Though Donald Trump chose not to appear among the former presidents at Joe Biden’s inauguration, his likeness will eventually take its place in the “America’s Presidents” exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. It’s a beautiful space: serene and stately, featuring stone pillars, marble floors edged in patriotic blue with white stars, and official portraits of the first 44 presidents.
At least, that’s how it looks online. Because of president number 45, it’s not safe to go to the National Portrait Gallery in person. The threat of violence during the inauguration — two weeks after Trump’s supporters attacked the Capitol — has had the city on high alert, the area fortified with National Guard troops, search points, temporary fences topped with razor wire.
Plus the gallery is closed to the public now anyway, for safety reasons, since — also because of Donald Trump — a full year after the first covid-19 case in the United States, the pandemic is raging worse than ever, killing thousands of Americans a day.
And yet, despite all this, his portrait will one day hang in the hushed rooms of our National Portrait Gallery. When Trump won in 2016, that’s what I blurted out to my husband: “Oh my god, his picture’s going up on the wall with all the presidents.”
I know: There were bigger issues. But I took a moment to shudder at the thought of his image hanging in the same space as Abraham Lincoln and FDR.
At the time — when I knew him only as a bully, a braggart and a bigot — I fretted that his presence would somehow defile the wall of presidents. Now I worry that it will, one day, blend in.
We can keep a list of the lies, note the breaking of every norm, enumerate the atrocities. We can impeach him twice. We can spend years uncovering the depths to which his administration sank and recovering from the damage it did. But merely by virtue of having been a U.S. president, Trump’s image will be granted a permanent patina of respectability. A flattering portrait. An ornate frame. Wall text that summarizes, as one visitor put it, “the ups and downs of each president’s term.”
You know how I know? Well, there’s George W. Bush in the “Contemporary Presidency” section, relaxed and friendly in blue shirtsleeves. The portrait asserts Bush’s humanity; I struggle to remember the moments he betrayed it: the lies that started a war, the war that killed more than 100,000 people, the defense and use of torture, the abandonment of New Orleans after Katrina. I lived through all this as an adult, and still, faced with his kindly eyes, I have trouble remembering it clearly.
It will happen with Trump. At some point in the nearer-than-you-might-think future, artists and historians and politicians and op-ed writers will be “reassessing” Trump, seeking to recast his legacy into something more palatable. We’ll be asked to give him credit for inflating the stock market, lowering taxes, launching a Space Force. We’ll be asked to admire his improbable rise, pity his limitations and perhaps even overlook his ignominious downfall.
As for his portrait, anyone can be portrayed as personable. If only the National Portrait Gallery could exhibit artifacts instead. Imagine them exquisitely lit and affixed to the wall: the Sharpie’d hurricane map, a Mylar blanket from a border detention center, Rush Limbaugh’s Presidential Medal of Freedom. Then the Trump presidency would look to future Americans the way it felt to live through it.
That would still leave the problem of the rest of them, though. Norman Rockwell’s lovable rendition of Richard Nixon in particular raises the question: Who does deserve an appealing portrait in an honored location? The president who signed the Indian Removal Act? The president who opposed rights for former enslaved people? “The country has to struggle through three months more of this disgraceful imbecility and disloyalty to the Constitution,” wrote The New York Times of James Buchanan in 1860.
In his portrait, the president who shrugged at the threat of secession looks thoughtful and capable, with his hand on a stack of papers.
Trump has already practiced a similar pose. Since he’ll be permanently ensconced on our museum walls and in our history books, we’ve got to practice too: remembering the tragic disconnect between the image of a leader at work and the reality of a demagogue working to mislead — fatally, and for personal gain.
The fact that Trump will always have been an American president, infuriating as it is, could be enlightening too. It could inspire us to interrogate each oil-painted, gilt-framed “Great Man” in his turn. Was he worthy of occupying the White House? If not, who were we that we put him there?
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