As Donald Trump’s time in the White House comes to an end, some creative folks have already begun to imagine his presidential library. A Florida man has offered Trump his trailer park as the site. And a New York City architect and a few friends recently put together a suite of slick architectural renderings of the exhibits they envisioned in the library: a “Hall of Enablers,” which includes the usual suspects, Fox News, Lindsey Graham (but nothing about the corporations that have helped elevate Trump and quietly donated to his campaigns), as well as a permanent gallery of Trump’s tweets.
These stunts offer up little more than the same “orange man bad” critique we’ve heard for four years, which, as usual, rolls off Trump like water off a duck’s back, renderings be damned. But they do highlight a lasting truth about the cult of the American presidency: the idea that presidential libraries are somehow ennobled tombs of knowledge and research is laughable; in reality, they’re barely libraries. “Shrines” would be a more accurate description. Ronald Reagan’s in Simi Valley, California, includes such hard-hitting exhibits as the actual Air Force One he used to travel the world during his presidency and a hologram of him giving a speech. Barack Obama’s library isn’t even a physical library—he opted to have his entire stash of papers and documents digitized for perusal on the internet. (The proposed complex in Chicago will, however, include a rap recording studio.)
More than most, Donald Trump will throw himself into the planning of his library. This is a man who, prior to his stint in politics, made his living scattering buildings of middling architectural quality across the country and emblazoning them with his name. And after four years of hollering about the Emoluments Clause, many of those buildings still bear their large Trump logos. Give him the opportunity to plop a gluttonous, gleaming, self-serving monument on some unsuspecting parcel of New York land, and he will most certainly take it. (After all, no president since Herbert Hoover has decided not to have a presidential library; even Richard Nixon chose to build one, at his birthplace in Yorba Linda, after slinking away from Washington in disgrace.)
As for its architecture, that’s an amusing question: Perhaps Trump trusts his Trump Tower instincts and hires some swanky architect to build a modern, over-the-top bauble. Perhaps he listens to his allies at the anti-modernist think tank the National Civic Art Society and drops a neo-Palladian dumpster fire clad in fake stucco, his name carved into its oversize pediment in some ghastly serif. Or perhaps he simply adds another story to one of his existing buildings to increase its revenue—after all, that’s the cheapest solution, and Trump is a businessman through and through.
One can easily imagine a library partitioned according to Trump’s various obsessions: the Donald J. Trump Hall of Supporting Our Troops and Also Coal Miners From Real America, complete with pictures of Trump smiling and shaking hands with unsuspecting military and industrial personnel. Maybe there will be a section devoted to the work of his wife, featuring her various outfits and those eldritch Christmas decorations she put up year after year. One can picture a dimly lit gallery with cases containing the collectible coins, plates, and other kitsch Trump peddled to his base through infomercials tucked away between Fox News segments. Maybe there will be some kind of interactive exhibit, too—a virtual-reality Trump rally, perhaps, or a section of the Wall he never completed. Trump is a troll at heart, and it’s hard to imagine a Trump library without an entire wing devoted to his culture war prerogatives: automatic weapons, Blue Lives Matter memorabilia, Confederate flags—hell, why not relocate an entire Confederate statue?
An accurate tribute to the Trump presidency would include exhibits about the families separated at the border, or memorials to the Covid dead, their names spelled out like the ones on Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Instead, all we can know to expect is a gift shop as large as the library itself, the physical manifestation of a presidency that was always for sale to the highest bidder.