Mar-a-Lago

More link salad in this post, this time focused on the palatial Florida estate of the current President of the United States, Donald Trump. It is common for presidents to have a second or even third location from which to work, separate from the White House and Capitol Hill, and often distant from the dense network of political operatives that inhabit Washington, DC, as well as the sweltering summer heat (this is less a problem now with air conditioning; not sure what anyone can do about lobbyists though). Since the last years of the FDR administration in the early 1940s, the President has had exclusive use of Camp David, a relatively secluded location in the hills of north-central Maryland, close to the Pennsylvania border and a two hours’ drive from Washington. Camp David is part of Catoctin Mountain Park, managed by the National Park Service, and has been host to presidential vacations, government working retreats, and international summits. Presidents often also take long vacations or have separate, private facilities where they will work for several days or even weeks at a time. George W. Bush often headed to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, during his eight years in office, and it was dubbed the “Western White House” by many in the administration and the media at the time. You can read a (fawning) portrait of the Bushes and their ranch in Architectural Digest. Similarly, the Obamas often vacationed at their rented “Winter White House” in Kailua, Hawaii, near Honolulu. The real estate company that owns the home is using the former president’s extensive use of the estate in its current advertising for the property, which you can rent for a cool $4500 per night, according to Honolulu Magazine.

Such locations become, when the President and family are on site, the seat of executive political power for the US government. As such they must be configured to the needs of exercising presidential authority, with all the accompanying communications, security, and media infrastructure and capabilities that implies. This is why the current President’s “Winter White House” in Florida is somewhat different from his recent predecessors’ choice of working vacation residences outside of Washington. While the Kailua estate used by Obama and the Bush ranch are secluded and guarded by both the expense of owning or renting nearby and the security apparatus that accompanies the President at all times, the Trump golf club and estate house at Mar-a-Lago is not private in exactly the same way as these other residences. It is a different kind of space and place. You can rent a room there, you can dine there and have your picture taken with the President or members of his political and security entourage, and you can golf or lounge on the beach — none of this is cheap though, with the price of initiating a club membership doubling in price recently, from $100,000 to $200,000, in addition to annual fees of $14,000. The 500-member club is thus not private in the way a residence in a gated community on a Hawaiian island or set amid hundreds of acres of rural Texas farmland might be, but it remains a privately-owned property that, economically, is out of reach for most people who might want to rub elbows with President Trump. But for those few who can afford it, it is a potential gold mine of photo ops and networking possibilities, and shows how forms of political, economic, and social power are intertwined and made through and in place. Thus this “Winter White House” is more open than one might expect, but only to a very limited extent, though in the short two months’ of Trump’s presidency thus far, the Mar-a-Lago estate has provided unique, strange, and, for some, troubling insights into the organization and exercise of presidential authority in relation to space and place. The links below all come from American media coverage of Trump’s use of Mar-a-Lago, detailing the kind of place it is, in terms of its layout, members, and style; the historical relationship between Trump and the town of Palm Beach where Mar-a-Lago is located; the way contradictory notions of public/private and concerns about environmental change shape the place; and its relative position in both the historical legacy of presidential properties and Trump’s vast real estate empire. If any of my readers (all 4 of you) knows of good existing academic research on these kind of political spaces in the US or elsewhere, please note it in the comments or email me, as I’d love to get some of this into my first and especially my third year courses. And Mar-a-Lago’s function and configuration as a political space would make a great project for someone – let a thousand conference papers bloom!

Aerial photo of Mar-a-Lago taken from this Vanity Fair piece from March 2016 (it does seem that VF is quite fascinated by the Trumps and their particular style, though they are scathingly critical of it in most things they publish).