Gerald Ford lost the 1976 presidential election. Ford holds a really unique honor among presidents, because he was never elected; he was appointed vice president to Richard Nixon and then assumed the presidency when Nixon resigned. In 1976, he was defeated by Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. The election was fairly close, with Carter winning 297 electoral votes and a 1.7 million vote margin (compare to Biden’s roughly 5.9 million vote margin in 2020), but it was sufficiently decisive for Ford, who began making plans for what became the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in the final weeks of his term.
It’s not that Ford couldn’t have run again. Presidents can serve two terms, with no obligation that they be consecutive. Only one president has ever done it successfully, though: Grover Cleveland.
Cleveland’s two non-consecutive terms are often presented as a historical anomaly and, of course, they are. But there’s an untold element of them. Cleveland didn’t lost in 1888 and then think “ah, well, maybe 1892 will work out better.” Rather, Cleveland won the popular vote in 1888, but narrowly lost the electoral college when he lost New York (which he won in 1884 and 1892).
Ford, on the other hand, lost the popular vote in 1976, and with that he decided not to try again. The same happened to Jimmy Carter when he lost in 1980 and George H. W. Bush when he lost in 1992. A decisive loss in the popular vote made it unlikely their party would nominate them again and even less likely that they would win.
Donald Trump has lost the popular vote in two consecutive elections. One, through the flukes of the electoral college, still worked out in his favor. The second did not, despite the hard work of his very qualified attorney. But Trump, unable to admit that he might be a loser, is reportedly mulling a 2024 bid for the White House. Such a bid might be unpopular with Republican politicians, who can’t jostle for the possibility of being the party’s 2024 nominee without risking the ire of Trump’s deeply loyal base, putting the party into a four-year stasis.
It also puts the prospect of the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library into stasis.
What are presidential libraries?
Presidential libraries aren’t just mausoleums to previous wielders of power. They’re genuine libraries, repositories for the papers and historical materials of former presidents. The libraries are valuable research and study tools and somewhat unique to the United States, which – due in part to the trappings of the imperial presidency – puts a lot of emphasis on studying and understanding the previous presidents. Although the libraries do encourage a kind of idolatry of past presidents, they also provide a platform to contextualize, understand, and evaluate their performance and legacy.
These museums are generally funded by donors. Both Bushes and Obama worked with universities to host their museums, while others have relied on the National Archives and Records Administration to operate the facility (the Barack Obama Presidential Center is unique in that it will be operated by a nonprofit foundation rather than NARA, although NARA will still be the formal archivist of the public records kept in the center). But it’s hard to imagine big-ticket donors are lining up to back the Trump Library.
Even if they were, the possibility that Trump would run again in 2024 means there’s no way to start planning for a place for his papers. They remain, like everything else in the Trump sphere, in stasis.
Trump will be 78 in 2028, the age president-elect Joe Biden is currently. Biden is widely expected to decline to seek re-election in 2024, passing the torch to presumptive front-runner Kamala Harris, who will be 60, eighteen years younger. Trump, who has not won the popular vote yet, would be unlikely to win.
What would the Trump library look like?
Donald Trump probably wants, very much, to have a museum dedicated to himself. He’s probably less keen about the idea that his private papers – in this case, presumably, his tweets – would be on display, as he tends to be a live-in-the-moment kind of guy. And he certainly would prefer that a Trump Library honor and idolize him and not encourage any kind of contextualization or evaluation.
Assuming he lives to see its construction, it would probably be very, well, Trumpesque. Gold and ostentatiously ornate, the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library would be the McMansion of presidential archives (a title that might currently belong to George W. Bush’s), located in…
Trump already owns a 58-floor skyscraper in Manhattan that bears his name. There’s a lot of office space in the tower currently dedicated to government agencies and the Trump campaign that would be freed up, and the tower is associated with Trump himself. Putting the library in Trump tower could be a cost-saving measure, as Trump already owns it, and could spare the pains of trying to find a city willing to deal with the construction hassle that would come with building a new presidential library for a deeply unpopular president.
Of course, there’s the possibility that the library can’t pay its rent. Make no mistake, Trump will expect some revenue from the library – another reason why putting it in a Trump property makes sense – and he can’t evict his own presidential library for nonpayment. On the other hand, demand for Trump’s real estate properties has cratered because of the toxic association with Trump himself, so there’s no reason to not put a couple of floors to use as the holy cathedral of Trumpism.
The Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago is mostly a hotel and residential building, so it would need a little work to have a museum retrofitted into it. Chicago would also be an odd choice for Trump, who has no personal connections to the city.
But Chicago is where the Barack Obama Presidential Center is being built, and Trump’s campaign and presidency have been a multiyear effort to discredit and humiliate the ex-president. Trump thinks he’s succeeded, and the final nail would be to have the tallest presidential library in Chicago and to open before the Obama Center does.
Mar-a-Lago might feel like a natural choice, given Trump’s fondness for it. Mar-a-Lago is what he considers his primary residence and he has spent a great deal of time there, dubbing it the ‘Southern White House.’
It’s for these reasons, though, that Mar-a-Lago is an unlikely choice. Trump is too personally attached to the resort to want it to be cluttered with rabble. Unlike the New York and Chicago properties, which he admires but rarely visits these days, Mar-a-Lago is his home. He’ll pass.
Trump attended college at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and it’s common for presidential libraries to be co-located with institutions that are meaningful to the career or life of a president.
But Philadelphia itself is not super meaningful to Trump. Quite the contrary, Philadelphia may be one of the major reasons he was denied a second term, and he doesn’t look on the city fondly. The city also does not look on him fondly.
It seems very unlikely that the University of Pennsylvania would actively lobby for the library. If it did, it would risk the ire of a city that throws batteries at you when they like you.
Not all presidential libraries are built in major metros. The Nixon and Truman libraries are in smaller cities. The Eisenhower Library is in Abeline, Kansas, a town of just over 6,000. These are all communities important to the president in question: Eisenhower was born in Abeline, Nixon’s library was built on his family’s land, and Truman was raised in Independence, Missouri.
Trump has no real ties to anywhere except New York City and Mar-a-Lago. But his supporters in the south were key to his rise and prominence and will likely continue to support him when he leaves office, whether he continues to claim the presidency or not. A southern community like Huntsville, Alabama might be perfect. Not so big that it’s filled with fussy liberals, but big enough that you could make it a tourist destination.
This plan probably only works if locals and Trump-aligned philanthropists are behind it, though. Trump’s personal finances are questionable, so while he could probably pull off a self-funded museum in his own towers it’s harder to imagine he could do that elsewhere.
No matter where the Trump library ends up, it will be a tourism draw for the Trump faithful and a protest draw for everyone else.
What if he just doesn’t have one?
This could happen. There’s no requirement in the law to create a presidential library. Traditionally, libraries are filled with personal papers donated by the president alongside public record documents, but Trump probably won’t want to donate his personal papers – what of them he might have – and there’s no obligation to display his government records, just to archive them. A storage unit in Maryland is just as valid an archive as a grandiose library.
While he may crave the prestige of his own museum, doing so is essentially a concession, an admission that he will not seek the presidency again. For now, his identity is tied to the coup he’s been unable to pull off and the possibility of a run in 2024. It isn’t hard to imagine Trump mounting a bid in 2024, facing either an unexpectedly competitive primary he loses or becoming the nominee but losing again, and, honestly, dying not long thereafter, age 79 or 80. Never able to admit that he the presidency is truly in his past, he is never able to even begin the process of his library. All that remains are tweets and hats and memories of the least-popular president of our time.