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Mug shots are usually harmful. For Trump and his supporters, it's a badge of honor

In a new social media trend, some people on X, formerly known as Twitter, have superimposed their own faces onto former president Donald Trump's mugshot.
Juliana Kim
In a new social media trend, some people on X, formerly known as Twitter, have superimposed their own faces onto former president Donald Trump's mugshot.

When Fulton County Jail released Donald Trump's mug shot last week, the former president not only embraced it — but so did some of his supporters.

Hours after the photo was made public, Trump's booking photo was plastered on T-shirts, mugs and koozies. It inspired the latest addition to Trump's campaign. And it even triggered a viral social media challenge where Trump supporters superimposed their face onto his photo.

Typically, mug shots are associated with shame and humiliation. But for Trump and a pocket of his fan base, his mug shot — the first ever of an American president — was a badge of honor.

"There's nothing like the scale of what's going on — a politician of Trump's stature who's using the scandal to such political benefit," said William Howell, a political science professor at the University of Chicago.

Trump, who faces four separate indictments, took his first mug shot on Thursday after surrendering in Atlanta. He faces 13 felony counts in Georgia related to efforts to overturn the state's 2020 presidential election result.

Mug shots are typically harmful but not to Trump or other people with power

Before the release of Trump's mug shot, police departments and newsrooms had already been debating the ethics around publishing such photos.

For most people, mug shots are taken during one of the worst days of their lives. Because of the internet, those images can now last forever — unless someone pays to get themtaken down.

Arrest images are also used disproportionately by race. In a 2021 study, Global Strategy Group found media coverage in the U.S. used mug shots in 45% of cases involving Black defendants while only 8% of cases involving white defendants.

"Folks without power, they're criminalized. They don't have much say about it. But folks who have a lot of power get to redefine that picture," said Mary Angela Bock, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

According to Bock, elected officials have the power and resources to largely be immune to the life-altering effect of mug shots. Take former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. In 2014, Perry was booked and photographed in jail after accusations that he abused his power as governor. But the incident turned into a political rally and later, his super PAC sold T-shirtswith his mug shot for $25.

"Politicians know it's not about the picture, it's about the moment. So they can change the meaning of that moment to suit their needs," said Bock, who has conducted researchon Perry's mug shot and its aftermath.

The mug shot may help Trump's campaign, at least financially

Trump has long portrayed himself as an anti-hero — an outsider willing to call out the failures and corruption in Washington. To him and some of his supporters, the indictments and mug shot underscore their belief that he has been treated unfairly, according to Howell.

"The narrative he's spinning now is that the justice system has been weaponized against him by his political opponent and the government has been hijacked by people who don't believe in the rule of law," he said.

That's why Howell anticipates Trump's mug shot may help him during his presidential race — at least financially. In fact, his campaign has already made money selling merchandise with a fake Trump mug shot.

"He has long held up attacks directed at him as a reason for people within his party to give financially to his cause," Howell said.

Trump's mug shot sparks a social media trend

On Thursday, Trump posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, for the first time in more than two years to share his mugshot along with the words "NEVER SURRENDER."

Shortly after, some of his supporters followed suit and posted fake mug shots with their own faces on the social media site. Among those who participated was Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

According to Howell, the trend not only represents solidarity, but their level of commitment to Trump, regardless of circumstances.

"This isn't just that they're going to stand with him through fires. It's that the fires are only going to strengthen the bonds between them," he said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.
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