As far back as 2016, he was complaining about photos of him that NBC had used, especially one that he said showed him with a double chin. In 2017 he tweeted about a CNN book on the election: “Hope it does well but used worst cover photo of me!” In 2020, when a snap of him on the White House lawn with his hair blown back in the wind went viral, he chimed in: “More Fake News. This was photoshopped, obviously, but the wind was strong and the hair looks good? Anything to demean!”
And earlier this month on Truth Social, he said of the Fox News show “Fox & Friends,” “They purposely show the absolutely worst pictures of me, especially the big ‘orange’ one with my chin pulled way back.” (The picture he seemed upset about showed him with his chin tucked in, rather than jutting out, creating the appearance of a few extra chins.) The suggestion was that this was part of the reason he would not join the first Republican primary debate.
He has crowed about how generals advising him were “better looking than Tom Cruise and stronger”; insisted that the women who work for him should “dress like women,” according to Axios; and griped that Vogue never gave Melania a cover while he was in the White House.
He knows that for an electorate raised on TV and social media, the picture is what lasts. It’s what is remembered (and what is memed). What makes the myth. Or unmakes it. Words come and go, but imagery is a language everyone can understand. And this latest image is clear proof of a situation that is not within the former president’s control. It cannot be airbrushed or filtered or otherwise altered.
Now that it exists, however, how it will be interpreted and used is still a question.
Mug shots have, through history, been weaponized in different ways. They have been used to suggest guilt and shame, and to knock down the famous, as with O.J. Simpson, whose flat stare and five o’clock shadow ended up on the cover of Time — albeit in an image darkened unnecessarily by the magazine.
But mug shots have also become symbols of pride: of those who stand against abuse of power and legal wrongs, as with the mug shots of Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, or even Jane Fonda, whose 1970 mug shot after she had been arrested on false charges of drug smuggling, fist raised against the Vietnam War, became a call to action for a generation of activist women.