Donald Trump is digging his own political grave with that mugshot

In his pre-recorded interview with Donald Trump, broadcast Wednesday evening via his Twitter (now “X’) platform to intentionally conflict with the GOP’s presidential debate, Tucker Carlson could barely contain himself. Over and over, he relentlessly questioned Trump about the prospect for violent action in response to Trump’s ever-increasing pile of indictments.   

As reported by Isaac Arnsdorf, writing for the Washington Post, even when it became clear that Trump (no doubt after being advised by his attorneys that any incendiary verbal outbursts were incompatible with his precarious position as as criminal defendant) was not actually taking the bait, Carlson still persisted.

“The next stage is violence,” Carlson said. “Are you worried they’re going to try to kill you? Why wouldn’t they try to kill you?

Trump did not directly answer. Carlson tried again later. “If you chart it out it’s an escalation,” Carlson said, recounting the two impeachments and four indictments against Trump. “So what’s next? They’re trying to put you in prison for the rest of your life, that’s not working. So don’t they have to kill you now?” Trump again avoided answering directly.

At the conclusion of the 46-minute interview, Carlson returned to the subject of potential violence. “Do you think we’re moving toward civil war?” he said. “Do you think it’s possible that there’s open conflict?”

“I don’t know,” Trump said.

But by Thursday evening, Trump’s coy (and decidedly out-of-character) reticence regarding violence had yielded to reality. The grim and threatening mugshot Trump presented when faced with the uncomfortable situation of being booked for criminal charges at Fulton County’s jail revealed an attitude in stark contrast with his prior restraint to Carlson’s crude goading.

Thanks to the unusually harsh warnings he has already received from Judge Chutkan in the federal indictment filed against him in Washington D.C.,  Trump knows by now that explicit appeals to violence — towards witnesses or otherwise —  can land him in serious trouble. But while an unthinking, honest and on-the-record answer to Carlson’s leading questions might have legitimately threatened Trump’s continued personal  freedom, a mugshot by definition is left to the eye of the beholder. The mugshot, unmistakably aimed solely at his voting base, served as the message Trump really wanted to send: That it’s OK for his supporters to become violent on his behalf, even if he wasn’t willing to risk his own skin by actively promoting such violence.

The problem that Trump faces, however — and the reason his strategy will backfire — is that far more Americans are repelled by actual violence than they are attracted to hypothetical, imagined violence. 

Because it is so unpredictable and disruptive, violence is the antithesis of the methodical, punctilious, institutional order of our criminal justice system. Consequently, Trump, whose mentality and worldview have been informed by exploiting the weaknesses of American institutions (including the judiciary) believes that constantly ginning up the threat of violence is his best chance to fracture (and ultimately) escape that system, with its tools now so formidably deployed against him. It’s unlikely, however, that Special Counsel Jack Smith or Fulton County District attorney Fani Willis are going to be swayed by a scary mugshot. Trump’s only purpose in staging such a provocative pose was to inflame his supporters (or possibly the jury pool), hoping that somehow, some way, they will save him from the criminal convictions he now faces.

Trump came to power in the first place because there was — and still is — is a large bloc of voters who respond favorably to his authoritarian, “strong-man” pretense. The reaction by one Trump supporter, interviewed for an article by Shane Goldmacher, writing for the New York Times, and explaining a Times/Siena college poll of Republican “likely voter” preferences, is typical:

“He might say mean things and make all the men cry because all the men are wearing your wife’s underpants and you can’t be a man anymore,” David Green, 69, a retail manager in Somersworth, N.H., said of Mr. Trump. “You got to be a little sissy and cry about everything. But at the end of the day, you want results. Donald Trump’s my guy. He’s proved it on a national level.”

It’s people like Mr. Green who Trump hopes to impress by that menacing mugshot, the ones who will identify with Trump’s faux air of obstinacy and strength, who see Trump as a reflection of their own resentments and prejudices. And with poll after poll showing Americans — particularly conservative Americans --  increasingly voicing their willingness to condone political violence, it’s understandable how Trump could believe that these attitudes could be harnessed for his benefit (for Trump, cultivating a perception that he finds violence acceptable is also key to his ability to fundraise, and he and others will be monetizing this image ad nauseum, but that is a separate issue).

But the “conventional wisdom” that Americans are willing to tolerate violence, even violence performed towards others of a different political persuasion, is demonstrably countered by those who place a higher value on tranquility and stability in their own lives. The country Trump and his supporters evidently envision is one in which roaming gangs of his supporters dominate the streets, imposing their will on a helpless populace: A world where law and order are effectively ignored. This type of world might well appeal to the keyboard commandos who populate right-wing social media, but as one study shows, while voters when polled markedly overstate their tolerance for ambiguously stated, generic political  violence, their actual reaction to specific, violent acts is quite different.

In fact, as that research paper points out:

[E]ven though segments of the public may support violence or report that it is justified in the abstract, nearly all respondents still believe that perpetrators of well-defined instances of severe political violence should be criminally charged.

The plain fact is that voters have already weighed in — twice, actually  — on how they feel about the threats issued by Trump and his most virulent supporters. Further actions by Trump’s violent base won’t change that basic equation. That doesn’t mean there won’t be violence if and when Trump is convicted of anything. In fact, the record so far of “near misses” in this year alone confirms that there will most definitely be specific acts of violence from Trump supporters, some of whom will be influenced by this mugshot and Trump’s continued heedless antics on social media. Assuming the walls continue to close in on Trump, the tone of violent rhetoric from his backers can be expected to increase.

The record of the last two elections, however, suggests that this escalation won’t matter, and not simply because, as pointed out by research professor Christian Davenport in an interview conducted for an article by by NPR, “People will say a great number of things on a poll,” but never actually act on their professed beliefs.

Because Americans already have experience with Trump threatening their lives, and they’ve rendered their verdict multiple times. The abysmal and malevolent response by Trump and his Republican enablers to the COVID-19 pandemic was probably the singular factor in voters’ decision to reject Trump in 2020. Likewise, voters — Democrats and Independents alike — uniformly rejected those Republican candidates who modelled their own campaigns in 2022 on Trump’s election lies.  Those lies were inextricably associated with violence performed with breathtaking visibility, in an unprecedented, violent assault at our nation’s capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. For Trump, but more importantly for those who oppose Trump, his claims of a “stolen” election are now equated with raw violence from his supporters, and the majority of Americans clearly have expressed their reaction: They don’t appreciate it,  they don’t like it, and they don’t want it, no matter what Tucker Carlson may say.

It may be difficult for Republican voters to comprehend— ensconced as they are in their alternative universe silos of disinformation — but by any objective standards, the 2022 election should have been an electoral wipeout for Democrats. Adding to the historical recurrence of a president’s party losing control of Congress in a midterm election, inflation at the time was still at unprecedented levels. Gas prices were still high, if gradually coming down. Abortion rights were suddenly on the ballot, however, and Trumpian candidates were still peddling the same nonsense — including threats of violence. Then, as now, the Republican party was unable or unwilling  to separate itself from Trump.

There is no reason to expect that the political landscape will be much, if at all, different in a year from now, except Trump may have actually been convicted of some or all of the 91 felony counts currently pending against him. No white knight is going to come riding in to save the day for them. Abortion will still be a major factor. But for Republicans, it will be still be Trump, Trump, Trump, all the time, except this time saddled with the baggage of multiple criminal indictments and probably an even larger tally of violent and (literally) repulsive actions from his most rabid supporters. Those actions didn’t work to dissuade voters in 2020, they didn’t work in 2022, and they’re not going to work in 2024.

Next year, however, every time a violent act from some Trump-spouting psychopath occurs, Americans won’t need to search their memories for the reasons they voted the way they did in the prior two elections. This time, all Americans will have the benefit of a clear, distinct and unforgettable photograph in the back of their minds, when they are once again called on to vote. Trump evidently hopes Americans will be too scared or intimidated by his followers to re-elect president Biden. The record simply shows that they won’t.