One photograph in Donald Trump’s lengthy federal indictment spurred an outburst of laughter, conversation, and—above all—jokes and memes. You know the one: boxes of documents Trump was hiding from the government, stacked in a bathroom at Mar-a-Lago. It wasn’t just the fact that he was hiding classified documents in a bathroom that drew attention. It was the specific bathroom, which says so much about Trump himself.
The stacks of boxes speak loudly about a man who left the White House with government documents, many of them classified, and actively obstructed federal efforts to get them back. But the details of the bathroom have drawn attention, too. We’re looking at a chandelier worthy of a formal dining room, a crystal (or crystal-like) wall sconce, marble floors and sink, the edge of an ornate gilded mirror frame … and a cheap-looking shower curtain on a tension rod, which appears to be hiding more stacks of boxes. That’s the shower curtain and tension rod you get when you’ve moved into a new rental apartment and, realizing there’s no shower curtain, run to Target so you can wash off the sweat and dust of having unloaded your own UHaul.
The disjuncture speaks because we’ve seen it many times in other forms with Trump. It’s the red necktie Scotch-taped to itself because he’s wearing it a little too long to cover his stomach. The white skin around the edges of his face where his orange makeup didn’t quite make it to his hairline. And, speaking of his hairline, that elaborate swirl of a comb-over. Trump cares so deeply about appearances—and yet, there is always this sloppiness. The big picture is there in his head, but the execution is not quite right.
“Elegant” is a favorite word with Trump. Being banned from Twitter was fine because the press releases he put out in place of tweets were “much more elegant.” A 2016 Republican primary debate was “elegant.” The White House was “very elegant.” But Trump’s own style is at best an ersatz elegance, and one revealing of his ideas about what marks a person as powerful and important. In 2017, Peter York, author of the book “Dictator Style: Lifestyles of the World’s Most Colorful Despots,” wrote that Trump’s taste was very much in line with the design rules York had discerned from intense study of 16 dictators, including Mexico’s Porfirio Díaz, Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu, Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi, and others. After his book came out, York wrote, people would send him newly revealed pictures of dictators’ homes:
Then, in late 2015, I came across a set of pictures with no identifying text. They appeared to show a gigantic apartment in what looked, from the windows, very much like New York. But I know Manhattan and its sophisticated style pretty well, and at first glance, you would think the place didn’t belong to an American but to a Russian oligarch, or possibly a Saudi prince with a second home in the United States. There were overscaled rooms, and obviously incorrect-looking historical detailing and proportions. The home had lots of gilded French furniture and the strange impersonal look of a hotel lobby, with chairs and sofas placed uncomfortably far from one another. There were masses of gold; there were the usual huge chandeliers, branded relics of famous sportsmen like Muhammad Ali, and mushroom-colored marble floors. There was relatively little in the way of paintings, but otherwise, the place reeked of dictator chic.
In dictator chic, York writes, “There is no subtlety or understatement, let alone irony.” A dictator’s house is not a home meant for private living, but a public display of power. The Mar-a-Lago bathroom is an attempt at dictator chic that fails on the aesthetic merits—that shower curtain!—while the fact that it was where his staff ultimately resorted to storing documents in their attempts to find space for all the things he was hiding from the government shows the limits of his efforts to be an authoritarian leader in the United States. It makes visible the fact that Trump is a wannabe on multiple levels.
This wasn’t Trump’s first public go-round with a toilet, either. In 2018, when the White House requested the loan of a van Gogh painting for Donald and Melania Trump’s living quarters, the chief curator at the Guggenheim turned down the request and offered in place of the painting a fully functioning solid gold toilet that had recently come off exhibit. And in 2022, Maggie Haberman’s book on Trump’s time in the White House included photos of a toilet containing ripped-up documents that he had apparently tried to flush. On the one hand, a famed museum’s pointed rebuke of Trump with an offer of a garish critique of excessive wealth. On the other hand, Trump behaved as if he was above the law. And now, in the federal indictment and people’s responses to that bathroom picture, a combination of both.
Donald Trump is facing even more legal jeopardy and the sharks in the Republican Party seem to sense there is some blood in the water. Chris Christie has made his campaign all about going directly at Trump, and Ron DeSantis seems to be closer and closer to becoming completely isolated from the field.