The Trump Mug Shots We Deserve

The multiverse took on new meaning on Tuesday as two entirely different realities — the actual and the Trumpian — were captured in two different pictures painting two different versions of the same story.

On the one hand, the unprecedented image of Donald J. Trump, a former president of the United States and current presidential candidate, being perp-walked grimly into New York criminal court as his indictment was unsealed. On the other, Mr. Trump standing on a stage only hours later at Mar-a-Lago, issuing his own indictment of his prosecutors in front of multiple American flags and a rapt crowd.

In both photos, Mr. Trump is wearing his signature Master of the Universe-meets-Captain America uniform: a navy suit, white shirt and bright red, too-long tie. His elaborate cream puff of hair is intact, as is his fake tan and the pugnacious set of his jaw.

But only one image is likely to go down in history.

From the moment the picture of Mr. Trump was taken as he entered the Manhattan courthouse on Tuesday, following uniformed officers of the law, it became a symbol: of a travesty of justice or its righteous democratic expression; of a potentially new era in American life.

It may not have been the traditional mug shot everyone was expecting — one which the Trump adviser Alan Dershowitz suggested to Newsmax could be turned to Mr. Trump’s advantage on campaign merch, given that the announcement of the indictment had led to a rush of campaign contributions. That one wasn’t deemed necessary — though the Trump campaign quickly mocked up a joke version on a fund-raising T-shirt.

But perhaps it’s the quasi-mugshot we deserve: the ultimate reality court TV freeze frame; the evolutionary climax of vicarious culture, pageantry politics and social media. A meme, and a political weapon, in the making.

Mr. Trump made a New York entrance, starting from a motorcade out of Mar-a-Lago to a Trump-branded private plane to a Manhattan motorcade. He has always appreciated the value of a dramatic denouement, ever since “The Apprentice.” He has always known what it is to set a stage to send a message.

After all, most of the electorate probably won’t parse the details of the Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg’s indictment. Many people may not even read the mountain of news articles analyzing the charges or all the opinion pieces written about the decision to indict the former president and its potential repercussions, legal and otherwise. But they will have seen the picture, as it hurtled around social media networks, and landed on home pages and front pages.

Mr. Trump probably viewed his appearance in court as simply another chance to manipulate perception, to remind the watching world of who he was. (All attention is good attention.) He was the star of the show, right?

Yet, sandwiched between the officers of the law and his own lawyers, he did not look it. He was cast into shadow, treated just like anyone else. Or almost like anyone else: He wasn’t handcuffed.

He looked uncomfortable, just as he did as he sat hunched in front of the judge, silent save for the words “not guilty.” Behind the defendant’s table, it’s impossible to manspread, Mr. Trump’s preferred way of sitting, as was made clear in the many photos taken with world leaders during his four years in office.

In the end, it was probably not the picture of defiance and untouchability Mr. Trump had imagined. So he seized the chance to create another one, back at Mar-a-Lago.

One that elevated him, literally, to his rightful place: on a gilded stage, above it all, patriotically color-coordinated with his backup flags (he also added a matching lapel pin) and unsullied by the sordid details associated with the crime involved in the actual indictment. In the audience were many of his children and their spouses: Eric and Lara Trump; Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle; Tiffany and Michael Boulos. They played their parts with alacrity, cheering on Mr. Trump, even as their costumes suggested they were going to a funeral.

Still, it’s a familiar picture. One that has been seen before, in the canon of Trump image-making. Indeed, the framing was a lot like Mr. Trump’s most recent campaign announcement, which is probably not a coincidence. Except for one thing.

Neither Melania nor Ivanka Trump was in the picture.