Has Donald Trump conceded the presidency by design? Is his choice of furniture betraying a subconscious admission of defeat? When the outgoing US president gave a speech this week saying he would depart if the electoral college voted for Joe Biden, his words came as less of a shock than the desk he chose to sit at. It was tiny. It sent out a clear signal. And that signal was “loser”.
Jokes about the shrunken size of Trump’s desk – one photograph, taken from low down, captures his legs barely fitting beneath it – are easy. So let’s not. You want to see a real ruler’s desk? The Resolute desk in the Oval Office is the definition of one: a massive fortress of a working space, like an aircraft carrier with legs, sporting the US eagle at the heart of its heavy Victorian carvings. Its timbers are British in origin: they come from a Royal Navy sailing ship, HMS Resolute, that once braved the icy waters of the north pole. And in a final addition of defensive machismo, Franklin D Roosevelt had the front bulwarked so no one could see his leg braces and discover he was disabled.
Trump’s appearance behind this itsy-bitsy piece of flotsam shows why Roosevelt and other presidents have always chosen to moor themselves behind the grandiose Resolute. It bulks them out. What Trump was leaning on was not even a desk. It was merely a table. It fails all the design criteria required of a desk. It isn’t even an escritoire, which may be cosy but at least has important-looking drawers. Nor could it qualify as a secretaire. In fact, there’s no storage at all. Has he already cleared everything out?
The furniture – an early-19th-century, Federal-style, occasional table to which the president’s seal of office has been clumsily attached – was not in the Oval Office, but in the much less imposing diplomatic reception room, which can be entered straight from the gardens. In 1963, Jackie Kennedy had this salon decorated with wallpaper depicting famous American sights and fitted it out with antique Federal furniture. That was a time of vision and class. Trump’s tiny table may have originally been intended for playing cards – or as something to pop a plant on.
So what does it mean that he has seated himself behind a passably elegant piece of furniture that’s clearly not intended for work? Behold: authority ebbing. Massive desks are designed to signal power. A desk fitted with compartments, with space to roll out charts and battleplans, can suggest that you’re controlling distant businesses or planning wars. Winston Churchill was often photographed at a spacious desk with neatly arranged papers. Even the idealistic Jimmy Carter knew the symbolism of a work-filled desk. Here he’s sitting behind a highly polished specimen the size of a double bed. It has zones, even a row of books, held in place by wooden founding fathers. Put them on Trump’s desk and it would collapse.
Of course it’s possible that Churchill and Carter were in the middle of very important work when photographers caught them at their desks. But work stations have been used to symbolise endeavour ever since the Renaissance. A German merchant, portrayed by Hans Holbein in the early 16th century, stands at his with letter in hand, surrounded by urgent mail, accounts, seals and ink. The message is clear: he’s barely got time for all these portrait sessions.
It’s not bigness that a desk projects so much as busyness. And Trump has not seemed very busy lately. Playing golf, tweeting his real or feigned disbelief at the election results, he doesn’t seem that occupied with great affairs of state. This little table, pretending to be a desk, is a confession of idleness. Far from commanding urgent matters in the historic Oval Office, Trump squats at this little furnishing where he might be able to eat a light meal while watching TV. Perhaps the next stage is a fold-out tray on his lap.
It’s a retired person’s table, a desk for TV dinners. This is Trump gradually giving up the pretence he runs a vast country and instead settling instead into a more leisured life. Like his furniture, he is diminishing before our eyes.