn’t espousing rhetoric that could be pinned down as right- or left-wing. Rather, Bruce pointed to the hypocrisy and flaws in our society that made the American dream of freedom impossible, while being hilarious. Trump too points out obvious truths — even when he’s telling lies — and does so while allowing us to laugh and rejoice in cathartic expressions of alienation. Intriguingly, there’s also been a recent trend of prosecutors using various rappers’ lyrics as evidence against them in trials. Trump is enduring similar tactics, of course: also because prosecutors have no evidence against him other than his words and tweets. It’s not so surprising then that GOP members in Georgia are hopeful that the mugshot could swing some black support Trump’s way. 

One difference between Trump’s mugshot and the others is the stakes are much higher now. Never before has then been such a remarkable synergy between what the political establishment considers objectionable and even criminal and what a large swath of the population feels about their politics and society intuitively. To be clear, many of Trump’s supporters don’t support him because they think he’s “transgressive” or provocative; on the contrary, they just think he’s the best and most sensible candidate on many of the issues they care about: freedom of speech, protecting families, securing the border, alleviating the excesses of the military-industrial complex, and chasing the American dream. Yet these common-sense beliefs and opinions are now positioned as transgressive, provocative, and dissenting by those who control our country.

While this is disturbing, it’s also exciting. It means that there are millions of us out there who want to rise above the system of domination and control and reinstate an America built on its foundational promises. Perhaps our versions of the American dream differ, but the concept itself is one that we want to protect, one that we have elected Donald Trump to reinstate. He channels our American dreams. In his mugshot, we see our own hanging in the balance, putting up a fight. Those dreams are the magic that he summons and the energies that course through him back to us. Trump’s rise to power, his fall, his rebirth, and, now, his mugshot, are all symbolic of the fact that the American dream has been stolen from us, and it is now on trial. If they want to lock it up and throw away the key, they’re going to have to do better than that. 

Adam Lehrer is an artist based in New York and the host of the System of Systems podcast.

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