Donald Trump arrived at the Fulton County Jail a little after 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, ready for his mug shot. Hundreds of sweaty onlookers had converged on the press-and-protester pen on Rice Street in Atlanta — 94-degree heat, flies attacking from every angle — to witness Trump’s arrest and share how they felt about it. “They are fucking your children at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue!” screamed one barefoot woman wearing a red dress. Trump did not address the reporters or supporters gathered outside —several of whom had waited nearly 12 hours to see him and were drenched and visibly exhausted — and left 20 minutes later using the same back door he’d entered.
Those 20 minutes, inauspicious as they may have felt on the ground, turned out to be the bell sounding the opening of the 2024 presidential race. The queasy thrill that American audiences get from the sensationalistic crime coverage that plagues our evening news crescendoed to a fever pitch at the sight of Trump’s mug shot, all golden hair and glowering eyebrows — surely an instant contender for one of the most widely circulated images in history. The former president then returned to Twitter for the first time since the January 6 insurrection, proudly posting the mug shot that he was now using as a symbol of defiance. The race — against Joe Biden, against his numerous prosecutors, against the time it would take the legal process to run its course — was on.
The circus at the Fulton County Jail was a testament to how thoroughly Trump still has America in his thrall. His supporters were in the majority, in their dizzying array of Trump-branded merch, and ranged from disarmingly polite (“Excuse me, so sorry, mind if I squeeze past?”) to the rabid (“Obama is a PEDOPHILE!”). One anti-Trump protester spotted a group of “Blacks for Trump” and called them “corny”; the dozen or so Black members responded by chanting “Devil! Devil! Devil!” at her in unison, like an incantation. White nationalist Laura Loomer could be seen chasing down a man wearing Halloween-store jail stripes and accusing him of inciting violence, while Marjorie Taylor Greene declared to a gaggle of reporters, “This is what communism looks like.”
This charming atmosphere rivaled that of the previous night’s debate stage in Milwaukee, where Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy struggled to convince Republican voters that their personal brands of MAGA sociopathy were preferable to Trump’s. But watching them tear into each other as Trump declined to show up was further proof that they’re all still bit characters in his show. Almost all his nominal challengers for the Republican presidential nomination are scared to attack him, setting this primary up as less an election than a coronation.
Even at what should be his weakest moment, personally and politically, it’s hard to avoid the impression that Trump is in his element. The bleakly historic nature of his arrest — the first time a former U.S. president has been indicted on criminal charges — is largely undercut by the fact that he’s outpolling the rest of the GOP primary field by 40 points. So commanding is his lead that he’s skipping all of the debates (“The public knows who I am & what a successful Presidency I had,” he wrote on Truth Social) and using that time to cultivate his own media ecosystem. Minutes before Wednesday’s debate aired on Fox News, Trump and Tucker Carlson released a 46-minute interview on Twitter (now rebranded as X) that promptly racked up more than 74 million views and counting. His surrender at the jail conveyed a similar knack for manipulating the attention economy: Earlier in the week, several outlets reported that he was arriving in the evening mainly so he could be on TV during prime time.
By the time he returned to the Atlanta airport on Thursday, it was clear that Trump had surrendered in only the loosest sense of the word. He was not contrite. “I did nothing wrong,” he told reporters gathered on the tarmac. Instead, each of his four indictments has offered a new opportunity for martyrdom and fulfilled what always seemed to be his core ambition: being America’s main character, the eternal object of our collective ears and eyeballs.
With the jail as his backdrop, the former president had a ready-made accelerant for this burning desire. The fact that the mug shot was produced at such a notoriously filthy and overcrowded detention facility, which Trump may never actually set foot inside, is another sign of the situation’s perverse irony. It makes it look like the ex-president is being treated like a common criminal, with Fulton County sheriff Patrick Labat declaring that it “doesn’t matter your status, we’ll have a mug shot ready for you.” But while Labat and District Attorney Fani Willis and the region’s other power brokers benefit from the impression of a blindfolded Lady Justice, the county jail is practically bursting at the seams with poor Black people.
It’s a remarkable turnaround after Trump was left for dead in 2021 and banned from his preferred social-media platform. He spent years in crotchety solitude at Mar-a-Lago, then launched what looked like an extremely ill-advised presidential campaign, all with the coup-related indictments looming. His surrender in Georgia was a coming-out party of sorts, a reminder of what he really is. Trump’s inescapability suggests that he’s the closest thing American politics has to an elemental force, an entity that controls the weather and contorts everything around him. There’s a chance that the Fulton County prosecution is what finally does him in, but until then we’re in the middle of his storm.
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