The Dangerous Marketing of the Trump Mug Shot

After the mug shot, the marketing.

Since former President Donald J. Trump’s booking photo was released by the Fulton County, Ga., Sheriff’s Office late on Aug. 23, it has exploded across hundreds of T-shirts and tchotchkes.

First out of the gate, not surprisingly, was the Trump campaign itself, which overnight splashed the picture on a variety of merch. Hours later, the Never Trumpers, otherwise known as the Lincoln Project, had also reproduced the mug shot on a — pun alert — shot glass, along with the acronym “F.A.F.O.” and the exhortation to “Raise a glass to justice.” Not long after that, Green Day, the punk band, offered a T-shirt on Instagram that had swapped out the portraits on the cover of its 1997 “Nimrod” album with the mug shot.

Between the two poles is a veritable bonanza of stuff on sites like Redbubble and Etsy, where if you search “Trump mug shot,” more than a dozen pages of products come up, pro-Trump and anti-Trump alike. See, for example, a T-shirt by LemonGoats that features the booking photo and the line “Grab him by the penal code.”

But what does it mean, exactly, that no matter our allegiances at this particular moment, or our different versions of recent history, we share a common ground right in the middle of an ocean of consumer kitsch? That while we may have lost the skill of constructive dialogue, we all still speak T-shirt?

“It shows the cynicism of late capitalism and the era we are in,” said Wendy A. Woloson, a professor of history at Rutgers University-Camden and the author of “Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America.”

“Normally you would be ashamed of a mug shot and what it represents,” Ms. Woloson said, “but this is a way for both sides to own it. Literally. To domesticate it and make it safe by turning it into a commodity.”

Though who benefits, really, from such transubstantiation is a more complicated question.

The day after the mug shot was taken, Chris LaCivita, one of Mr. Trump’s advisers, posted a warning on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, to anyone considering “raising money off the mug shot of @realDonaldTrump.” If you have not received an official OK, he wrote, “WE ARE COMING AFTER YOU.”

But, Susan Scafidi, the founder of the Fashion Law Institute, said that federal law does not protect the right to publicize your own likeness — albeit in some cases “protection against false endorsement or association may apply.”

“Trump could, in theory, attempt to shut down sales of merch with his mug shot,” Ms. Scafidi said, “not unlike the way Obama objected to appearing on a Weatherproof Garment Company billboard, but I suspect his legal team is busy with other matters.”

Besides, she continued, “the U.S. Copyright Act excludes from protection any works created by the federal government, but not state or local governments, so technically the state of Georgia owns the photo, subject to fair use limitations.” In any case, neither concern appears to have stopped anyone.

The Trump campaign has made out very well, as you might expect from a man whose greatest product has always been himself, and whose view on the world often seems to involve the monetization of all things.

Buying any product from a candidate’s store equates directly to money in their campaign bank account, since under federal law any such purchase is actually a donation; the object is the premium you get in return. On Aug. 26, Steven Cheung, a Trump campaign spokesman, posted on X that since the mug shot was taken, the campaign had taken in $7.1 million, with “$4.18 million yesterday (Friday) alone, the highest grossing day of the entire campaign.”

It’s the same story at the Lincoln Project, where Rick Wilson, a co-founder, said that shot glasses (one of 10 possible mug shot-related products the creative team had tested) were the fastest-selling product the organization had made since 2020. All proceeds, he said, would go toward their media campaign to raise awareness about the “threat to the Republic” they believe Mr. Trump represents.

“It’s a way to capture a moment like this in a way that turns Trump’s notoriety and infamy back on itself,” Mr. Wilson said. To use that notoriety to a different end, the Green Day tee is being sold to benefit Greater Good Music, a charity helping the victims of the Maui wildfires.

What they and all those involved, including the Etsy and Redbubble sellers — who are simply profiting off a cultural convulsion — understand is that, increasingly, our politics aren’t real unless they are advertised. Or maybe they are too real, until they are reduced to the digestible level of advertising.

“It’s a way to trivialize a larger issue, to reduce a complex context to the status of a simplistic message,” said Marita Sturken, the author of “Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero” and a professor at N.Y.U. Steinhardt. It is, she noted, a hallmark of early 21st-century American culture.

In a sense, consumption has become a way to process our experience, to reduce what could be an overwhelming sense of anxiety or fear sparked by a national event involving allegations of insurrection and threats to the constitution by remaking it and recoding it as a joke product.

“Americans have been defining themselves through their consumption patterns for centuries,” Ms. Woloson said. “Other cultures do it too, but we do it on steroids.” This is simply what she calls the ultimate “encrapification” of that tendency.

The problem is, in reducing big issues to the level of cheapish everyday stuff, both sides are also normalizing them. They are creating a situation in which we all get suckered into the idea that the current turmoil is a souvenir to be acquired and then stuck in a drawer, rather than confronted. Is that really something to be proud about buying into?

Vanessa Friedman has been the fashion director and chief fashion critic for The Times since 2014. In this role she covers global fashion for both The New York Times and International New York Times. More about Vanessa Friedman

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