The King's 289M Bodies: On Trump's Mug Shot and the Sovereign Image

Curator's Note

Exactly how many bodies does it take to picture sovereign power? When Ernst Kantorowicz first posed the question in a 1957 study of medieval political theology, it was addressed to the body of the king in Tudor law, and the answer he found enshrined there was two: “a Body natural” that was “mortal, subject to all Infirmities that come by Nature or Accident, to the Imbecility of Infancy or old Age,” and “a body Politic,” rooted in the essentially theological model of Christ’s immortal body, “that cannot be seen or handled, consisting of Policy and Government, and constituted for the Direction of the People, and the management of the public weal.”[1] As Kantorowicz takes care to stress in the course of quoting this now-famous passage from Edmund Plowden’s Reports, the second, explicitly representational body it imagines is declared “utterly void of Infancy, and Old Age, and other natural Defects and Imbecilities, which the body natural is subject to.”[2] And so the modern concept of sovereignty was born, along with the concept of political representation it founded in the process of splitting these bodies.

Nearly five centuries later, as the American public confronts the prospect of a second Trump administration—casting weary glances at the wall-to-wall media coverage of Trump’s first criminal trial all the while—the second of these two bodies remains every bit as relevant as the first, and its fundamentally religious grounding even more so. Each time Trump insists that his service in the office of the President renders him immune to prosecution as such, it is of course this body he invokes—or anyhow, its essentially theological inheritance of an avowed capacity to transcend the considerable “Defects and Imbecilities” of his “body Natural,” and with it, the law. Meanwhile, to the extent that both major candidates for the 2024 presidential election would complete their terms as octogenarians, we are relying in one way or another on the part of this conceit that promises to make at least the second of these two bodies not just “utterly void of Infancy,” but “Old Age” and presumably death. In other words, the 1864 law against abortion that the Arizona state legislature recently reinstated is not actually the most archaic on the books; we are dealing with a culture of legal “Originalism” so violently retrograde that the concept of sovereignty it’s currently entertaining to shore up its ideological agenda effectively predates history as such, and we can expect the Supreme Court to rule accordingly.[3]

With this particular episode from the adventures of sovereign power in mind, it stands to reason that so much of the current criticism directed towards the iconography of Trumpism works to isolate the individual gestures that most clearly situate Trump’s body either above or outside the law: on the one hand, the now-explicitly evangelical rhetoric of his campaign rallies, and on the other—by far the more prominent—the now-explicitly criminal rhetoric of his personal branding. For instance, in an article for the New Yorker published immediately after Trump’s notorious mug shot was taken at the Fulton County Jail in August 2023, Vinson Cunningham declared the image Trump’s “true presidential portrait.”[4] (Image 1) More recently, Samuel Earle has argued that Trump’s increasing efforts to identify himself with the crooked heroism of the American gangster marks the official beginning of “Trump’s Third Act”—a routine that for Earle follows neatly from the “reality TV star and businessman” of 2016, to the “strongman” of the 2020 election, and now to “the heir of Al Capone—besieged by the authorities, charged with countless egregious felonies but surviving and thriving nonetheless, with an air of macho invincibility.”[5]

There is a great deal to value in both accounts. At this point, it hardly bears repeating that Trump has raised the vast majority of his current campaign funds on the basis of that mug shot and its trappings: less than an hour and a half after reporting to the authorities for booking, he had already posted a copy of the image to his personal Twitter/X account with the words “MUG SHOT—AUGUST 24, 2023” printed above, and the words “ELECTION INTERFERENCE NEVER SURRENDER!” printed below, along with a link to the fund-raising page on his website. (Image 2) As the breathless news coverage of both the booking and its aftermath has documented with second-by-second precision, the branded merchandise quickly followed: first with T-shirts, bumper stickers, and the inevitable mugs, but eventually also with wrapping paper, NFTs, and even scraps of the blue suit Trump wore for his fateful portrait.[6] By August 26th, the Trump campaign reported that it had raised more than $7.1 million in contributions from the image, and in the nine short months to follow, Trump’s original Tweet of the mug shot has accumulated more than 289 million views according to the platform’s own automated metrics. The rest, as they say, is (not yet even) history. And yet, the clearest reason to refer the rhetoric of power that governs these very same images to the representational logics of sovereignty writ large—and not to the individual reference points Trump cites to situate himself beyond the latter’s existing norms—has to do with the rather different way that doing so accounts for their surprisingly normative appeal. 

For the most succinct indication of what I have in mind here, it’s worth revisiting two of the more famous images from the visual culture of modern sovereign power. The first of these images comes from Francis Galton’s experiments with composite photography in the final decades of the 19th century. (Image 3) As Allan Sekula explains in the landmark essay “The Body and the Archive,” Galton’s elaboration of a meticulous practice for superimposing a series of different faces on a single photographic plate played a pivotal role in the modern sublimation of sovereign violence. Indeed, the rise of this instrumental aesthetic practice positioned the “objective” technology of photography at the very center of a complex institutional network designed to regulate the modern social body through the biopolitical indices of Bertillon’s mug shot, Galton’s own practice of fingerprinting, and the vast bureaucratic archives that housed the records they generated—all technologies of modern policing that emerged contemporaneously under the rubric of “social statistics,” coordinating the individual with the mass, the biological with the moral, and the deviant with the norm.[7] For Sekula, to the extent that Galton’s selection of faces was specifically tailored to the self-fulfilling prophecies of eugenics—allowing the cold mechanical gaze of the camera to reduce the faces of those defined in advance as “criminals,” “deviants,” and racialized “Others” to their allegedly “typical” features—these images form the very picture of modern sovereign violence, collapsing the “optical and statistical procedures within a single ‘organic’ operation.”[8]

The second image I want to discuss here predates both the rise of biopolitical governance and the invention of modern photography by more than a century, to say nothing of Galton’s experiments in composite photography. Nonetheless, it bears striking affinities with the instrumental aesthetic of accumulation that defines the composite image as such, as well as the latter’s superimpository approach to the optical production of a representational whole that is grounded in the body of the sovereign—and perhaps not by chance. After all, the image I have in mind here comes from the original frontispiece of Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651), arguably the founding text of modern political theory in general, and of sovereign power in particular. (Image 4) The treatise of course begins with a grand rhetorical set piece in which the state is identified with the eponymous sea monster from the Book of Job, but this metaphor works above all because it attests to the agglomerative aesthetic appetites that define the technology of the state in its drive to representational coherence, at once absorbing, embodying, and commanding such a staggering multimedia condensation of bodies, machines, institutions, practices, weapons, and wills that despite its pivotal place in the history of political science, it defies the very notion of ontological specification that formed the “scientific” basis of that same discipline—hence the overarching metaphor of monstrosity.[9]

The image commissioned for the volume’s frontispiece stages an iconic index of this same rhetorical set piece, presenting the body of the sovereign as an enormous crowned man comprised of the countless little bodies he represents while gripping a sword in his left hand and a crosier in his right, with assorted instruments of war and religion arrayed accordingly on either side beneath him. And it is with this same rhetorical set piece in mind, and the frontispiece moreover, that Derrida describes this founding image of the modern state and its sovereign power as “a sort of robot, an animal monster” that is “vitalist, organicist, finalist, and mechanist” all at once—a description that applies just as well, I might add, to the blurry, ghost-like faces of the mechanized apparitions that float to the surface of Galton’s composite pictures.[10]

What can we make of the profound aesthetic resonance between these images? And what can this resonance tell us about the ways in which Trump’s notorious mug shot taps into the supervening representational powers that the sovereign image commands in its fundamental promise to produce totality from dispersion, the whole from the part, technology from art? Needless to say, one should say a great deal more in response to both questions than I can say here. But with respect to the first, I want to emphasize the privileged place that I think the multimodal aesthetic of composite image-making holds in the representational imaginary of sovereign power—a power that secures all the seemingly contravening promises enumerated above precisely by superimposing enough dispersion to accumulate an image of coherence, as if magically translating bodies into “body,” deviance into norm, and a discontinuous network of representational arts into a technological whole. Conversely, I want to emphasize the essentially political function of the composite image in all its transmedial forms, from language, photography, and institutions to the cinematic movements that are animated in the overdetermined relay across them—a point that reverberates in telling ways with Ernesto Laclau’s insistence that the logic of the empty signifier founds the rhetorical condition of the political from the start.[11] This is the monster named Leviathan.

As for the monster named Trump: to characterize the fundamental representational logic of sovereign exception he’s currently invoking as an overdetermined rhetorical operation that promises to produce order from dispersion and deviance is already to say a good deal. Perhaps most importantly, it underscores the importance of taking seriously the argument that Trump’s increasingly popular appeal—ironically a first in the career of this so-called populist—owes not to the extremism of American voters, but to the peculiar effect of political moderation produced by his otherwise peripatetic ideological inconsistencies and his craven opportunism, his desperation for popular adulation, and the wild rhetorical conflation of the religious, the political, the spectacular, and the criminal that converges in the figure that he cuts. Indeed, as Matthew Schmitz puts it in a recent editorial for The New York Times, a growing portion of the electorate has come to regard him as “a pragmatic if unpredictable kind of moderate,” however unthinkable it may seem to those of us who see things differently.[12]

Returning to the mug shot that so neatly crystallizes the aesthetic production of this impression only further underscores the stakes it carries, even if doing so undercuts Schmitz’s suggestion that the appeal of authoritarianism is in no way part of this picture. By effectively uniting the same two bodies that for Foucault configure the very representational poles of sovereign power—namely the body of Kantorowicz’s “king” and “the body of the condemned man” who “represents [the king’s] symmetrical, inverted figure” in “the darkest region of the political field”—Trump’s mug shot effectively stages a spectacle of social representation as composite image.[13]  In the process, it superimposes the “honorific” and “repressive” traditions of photographic realism that Sekula treats as separate endeavors, not to mention the instruments and weapons of the state that unite them, into a holistic aesthetic operation that can only refer back to Hobbes.[14] And yet, the role that digital media technology plays in the restaging of this classic image of sovereign power cannot be overstated, nor can the exaggerated reification of social representation on which its power explicitly relies. Apart from the fact that the platforms of digital mediation provide a seamless transmedial mechanism for the exchange and compositing of images, effectively automating this key aesthetic procedure of politics along with the quantification of its representational scope, it must be said that Elon Musk contributed something essential to the staging of this political spectacle by reinstating Trump’s Twitter /X account prior to the booking—and perhaps more importantly, by doing so with the chilling Latin phrase “Vox populi, vox Dei.” It must also be said, however, that in granting this beneficent pardon, Musk gestured slyly to the newest source of division to the king’s body that looms on the horizon of sovereign power: the question of who, exactly, speaks the “vox Dei” in play here.

In this sense, the broad appeal Trump’s mug shot exercises can also be said to reflect a “sort of hypnotic fascination” with the resemblance of the “beast” and the “sovereign” that for Derrida underpins the very concept of sovereignty from its founding.[15] In what could easily serve as a straight description of the mug shot itself, Derrida summons the “worrying superposition of these two beings-outside-the-law or ‘without laws’ or ‘above the laws’ that beast and sovereign both are, which makes us see, project, perceive as in an X-ray the face of the beast under the features of the sovereign.”[16] Understood accordingly, the appeal of Trump’s mug shot could be said to issue in part from its paradoxical bond with an acknowledgment of the violence and criminality that have underpinned the logic of sovereignty from the start—a strange sense of candor that speaks as much to the normative nature of this bond in the history of sovereignty as it does to the fearsome ease with which the normativity of this history could be reinvented for worse once again. And yet, perhaps that reinvention has already taken place. For there is one crucial difference between Derrida’s “worrying superposition” of beast and sovereign and the image of their doubling in the Trump campaign’s repurposed mug shot: Trump’s piercing glare up toward the insignia of state power that’s been excised from this version, an object of desire and rage at once—is it the studium or the punctum of the original image?—effectively transforms the X-ray into a mirror. That is, it makes Trump’s own enormous face the narcissistic surface on which the superimposed figures of beast and sovereign find their common measure, such that each one becomes the tautological justification of the other in a single sulfurous visage.

To reckon with this difference is to take seriously the possibility that our “hypnotic fascination” with the convergence of the “two beings-outside-the-law... that beast and sovereign both are” carries newfound volatility in the age of neoliberal media governance—a moment in which, if Musk’s exculpation of Trump is any guide, the question of who in fact “decides” to suspend or uphold the laws of the state, and who in turn decides the appropriate target for state violence, looms especially large.[17] In “The Image of the Body and Totalitarianism,” Claude Lefort identifies such moments of heightened uncertainty over the locus of state power, which he attributes to the democratization of representation more generally, with the growing appeal of a figure that he memorably dubs “the Egocrat.”[18] According to Lefort, the Egocrat makes an essentially totalitarian promise “to banish the indetermination that haunts the democratic experience” by resurrecting the representational unity promised by the king’s Christ-like body and the normative consistency of the social it promises, but not without a crucial difference.[19] For as Lefort goes on to explain, “the Egocrat coincides with himself, as society is supposed to coincide with itself,” and as a result, “[a]n impossible swallowing up of the body in the head begins to take place, as does an impossible swallowing up of the head in the body,” such that “the death instinct is unleashed into the closed, uniform, imaginary space of totalitarianism.” With this inverted act of political transubstantiation in mind, we should regard Trump’s mug shot not simply as an amusing PR stunt or an inspired act of desperation, but as a deadly serious answer to the question from which we began, wherein the picture of sovereign power requires only one body, and that body is no body at all; it’s just that beastly face.


[1] Edmund Plowden, Commentaries, or Reports (London, 1816), quoted in Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), 7.

[2] Plowden, Commentaries, or Reports, quoted in Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies, 7.

[3] I should clarify that I’m not referring to the most rudimentary persistence of the presidential office beyond the lifespan of an individual president, which also issues from this tradition; I’m referring to the notion that the Supreme Court could indeed grant Trump’s claims of presidential immunity, a vast expansion of this same basic conceit.

[4] Vinson Cunningham, “Trump’s Mug Shot Is His True Presidential Portrait,” The New Yorker, 25 August 2023, n.p.

[5] Samuel Earle, “Trump’s Third Act? American Gangster,” The New York Times, 31 March 2024, 4. 

[6] For a helpful recounting of this entire sequence of events that also attests to the still-ongoing rehearsal of its historical significance, see Marianne LeVine, Josh Dawsey, and Isaac Arnsdorf, “How Donald Trump’s Mug Shot Became a Defiant and Divisive Symbol for 2024,” The Washington Post, 9 April 2024,

[7] Allan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive,” October 39 (Winter 1986).

[8] Ibid., 44.

[9] For readers unfamiliar with the extended metaphor that begins Hobbes’ treatise, see Thomas Hobbes, “Introduction,” Leviathan: Or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, edited by Michael Oakeshott (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962).

[10] Jacques Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign: Volume I, translated by Geoffrey Bennington and edited by Michel Lisse, Marie-Louise Mallet, and Ginette Michaud (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 54.

[11] Ernesto Laclau, Why Do Empty Signifiers Matter to Politics?” in Emancipations (London: Verso, 1996), 36-46.

[12] As Schmitz goes on to note, “When asked whether Trump was too conservative, not conservative enough, or ‘not too far either way,’ 57% of voters in a recent poll picked ‘not too far either way,’” while “[o]nly 27% regarded him as too conservative.” We should of course note the conservative slant that structures this set of responses, but I would argue nonetheless that we ignore it at our own peril. Matthew Schmitz, “The Secret of Trump’s Appeal Isn’t Authoritarianism,” The New York Times, 18 December 2023,

[13] Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated by Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), 29.

[14] The “honorific” tradition of photography that Sekula summons consists of presidential portraits and other official imagery produced in exaltation of the state and its embodiment in the figure of the leader. In appending the “instruments of the state” to this formulation, I mean to invoke not only the imagery of the original frontispiece of Leviathan that anchors this tradition in theory, with its crosiers and cannons and swords, but also the less recognized emphasis Trump often places on the imagery of state institutions in his own displays of sovereign power, from courtrooms to historic presidential bibles. This is to my thinking an irony of reactionary populism that deserves more attention: its reliance on the scenery of the state that it abhors and covets at once. Sekula, “The Body and the Archive,” 6.

[15] Jacques Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign: Volume I, 18.

[16] Ibid., 40.

[17] Here I invoke the two most influential accounts of sovereignty as the power of designating the friend or the enemy to be killed, on the one hand, and the power of invoking the legal exception, on the other. See Carl Schmitt, The Political, translated by George Schwab (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996); Giorgio Agamben, The State of Exception, translated by Kevin Attell (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005).

[18] Claude Lefort, “The Image of The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism, edited by John B. Thompson (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1986), 292-306.

[19] Lefort, The Political Forms of Modern Society, 305-306.

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