Despite the world’s worst mugshot, Trump is still in the frame for president

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It is, for the moment, the most famous photograph in the world. The stare, the scowl, the pursed lips with their downturn of sourness, the tanning tints muted along with the hair showing more white than orange. Tens of millions across America see the mugshot released on Friday, Sydney time, as a reckoning of justice and the rule of law. The former president’s allies and armies see it as an insult with the American experiment now no different from other republics, such as Argentina, that prosecute former leaders.

Donald Trump’s police mugshot released by the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office.Credit: Reuters

For all the political tragics in America, but especially for Republicans, who desperately want Joe Biden and the Democrats removed from power and punished for their scandalous persecution of Trump, the accused former president’s arrest in Georgia is being processed in the wake of the first Republican presidential debate in Wisconsin.

No matter how you cut it, the two-hour show only affirmed that there is no Republican candidate seeking to take Trump’s place able to dislodge his grip on renomination.

Because he was not on stage, Trump did not dominate the debate, but none of his rivals could dominate the Trump who is known so well. His former vice president, Mike Pence, was the most consistent, confident and experienced candidate on the stage. A true conservative at home, and the heir to Ronald Reagan’s peace through strength for America abroad. But the audience – a fulsome Trump audience – views Pence as a traitor for not doing what Trump insisted he do: obstruct and overturn the counting in Congress of the Electoral College votes that certified Joe Biden’s victory. Pence is toast.

Ron DeSantis broke no ground. He will not be separated from his talking points. His charisma gene – he won re-election in Florida as governor last year by 20 points – is in remission. DeSantis was to be “Trump without the baggage”, but he is trapped in the culture wars of woke ideology, school curricula and book bans, anti-gay and anti-trans fear, and is unable to transcend those battlefields and be an appealing alternative to Trump.

The other Republican presidential candidates, from left: former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, former vice president Mike Pence, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, Senator Tim Scott, and North Dakota governor Doug Burgum.Credit: AP/Morry Gash

Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina, was rousing on abortion, budgets and taxes, and Ukraine. But in reaching her positions, she attacks what Trump did, especially on his huge tax cuts and deficit spending. She cannot win over Trump voters by attacking the boss.

Tim Scott, the black Senator from South Carolina, failed to ignite. A very appealing man, with a compelling narrative, who is, in a field of angry candidates, decent and hopeful, was sidelined. He may yet be the perfect vice-presidential running mate.

Chris Christie, cast as the would-be Trump assassin from New Jersey (where they really know how to slash), hit his mark, but it was barely a flesh wound.

The true star was Vivek Ramaswamy, the Millennial tech capitalist, with limitless self-confidence and a snappy answer for everything, a machine-gun delivery, a smile as wide as the ocean, and less experience in public office than Donald Trump had in 2016. Vivek is the shiny new thing. Squeezing every second for the killer quote, his appeal was full Trump – but 40 years younger.

It is clear that Republican voters want to know more. But who knows? In 2016, the UK voted for Brexit and the US elected Trump. The UK now has Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at 10 Downing Street and Vivek is knocking on the White House door.

But let’s get real. No one emerged from the debate as the clear alternative to Trump. None of them stood up to say: “Donald, you are the defendant-in-chief. All the best for your months in court. But this means you cannot also be the Commander-in-Chief. The American people need a full-time president.”

Six of the eight candidates, including Pence and DeSantis, raised their hands to affirm that, even if Trump becomes a convicted felon in the criminal trials ahead, they will still support his being the Republic presidential nominee. None of them can take Trump down and win the nomination in their own right.

Meanwhile, in Lake Tahoe, where he is on vacation, President Joe Biden watched the debate. He had a very good night. Nikki Haley gave him an instant campaign ad on Trump’s trillions in excessive spending. Biden heard extremism from the candidates on abortion bans, climate change denial, Medicare and social security. Biden heard attacks on US support for and world leadership on Ukraine, on the very day there was every reason to believe Putin killed the warlord who staged a mutiny against his rule. Biden remembered when he was criticised two years ago for calling Putin a “killer”. Biden is confident he can take Trump – again.

But the only person who can stop Trump right now is Trump. By becoming a convicted felon. By irrevocably turning off enough voters with his rants and rages that enough moderate Republicans and independents who will vote in the primaries to choose their nominee have – finally – had enough.

The mugshot as presidential portrait. No star in the Republican firmament is shining brighter.

Bruce Wolpe is a senior fellow at the United States Studies Centre. He has served on the Democratic staff in the US Congress and as chief of staff to former prime minister Julia Gillard.

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