Presidential Libraries and the Liberal Script or: How (Not) to Remember Donald Trump
by Jessica Gienow-Hecht
№ 24/2021 from Feb 16, 2021
Last Christmas, I received a card from a friend in Massachusetts. At the bottom of an illustrated letter summarizing the family’s annual news, he had scribbled, with an eye on the recent U.S. elections, “At least events will keep history grads in the archives for many years—assuming this administration wrote anything down!”
My friend need not worry. On the day of the inauguration of Joe Biden, January 20, 2021, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, D.C. announced the launching of the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library website (https://www.trumplibrary.gov). The library is designed to provide information on White House websites that have been archived, along with social media accounts and news regarding the status of (and access to) the records of the Trump administration. Since then, the internet has been flooded with commentaries, panel discussions, ad hoc protests, and even the occasional mockery (https://djtrumplibrary.com), all focusing on the same question: Should the man get his own library?
The act is routine. Since World War II, Presidents and Executive Branch Cabinet officials are bound by law to leave their records behind for the National Archives. Since then, also the National Archives are open to the public (before, aspiring researchers needed to ask for and—in fact, could be denied—permission), and presidents as well have taken to erect presidential libraries. Trump is by no means the first one; he will be #15 and in good company, including the likes of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Hyde Park, NY), Dwight Eisenhower (Abilene, KS), and Jimmy Carter (Atlanta, GA).
All clear? It’s not that simple. For one thing, NARA takes care of the records but not the building. Typically, the building is built and financed by the donations raised by the president himself, and located in his former home state. Presidential libraries come with sizeable museums, exhibitions, and learning programs, designed to educate and inspire a larger public. They are monuments of commemoration, celebration, hagiography—really, a way for every participating president to set the record straight (or taint it), in his name and according to his view.
According to the Washington Post, Trump wants to spend up to 2 billion dollars on a presidential center. That center, most likely in Florida, is said to be run by his longtime aide Dan Scavino, White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications (2019–2021) and Director of Social Media (2017–2021). The Trump Library’s new website gives you a foretaste of the hagiography planned, complete with professional photography, flashy illustrations, bright coloring, and grave quotations attributed to the 45th president of the United States.
All this is a blow to the liberal script. The way a leader and a nation deal with archival holdings reflect the way they think about power and citizenship. In the liberal script, people have the right to know what their leaders did (and continue to do) in the name of popular sovereignty. Knowing how elected leaders have made and are still making decisions in your name and spend your money is a principal feature of liberal democracy. William McAllister has written how, since the American Civil War (1861–1865), the publication of governmental records have served to create transparency, accountability, credibility, and legitimacy for the United States, both at home and abroad. Making documents accessible for broad dissemination, in publications financed by the Congress, were meant to model governmental policy for audiences around the world. Such acts promoted the nation as an exemplary democratic form of government far away from the secret diplomacy and clandestine negotiations of the European powers. From Berlin to Buenos Aires, from Tokyo to Tallinn, dozens of liberal democracies today maintain documentary holdings and publication programs to that end.
The good news is that, many White House-originated documents in the files of the various executive branch agencies will be accessible on January 20, 2026, as specified under the law and under the auspices of the National Archives. NARA has announced that those records will remain in the greater D.C. area.
The not-so-good news is that, no matter where Trump’s presidential records go, the principal challenge will be a shortage of the same. Both the president and his staff were known to destroy notes and records of meetings and other documents in clear violation of the law. Likely, they also never produced records where the law said that they should have. Whatever documents will make it to either NARA or the Trump Presidential Library, the result will tell us less about actual policy making and more about the enshrining and marketing of a presidential super-ego.
And here, I agree with my New England friend—for that, no doubt, will keep history grads in the archives for many years to come. The real question is: Who wants to supervise a history dissertation based on tweets?
Thanks to the team in the JFKI history department for discussing the issue with me, and to William B. McAllister and Robert Benson for reading and commenting on this piece.
Jessica Gienow-Hecht is the Director of the John-F.-Kennedy-Institute at Freie Universität Berlin and a Principal Investigator at SCRIPTS