February 27, 2024

Fading Force: Has Trump Lost His Edge in His Court-Defying Visual Strategy?

REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/Pool

By Michael Shaw

What if you really can’t shoot someone in broad daylight in the middle of Time Square and get away with it? What if you only think so because, with all your excuses and delaying tactics, you can postpone judgment day for years on end? And, what if you aren’t such a gold-plated phenom – Mr. Art of the Deal – after a judge here and a jury there bleeds you of half a billion?

Given Trump’s recent fortunes (or fortune erasers), it appears he’s losing his Teflon, at least in the criminal space. Whereas his battles with the justice system were one more arena where he could supercharge the bad boy image, I see recent losses eroding his veneer of invincibility. But how can I say that when the media continues to trumpet his Midas touch in the presidential race?

The answer lies in the power of imagery. The visual narrative is a sensitive and informing indicator as our readers understand. I expect a discernible change in the visual narrative of Trump on trial, both in his ability to control the narrative and the media’s enabling of it. We’re seeing a real-time evolution in the visual discourse as the “martyr game” loses its luster and the reality of Trump’s legal accountability sets in.

To understand the arc of the coverage, Trump’s dominance, and the impending breakdown of Trump’s victim schtick, let’s start with our Chatting the Pictures video analyzing a fascinating photo taken last April by Mary Altaffer for the AP. Because we recorded it in the year’s final days, the video captures Trump’s control of the narrative at its peak.

Taken on April 4, 2023, the picture shows Donald Trump under arrest at Manhattan Criminal Court before his arraignment, having just been charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in directing hush-money payments to two different women, including porn star Stormy Daniels, to save face in the last presidential campaign.

The video discusses how the scene still functions as a Trump photo-op despite the daunting array of law enforcement officials. We also consider the image from the perspective of Trump’s followers, the way it reinforces his authoritarian narrative and penchant for martyrdom as the news sphere buzzed with Trump’s threats about dictatorial powers and constitutional-defying acts.

Controlling the Narrative in a Scowl

Former U.S. President Donald Trump appears in the courtroom with his lawyers for his civil fraud trial at New York State Supreme Court on October 3, 2023, in New York City. Photo by Shannon Stapleton-Pool/Getty Images

Trump exploited his situation, turning his legal problems to his media advantage, starting with his trial in New York, which began in October 2023. The case involved Trump, his company, and Trump executives fraudulently inflating his assets to obtain better loans and insurance rates. For days, photos of Trump scowling from the defense table between his two lawyers, Christopher M. Kise and Alina Habba, flooded the media space.

Trump’s next broadside came with the public release of his mug shot in the Georgia case in which Trump and 17 co-conspirators were charged with state election interference. The historic image was released by authorities and posted publicly on the evening of August 24, 2023. Trump promised to take maximum advantage of that image with its deliberate grimace, and he did.

(Here’s a link, by the way, to my post on how the media could’ve handled the mug shot and kept the enabling to a minimum.)

The scowl became the glowing signature of Trump’s control over and repudiation of his legal jeopardy. And it got even more run in the sixth week of the fraud trial as Trump took the witness stand.

Former President Donald Trump waits to take the witness stand at the New York Supreme Court on Monday, November 6, 2023, in New York. Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via AP, Pool

Far from the close-up to which we had become accustomed, however, I think the wider angle photographer Jabin Botsford is treating us to starts to tread into commentary, showing how Trump’s posture–in relation to the audience and institutional process he is entangled in, like the nest of wires on the table–only goes so far.

Picture That Indicates the Tide Has Turned?

What you want to keep your eye on is how much Trump remains able to visually buffer himself after his recent stunning defeats, including the massive $550 million judgment from the business fraud case and the $83 million libel penalty Trump was ordered to pay in the second E. Jean Carroll trial.

With recent polls showing almost half of swing state voters, and even 23% of Republican voters, potentially unwilling to vote for Trump if he were convicted of a crime, are the photo-ops over? Will we start to see pix of Trump stealing into courthouse parking garages or back doors? Seriously though, can we expect more photos liberating Trump from control of the scale, his position in space, and even his body language? Or, like kryptonite to the Superman, will we just be seeing a lot less of him around the courts, and anything else that reminds us of his legal problems?

Former President Donald Trump speaks to reporters before entering a New York courtroom on Thursday, February 15, 2024. Trump was attending a hearing in the hush money criminal case against him. A judge denied Trump’s motion to dismiss the case, confirming that a trial will begin with jury selection on March 25. Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP

With that in mind, I wonder what you think about this photo taken a week and a half ago after a pre-trial motion in the hush money case. Fittingly, it was also taken by Mary Altaffer. I can’t help looking at it as a bookend to the photo we analyzed before. What it lacks in drama, it more than makes up in banality. And it’s one of the best impressions I’ve seen since the Trump legal circus began that skews less to performance and misdirection than to a backpedaling con artist in the dock.

Post By

Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

The Big Picture

Follow us on Instagram (@readingthepictures) and Twitter (@readingthepix), and


A curated collection of pieces related to our most-popular subject matter.


Comments Powered by Disqus