The mugshot that launched a thousand memes
Memes can happen in the blink of an eye, like a Jeopardy! contestant who accidentally makes a sexual innuendo under the pressure of stage lights, or a kid who randomly gets interviewed on a playground and professes his undying love for America’s most plentiful crop, corn.
But as soon as we knew former President Donald Trump would be processed at Fulton County Jail for his fourth indictment, we knew that the resulting mugshot would be all over the place for years to come, from novelty t-shirt stands to our hypothetical future childrens’ history textbooks. We waited for it, knowing that as soon as the image was released to the public, it would become unavoidable.
“This will break Etsy,” Jesse Case wrote in a now-viral tweet (or X post, whatever). And sure enough, less than 24 four hours after Trump’s mugshot was released, Etsy already turns up 5,290 results to the search “trump mugshot.”
Even the former president himself has already set up an extensive merch store with t-shirts, posters, mugs and stickers featuring the photo, which is accompanied by text declaring “NEVER SURRENDER!” It’s unclear if Trump chose this wording since he literally surrendered to Fulton County Jail, or if this somehow went over his team’s head. But nonetheless, Trump supporters can now buy their very own mugshot beer koozie, and yes, this sentence took a year off of my life to type.
Naturally, fake mugshots circulated social media before the real thing was even released — and perhaps due to their less rigorous fact-checking standards, pop culture news accounts like Pop Base beat legacy news outlets to the punch, circulating the now ubiquitous mugshot.
It didn’t matter what Trump’s mugshot would look like. No matter what, this image was going to be both a viral meme and an historically monumental artifact. But even without any editing, Trump looks yassified: his bright blonde hair shows no trace of gray, draped in a swoop across his forehead. Prison lighting is unforgiving, but combined with the over exposure of the flash, Trump almost looks younger, as the shadows smooth out the wrinkles on his left cheek. The wave of his hair is perfectly positioned in the center of his forehead, accentuating his angry countenance. At first glance, it looks as though his eyebrows and hair are one, making his scowl even more sinister, more jarring.
As TikToker Kirby Alice pointed out, there’s an irony to these historic mugshots, which aren’t very high-quality images, since, well, they’re mugshots from a county jail.
“I can pretty well guarantee that whatever camera they have to take mugshots was probably purchased at like, a Radio Shack circa 2007,” she said, days before Trump turned himself in. “It might be in the back of a closet suffering heat damage in Georgia right now, and it is about to take one of the most important images in American history.”
I’m reminded of a recent episode of “The Kardashians,” when Kim brought an entire hair and makeup team with her to the DMV to get her license renewed, cheating us out of the idea that awkward driver license photos are the one great equalizer of mankind. While Trump’s team surely thought long and hard about everything from his tie color to his facial expression, he wasn’t going to get any special treatment while getting processed in jail, even as some probably underpaid municipal employee pressed the shutter button to take an undoubtedly iconic photo of our lifetime.
“LizaMinnelliOutlives was how I saw Trump’s mugshot,” a friend wrote to me on Discord. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that we found out that the Queen of England died due to the pronouncement that Liza Minnelli had outlived Queen Elizabeth II.
Liza Minnelli has outlived America’s wait for Donald Trump’s mugshot. His latest arrest was finally accompanied by his first perp photo. pic.twitter.com/GXaICDO9yV
— LizaMinnelliOutlives (@LiZaOutlives) August 25, 2023
After Trump’s presidency, the American right and left are so far divided that perhaps only the Donald himself could unite us once more: Everyone, regardless of their political affiliation, is making memes of Trump’s mugshot. It is, quite literally, memetic, as used in the Richard Dawkins sense. It will be circulated, remixed, repurposed and mutated until it perhaps outlives even the LizaMinnelliOutlives meme, surviving the brutal natural selection that is the attention span of digitally-addled brains.
In liberal internet circles, the mugshot is a cause for celebration, an “I told you so” to relatives who were naively lured by Trump’s emboldening rhetoric almost eight years ago. And yet on Truth Social, the somewhat dormant social app that Trump himself founded, the image is a rallying cry — it’s literally being used to solicit campaign donations — yet Trump supporters still find the image funny.
One Truth Social meme account edited Trump’s mugshot to replace the Mona Lisa, as crowds swarm to get a closer look. Another user advertised t-shirts with the mugshot that declare “my pronouns are Trump/won,” which also conveys a serious misunderstanding of how grammar works.
You would think that nothing could be more political than a mugshot of a former president who is indicted for interfering with the democratic process. But some memes just aren’t political at all, reminding us of the absurdity of the moment.
“who cares,” wrote @roastmalone_ on X (Twitter). “trump isn’t even the first actor from home alone 2 to have his mugshot released.”
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.