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Mugshot Politics

A new era.

Demonstrators gather outside of Manhattan Criminal Court on March 21, 2023, in New York City. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The top headline on the Drudge Report this morning was an all-timer: “Trump mugshot defining image of the century?”

It felt at once shocking and completely foreseeable in hindsight, like the broader devolution of the American right. If you had told me in 2016 that that headline would run on Drudge in 2023, I would have gasped, thought a moment, then said, “Well, of course.”

Taking it in, I had three thoughts. First: There will be no “image of the century” because we won’t make it to the end of the century. Artificial intelligence will kill us all first.

Second: The mugshot from Trump’s arraignment in Manhattan really might become “the cultural icon of our time,” as one marketing executive interviewed for the story put it. Both sides have political incentives to celebrate and even fetishize the photo. Trump is fundraising off of his imminent arrest already and is reportedly eager to monetize tomorrow’s spectacle at the courthouse. “With a grim fixation on having a mug shot taken, Trump has asked whether his team could print it on T-shirts that could serve as a rallying motif for his supporters—an idea that his advisers have been particularly enthusiastic about,” the Guardian reported on Monday.

Another one for the “shocking yet foreseeable” file.

Third: Which Trump mugshot will end up being the “defining” one? In the end we’ll probably have several to choose from, after all.

As most of the American media obsesses about an indictment in Manhattan that seems unlikely to result in jail time, the case against Trump for hoarding sensitive documents at Mar-a-Lago has grown more serious. Special Counsel Jack Smith has already made a prima facie case that Trump deceived two of his own lawyers about the material, puncturing the attorney-client privilege he would otherwise have invoked to prevent them from testifying against him. On Sunday came news that Smith and his team now suspect Trump himself personally concealed documents after they were subpoenaed.

In the classified documents case, federal investigators have gathered new and significant evidence that after the subpoena was delivered, Trump looked through the contents of some of the boxes of documents in his home, apparently out of a desire to keep certain things in his possession, the people familiar with the investigation said.

Investigators now suspect, based on witness statements, security camera footage, and other documentary evidence, that boxes including classified material were moved from a Mar-a-Lago storage area after the subpoena was served, and that Trump personally examined at least some of those boxes, these people said.

Investigators have also amassed evidence indicating that Trump told others to mislead government officials in early 2022, before the subpoena, when the National Archives and Records Administration was working with the Justice Department to try to recover a wide range of papers, many of them not classified, from Trump’s time as president, the people familiar with the investigation said. While such alleged conduct may not constitute a crime, it could serve as evidence of the former president’s intent.

To prove obstruction of justice, Smith must show that Trump intended to hinder the federal investigation into the missing documents. He might be closer to doing that than anyone suspected, and on the verge of getting closer:

Lawyers forced to testify, Secret Service agents being subpoenaed: “Well, of course,” says 2016 me.

There may yet be a second Trump mugshot courtesy of Smith, then a third in Georgia. If there are, how will Republican voters react?

Is the Republican Party still a political party?

We have a good idea already as to how Republican voters feel about Trump being indicted for covering up hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels. 

He led Ron DeSantis by eight points in the last YouGov poll conducted two weeks ago. He leads by 26 now and tops 50 percent even when pitted against a field of 10 candidates. Two more new polls, one from Trafalgar and the other from Insider Advantage, likewise have him north of 50 percent and more than doubling up his nearest challenger. Before the news of the indictment, Trump led DeSantis by 14 points in Trafalgar’s survey; after the news broke, that grew to 33 points.

You can tell a story of the coming primary in which this ends up being his high-water mark in polling, the product of—God help our fallen country—an “indictment bounce.” Republicans feel momentarily defensive on Trump’s behalf, just as they felt defensive on his behalf after the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago last summer. Many liberals have conceded in the last few days that the strength of the case against him in the Stormygate matter is weak and reeks of political motives by progressive Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. The political wind is at Trump’s back, for now.

But if Bragg’s case proves to be stronger than expected, Republican indignation could cool the same way it did after the country learned why, precisely, the FBI had felt obliged to search Mar-a-Lago. If Trump is hit with a second indictment by Jack Smith and then a third in Georgia, the moral calculus among “soft” Trump supporters might shift. Obstruction of justice and election tampering aren’t ticky-tack bookkeeping crimes like the ones he’s being charged with in New York, after all. They speak directly to why he’s unfit for office. If prosecutors have the goods, Republican voters who are leaning Trump at the moment might reluctantly conclude that he’s too damaged to gamble on and switch to DeSantis.

You can tell that story. But none of us would feel very confident in the telling, would we?

You can tell another story in which each successive indictment binds Republican voters ever more tightly to Trump regardless of the strength of the evidence against him. Populists are nothing if not conspiratorial, and a barrage of criminal charges across multiple jurisdictions filed by Democratic prosecutors that happens to coincide with the start of the Republican primary campaign will have the air of a conspiracy. To switch your vote from Trump to DeSantis under those circumstances will amount to letting the conspirators “win” as they go about abusing the criminal justice system to ruin the Republican frontrunner’s chances of returning to power. 

At some point, in fact, DeSantis will be accused of being a liberal catspaw, the sort of “controlled opposition” whom the Democratic “deep state” is hoping to elevate by waging their legal jihad against Trump.

Trump’s great ally in his effort to convince Republican voters that additional indictments will strengthen the case for nominating him rather than weaken it is the cowardice of other Republican politicians, virtually none of whom have dared to fault him for the charges filed in Manhattan. According to the New York Times, Trump’s own advisers were caught off guard by how quickly rivals like DeSantis and Nikki Haley rallied to his defense after news broke of the indictment. Imagine being so timidly obsequious toward this guy in 2023 that his own political outfit, which demands cultish loyalty from his adversaries as a rule, is nonetheless shocked by it.

“The refusal of party leaders to confront Trump is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Ron Brownstein observed at The Atlantic. “Because GOP voters hear no other arguments from voices they trust, they fall in line behind the assertion from Trump and the leading conservative media sources that the probes are groundless persecution. Republican elected officials then cite that dominant opinion as the justification for remaining silent.” To wit:

You can tell a story quite easily in which that dynamic persists during the primary campaign far longer than anyone expects. DeSantis-friendly outlets like Fox News may resist at first, but eventually the same incentives that led them to put Sidney Powell on the air after the 2020 election could lead them to ditch the new guy from Florida for the old one. (They might already be hedging their bets.) If outlets like Newsmax and Trump-slobbering populist blogs take the position that a vote for DeSantis is a vote for Alvin Bragg, Fox will protect its market share by eventually following suit.

Whichever story you choose to tell about the primary, however, you need to reckon with the fact that multiple indictments will further destroy Trump’s standing among swing voters and reduce his chances of winning the general election. How will Republican primary voters process that reality?

Will they care?

You will not be surprised to learn, I take it, that the overall electorate has a different view of the Stormygate indictment than Republicans do. CNN reports:

Independents largely line up in support of the indictment – 62% approve of it and 38% disapprove. Democrats are near universal in their support for the indictment (94% approve, including 71% who strongly approve of the indictment), with Republicans less unified in opposition (79% disapprove, with 54% strongly disapproving).

While views on the indictment are split along party lines, the poll finds that majorities across major demographic divides all approve of the decision to indict the former president. That includes gender (62% of women, 58% of men), racial and ethnic groups (82% of Black adults, 71% of Hispanic adults, 51% of White adults), generational lines (69% under age 35; 62% age 35-49; 53% age 50-64; 54% 65 or older) and educational levels (68% with college degrees, 56% with some college or less).

Seventy percent of adults believe Trump’s actions were either illegal or unethical. Amazingly, more than three-quarters say that politics played some role in the decision to charge him yet 60 percent overall still approve of the indictment. Nate Silver believes many Americans are treating it as a “lifetime achievement award,” not unlike indicting Al Capone for tax evasion. If the particular charge happens to be weak, it’s justified nonetheless by decades of unaccountability for other misconduct.

We can safely assume that additional indictments will drive Trump’s numbers lower with the majority of voters who aren’t already committed to him, and they’re already awfully low. What we can’t safely assume is how Republican voters will react to poll after poll after poll confirming that his legal troubles are incinerating his chances of defeating Biden.

As those polls pile up, Ron DeSantis’ electability advantage will grow. If, come September, Trump is facing three indictments and trails Biden by 8 points head-to-head while DeSantis has pulled even with the incumbent, what does that do to the right’s belief that they simply must renominate Trump in order to defeat the prosecutorial conspiracy against him?

I think the widening electability gap could weaken him substantially, especially with DeSantis out there hammering the point. There is indeed no substitute for victory.

If you want to reform the “deep state,” who’s more likely to do it? Newly inaugurated President Ron DeSantis or twice-defeated loser Donald Trump from his golf cart at Mar-a-Lago?

They’ll never admit it but some right-wingers might also find themselves put off by some of the evidence produced against Trump. A YouGov poll published shortly before the Manhattan indictment was issued found Republicans more likely to say that the hush money paid to Stormy Daniels is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” matter than they were five years ago, when the details first came out. Maybe that’s because Trump is no longer president and some on the right no longer feel obliged to defend him, maybe it’s because the sheer tawdriness of the scandal has worn on some social conservatives over time. Either way, the trend is in the wrong direction for him.

If the Republican Party is still a political party, you would wager that additional indictments will erode Trump’s support while growing DeSantis’. Political parties exist to win elections and enact a policy agenda commensurate with their ideology. The clearer it becomes that the former guy is unelectable barring an act of God, the weaker the case for nominating him gets.

But what if the Republican Party isn’t a political party, properly understood?

Damon Linker took up that question today. The modern GOP differs from traditional parties in two ways, he noted. First, on matters ranging from entitlements to foreign policy to even abortion to some degree, there’s no longer a consensus. The party fulminates against what it opposes—Democrats, “wokeness”—because, absent any agreement on what it supports, that’s one way it can hold its coalition together.

The other abnormal trait is that it’s become a personality cult in thrall to a very particular type of personality, another way to unite an otherwise unruly coalition. “Thanks to the influence of Trump and his voters, the GOP has adopted mobster morals: helping friends, harming enemies, and denying any broader commonality or shared solidarity underlying either or both. That’s the behavior of a criminal syndicate,” Linker tweeted. That sounds hyperbolic, but if I was right in Friday’s newsletter in thinking that the Republican base regards Trump’s legal troubles as an affirmative reason to support him, not just a liability to be ignored, what else should we call it?

Would a normal political party treat a mugshot of its leader as a point of pride worth wearing on a T-shirt, particularly when the underlying charges relate to something as squalid as Stormygate?

“I think what’s remarkable is how overtly the GOP has really stopped even trying to be a majoritarian party,” Nate Silver marveled last week. “Their vote share over the past four presidential elections is 46.8%, 46.1%, 47.2%, 45.7%.” Trump’s soaring primary polls post-indictment underline Silver’s point, as does the fact that the apparent lesson of the midterms seems to have already been forgotten. The Trumpiest candidates squandered numerous winnable races last November while DeSantis romped to reelection. It seems at the moment not to matter at all.

The question, then, is nothing more or less than whether the Republican base still prioritizes winning elections.

Regular readers can guess what I think.

I think Trump’s movement is revolutionary in nature and will accept electoral defeats as the price of consolidating its power over the Republican Party. His supporters don’t care about building majorities because they no longer believe they can durably build them. Demographics and irreligion have conspired against them to deliver Democrats a more or less permanent advantage. And so Republicans have turned to nationalism, a system in which legitimacy conveniently doesn’t derive from democracy. Under nationalism, the tribe that rightfully rules isn’t the one that gets the most votes, it’s the tribe that embodies the nation’s demographic and cultural heritage.

That’s how they can harp on about a “silent majority” despite the fact, repeatedly confirmed at the polls, that they’re nothing more than a noisy minority. They believe they have a right to rule no matter what the votes say. And insofar as the votes say otherwise, the votes must have been rigged.

The modern Republican’s affinity for outlaw status, from Tucker Carlson eulogizing the leader of the Hells Angels to Trump paying solemn tribute to the January 6 rioters at his rallies to the useful idiots simping for the war criminal who’s wrecking Ukraine, flows from that. When Ron DeSantis threatened last week to ignore the Constitution by refusing to extradite Trump, he was pandering to the same impulse. To succeed, the populist authoritarian project needs rank-and-file Republicans to question what they’ve traditionally believed about right and wrong, that classical liberalism is a virtue and illiberalism is a vice. One not very subtle way to encourage them to do that is to challenge their basic assumptions about who “the bad guys” really are.

Viewed that way, Trump selling T-shirts with his own mugshot on them was entirely inevitable. I’m only surprised that it took this long.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.