If you’ve been following this year’s US presidential race, chances are you’ve seen the above photo of Donald Trump more than once. Wire service Getty Images just declared it their most popular election photo ever, downloaded 177 more times than the average election photo in their archive.
Taken during a rally in Dallas in September 2015, this photo shows Trump shrugging with raised shoulders, open palms, squinting eyes and pinched lips, wearing something like a smile. His expression almost perfectly replicates the “smugshrug” or “shruggie” emoji: ¯_(ツ)_/¯.
Google Image search turns up over 25 million results that contain or link to this image. Few of these webpages have anything to do with the event where the image was shot by photographer Tom Pennington. Instead, it has been used by media outlets to illustrate just about everything from “A Brief History of Cursing in American Politics” to “Donald Trump says he likes low interest rates but says he’ll replace Yellen.”
When the picture was taken, Trump was actually talking about media pundits (video) who mocked him for being a clown, but could no longer deny the likelihood of his presidency. Quartz consulted body language experts Lillian Glass and Richard Cytowic on the image, and both conclude that Trump’s posture suggests he was trying to show openness and invite agreement—not necessarily shrug in dismissal or denial.
But how does the rest of America interpret this human embodiment of ¯_(ツ)_/¯, and why is it so popular?
Emojipedia defines ¯_(ツ)_/¯ as “A person shrugging their shoulders to indicate a lack of knowledge about a particular topic, or a lack of care about the result of a situation.” And something about Trump’s casual, smiling shrug does capture the Republican candidate’s ability to totally disregard fact-checkers and critics alike.
Trump has steadfastly resisted calls to release his tax returns, unblinkingly proposed a range of contradictory budgets for his controversial wall on US-Mexican border, and refused to promise to accept the results of tomorrow’s vote. Nevertheless, he still may have a shot at becoming the 45th president of the United States. One way to interpret Trump’s ¯_(ツ)_/¯ is as a “y u mad” smugshrug—after all, he’s gotten away with unconventional and sometimes outrageous conduct so far.
All anyone can do now is vote wisely.