Trump presidential museum will have 'unconventional' story to tell

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Antonio Fins   | Palm Beach Post

An impeachment trial. A once-in-a-century pandemic. A baseless post-election challenge. And that’s just one year of the Trump presidency, which is scheduled to conclude at noon on Jan. 20.

“This is totally a unique presidency,” said Wesley Borucki, associate professor of history at Palm Beach Atlantic University.

“Everything about the Trump presidency has been unconventional,” said historian Robert Watson at Lynn University. “To the point where I’ve been joking with some friends that of mine that we are going to have to rewrite all the textbooks because he has violated everything we said, what every textbook said, was a truism of the office.”

More: Could Palm Beach County host Donald Trump Presidential Library?

Ordinarily, a focus of a president’s last months in office is preparing to enshrine their historic legacy in a library and museum.

President Trump, however, has spent the time since his Nov. 3 election loss in a failed attempt to challenge the election results. Those challenges have gotten nowhere in state and federal courts, have been adamantly disputed by federal and state elections officials and have been dismissed by his former attorney general and his current FBI director — all who flatly stated President-elect Joe Biden won last month’s election fairly.

More: Photos: President Donald Trump and first lady Melania’s Christmas visits to Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach

Moreover, it does not look like Trump has ever — as president — tweeted his thoughts, views or plans for a presidential library and museum. A search for those words and terms on trumptwitterarchive.com came up empty. 

But that didn’t stop us from asking two Palm Beach County presidential historians to assess the Trump legacy — and to tell us what might be the narrative in a Donald J. Trump Presidential Library and Museum. Perhaps one located in Palm Beach County.

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For starters, here are four things to know about presidential libraries and museums:

  • The papers, records and documents of modern U.S. presidents, beginning with those who served early in the 20th century, are stored in presidential libraries and museums that have become much more elaborate and extensive as fundraising and public interest has grown. The National Archives’ Presidential Library System is comprised of 14 presidential libraries from Presidents Herbert Hoover through Barack Obama.
  • The post-Watergate Presidential Records Act granted legal possession of presidential papers, records and documents to the public. Before then, those items were considered property of the president, and often were sold off, gifted or destroyed. Today, they are public property and in the custodial hands of the National Archives and Records Administration.
  • If Trump locates his presidential museum in Florida, it won’t be the first. In Key West, the Harry S. Truman Little White House museum is a historic site. Truman made 11 trips to Key West, and even signed legislation creating Everglades National Park on one of his visits.
  • But no U.S. president made Florida their residence, as Trump has. As such local speculation is his museum and library could be based here in a state he won twice, visited dozens of times as president and where he remains popular, especially among Republicans.

Both Borucki and Watson say the narrative — perhaps told in a presidential museum in Palm Beach County — will be unlike any in modern presidencies.

Borucki, who is writing a biography of Trump slated for 2022, has said the historic moments during visits here are pieces of a larger mosaic that will go down as a consequential presidency.

He said Trump’s political career will ultimately result in a realignment of American politics that may redefine ideological lines more focused on globalist versus nationalist and populist versus establishment dichotomies.

“We’ve been talking about differences between liberals and conservatives, between Republicans and Democrats for so long,” he said. “And every so often we have a realignment in American history. We’ve been kind of overdue for one.” 

Along with that, Borucki said, the use of Twitter and social media to “go over the media’s heads” to speak to his base reconfigured presidential communications.

“A lot of people were won over by his fighting spirit and that comes out in the rallies, too,” he said.

He also said the emphasis on a tariff war with China and its president, Xi Jinping, who Trump hosted at a Mar-a-Lago summit in April 2017, and the rewrite of the North American trade pact, as well Middle East peace efforts, will be hallmarks of his legacy.

So will the nominations of three Supreme Court justices and the reshaping of the federal bench, Borucki said.

“You’re going to see the effects of that for decades,” he said. “When you think about the legacy of the Trump presidency, there are a number of moments that are significant.”

Watson said previous former presidents have built their libraries in partnership with the NARA. But Watson, who co-founded a Truman Little White House symposium, said he fears the relationship between Trump and the federal records administration “would be testy at best, if non-existent” as have been the president’s dealings with government agencies.

More: Watchdogs, scholars say Trump breaking law by ripping up papers

Worse, Watson said he is concerned a Trump museum would become “a monument to himself.” Rather than a dispassionate telling of the story of the past four years, Watson said, Trump will want his version — and only his view — of events, .

Watson, who is on the board of the foundation that raises money for the Truman Little White House, said he has visited almost all the presidential libraries. While all have “a degree of celebratory” feel to their exhibits, he said the the facilities are “dedicated” to a fair telling of history and preserving “access to records.”

“The thing that has always been remarkable to me is how honest and forthright they are,” he said of the presidential museums. “These libraries show the president’s legacy with all of its warts and pimples.”

Watson said an example of presidentimuseum story telling he is very familiar with is Truman’s in Independence, Mo. The museum exhibits include a pro and con debate on whether Truman should have authorized the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan to end World War II.

Watson is concerned that Trump will use the narrative in his library to misrepresent his legacy with a “reinvented, over-flattering” portrayal of his leadership and the events that took place. 

For instance, in foreign policy, he fears Trump will present a “dark” picture of world affairs to claim achievement in ending the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, and to justify the badgering of allies and strategic international alliances.

“One worries that this museum will present a very dark and inaccurate portrayal of the world and will go back to the ugliest aspects of nationalism with America at the center, America first,” he said.

Ditto for domestic policy, from the effort to build a border wall to the trade war to resurrect U.S. manufacturing to “bringing back coal” as part of an energy strategy.

The hyperbole, he said, may even occlude legitimate milestones, from as criminal justice reform to Operation Warp Speed that ushered a coronavirus vaccine

“With Trump you automatically wonder whether what is being put in the library is truthful,” he said. “We have alternative facts “We’ve had a war on the truth.”

The damaging part of this is that presidential museums are more than tourist attractions and political meccas for the partisan faithful. They are sentinels of history.

“That could have definite ramifications as the people who visit his library probably would not visit the Truman or the Reagan or the Obama libraries,” he said. “That would be a monument to nationalism and to an inaccurate portrayal of the global order. That is worrisome at best.”