In an age it is disturbingly familiar for news maps to place us on tenterhooks by grabbing our attention, the existential urgency of the blanket of the continent with icy arctic air was no exception. But if the images of sudden entrance of frigid air shocked most states in the union and lower forty eight, the farther one collapsed the week of freezing cold, the more one could see a clarion call for the re-entrance into the Paris Accords,–as if the visualizers of meteorological disturbances at NOAA, newly liberated, were able to show the dangerous consequences of the tippy polar vortex and uncertain weather in an era of extreme climate change. Bright color ramps foregrounded falling temps in rich magenta or icy blue were almost off the charts, from the uppermost end of the spectrum in their duration–below–or in the low temperatures that were advanced–in maps that push the boundaries of expectations with urgency. As maps of the hours the nation was plunged into subzero trace a purple cold front advanced all the way into the deep south as it spread across the continent from up north, the continent shivered under the icy blues over the mid-February cold spell.
The chromatic intensity jarred with the familiar spectrum of meteorological maps to shock the viewer: the map challenged any reader to try to place the arrival of cold air and hours below freezing in a frame of reference, to dismiss the incursion of icy air up to the US-Mexico border as an irregular occurrence, more than a harbinger of premonition of the cascading effects of extreme weather, let alone a warning of the limits of our national infrastructure to adjust to it. If the focus of the NOAA maps of the National Weather Service fulfilled their mandate by focussing on the territoriality of the United States, these images and the news maps made of them communicated a sense of national violation, if not of the injustice of the incursion of such unexpected freezing temperatures and Arctic air, as if it were an unplanned invasion of the lifestyle, expectations, energy policy, and even of the electric grid of the United States, oddly affirming the American exceptionalism of the United States’ territory and climate, as if the meteorological maps that confounded predictions were not a global climactic change.
And in the maps of the fall in national temperatures, as in the header to this post, the news that the nation witnessed a frozen core spread south to the southwest, almost reaching the border, seemed to shift our eyes from a border that was mapped and remapped as permeable to migration, to a map of unpreparedness for climate change, almost echoing the systemic denial of climate change that has been a virtual pillar of the Trump Presidency on the eve when Donald Trump had permanently relocated to Mar a Lago, one of the last areas of the nation that was not hit by the subzero temperature anomalies that spread across north Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico and Iowa, plunging the many states we though of as “red” during the past election an icy deep blue interior in mid-February down to the Gulf Coast–as if the colors were a national crisis not of our own making for a nation that had obsequiously voted Republican, withdrawn from the Paris Accords, and allowed the warmer temperatures to be located only in the state where Donald Trump was now residing in Mar a Lago.
–that , as the week of arctic air’s arrival wore on, the newspaper of record glossed by a color ramp of low temperatures few residents southern states expected to be plunged into subzero surroundings. The color ramp they chose to chart how gelid air poured set off a cascade of events and disasters nicely demonstrated cascading effects of climate change on the nation, as the shock of low temperatures sucked the national attention away from the border, and begged one to come to terms with the challenge of climate emergencies in global terms. The frozen core of the nation was a wake-up call.
The entrance of gelid air from a polar vortex poured across much of the midwest in unrelenting fashion. Plunging subzero temps hit the Texas coast that overloaded electric grids and shocked weather maps that seemed out of whack even for mid-February, as even the sunbelt of the southwest turned gelid cold as subzero temperatures arrived over a week, plunging the arctic neckline down into Texas, and almost across the southwestern border.
The shock of this map is its dissonance, of course, from the weather maps that we are used to seeing, the entire nation now, in mid-February, almost blanketed by subzero temperatures of deep blue cold, extending wispy breezes into Utah and Arizona, as well as across Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia, leaving only SoCal and Florida pleasantly warm. The national composite that forecast a deep freeze running right down the center of the United States and spreading to both coast at northern latitudes gave the nation a frozen core at the end of a hotly tempered election, that seemed a wake-up call to attend to long-term as well as immediate dangers of climate change, but made it difficult to disentangle the global issues from the existential question of millions in Texas and other states who were left without heating faced dangerously cold and unprecedented subzero temperatures, without clues about where to keep warm.
The impact of climate change has rarely been so directly placed on the front burner of national security–climate change deniers have preferred to naturalize polar melting by removing it from human agency so far to attribute shifting temperature to sunspot activity, or invoke longue durée theories of geological time enough to make noted paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould turn over in his grave. Doing so has stoked a devious confusion between local and global, and immediate and long-term, are bound to be increasingly with us in an era of extreme climate change. The sudden entrance into our borders of such gelid air is an effect of global warming. We are loosing our beaches, and cities like Galveston, TX, Atlantic City NJ, Miami Beach FL, Key West, and Hilton Head SC are not alone in falling into the sea to lie mostly underwater in 100 years. As Ron Johnson assured us that “Greenland” derived its name from the green leafy bucolic forests of the continent–“There’s a reason Greenland was called‘ Greenland’–it was actually green at one time [even if] it’s a whole lot whiter now”–as if the truth about deep time was concealed by those overly alarmed ice shelves falling into the Atlantic, shifting ocean salinity with a sudden injection of freshwater that may alter the Gulf Stream, we were invited to contmplate the fierce urgency of now.
Perhaps the whole question of a span of time, as much as the theoretical proposition of global warming, was a concern. For we are as a country already looking forward with apprehension at maps of economic costs of flood damage to residences, amidst the anxiety charged year of COVID-19 pandemic, with multiple variants now on the loose, to prepare for escalating costs of climate change across the country, and not only on the coasts.
If Louisiana and California coastal cities will seem destined to stand the greatest risk of damage or residences, both due to the high valuation of California’s coastal properties, and the danger of hurricane damages across the Gulf Coast, the increased risk that residences alone face bodes serious economic losses across the United States. Yet as risk rises and brings with it escalated insurance rates, we stand to see the cascade of economic losses, of the sort we have not come to terms in imagining the fanciful image of a time when Greenland enjoyed lush forests in the past–a scenario that never happened, inventive etymologies aside–although it may soon host plant life as it looses its permafrost.
One of the consequences of the pandemic is a far keener sense of the rapaciousness of surveillance capitalism as we both rely on online ordering and virtual space, as we follow rates of infections, mortality, virus variants, and, now vaccination and its limits. Walks during the pandemic often re-explore the neighborhood, navigating it as if it was reading a map of a place I live: an unexpected encounter with a benchmark in the neighborhood, increasingly empty of pedestrians or sounds, begun to reappear. As I walked, in something like strolls and extended errands, I was struck by how mapping tools stared back, from the pavement, in surprising ways, exploring the local in reaction to the heightened and altered sense of awareness to surroundings, brought by the an increasing sense of deprivation of contact during the first year of the pandemic. I walked in search of reflection on morning strolls over the year since the first stay-at-home orders hit the Bay Area.
As if revealing a liveliness in its placement, an adjustment in the concrete pavement, that conjured the point-based aspirations of spherical or ellipsoid reference systems, embodied by 240,000 stations marked set in stone over one and a half century. If most recently incarnated in the geodetic system adopted by the National Geodetic Survey, precise longitude, latitude, and height, the markers set in the ground or sunk in rocks once guaranteed a smooth sense of objectivity and assurance of the objectivity and reliability of the mapping of a continuous world–precisely those values that the Pandemic put up for grabs! There was clearly a conscious joke on the tin disk slapped onto the asphalt in front of me. It interrupted the point-based mapping, inscribed with instructions to make an antipodes sandwich, albeit with a soggy slice of bread on the opposite antipode, more to a passing pedestrian than to a surveyor–an unofficial record of place.
The faux benchmark emulated a USGS monument caught my attention one day. While the tin disk is less a “benchmark” struck by USGS, the declaration of the antipodal relation was the sort of monument that might glide from one’s attention, like a water drop of oil-cloth, in the manner Robert Musil in 1927 described how monuments can evade our “perceptual faculties” and repel the attentive observation that they are supposed to attract from passersby: in the years after World War I, as memorials arose to individual heroes and soldiers who perished for the nation, beyond great figures of state, the arch Austrian felt the multiplication of commemorations of figures on pedestals was a poor repertoire, Musil felt as a military man and engineer. Musil’s quite caustic suggestion was removed, but in the aftermath of World War I, a new age of monuments, he argued makers of memorials would do well learn more from mass advertising to grab public attention was not entirely ironic, but grappled with public memory and memorialization, as many were finding a new language for placing public memory in urban space.
Musil’s appeal to ancient Roman statuary suggested the diminished nature of a language of public monuments as forms of remembering–or invitations to remember “with” what they commemorated. If commemoration raised the question of how one would bring into the remembrance of the viewer, I had started to look at the city sidewalks as forms of memory in the period of sheltering in place. Were not some of the first monuments in the Berkeley neighborhood I was increasingly exploring on foot during months of “sheltering in place” indeed not advertisements of their own. We had found a new memorial for the nation, hard to look at and difficult to scrutinize for meaning, as the tyranny of maps of infections and mortality that in 2020 as monuments of the nation replaced the monument of the Border Wall once President Donald J. Trump had promised to construct in 2015 as a common monument. Amidst the trust placed in new universal maps–maps that essentialized and universalized the long-adjudicated border between Mexico and the United States; maps tracking infections of coronavirus were queried for their statistical accuracy by the Covid Tracking Project and others, but set a drum beat of late Trumpian time.
In these contradictory if dismaying universals, the preservation of the particular seemed almost redemptive, in the new attention to a flower fragrance, a fragment of song, or a volley of bird calls. There seemed little or less space for the pedestrian; my apparent discovery of a set of faux geodetic benchmarks as the one in the header in this post that were placed around Berkeley that seemed to confirm the walkability of a pedestrian space amidst competing visualizations of the global progress of COVID-19 seemed in a small way an act of resistance, a re-navigation of habitable space. I couldn’t find any official tabulation of these geomarkers, but they stood in such sharp counterpoint to the marked overmapping that grappled with the escalating fear of contaigion, transmission, and safety or security during the pandemic’ seemed to drown space, and leave limited space for movement, outside our back yards or rural trails, when possible, the optimism of that sense of a global mapping was called into question if not punctured in playful ways by the mock benchmark, never noticed underfoot, that someone had placed in the pavement some three to four blocks from my house, that made me pause as a mock monument.
It was a playful monument to what seemed a alternate spatiality, that made fun of the point-based systems of mapping that were the basis for national surveys and, historically, the adjudication of border disputes, whose comprehensive aims seemed punctured by the tongue-in-cheek plaque. The tracking of the coronavirus had almost etched the point-based nature of objective counts of infection and of mortality for upwards of a year, and I laughed to acknowledge the precision of its promise to position sliced bread. As we sought legibility in maps of inequalities in health care, uneven enforcement of protocols of containing infections, and even poor testing for infections, with limited success, the promise of legibility was playfully engaged by the benchmark I’d never noticed in particularly welcome ways–
–as the pandemic seemed to displace all past spatial anxieties of the nation about immigration, terrorism, or perils outside our borders, and dramatically revealed the existence of sharp health inequalities–and injustice. The maps and important dashboards that searched for orientation to the chaos of a pandemic that left us looking for security in time-series graphs, watching the escalating curves of mortality and infection rates that refuse to flatten, as we squirmed to come up with new means of containing viral spread, only to find we were pretty shockingly and disarmingly poor at doing all along. Getting good numbers to track in most of the maps in the needed dashboards, newspapers, and websites to try to steer a course among the spread of infections of COVID-19. Was this only a midlife crisis, or did all memorials not demand an eery sort of “being toward death” that the philosopher Martin Heidegger had analyzed, calling into question the very factors of arbitrariness of infections and the crisis of questions of freedoms so often misunderstood or reflexively returned to in many states, and indeed the question of agency and of self: for the viral spread we were trying to map had interrupted the lives of so many in ways that one never might associate with modernity, but were, one had to acknowledge, born of anthropogenic change. One certainly needed to regain bearings on the world. One might thrown Heidegger to the side and go to the skepticism with which Wittgenstein harshly critiqued how a persistent “craving for generality” had been reborn in the age of globalization, filled with a “contemptuous attitude towards the particular case” that one would do well to embrace.
As much as searching for the authentic, the pavement stared back to puncture the hubris of that unversalism, playfully suggesting the vainglory of a unified universal space, and turned those dramas back to a human story. While the local GeoMarker was helpfully undated, a walk to the further bakery, a mile and a half or so to the East, I conveniently found a terminus ante quem of sorts, or passed by a strikingly similar marker, made by the same sort of local geographer, that memorialized a site of considerable importance to all parents in Berkeley, as it remembered place that was the first site for the short-lived local program of alerting pedestrians to oncoming traffic at intersections, by placing a personal flag that street-crossers might carry, in order to alert oncoming vehicles, 2001-4, to carry to the other side of the street: not only for luftmensch associated with the university town, as if flâneurs after the fact, but was also for schoolchildren. Berkeley’s ill-fated Pedestrian Flag Program hoped to eliminate pedestrian accidents closed long after many flags went missing, and they proved less than viable, after, sadly, a flag-carrying pedestrian was struck. The geomarker preserved a deeply local memory hard not to consider apt at the intersection where afternoon sun was glinted into my eyes, as I’d apprehensively crossed. The local memorialists at work had made their points, suggesting the optimistic program of self-governance by which Berkeley had long run.
The faux benchmark was a rather celebratory marker of the survival of pedestrian space. Most importantly, perhaps, it made me turn to search for similar GeoMarkers, in hopes to discover a lost world of walking that was left for pedestrians on other sidewalks of the pedestrian spaces of Berkeley. I’d heard from a fellow walker that he’d seen another, down near Tenth St., and as I went walking in greater extent, I kept my eyes fixed on the ground. I was most of all happy he noticed it, and while he couldn’t remember its location, I even made the effort to try to explore the city streets in detail, as I had been doing, in an improvised and reflexive way, as a flâneur of post-pandemic space.
Most every morning, I woke up and walked early, turning often to birdsongs for orientation more than GPS, as birds seemed to be finding refuge in the trees, to find reassurance on what might be called the natural world was in place. The almost unforeseen by-product of the pandemic in the somewhat existential search for a new form of orientation, from the play of sunlight on leaves to sudden views of flowers, or even the increased meaning of song lyrics, or appearance of budding magnolias and the seed pods of sweet gums on the curb outside my house: if haunted by melancholy, there was something like a sea of possible redemption, to exaggerate, in the odd counterplay of reduced traffic, from the new acoustic empty spaces of the pandemic that I tried to fill, as they were filled with birdsong, in reaction to what ecoscientists E.P Derryberry et al detected as newly acquired behavioral traits of avian populations in this silent spring of reduced anthropogenic sound.
Despite the rather precipitous decline of avian populations across a large part of North America, due in great part to anthropogenic change, I was fortunate in Northern California to be at a center where the small lungs of sparrows, towhees, and finches seemed to fill the air with early morning birdsong, sending my wife and I for better and better binoculars, in an attempt to investigate the sweet gums, redwoods, and shrubbery that created some spotty tree-cover for them to sing. They seemed, in the absence of urban rumble, to fill the empty acoustical space outside my home, providing bearings each morning in chirps, trills, and song, as they reclaimed space or started mating cries, as migratory white-crowned sparrows arrived this Spring, battling for positions in their branches and somewhat proudly regaining their calls. For although a declined range in the variety of historic calls found a morning chorus of sparrowsong replaced by a new dialect in San Francisco, amidst the rumble of anthropogenic sounds. Derryberry et al. painted a lifting in the virtuosity and embellishment of birdsong in the pandemic, as if mapping an unseen bright spot amidst a grim pandemic–despite the very grim picture of sharp declines of avifauna across much of the North American continent extending over the past fifty years, with scary consequences for ecological habitats.
WHereas Kim Todd had called attention in Bay Nature some time ago to the decline of historic dialects of sparrow song in San Fransisco due to anthropogenic sound, with a powerful map of sonic space of Golden Gate park by Molly Roy, the rise of birdsong The new avian populations that Derryberry et al. registered in their re-examination of birdsong in the newly opened sonic spaces of their “silent spring” of 2020 foregrounded the urban populations of white-crowned sparrows who had filled the shorelines of nearby developed spaces that included a selection of healthy trees, like my own neighborhood, and seemed a neat confirmation of what I was so busy mapping on my Merlin app as I rediscovered my Life LIst.
If all mapping is a process of reorientation to spaces, the process of mapping mortality and infections of COVID-19 made me seek to map place in new ways, and to do so as a form of something like counter-mapping, focussing not only on birdsong, but the network of actors who had created a sense of certainty in the past, as much for therapeutic balance as to come to terms with the shifting lay of the land in he first year of the pandemic. Even as I watched infections spread far removed from where I lived, or process the high rates of infection and loss of life far away and nearby. If the walks we make are often tracked by GPS, the evidence on the sidewalk of past Berkeley’s offered a set of distancing operations to get through the day. These markers, etched on the sidewalk in strikes that were often dated and signed, seemed more like markers of mortality, another injunction of being toward death, or perhaps they were more of a way of gaining balance and perspective on death as mortality rates were on everyone’s mind, as speaking about Heidegger seemed unnecessary as COVID-19 was so clearly poised to be the leading cause of mortality yet again in the United States, ending and all our shibboleths of modernization distancing death from the world.
2. Call it a conjuncture of COVID-19 with a midlife crisis, I turned to legibility for a better purchase on space, and to the strikes scattered over the ground that I had also barely noticed in the past. My friend Jeff had warned me sagely when I was moving into the neighborhood I now live in Berkeley, I would be often walking into a time warp, into a zone inhabited by ghosts of a Berkeley past. The local Self-Realization Foundation was long shuttered, with the front of the aquarium whose suspiciously flourishing concealed a healthy marijuana trade that had now thankfully become legit and an increasingly essential business, amidst scattered community centers and legal advocacy groups that seemed open questions. As the time warp became more real, as his words hit me in unexpected ways in a few years.
I turned to the mute legends of concrete pavers as if to take stock of the local in Berkeley, even as grim news grew. I walked on foot on in what were often surprisingly restricted routes, meditating on their details in moments like walks for coffee, talking routes I knew well but that of course also seemed utterly changed. If the sense of urban isolation might have been reflected in the “nameless crowd” of city streets, I was most always alone, now, and as if in compensation was noticing with an eery keenness the presence of names that popped out of the ground, reminding me of paving over the pas century. Balancing the spatialities of local and global was alternately pressing and depressing. Exploring the neighborhood streets that I got to know again on foot with increased regularity. In doing so, I found myself seeking landmarks and sites of reassurance–and often revery–as a needed form of distraction, and a resting place of sorts, perhaps to calm the sense of distraction that hemmed in indoors, searching for a revery but also of new ways of inhabiting and opening up my own personal sense of space.
Perhpas even the simple act of respectful reading offered needed stability,–either while sheltering in place or as all purchase on security and stability was compromised by the pandemic, set off from the natural world, as if to find a sense of greater stability a century removed in time in mute names. Was this a middle age crisis coinciding with the pandemic? The names found right there in pavement were an insistence of the value of the individual, etched in concrete, if not a forgotten monument of sorts to the individual life and the environment in which I walked, reading words stamped on the ground from a century distant as if traces of a past that one wouldn’t want to forget.
The cement from the Oakland Quarry that was used by the The Oakland Paving Company was a bit misplaced in Berkeley, but the entrepreneurs of concrete who had begun with the paving of roads seem to have been tied to the activity of early property development, and the bid for lots on the Oakland-Berkeley border where I live–and have lived for a chunk of time, without looking at the physical archive of such pavement strikes much, seem to be a relic not only of property development but promotion at a time when the lots were first up for sale, and many of the earliest local houses built.
If the records of property maps were not my forte, the abundance of online records of old lots once for sale “on easy terms,” courtesy Calisphere, historicized what was now a tight real estate market of gentrification, and created a sense of the boom of building that lots in such a neighborhood of newly paved streets claimed, boosted by the Key Route of Electric Railroad that would run to San Francisco, with a Country Club of its own. The progress of sidewalk paving seemed offered “free to purchasers,” as new traffic in paving grew piecemeal for new residents.
Was the oldest such strike–still legible!–apparent in the porous pavement up near Piedmont Avenue, particularly worn, beside a large mansion-like lot, flamboyantly constructed from an era a bit prior to Arts & Crafts.
The sense of an alternative spatiality of the past that opened up on the sidewalk I walked across without paying attention seemed a new side for engaging the local, and indeed an art of the local that was affirmed in the logo nearby, boasting the “art[ificial] concrete wks” that manufactured bespoke blocks from the Oakland Quarry, long used for the paving of roads, for the utilities firm, set on the pavement just two passes from the medallion that first called my attention to the antipodes. “Art Concrete”–Artisanal? Artificial?–was a southern California firm specialized in precast concrete, based in Pasadena, which provided meter boxes for utilities from its Oakland works, which only later changed its name after acquiring a competitor, Brooks. But it seemed an apt metaphor or legend for the botanizing of the pavement. Having gained a patent from 1914, the numerous meter boxes bearing the legend, taken as the header for Andrew Alden’s lively blog, “Oakland Underfoot,” opened a world of hidden traces into which I entered conversation, as if to decipher a lost spatiality I had long overlooked.
In one version of the story, with archives and libraries closed, I traveled to outdoors archives of the streets and pavement as if reading of a local necrology of the neighborhood. The strikes of concrete pavers in deserted streets seemed to tap local memories preserved in the pavement as a needed purchase on place about to fade–the 1908 strike placed by C.E. Burnham, now worn down by footsteps of passersby. The displays of these names distilled something like an object lesson of the world, a stripped down concrete experience of the local, or an urban panorama of the past.In another sense, not satisfied and disturbed by the maps of infections, I shifted from the global and national scales of space to the local, finding solace and affirmation where it occurred on sidewalks of the streets where I lived, the surviving strikes amidst much of South Berkeley’s historically cracked pavements.
As Charles Baudelaire had, a century ago, defined the flâneur as most at home in the urban crowd, the alternate multitude on the ground offered an odd sort of company, attuned to urban stimuli, this was almost an urban imaginary of the past whose concreteness was far more tangible amidst what Baudelaire had called “the midst of the fugitive and the infinite,” if the “ebb and flow of movement” on the streets was far more attenuated. As if in a stretch between the imagination and reality, I couldn’t help noticing, these names of these “old Italians,” those who have been dying, as the late flâneur Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1979 described as “dying and dying/day by day . . . for years”–Joseph Catucci of Cassano delle Murge, in the province of Bari; Frank Salamid or his brother Angelo of Monopoli in Puglia; Lino J. Lorenzetti and his fellow Pugliese Nat Lena–peering up from the pavement from over a century ago–as if they offered a source of stabilty.
The classification of concrete marks and strikes made such botanizing of the asphalt apt for capturing pandemic melancholy that was concretized in concrete of these older artifacts of the urban environment. There was something akin to a botanizing of the pavement in the search for signatures of the local past, personifying the ability of “botanizing on the asphalt,” not to get lost in the city, but orienting oneself by its signs: the first introduction of pavers’ marks was “art[ificial] stone” and a form of urban artifice, framed by grasses, but where walking suggested new forms of attention that transcended the natural. Walter Benjamin, who if he grew up in Berlin, exploring its hidden streets and sex trade at night, felt himself most at home exploring modernized spaces of Paris that Baudelaire described, a flâneur walking not by orienting oneself by a map, but by losing oneself passionately but restlessly in protean urban forests of shop fronts, signage, and side-shows that belied old street names. The odd commemoration of Ramsden Blake, his name affixed on a metal plates onto the concrete, almost seemed as if homeowners had inserted these ovals after a repair had led them to remove concrete with Blake’s strike.
Over on 66th Street, just a few blocks into Oakland, suffered from far more improvised forms of commemoration, undated sidewalk cyphers that were indeed hard to notice, as if lives far more easily forgotten, perhaps as a consequence of lying across the border.
Walter Benjamin asked us to sense city streets as attentively as “the wanderer in the manner of a twig cracking and snapping under his feet, or startled by a bittern’s call or the sudden stillness of a clearing with a lily standing still, even if the city hardly remained still: now the city stayed still, and these marks seemed to speak. For Benjamin, the flâneur felt a giddy heightening of senses achieved by way wandering in its constructed space, attentive to the dress and movements of inhabitants and walkers as an urban observer by “botanizing on the asphalt,” a felicitous turn of phrase, difficult to translate, suggesting the built city of the late nineteenth century, and restlessness of the ethnographer of urban space that linked nature and manmade concrete. It was made more tragic, and melancholy, of course, as Benjamin, desperately awaiting the possibility of transit papers to leave France to cross the Pyrenees, took his life, despairing at being forced to return to France; Benjamin was seeking transit papers for leaving Europe, far from his pleasure of walking in city streets, having entered the spectral world that his friend novelist Anna Seghers called “the ongoing situation that consulates describe as ‘transitory,’ but that we know in everyday language as ‘the present,'” in her novel Transit, caught between officials demanding papers of passage, far from the former pleasures of moving on foot. Is there not a proliferation of such spaces of suspended passage, waiting for official languages to intersect with one’s present, today?
Anna Seghers, Benjamin’s comrade and a life-long Marxist, evoked the desperation of assembling transit visas in wartime Marseilles, to leave a continent closing down, but might have described the unseemly expansion of worlds of refugee and tragically expanding spaces of waiting not far away, between official permission and everyday limbo–spaces between a lived landscape and official maps. Seghers buried a reference to the tragic desperation of the one-time flâneur’s suicide at the foothill town below the Pyrenees obliquely, as the narrator reflects on a rumor circulating that “a man shot himself in a hotel in Portbau on the other side of the Spanish border, because authorities were going so send him back to France in the morning,” finding himself trapped as he travelled on a smuggling route. The mention of the suicide didn’t linger on tragedy, but from a distance remembered the terrible loneliness a looming geopoltical boundary held for the one-time flâneur. Without naming Benjamin’s identity or the nature of the bombed out town where he took his life, emptied of many of the left writing inhabitants who had fled to France, the rumor of the suicide in the foothill city Benjamin took in 1940, foregoing a transit he hoped for never found, led Seghers to evoke her friend’s final moments sparingly, imagining the unexpressed terror at being compelled to return to “this country in which we are still stuck must have seemed hellish and unlivable” for one with “such enormous hopes for his journey’s destination that going back should have seemed so unbearable.” The place that seems a port of sorts and decisive moment of Benjamin’s final days captures the frustrations of navigating modern space for a refugee who had left Marseilles for Mexico, on a boat including André Breton, Victor Serge, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, a crowd where Benjamin might have found compelling company: Segher’s unnamed protagonist, awaiting transit papers, leading him to reflect that “you hear about people who prefer death to losing their freedom,” wondering what liberty death might offer, as if recalling Benjamin’s ecstatic urban reveries, asking himself “was that man really free now?“
Border security was the hallmark issue of the Presidency of President Donald J. Trump–as of his candidacy–that proudly foregrounded a specter of racial division. The promise to expand the fences that had been barriers along six hundred and fifty four miles of bollard, chain link fences, and even helicopter landing pads that were military materiel from Vietnam were to be expanded to a continuous wall by the man who, Ayn Rand style, promised he was master architect and builder of a border security system, in hopes to get the costly concrete wall he imagined would be perfect for the border built. He won election in no small part because of the assurance “I’m very good at building things,” first and foremost a wall to Make America Great Again. The President who disrupted conventions of government by provoking a government shutdown in 2019 resisted the prospect he would “give up a concrete wall” in government negotiations, Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney reminded the nation, and in visiting Alamo TX, on the eve of his departure form office, he seemed to be affirming the presence of the wall he wanted–he never wanted to have to “replace it with a steel fence” back in 2019–and to affirm the centrality of a concrete wall to the nation he ceased to lead.
Trump’s visit to the US-Mexico Border paid final homage to the achievement of building a border wall that was indeed of concrete and reinforced steel core seemed to create a shrine for an image of the border rooted in white supremacy, and no better site for such a shrine seemed to exist than Alamo TX. The very name of the border city in Texas few had ever heard of before it was designated as a site to salute the completion of four hundred miles of Border Wall near the Rio Grande Valley evoked a society based not only on the state’s funding of border defense, but a nation that was “founded, nurtured, and financed” on White Supremacy, as Ta-Nehisi Coats put it long before the Trump Presidency. In visiting “Alamo,” the outgoing President was not only visiting the border. He was affirming the centrality of the border wall as a monument to his followers, a memorial to border protection that was a dog whistle in its name. For the hybrid constellation of an “Alamo” along the Border Wall elevated the symbolic value of the southwestern border of the United States as if it were a battle-line to fight for the permanence of a color line long fundamental to American democracy, but long denied as a brutality of racist ideology naturalizing a social hierarchy in ways that were enforced by state power. If the visitation of the border provided a recurrent site for Trump to affirm his candidacy, Presidency, and indeed to wield and exercise executive authority by appropriating billions on the construction of a border wall–without even knowing if it is effective–the border wall articulated a vision of state.
The Border Wall was an icon of the Trump Presidency, a prop for his public political persona as President of the nation, and a site of illustrating the commitment to the defense of borders, fulfilling the syllogism there are no strong countries without strong borders–or that, per Ronald Reagan, “a country that cannot control its borders is not a nation”–as if the border were going to vanish from the map. And when Trump visited Alamo, eight days before leaving office, in a choreographed speech, he elevated the Border Wall to a spectacle. The visit on the surface sought to reprise a bond with the American people around construction of a Border Wall, and which he was proud at having allocated–or wrangled–$15 billion that the U.S. Congress had never appropriated. Designed to slow migrants and smugglers from crossing the border, but a token of an expanded system of border surveillance from helicopters, river boats, aerostatic blimps whose radar systems are Customs and Border Patrol’s “Eye in the Sky,” and military jeeps, and an archipelago of incarceration in detention facilities that deny migrants rights. But the concrete bastions he visited on the Rio Grande affirmed the spectacle of border defense. “The spectacle proves its arguments simply by going round in circles: by coming back to the start, by repetition,” as Guy Debord argued, “by constant reaffirmation in the only space left where anything can be publicly affirmed,” and the reaffirmation of the spectacle of the border seemed to ahistoricize and perpetuate the border wall as a defensive monument, refusing to obliterate and elide it from national memory, by eliding it with the border defense of Texas, before Texas was a state.
The visit to Alamo provided a fitting stage for the final lap of a “Promises Kept” tour, as it reprised the hostile border as a part of the American imaginary. Trump long claimed. that without borders. or border enforcement, “you don’t have a country,” as if a reinforced border was a needed affirmation of national security and identity and indeed–at least semantically–nationhood. He sought to summon dignity at the border, days after the fiasco of the insurrectionary staging of an assault at the U.S. Capitol, and warn then-President-elect Joe Biden not to destroy the wall lest he undermine immigration policies crucial to the nation, and erode the border to bring “calamity” to national security at the site he had long declared a national security threat. Seeking to both stop time, refocus national attention, and conflate myths of national identity at Alamo, the dog whistle of a defense of security at Alamo TX placed the border wall in the national mythos, to stay the prospect of these sections of concrete wall and levees from being dismantled, to keep alive the story of wall-building that he had long promised to the nation as he left office, casting it as a heroic effort of national defense and construction project that he had presented himself as the Presidential candidate as uniquely suited to create.
In the final hours of the Trump Presidency, with only four hundred and fifty miles of the border wall built, lest it be reduced to Ozymandian fragments for visitors to look upon his Presidency and despair, Trump visited the poured concrete wall at Alamo, TX, as if to greet the final testament to the achievements of his Presidency and to unveil to the nation completion of the legacy of his Presidency, as if it were a final campaign stop. Visiting a small section of Border Wall mounted on concrete levees around the Rio Grande became an occasion to reprise his commitment to national security, and the culmination of a heroic struggle of border-building and defense of the nation’s territory. The heroic struggle seemed less so, in the shadow of the tragically empty theater of the Capitol Riots, but perhaps it was the memory of his legacy he felt most able to leave: it served to epitomize the difference of “us” from outsiders, in a way that might better play to the nation than the raucous display of angry identities of flag-waving separatists, and set the tone of framing an ongoing future Presidential campaign, praising the Caesar-like monument for which he had secured federal funding, and insisting it would never be buried in the public imagination.
Indeed, among the colorful flags waved with exultation on January 6, 2021 that incarnated a social body excluding the entrance of African Americans or migrants into the nation, from Confederate Flags to III Percenters, angry at any change inclusion in a social contract that had persistently excluded those marked by ancestry and melanin from the state, the prominence of flags waved at the combat around the inaugural stands by MAGA shock forces of militia groups who cast the nation as white treasured the mythic defense of Tejano lands by militia at The Alamo as a foundational historical precedent and basis for “keeping America great,” embracing the image of The Alamo as a war that was fought both for liberties and for racial hierarchy against Mexican troops–an image nurtured not by the state, but by the powerful cultural currency of The Alamo in Hollywood as a proxy for a race war.
Even if the 2020 Presidential campaign was effectively over, the values of white supremacy that had long forged the alliance of pro-Trump separatists and deniers were kept alive by what seemed a hastily engineered visit to the border town of Alamo TX. After an incompetently ineffective summoning of minions to interrupt the counting of electoral votes by Congress, and to create a legacy for his Presidency, visiting Alamo to affirming a border wall as a monument built to keep “undocumented” Mexicans out of the United States, destined to survive even if his Presidency ended: insisting on a specter of the dangers of cross-boundary migration for America, the visit seemed perfect stagecraft for asserting the timelessness of the border wall as a legacy of defending the nation’s borders at a new Alamo, as insistently as AK47s were historically conflated with the role militias to “repel . . . danger” in 1788, and its ratification in 1789 as guaranteeing a “Right to Keep and Bear Arms.”
On his final state visit, six days after the insurrection, Trump seemed to steer national attention from the danger of domestic terrorists ready to assault the U.S. Capitol in combat gear to a racial specter of invading migrants, criminals, rapists, and seekers of asylum, collectively invested with criminal intent. As Trump had long presented the border wall as a site of military engagement–perhaps even of armed forces–the visit to McAllen and Alamo provided a means of continuing to fight the same battle over national identity, but to fight it at the border wall. The President had concluded his presidency by disrupting conventions of governing again, by refusing to recognize the popular vote’s results and inciting a riot that invaded the U.S. Capitol by minions waving flags from the lost campaign, which they insisted was not over, amidst an inverted American flag of distress, which militia groups had been regularly raised in protests about counting votes and ballots with accuracy over the previous months in Wisconsin, Georgia, Michigan, and Arizona, and has been displayed in discontent at the outcome of Presidential elections since 2012.
The sense of distress of the inverted flag that one protestor held signaled, in no small part, fear of failure to complete a continuous wall of two thousand miles in the desert promised to keep undocumented barbarians out of the nation. And as the center could not hold, days after the riot or insurrectionary attempt to end the certification of the electors, Trump concluded his Presidency in what might be a valedictory visit to the border as a site of materiality, as if to prove that it could hold, if his presidency could not. The intent to mythologize the border as a material statement of state power, and as an imaginary of the nation, was underscored by the visit to Alamo, TX–
–that recast the visit tot he border wall and concrete levee of the Rio Grande River as an occasion of state, and indeed a military event, to identify himself with the commitment of funds reallocated for the military budget to commemorate the construction of four hundred and fifty new miles of brand new wall along the southwestern border. Did President Trump imagine that doing so would enshrine the monumental status of the border wall would be elevated to the image of national defense? Although many had scoffed at his purposeful diversion of military funds to create the wall, which was not allocated funds by the U.S. Congress as Trump had demanded, the visit sought to cement the border wall in a project of military defense, assisted by the striking historical memories of the battle between Texian revolutionaries and the Mexican government in what later became Texas, in a battle that first redefined the US-Mexico border. If the Battle of the Alamo was famously lost by insurgents, it was thel Lost Cause: the often recited memory of the loss as an affront and injunction anticipated nationalism, and would inspire the Texan Revolt that led to the formation of Texas as a Republic; the line of the Rio Grande that Texans compelled the captured General Santa Anna to order the Mexican Army to retreat in 1836 below, nearly ten years before Texas was annexed as a state, created a new “line in the sand,” now drawn far South of The Alamo, and in the border town of what would be Alamo, TX. Indeed, the Texas flag of a militia, with the bronze six caliber “Gonzalez Canon” Spanish munitions seized by Tejano revolutionaries conflated arms, right to enslave, and defense of the national border–reprising the 1835 battle cry of Tejano colonist militia as a defense of ancient liberties with modern militia’s defense of bearing arms, in one of the most popular flags sold online during gun control debates of 2015, and a popular patch for militia.
The “line in the sand” demanded no real logic or precedent or land claim. Its cartographic virtue lay in its simplicity: as a line drawn in the sand, traced by the drawn sword of Col. William Travis or by a Texian boot before infantry or soldiers, to incite them to battle, or even as a battle cry, the line required no real justification or legal precedent, or international recognition. This was not a line in the sand, but a wall in the sand, on a concrete pediment, dotted by American flags, lest we forgot who drew it, to sanction the cartoraphy of the border as a state affair, worthy of being the final public or private event of the Trump Presidency, affirming the crudest cartography of all: the line in the sand was invoked as the crudest technology of border cartography, and was the crudest of archeologies of the border, an assertion whose logic demanded no justification, but provided its own triggers of nationalism and national pride, and demanded no justification but could be unilaterally affirmed. A line in the sand could be drawn where the man who drew it, and determined as a line of defense.
As a myth, it demanded no formal explanation as a claim of sovereignty, but was affirmed by a simple signature, in a final signing statement bequeathing the legacy of the Trump era to the nation–a dog whistle, more than anything like a legal act. Was the cartography of the border an appeal to a mythical notion of national distinction, conjured to being to fabricate clear distinctions one wanted to call into being on a map? If this was a symbolic and performative act, the erection of the wall Trump sought to take responsibility and to celebrate, as well as to deny American reliance on immigrant labor, was designed to demean Mexican claims to sovereignty and elevating an oppositional ethnonationalism by building a wall along that line, in implicit reference ot the line drawn in the sand by the ragtag militia of defenders of The Alamo.
Trump seemed to salute the wall to turn his back on the abuse of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, and rather to praise their service in to the nation as he toured the border wall on January 12, at the same time as over two million people were on the border, seeking to migrate across it, 60,000 having been returned to Mexico from Texas, to wait for their claims to be processed in camps. For Trump desired to recast the border wall as a historical achievement of Making America Great, turning a shoulder on the institutionalization of family separations, crowded and abusive conditions in ICE detention centers, and overwhelmed immigration courts. “Building a massive wall that spans the entire southern border [of the United States] is not a policy solution,” President Biden would soon proclaim on his first day in office, pausing construction work on the wall and calling for a reassessment of the legality of its construction.
In declaring a “National Emergency Concerning the Southern Boundary of the United States” in February 2019, Trump would diverted billions of dollars to the construction of the border wall, he fiction of the boundary that Trump sought to affirm in his visit, and had demanded in unilaterally fortifying the border as a subject of national defense, in treated as a National Emergency, rested on the need to “protect” American security, demonizing how migrants stand to “put countless Americans in danger.” shedding American blood and taking American jobs in order to redirect $8 billion to the border wall as a boundary that needed to be defended for national interests, without legislative oversight.
The legitimacy of the border was, of course, deeply engrained in our history and tied to our national mythos in ways that Trump was keen to exploit by staging his final signing visit to a section of border wall in a town called Alamo: as a Representative to Congress, Abraham Lincoln, later no stranger to the loss of life to determine national borders, detected the “sheerest deception” on the part of then-President James Polk in blaming the aggressiveness of Mexican soldiers across the Rio Grande as part of a campaign to admit Texas to the Union as state that would expand territories tolerating slaveholding: rebuking the mythic sense of the Rio Grande as a frontier of the nation, the barrier across which Spanish troops were forced to retreat in the aftermath of Tejano insurrectionists motivated by their loss at The Alamo, Lincoln doubted whether unquestioned acceptance of the Rio Grande as a frontier could serve as a basis to declare war: to rebuke charges that Mexican aggressors had crossed the Rio Grande to shed American blood, and rebuking the necessity of a national military reprisals against Mexico as inevitable–given that the determination of the boundary was contested. But the image of the “line in the sand” that gained incredible affective power as a statement of revolutionaries and in the Mexican-American war, provided the crudest of notions of the border’s stability and indeed of the border wall, not needing any precedent in law or in a mutual accord, but oddly naturalized into the landscape, at home within the construct of manifest destiny far more than in the legal record.
The fiction of locating the boundary line of the nation at the Rio Grande was a but a convenient invention, Lincoln had insisted back in the 1848, as it was, while asserted by Texans who looked to military treaties they had dictated for confirmation of their inclinations to take land, able to be manufactured as a sharp-edged mental construct of affirming value. The border of the Rio Grande’s course, Lincoln had observed, was claimed on paper by Texas as a western boundary for reasons of self-interest, but never internationally recognized as binding,–and had indeed never recognized by Congress as a question of American jurisdiction. Rather than accepting the groundless claim of a sitting President that “the soil was ours, on which the first blood was shed” in the Polk administration, eager to avoid a needless war, sending an army to fight with those Mexican resident who themselves never submitted to American sovereignty, Lincoln in 1848 found little in the historical record to accept the Rio Grande as the “boundary” of the nation, based on a unilateral declaration of the State of Texas, let alone as a binding basis for a cause of war between Mexico and the United States based on aggrandizement. Lincoln in 1848 sought to query the grounds for defending a boundary lacking mutual agreement as a boundary to be defended by American military. But the defenders of the Alamo, Travis, Crockett, and Boone, have been celebrated as patriots of Texas, and as defenders of a white tradition in recent years, as the Cenotaph in which their ashes were said to be translated in 1936 were defended by the Texas Freedom force, who in May 2020 urged members to “Defend the Alamo & Cenotaph if the need arises,” seeing the Cenotaph, as the statute of Col. William Barrett Travis, sword’s point touching the ground at his feet as he struck a pose of public oratory, on a plinth on the old Mission grounds, in Travis park, as symbols of national defense to be guarded against vandalism.
When Lincoln distinguished the international boundary line from where states claimed jurisdiction, he questioned the validity of unilateral assertion of a boundary line. Veneration of The Alamo elevated the drawing of the sand as a sacred event, a shrine for the defenders of the fortress, whose ashes in the Cenotaph have created a powerful monument to Anglo defenders, Travis, Crockett, Bowie and Boone, beneath the commitment to “never surrender-never retreat,” recently celebrated by the white supremacist militia as the “This is Texas Freedom Force,” that has urged members to “Defend the Alamo & Cenotaph if the need arises” in late May, 2020, standing guard over the Cenotaph and the statue of Col. William Barrett Travis, commander of Tejano troops who defended The Alamo, holding his sword’s point on the ground as he struck a posture of public oratory on the grounds of the old Mission. While the statue of Travis on a plinth deferred the final results of the stand–the all-out assault assault ordered at dawn by Mexican General Santa Anna left all one hundred and eighty nine defenders of the Mission grounds dead, its facade reduced to war-like visage of ruins–the heroic defense was embodied by the line in the sand, the poweful metaphor of boundary drawing to which the border town Alamo gestured. And although Travis’ statue voted to be relocated from the landscaped park that was once part of the Mission’s grounds, the confederate monument sought to be relocated in 2017, it still stands by The Alamo grounds.
In declaring emergency surrounded by U.S. Border Patrol members, the primary enforcers of the border with ICE, the very men who who become his personal agents since their early endorsement of his candidacy, and who he later visited at Alamo, TX, at the end of his term. Surrounded by the border patrol agents whose number had hovered about 2,000 until 1985, whose number peaked beyond 10,000 by 2000, Trump celebrated a border that circumvented congressional appropriations and the law, provoking a spate of lawsuits from many states and environmental preservation groups, extending the declaration of a state of emergency at the border in February 2020, and again renewing it, as he left office, two days before Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 18, 2021. President Trump was confident, playing it by the numbers, that lawsuits against the National Emergency only emerged from “blue” states he did not need to win to be reelected, counting on the border imaginary to be preserved.
The visit to Texas was an attempt to bolster that border imaginary, to the site where the greatest “immigration enforcement” efforts against refugee influxes had begun with deployment of a large, flexible, mobile Border Patrol Task Force, then in the INS, in the most severe “border build-up” in memory: “Operation Hold the Line” deployed armed Border Patrol officers along the border, along the McAllen Sector administrating the Rio Grande Valley, as Operation Gatekeeper grew along 194 border checkpoints to construct the first section of border wall on the western border, introducing a militarized border oriented toward stopping or physically halting the passage of unwanted migrants and refugees. If the San Diego initiative of “Operation Gatekeeper” evoked a mock-pastoral metaphor of the “gate” to cast migrants as animals, and mask the violence of migrant deaths–1,200 migrants died trying to cross the border from 1993-96, when it was in force, with the greatest number where Operation Gatekeeper was in force, as many more were detained as criminals. In parallel, “Operation Hold the Line” emphasized the placement of Border Patrol stations along the border, to compensate for perception of no coherent federal vision for the border management, to replace standard practices permitting migrants to cross the border before they were apprehended and deported, mandating continuous presence at the border of Border Patrol. Stationing Border Patrol across the border began in the lower Rio Grande valley, by a model of Border Patrol echoing Tejano defense of the line “drawn in the sand” at the Alamo, was later deployed at El Paso as “Operation Blockade,” staunching all cross-border movement.
The image of the defense of a “border” that existed as a “line in the sand” tapped a mythos of the Texas revolutionaries who defended The Alamo, a site of an old Mexican mission–a stone complex constructed by Spaniards in San Antonio as a Franciscan mission hat had, mutatis mutandi, become a garrison, for all of its Franciscan origins, venerated for its defense by Travis, as a line able to be drawn between the intermingling of Mexican and Anglo cultures, the mixture so intolerable it had to be defined along an edge. In rallying a small group of insurrectionaries hoping to defend The Alamo, and to extend the “rights” to extend plantation systems into Tejano lands, William Travis had drawn the “mother of all lines” in 1836 in the sands before the mission complex, perhaps the archetype of all maps of the southwestern border: in drawing a line before the assembled rag tag insurrectionary Anglo troops he would lead against the approaching Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. The line whose drawing is an archetype in all films about Texas gives narrative prominence to the defense along a line in American film, as if tracing an archetypal cartography as a topic of attention, tension, and crisis, that “visiting Alamo” seemed to seek to reprise for a President who was long in touch with television producers about choreographing his public appearances to present his political persona.
In a different cinematic key, outside the Trump canon of action films, John Sayles’ Lone Star referenced in the taunt of the owner of tire repair store in a border town who traces a line before his store to taunt the Anglo sheriff from across the border who is adamant in his cartographic convictions, “Bird flying south, you think he sees that line? Rattlesnake, javelina–whatever you got!–[once] halfway across that line, they don’t start thinking different. So why should a man?” The crossing by species of the border, especially at the rich and delicate habitat of the Rio Grande, stand in contrast with the lines that the American government has been increasingly insistent to draw, and that Donald Trump convincingly coupled to a display of national identity and a showpiece for Making America Great. Was it a coincidence that it was at The Alamo, according to the cheesy poster publicizing the Technicolor western epic written, directed and produced John Wayne, that the dangerous troops besieging The Alamo held Mexican flags, in what was openly mapped as a military confrontation at a border in terms of a race war, circa 1960, between latino extras and Anglo cowboy combattants, eager to hold their ground?
The image of the tactical defense of the walls of the old Spanish mission, since restored by the U.S. military as a shrine to national combat, has been memorialized in multiple dioramas emulating cinemascope as a historical struggle for identity, created in a recreationist model designed b Thomas Feely, has been recently expanded in a still more detailed diorama to incarnate the threat of Mexican troops flooding the walls of the citadel in San Antonio, showing at its central moment of dramatic tension the amassing of Mexican forces to breach the northern wall to show “how really doomed” its remaining defenders were as they remain to repulse the mass of armed Mexicans, placing 2,000 hand-painted pewter figurines in an dramatization of an action-packed version of this cartographically generational conflict, intended to replace the fifteen by thirteen foot diorama that already exists at the History Shop, just north of The Alamo. While such models are far from Alamo TX, the investment of the dramatic moment of history as an inspirational event–rather than a failed insurrectionary event–was channeled days after the Capitol insurrection, in Washington, DC, seemed to stage a dramatic pseudo-coup replete with its own historical myths, as if to affirm the inspirational value of the defense of the border as a national project.
Did the fantasy of a border that could be held again at The Alamo, or at least at the Rio Grande, create a powerful mental imaginary whose simplicity underlay the cartographic crudeness of the deep history of Trump’s border wall? Operations of controlling the border, as a fixed line, grew to hold an increasingly prominent place in the mental imaginary and mythos of border patrol agents near McAllen, as Border Patrol vehicles were increasingly stationed every hundred yards o the banks of the Rio Grande: as “Operation Blockade” reverted to “Operation Hold the Line” in El Paso, in the mid-1990s, it reflected the extension of the metaphor of a “line in the sand” at The Alamo to the entire border, and a basis for understanding the demand for “operational control over the international land and maritime borders of the United States,” borders that Trump would conflate with the identity of the nation. The expansion of Border Patrol Operations to stop migrant travel across the entire lower Rio Grande was amplified in the 2004 deployment of boats, fencing, and lighting along the banks of the Rio Grande to reduce migrants’ entrance across the border at a cost of $3.5 billion. The dream of instituting a “line in the sand” along the Rio Grande hoped that the invasive construction, amplified noise and lighting disturbed sensitive habitat and breeding behavior “temporarily” without adversity and “little permanent damage,” as if failing to consider the long-term nature of the “grand strategy” as it mutate into a multi-year project from 1997.
The expansion of both border patrol officers, 20,000 by 2010, mirrored the allocation of $7 million for steel fences across the border, which expanded to Trump’s public requests for $8 billion for a border wall likely to cost as much as $25 billion. The huge sacrifice to the nation of building the border wall existed not only in the squandering of funds, but the legitimizing of a mindset of criminalizing and detaining trans-border migrants–and discounting of migrants’ lives. Migrants detained during the Trump Presidency in holding facilities along the border or in detention centers were willfully administered without humanity or dignity by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement: detention centers were sites of systemic abuse, operating with impunity in a culture of “dehumanizing physical, sexual, and medical abuse,” in the eyes of one observer, left over-crowded as President Trump sought to make them monitory examples to migrants. “Look, this is tough stuff . . . I know we’d see a system that is overcrowded,” adding on Twitter, “Tell them not to come to USA– . . . problem solved!”“Where do these people come from?”
Trump asked with open arms at a pro-border wall rally in February, 2019, anticipating the Presidential challenge of El Paso’s Beto O’Rourke, stirring up anti-immigrant sentiment, but ignoring the daily violence at the archipelago of Detention Centers that were administered by ICE. The project of wall building however became a monument in itself, the logic of whose construction as a monument to the nation consigned to oblivion migrants’ fates by being recast and dignified as a military project, and a military struggle–an elevation of the building of the border wall to a struggle for national identity that was referenced in the reference to defending the border at the celebration of the completion of four-hundred and fifty miles of wall at an American border town called Alamo, where the line in the sand could be firmly drawn by blocks of reinforced concrete with a rebar core–presented as the completion of a promise long made to the nation.
The policy separation of migrant families at the border began in late 2016, before Trump was inaugurated. It was extended without public debate over the policy, however, and dramatically escalated in Trump’s Presidency. If the wall concealed America’s dependence on migrant labor, it also concealed the extent of this rampant abuse of human rights. The systemic family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border expanded despite documentation of its abuse–there are many cases of losing, abusing, and even killing children increasingly detained in centers in southeast Texas–but Trump tolerated and shouldered abuse as he had directed attention to the construction of the border wall that was financed almost two years ago, with the declaration of a National Emergency as Congress refused to apportion $5.6 billion he requested for its construction, but a fifth of his original request, with the assertion that the nation faced “tremendous dangers at the border” that demanded a border wall, seeking to secure the desired funds without the congressional approval by hyperbole, to use funds apportioned for military construction projects to redirect to a border wall he cast as a project for American armed forces as the funds were not forthcoming–but meeting legal challenge as only projects in which American armed forces were engaged didn’t demand congressional apportionment, and as, it was widely noted, border apprehensions were in decline. The steep increase in detentions at the border was cast as evidence of the need to build the wall, as policies of detention and increased numbers of those detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement created a sense of its increasing need.
But it was as true that the need for a wall as a shared cultural symbol grew to distract populations from the growing gaps of wealth, access to education, health care, and justice in the United States, and the growing wealth gaps between the super-wealthy and the rest diminished before the spectacle of the wall. The National Emergency was declared to secure funding for the border wall, concealing that the securing of the border was neither an emergency or a military operation, but a mythic redrawing of the border. Trump visited Alamo, TX in order to restore a timeless a mythic defense of the United States at The Alamo, linking the border wall with a mythic project of national defense, even if the defense of The Alamo during by Texian Revolutionaries was not fought at the walls of the old mission by the American government, but by the ancestors of the current vigilante groups and self-designated Patriots, who took in upon themselves to seize land that was Mexican–and under Mexican sovereignty–to claim it as part of the United States. The “Come and Take It” flags first flown as a symbol of defiance to Mexican soldiers in 1835 provided a false originalism that flew as it was elevated in the insurrectionary Capitol Riots President Trump had not distanced himself for several weeks; the defiant Confederate flag affirmed Second Amendment rights, and the President’s own rhetoric of “taking back the country,” familiar among militia.
The ease with which Trump described the building of the wall was in 2015 was confirmed by the visit to the border Alamo, by staging a revisionary and selective history of the border wall rooted in national triumphalism and American flags. Trump had convinced the American electorate building a wall across a border of almost 2,000 miles, extending from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, across rugged topography was a piece of cake for someone so practiced in construction was itself a map-trick. Trump in fact possessed little sense of the practicalities of building in such terrain, and barely registered the scale of the problem save its effectiveness of a wall that would render the legal identity of the migrant opaque. Rather than dwell its logistics or practicalities, Trump had promoted the performative promise of constructing a border wall in his campaign–displaying pseudo-maps promising national security–whose simplicity lay in its denial of rights of migrant, a simplicity of evacuating rights by the border wall that was a subject of pleasure, an inspirational image whose financing he presumed that the office of the President would help waive established mechanisms of appropriating necessary funds.
The image of the fantasy wall bounding the nation, concrete punctuated by what seem hexagonal towers of surveillance, was attributed to “The People,” as a new embodiment of the nation, separate from international conventions or law.
The fantasy of the border wall that Trump was offered at a political rally for his candidacy was completed at Alamo. The evocative name of continued resistance, and refusal to give up, was evoked by the place-name alone of one town near where the border wall spanned Hidalgo County that popped as a trigger for transmitted memory far more than the other towns the section of border wall passed near Ft. McAllen–‘Mission’, ‘San Juan’, ‘Weslaco’, ‘Mercedes’, and Brownsville, a frequent stop of border visit, and popped out of the map for some time. Plucked from the map, its prominence drowned the fate of migrants or the protected areas the Trump administration sought waivers to cut through from 2017, wrangled by 2018 as regions the wall was only permitted to extend by declaring a National Emergency at the border; Customs and Border Patrol waived environmental regulations in the Lower Rio Grande, as regulations preventing construction of border wall in protected lands were extended to the western regions through 2019. Was the Rio Grande Valley not a model for the waiver of environmental regulations limiting construction that President Trump long sought to wrangle?
By late August 2019, the problem of extending the border wall and levees along the lower Rio Grande Valley still remained on Trump’s front burner, and the nagging question of how to extend these sections of existing border wall in a defensive line along the windy course of the Rio Grande near McAllen was a thorny question of securing needed exemptions.
As a realtor, Trump was habituated in the construction of hotels and golf courses to move around regulations and obtain special clearances with the ease he might move across the globe’s surface, and as he flouted regulations and Congressional approval by declaring a National Emergency in February, 2019, to circumvent budgetary approval, allowing himself to flout regulations as in the past. As a real estate promoter, Trump had mostly used maps to skirt regulations, gain tax breaks, tax-forgiveness, or debt relief, to generate much vaunted “gross operating products” to “pay as little in taxes as possible.” Tax-avoidance is the major strategy of wealth preservation of the ultra-wealthy, and the range of tax breaks that Trump gained in what constitutes as public assistance benefit all fifteen buildings at the core of his Manhattan real estate empire; circumvention of regulations of appropriation was the only way to achieve the building of the border wall, and was probably what Trump meant, if anything, when he argued that his expertise in building would allow the border wall to be publicly funded, even if he argued that deal-making skills would allow construction of a “big, beautiful wall” that no previous President had been able to deliver–and which demanded a voice outside the corrupt American political class.
The wall was a symbol of the popular mandate on which Trump promised to deliver, providing a monument of public safety no other president had been able to offer. The very narrative of its imminent construction had long offered a performative basis to save the Trump presidency, returned to several times as if it were a promise that was the basis of his alleged popular mandate and a demand for safety only he could meet or discern. If Trump clothed the construction of the wall and its funding in questions of border security, and the needs of economic and criminal security that he argued the lack of a border wall imperiled, arguing for the basis of domestic security to attract the broadest base, as an act of love–“you build a wall around your house not because you hate the people on the outside, but because you love the people on inside” (January, 2019), Tump was selling us a vision of domestic security akin to luxury living at a remove from the city’s sounds and diversity, concealing the economic dependence of the nation on immigration, and the violence of the border security apparatus, more costly, perhaps, if far less beautiful than the “big, beautiful wall” he promised.
Love? The wall emblematized an independence from international protocol or conventions, and human rights requirements, as a “line in the sand,” and was able to be drawn in the sand as the site to build the towering, opaque wall able to blot out what lies across the border, replacing the sovereign state with a model of border defense of earlier eras, eras predating sovereign claims we would recognize, and suggesting a Hobbesian state of nature. Trump saw the wall as, one might argue, a similar part of the landscape, able to blend seamlessly with its surroundings and necessitated by them.
–in a performance of sovereignty, rather than a sovereign discussion with other states: the border wall was long for domestic consumption as a spectacle, if it was argued, and presented, to be , and was involved in a mythos of the nation that was for domestic consumption, displacing claims of sovereignty in the ceremony of defining a dichotomous divide by fiat, on a reality show that was for national broadcast, rather than framed by a language of international law.
Trump staged his final visit to the border at Alamo, TX, seeking to savor the triumphant construction project he now cast as a monument of national achievement of what he had campaigned would be akin to the Eisenhower Highway System, funded by defense appropriations even if they unapproved by congress, but The wall provided a monument to the Trump Presidency, emblazoned with his name or his signature, as if in a gambit to claim that the structure deserved to be named after himself. He visited the poured concrete levees on the Rio Grande as a fruit of his presidency, the only concrete walls left of the entire border wall, which was vertical steel beams filled with concrete to replace fencing, but judged to meet the “operations requirements of the U.S. Border Patrol” in 2019–until, that is, they were found easy to be sawed through by a circular saw. Such “high security fencing” would cost 1.6 billion, but a fraction of the $25 billion Trump desired to allocate for border building, promising at the start of work “not only on some new wall, [but] . . . fixing existing walls and existing acceptable fences” very quickly. He had accelerated the pace of border construction in ways that seemed to be timed to the election, and had probably planned to visit the border wall for a final time in his Presidency, win or lose the election, as a platform of expanding the need for allocating more funding to the wall. When he came to “highlight his administration’s work on the border wall,” the valedictory visit sent the message that he. had done his hardest to keep the barbarians on the edge of the empire on the other side of the border, and sought to transmute into the national memory.
All of this was far from the town of Alamo, and even father from the mythic imaginary of The Alamo that had assumed a sacred importance in many Americans’ collective memory that Trump was eager to transfer to the Border Wall. President Trump’s visit was to a site near McAllen, Texas, rather than The Alamo, but the questions of how they were related quickly rose to the surface of newswire accounts. AP and other news outlets quickly reminded the nation, as the White House had left it unclear, that the city of Alamo TX near the military base was, indeed, not The Alamo in downtown San Antonio. But Trump had long claimed to love the uneducated, and the faithful, and the possible geographic confusion seemed an opportune way to fulfill the mission of the trip to tally achievements by affirming the threat came from south of the border at his term end–and elicit continued fears that the failure to complete border construction projects would not Keep American Great less cross-border flows of population continued to be stopped, as important to the nation as the historic “border conflict” by the so-called “defenders of the Alamo,” who had in fact started an insurrection in Mexican province.
As if visiting an outpost on the border of the empire where he sought to protect barbarians from invading, days after having incited riots that had staged an actual insurrection, at a rally where the President claimed Democrats “threw open our borders and put America last,” reminding them at President Biden would “get rid of the America First policy,” he ceremonially visited the border as if to mythologize it. Trump arrived in full regalia, as if denying his loos, but as if visiting the groundbreaking of a new hotel, accompanied by city officials, as if it were a privileged site of national defense, near the river whose meander had long defined the international boundary between Mexico and the United States, and indeed was a return to the Rio Grande Valley he had already visited to discuss border security in January, 2019, and sought to confront questions of the need to seize privately owned land to do so by eminent domaine. If the border wall was to be tall, daunting, fitted with flood lights, sensors, cameras and an enforcement zone that was a hundred and fifty feed wide was a steep goal, Trump treated government shutdown as a small price for 450-500 miles of border wall on track to be completed by the end of 2020, promoting a border wall whose construction would be completed by March 2021.
It still existed, even if that moment in history would never arrive. And although the story was told of population movement across the border, another story could be told about the disappearance of the boundary that almost seemed imminent by the mid-1990s, even as anti-migrant feelings grew: the expansion of the transboundary cooperation along much of the border that responded to the growth of the border region to almost a billion inhabitants in the 1990s, through which increasing billions of exports moved yearly–$3.3. billion at the San Diego checkpoint alone by 1990–that led Border Mayors Conference to request a transboundary zone allowing free movement to all of twenty five miles, as the increasing economic importance of the boundary brought an increased interest in drawing a boundary able to define the exclusivity of the wealth of an imagined community of Americans from outsiders, as a porous border region seemed less in control of the United States government, and almost a separate nation.
The line between nations that Trump chose to emphasize along the river delta where Alamo TX is located and which Trump visited is one of the sole places along the entire US-Mexico border where steel panels appear, fully mounted on large concrete levees. As one of the rare sites where the concrete wall that Trump promised actually exists, it became an important backdrop to conclude his Presidency in a final photo op, as well as to rehearse a new national imaginary.
The visit to the concrete levees of the Rio Grande Valley that were mounted by concrete-core steel fencing were a display of Presidential authority on a line drawn in the sandy riverbanks far from the Alamo, as newspapers had to remind their readers, but provided a tableaux vivant of sorts, eight days before the end of Trump’s presidency, to defend the necessity of drawing a firm line in the sand.
The actual geographic distance between Alamo TX and The Alamo seems to have shrunk symbolically, if the car ride was still three and a half hours: Trump seemed to treat his visist as a retrospective view on the grand project of national redefinition on which he had coasted as he teared up in remembering the “great honor” after working so “long and hard” on the border wall as he found himself “here in the Rio Grande Valley with the courageous men and women of Customs and Border Patrol.” The encomium that he planned to the four hundred and fifty miles of wall built so far was an occasion of deep personal bonding with the built, akin to the ties Trump promoted to many real estate projects of construction over the years, on which he had affected the same deep tie by affixing his name in ways that we had understood as a promotion of his brand as much as a canny extension of self to a distributed global network. He had forged deep bonds to the wall, so it was difficult to decide where the wall ended and the candidate–or the man–began, as the monument he had promised so fulsomely from the declaration of his candidacy became a sign of the nation, a sign of national security, and a sign of the vision of national security that he, Trump, and only he could promise, akin to the visions of luxury lifestyle that he, Trump, could guarantee and promote.
The term that he had served out, and was now coming to a close, became an occasion to express, in mock humility, his gratitude for the very experience of having “gotten to know [the members of the Border Patrol] very well over the last four years,” praising the “incredible . . . really incredible” people at Border Patrol he had promised the wall to be built, and was now there to say he had delivered, and the promised were indeed kept. “We got it exactly as you wanted it–everything!–including your protective plate on top . . . for extra protection,” he noted, the real estate promoter returning as he surveyed the levees, and the reinforced concrete, ignoring the detention centers and the human lives lost in its construction, as well as the habitat destroyed, a concern which he was successful at having dismissed. The delivery of border wall concluded a transactional relation to the Border Patrol, as much as to protect the nation. Looking at the reinforced concrete structure with heavy slats, Trump channeled his identity as a builder that could be cemented with his status as an American President, explaining how it was “steel,” “concrete inside steel–and then its rebar–its rebar–a lot of heavy rebar inside the concrete,” channeling his inner engineer–“as strong as you’re going to get and as strong as you can have . . . . 100% of what you wanted!” The swansong speech promoting the achievement of an “extraordinarily successful building of the wall on the southern border,” of four hundred and fifty miles bookended Trump’s October 2018 speech at Calexico, CA, to commemorate the construction of two hundred miles of a “full wall system” looking suspiciously like a fence.
The border wall sections that had been commemorated for three years running revealed increments of two hundred miles by rolling out the border as a prop–a talking point, and a monument, more than an accomplishment. As monuments, each roll-out of border wall and affixed with the commemorative plaque crediting construction to President Trump staged a new era of border protection and defense. But the monuments to the militarization of the border wall and exclusion of refugees from the nation was based not on actual precedents, or a map, but gestured to a new national imaginary, and increasingly did so by comparisons to mythic events of the nation, rather than to actual events, migrant surges, or need.
Trump’s speech before the concrete levees in Alamo TX seemed uncoded. He deliver hope and a prayer that the piece of national infrastructure would survive as a personal legacy. But the comparisons he made were deeply coded, from the billing of the wall as a project of national infrastructure to the gesture to celebrating the militarization of the border at a city called Alamo, which effectively placed the border wall on two imaginary maps, neither coinciding with the lay of the land or the geographic situation of the border wall as a project of massive environmental destruction of sensitive habitat, inhumane treatment of detained migrants, and disrespect or acknowledgement of a world of increased displaced persons and refugees. Trump had bizarrely compared to the Eisenhower National Highway System from his campaign of 2015 would survive as a personal legacy for national development and will ensure memories of the success of his Presidency defending national security. When Donald J. Trump had first refurbished a political identity, he not only added a middle initial to his name in the fashion of Eisenhower, but presented “America’s Infrastructure First” as in the mold of Eisenhower, promising a transition that echoed the commander of allied forces in hopes to “implement a bold, visionary plan for a cost-effective system of roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, railroads, ports and waterways, and pipelines in the proud tradition of President Dwight D Eisenhower, who championed the interstate highway system”–as a basis for his credibility and perhaps legitimacy as a President. To be sure, the marquis project of a Border Wall System exhausted the budget and federal funds available. But in the way that Eisenhower mandated the highway system be federally funded as a national defense program in 1954, linking the need for roads to imminent the fears of nuclear attack, as much as for transportation needs, based on his experience in rebuilding Europe, the massive cost of the Eisenhower Highway System–which had unprecedentedly cost the United States $101 billion, far beyond the original federal bond that Congress had approved, provided the only comparable form of expenditure to the border wall that he had proposed. Even as the cost of the border wall had expanded,–and left President Biden noting that stopping the construction Trump had arranged by classifying it as a National Emergency might save the incoming administration $2.6 billion, freeing up needed funds for needed projects of national health, border barriers would have become the most pricey piece of infrastructure in the nation.
If being run by the Army Corps of Engineers, the visit to Alamo TX keeps alive the defense of the border and conjures the streaming of Mexicans over another wall, and the gesture to the improvised insurrection of The Alamo that might be effectively enlisted as a new model of service to an imagined nation. As he looked at the wall, the outgoing mused in his final days in office, unsubtly reminding his audience of the potential sacrifice to the nation of stopping the project, that the current wall was “as strong as you’re going to get and strong as you can have.” His audience new well that all bets were all off about building more wall in the Biden administration, and his words seemed to seek to rile up his long-term allies at Customs and Border Patrol, whose union had been the very first endorsed his presidential candidacy, excited by the priority he gave building a border wall in the first days of his campaign. For this real estate promoter turned salesman of a vision of the nation was most familiar with maps as a basis to evade building codes, zoning restrictions, or municipal regulation, by means of winning exemptions through wand-waving reclassifications that seemed a sort of grand opera of “deal”-making.
For Trump, such canny framing metaphors as a reference to infrastructure and a visit to Alamo helped to frame the project of the wall as one of national defense, requiring a reclassification of budgetary appropriations, and indeed fast-track prioritization as a project of national need. Both Eisenhower’s unprecedented achievement of infrastructure investment and the saber-rattling reference to The Alamo seemed to reframe the project in credible terms for a base, independent from the lay of the land or the practicalities and logistics of the border terrain: both metaphorical gambits removed the wall from the map, and mapped the border wall within a new logic of nation-building. Such reference to the Eisenhower Interstate, a model of expansion of infrastructure that had creeped up on the nation slowly, to become part of its national identity over time, had slowly created the expanse of national highways that fit with doubling of highwasy after World War I in the United States, as, the paved mileage of but 257,000 miles grew over time to almost 522,000, as the plans Eisenhower had laid were solidified as the Federal-Aid Highway Act would pave concrete interstates of 41,000 more miles–and adding 5,000 miles beyond Eisenhower’s mandated 41,000 miles of interstate provided, few have noted, a memorable event in Trump’s life, whose construction was elevated as a powerful model of what passed for public service in Trump’s youth. If Trump had ben celebrating the building of four hundred and fifty miles of wall, Trump framed the innovative nature of his future vision of a nation that was walled, by many more miles, as well as securing an image of the strength and identity of the nation that he had tried to cement. Eisenhower, famously, had mandated the project of the interstates during the Cold War as a project of national defense of the economy, in the event of attack, allowing federal dollars to flow to local projects. Was it only coincidence that Trump entertained audiences at his rallies, as if flying a trial balloon from August, 2105, “Maybe someday they’ll call it the Trump Wall,” he mused early in his candidacy, recognizing the power and unique privileges that the office of Presidency might bring. The fantasy became a near-actuality in his public platform as a candidate when by December of the same year he described the “Trump Wall,” in mid-July 2016, after he left the official campaign trail, promising a project of needed national infrastructure “someday named after me.”
The final days speech delivered with the dateline “Alamo” was hardly valedictory. It affirmed the section completed border wall as a great piece of infrastructure almost a personalized as a gift to the nation’s security. He cast his visit to the wall as forward-looking, for the right audience, as what might be a personal salute to his legacy of border defense, the trademark promise Trump made as an American politician, was not a retrospective but a final epideictic of the promise to Make America Great Again, elevating the conceit of a mythical defense against “illegal aliens” on the southwest border he had personalized as integral to the logic of his Presidency and the prime evidence of Presidential authority. Trump’s Presidency, he wanted to claim, might be remembered as a time of the building of a similar basis of the nation’s strength and architecture, as he sought to secure the centrality and preeminence of concrete wall-building to a vision of the nation. From his speech, one would think the wall had become a testimony to the strength of the nation in the Trump Presidency, and he championed the vision of the nation’s strength that he had long sought to promote, as if to celebrate and acknowledge a change in the topography of the nation and people’s relation to the nation, analogous to the highway system. It hardly mattered the drive to The Alamo was a couple of hundred miles, on Route 35 (three hundred and nineteen miles) or Route 37 (just short of two hundred and forty miles); the symbolic link of the wall to the nation was echoed, despite that quite considerable real world distance, to the map between a place symbolic of saving of a vision of national identity and a mission to defend national lands and liberties.
The link left salient during his speech was perhaps the greatest and most significant take away for the right audience, as it was its figurative intent: even in the light of failure of one battle at The Alamo, the fight was long, ongoing, and would in the end prevail as a new vision of the nation, and in the end, win out as a definition of the border in the national imaginary: if Representative Abraham Lincoln saw little precedent for the border to be drawn on the Rio Grande either in treaties or in law cases that showed recognition of the river as a mutually consented boundary line, save in the conceit of manifest destiny all abolitionists and Republicans disdained locating justifications of the border in God-given right to territorial expanse, Trump appealed to the very manifest destiny for which Lincoln demanded proofs in visiting Alamo–a “line in the sand” grounds to defend a nation, reprised as a myth of national defense in 1836, heroized by John Wayne in technicolor in the 1962 extravaganza Wayne starred, directed, and produced to promote Cold War principles of national defense.
While Trump had increasingly used history both strategically and purposefully as a distortion of bonds that tied the nation and its citizens, the heroic battle that the visit referenced was more likely the film version of The Alamo as a racialized struggle of white defenders against Mexican extras playing invading forces: the film, which itself downplays the location of The Alamo in Mexican Territory, and indeed the status of Texas as a Mexican state that belonged to a nation which prohibited slavery and enslavement, provided an iconic image of division that mapped onto Trump’s intent to divide the nation as he had devoted the summer of 2020 to address a broad and merciless left-wing attack to “wipe out our history,” conscripting numerous iconic images of the nation as props in his attempt to divide the nation by staging iconic patriotic tableaux to evoke a dogmatic use of historical memory.
The skill of wielding historical memory to further divides that was on show for most of 2020–from Trump’s bemoaning of attempts to “demolish our heritage” were long tagged along racial lines, from the defense of memorials and monuments to confederate soldiers, slave-owners, and anti-abolitionists he sought to preserve in our national memory, to the statues of colonizers as Christopher Columbus, who had introduced trade in enslaved peoples, to expand a sense of moral reckoning in response to social justice movements, opposing an official “patriotic” history against those who would “defame” our heritage, not acknowledging the erection of monuments to Confederate soliders belonged to a Jim Crow era designed to glorify segregation and disenfranchisement. Did the gesture of a visit to Alamo not situate the border wall in a context of defending a “line in the sand,” at the site of “Operation Hold the Line”? If this was not rationalized similarly, it was meaningful to members of the Border Patrol he visited there.
The President has long lavished attention on the projected construction of border as if inhabiting the role of the public official, the enabler, and the fixer all at once in the unveiling of an even more majestic and far more grandiose national monument. Without ever conceding the election–and indeed instructing those who supported his candidacy in 2020 to “never give up, never concede,” Trump appropriately visited the border city that was named after a spirit of independence revealed in the refusal of the armed insurgents of 1835 to ever leave the garrison in Tejano lands that they sought. to hold, as if to hold off the advancing Mexicans soldiers that were valorized as creating a needed “barrier of safety to the southwestern frontier” long, long before it was ever described as a border, back in 1836. If that struggle was remembered in its day as a battle waged, as Stephen L. Austin wrote, in a May 4, 1836 letter to Senator L. F. Linn of Missouri, “by the mongrel Spanish-Indian and Negro race, against civilization and the Anglo-American race,” preserving what was enjoined to be “remembered” in public memory as a purification of ethnic and racial contamination.
The preservation of the memory of these insurgents as heroes had led them to be extolled President Trump in a historical pantheon, among public models of American heroism in a fiery State of the Union address of May, 2020 that extolled “our glorious and magnificent inheritance” as an alternative history to that of civil rights. He had praised the “beautiful, beautiful Alamo,” urging that all school children in America continue to learn the names of the “Texas patriots [who] made their last stand at the Alamo–the beautiful, beautiful Alamo,” beside the name of pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock as a foundational myth of the nation that confirmed its Manifest Destiny, eulogizing the defenders of the Alamo beside Wyatt Earp, Annie Oakley, and the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock as Americans who “changed history forever by embracing the eternal truth that everyone is made equal by the hand of Almighty God.” Supported in their seizing of the Alamo-and the lands of Texas–by Trump’s hero, Andrew Jackson, who saw the benefits creating a “slavocracy” extending plantation lands across the South; the New Orleans Bee 1834 lamented the racial degradation Mexico embodied in bemoaning “the unfortunate race of Spaniard, Indian and African, is so blended that the worst qualities of each predominate.” The visit to Alamo TX, named after the rebels whose leader had solemnly vowed “I shall never surrender and never retreat” seemed quite opportune as Trump sought to re-iterate the notorious vow he took January 6 to never give up and never concede.
The speech memorialized a refusal to concede or Alamo to make a final performance of border security before the Rio Grande, and to acknowledge the depth of his commitment to boosting border security. The very emblem of the Alamo was among the flags of current militia who had arrived for the January 6 riots, and a powerful emblem of the Texas militia groups who had defended the commemoration of The Alamo as a nationalist cause, verging on white nationalism. In returning to the Rio Grande Valley, Trump announced in the Texas border town of Alamo that the border wall had progressed from a development project as “completion of the promised four hundred and fifty miles of border wall” he exaggerated as either in “construction or pre-construction” at pains to deny he had left the “wall,” the impressive centerpiece of his political promise to America, as scattered unbuilt fragments, after having rallied his candidacy behind the construction of a continuous concrete wall.
The collective struggle was ongoing and undying, in the post-Presidency of Trump, as the project of wall-building, he insisted, would continue in the appeals he had made in his candidacy, American flags draped behind him, to the flags behind him as he spoke at the wall he had guaranteed would be built, and the wall that would be a reason that folks had once sacrificed their lives. It is hard to imagine the huge costs of this project of wall building, and the expanse of an archipelago of detention centers that now existed along the border of the United States. (One might remember that it was in the Austrian border village of Braunau a son was born to the Customs Inspector Aloïs Hitler was born a future Führer.)
We had been waiting for barbarians for some time. The President had, for over six years, mapped the threat of the barbarians advancing from across borders as a security threat. And so we imagined that they would arrive from the edges of empire, the edges where the acting President had been mapping threats of their arrival for five years. When they did arrive on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, the picture was not clear: ten thousand had entered the grounds, and some had scaled the scaffolding set for the inauguration two weeks off; even if the border was fortified by a complex system of defense, informed by threats a border that without adequate defenses would leave the nation facing an existential threat, the grounds of the Capitol were breached to protest the transition of that the Presidential election had determined. Waving confederate flags, the rioters may not have only been inspired by the outlandish claims of fraud and failure of governance in Trump’s speech that morning, but of insurrection. The logic of insurrection was embodied in the confederate flags so many held, trumpeting rights by evoking the logic that the South had a right to separate the union–a “sacred right of insurrection” that excused their disturbance of civil peace.
While invoking such a “right of insurrection” was not central in the impeachment proceedings House managers presented, and not articulated in President Trump’s speech, the rights to perpetuate a distasteful drama was one that he delighted in amplifying in his final day as U.S. President–and scarcely needed a map to do. Donald Trump loves a drama, and reprised his role as dramaturge in the month long aftermath of the election. The seeds of doubts placed in the vote tally over multiple months had occurred in local audits amidst charges of rigged voting, reprising the power of “rigged” as a rallying cry in 2016, animating his base and motivating believers with the false news that there were 1.8 million dead voters, already registered, who would be casting ballots in 2016. They were not only registered but, Trump assured Sean Hannity, “some of them absolutely vote,” and the image of zombie voters helped kill the promise of representative government. In addition, with 2.5 million voters that were cross-registered between states, and voting twice, the uncertainty of legitimacy became a narrative of injustice, crafted to disorient and impassion, as the question of a conclusion of the Presidential vote was already primed for uncertainty and indeterminacy in 2016, so that it was almost in the eye of the beholder: while the numbers may be credible,–they were wielded to disorient, suggesting a desire for massive voter fraud able to be attributed to “bad actors” that seemed a scheme to sow division and uncertain outcomes, exploiting potential animosity in the electorate to defray any conclusion in the Presidential election, as if exploiting divisions among parties in an increasing tribal sense.
As the 2016 contest heated, it was notable that Trump’s campaign website appealed in all caps echoing social media to “Help Me Stop Crooked Hillary From Rigging This Election!” Inviting citizen groups more akin to vigilantes monitor irregular voter behavior, he created a logic for political involvement in a coming election. When flag-waving followers descended to the sites of ballot counting in 2020, waiving campaign flags, American flags, “Don’t Tread on Me” flags in the occasion of state-wide audits of paper ballots and absentee ballots to review machine tallies diffused a skepticism of alarmism, destabilizing and distancing any conclusion of confidence, they echoed a strategy already deployed in 2016. But this time, they carried the problems of ballot counting to a county level, voting machines, demanding certification that the ballot tallies were “fraud-free” that had never been seen before, in shock jock tactics, sewing a level of distrust and dissent that promised to undermine the democratic process long term, having unleashed a river of groundless skepticism whose merits were cast aside. And the staged assemblies that proliferated at state capitols in the aftermath of the 2020 Presidential election seem almost an amping up of the populist rage that reached a crescendo in the license of crossing police barricades, the steel pipe reviewing stands recently assembled on the Capitol’s west front, to break down doors and windows in invading the U.S. Capitol, and proclaim it the “people’s house.” Breaking down the barriers, and flooding the Capitol, was almost a projection of the fears of migrants storming the nation, but this time the barbarians arrived fully armed, asserting rights–freedom of assembly; freedom to won guns; freedom to form a well-armed militia–that migrants never claimed.
Back in 2016, public intellectual and linguist Geoff Nunberg aptly noted the danger ‘rigged’ gained as a “keyword” in the national political discourse, launched by both Democrats and Republicans to frame civic participation in unprecedented levels of skepticism and doubting of social ties: ‘rigged’ described the uneven economy, the tax system, and increasingly deferred any outcome of the election and injected the news cycle he toxic term with a newfound populism replicated in social media that served only to exponentially escalate that “built-in biases, so that losers may feel that the system is rigged against them,” by using a term expressing anger at unfair business practices or fraudulent investment into the arena of politics as only Trump could. The new charge of incompetence of elected officials disrupted the resolution of any outcome; Trump acted as if he was mustering honesty when telling rallies “the election is going to be rigged–I’m going to be honest!” and in late summer dropping hints to respected left-wing media he would not even accept a victory by Hillary Clinton in September, pushing the limits of a candidate’s sense of grievances while acting as if airing grievances as just another victim of fraud, mirroring the charge of a “rigged economy” many felt, and boosting his won support. The Presidential vote was itself “rigged,” involving dead voters, rigged voting machines, a massive scam of democratic principles discounting rights, demanding protest on the grounds of patriotism, that made the flag-waving demonstrators in the mob feel immune to charges of insurrection as they were waving American flags, many the very flags waved at stage capitol buildings months previous with similar megaphones, to assert American values that were under attack.
Arriving in Detroit, Philadelphia, Portland, Las Vegas and Atlanta, protesting bearing similar flags outside of arenas and capitol buildings, both asserting liberties and demanding improper practices of tabulating votes be stopped. It was not forgotten in any way that these protests concluded the Summer of Protests, seeming to draw the line at The extension of doubt about the 2020 election that preceded the Capitol Riots fanned populist grievances as if they were infringements on constitutional rights, deferring the conclusion of electoral results by extending a narrative that had no happy end. The protest rallies that sprang into action as lawsuits proliferated in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Michigan with recounts demanded in Arizona and Wisconsin to prevent states from “flipping” and electoral votes to be claimed by Joe Biden.
Protestors mobilized a rhetoric of grievance that sought to expand the electoral map, long after the election. Their doubts were amplified on social media to destabilize the electoral map, creating “grey spaces” as if puzzle pieces that did not cohere, letting the world puzzle by holding narrative conclusion in abeyance into 2021, distending the election’s narrative by sewing deep doubts about secure results and preventing consensus from emerging from the electoral college.
As the problems proliferated from dead voters and cross-registration to how battleground states relied on duplicitous voting machines or made “unconstitutional” changes in voting practices, the narrative of grievance grew, calling into question the distribution of electoral votes that led us to tally up possible distributions of alternative futures.
The waiving of flags from the 2020 campaign as votes were being tallied at multiple cities morphed expression of concern about the tally of votes to questions of constitutional rights. Questions of outrage had suggested a criminal theft was at work, undertaken by elected officials, discounting their legitimacy and treating the tally of votes as an extension of the never-ending Presidential campaign but now leveling charges of broad electoral fraud before federal and state buildings, waving flags to assert the constitutional rights at stake.
The militant-like assertion of flag waving became a basis to assert the preservation of rights, and to “fight for them” to protect them, “fight against big tech, big donors, big media,” “fighting with one hand tied beyond your back,” and collectively “fight like hell and [realizing] if you don’t fight like Hell, you’re not going to have a country any more.” The expansive claims of unconstitutional grievances recapitulated on the morning of the January 6 rally at Freedom Plaza, escalated by a charge they were perpetuated by Big Tech, and announced as the basis for a loss of freedom, and presented as a final chance to fight for their rights. Many believed no other politicians would fight for them. Trump used the verb “fight” some twenty times, making sure they had heard, letting them know, “now, we’re out here fighting” as if defending constitutional rights that would be taken away, beginning with election security, an election security that was in doubt, and, Trump used the false collective, would be resolved as “we’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue,” and break the third wall between rally and government, “we’re going to the Capitol and we’re going to give . . . ”
Even without the addition of the activating words “them hell,” the crowd was not only activated, filled with righteousness as they waved more flags, hoping to make their voices heard and their rights to wave flags. Congregating before the Capitol as electors were being certified, holding banners proclaiming their loyalty to Trump and refusal to concede the election, lest constitutional rights be sacrificed. Their righteous indignation was animated by the slogan “Stop the Steal,” instead of “Build the Wall,” but the “steal” would be a robbery of the wall, and of security domestic or electoral. Trump exploit the apparent lack of conclusion as if it were an expanded denouement of the 2020 Presidential election, targeting the Capitol building as the culmination of a false narrative of remedying a deep, deep failure of electoral transparency. Presenting the innocuous sounding “march” as a last opportunity to make their voices heard, the unprecedented targeting of Congress and elected representatives sought to interrupt the transition of power, by interrupting tabulation of electoral votes: in questioning the transparency of congress, the march questioned the transparency of how the nation mapped onto the halls of representation, whose organizers pledged in allegedly figurative terms commitment to appear at Freedom Plaza “fight to expose this voter fraud and demand transparency and election integrity” as a civic duty.
Despite confirmations of no evidence any voting system, the combative terms sought to prevent an absence transparency argued to undermine American democracy, in the narratives that President Trump devoted his final months in office to perpetuating. The hopes to continue his claim on Presidential power was almost secondary, after a narrow election both for the Presidency and Congress, than the prevention of a loss argued to be enabled by massive voter fraud, fake news, and dissimulation, and claims for fraudulence that multiplied and perpetuated to erode the very foundations of the alleged democracy for which Congress stood. If electoral loss was apparently determined by the inclusion of absentee ballots of long-undercounted minority voters, the claims of an erosion of democracy was a claim of a loss of the entitlement of white voters that Trump had come to embody, and protection of their interests, tied to hateful myths of “replacement” of the franchise and white majority status of America, a shattering of a global picture that mapped, in the frenzy of counter-charges of the perpetuation of fraudulent voting, pursued in multiple lawsuits, that seemed to seek to turn back time, literally, to the first returns of electoral votes and the projections of possible Trump victory, rooted in a misunderstanding of voter trends and patterns that would not deviate from early results. But it was also to turn back time, by whatever means necessary, to white regimes of the past, embodied in the sea of white supremacist flags, confederate flags, MAGA flags, flags of crusaders, and TRUMP 2020 flags, preserving fake dreams in the name of continuing what Amy Kremer, in the two week, cross-country bus tour rallying support for what were literally the troops, claimed would be the second and perhaps more important goal of the March on Washington: “to support one another,” to nourish false fantasies of a lack of transparency, and to hearken back to an era of “electoral transparency” that excluded access to the ballot by many.
This was an image of governance, combined with the imagery and logic of impending wrath, designed to take back the coutnry by an occupation of the Capitol from “corrupt politicians” who had distorted the votes, as the true delegates from all fifty states might fight the ultimate reality game, claiming to be liberators and “rightful masters,” a mashup of Lincoln’s famous call to power with the urgency of a playstation episode of Star Trek: Invasion, and a call to summon their skills of combat as the moved to occupy the capitol grounds to remediate the alleged absence of transparency, even if that meant crumbling the pillars of democracy. The brewing battle referenced in Gothic font and brewing clouds implied an apocalyptic battle between Trump and the “Deep State” of liberals, staged in the arena of the U.S. Capitol itself, echoed in increased social media chatter on “battle stations” and “dropping the hammer” and an approaching “war” over stolen votes suggested a destruction of government and appealed as inhabiting a huge exercise of cosplay.
The invocation of a revolutionary mythology, a crowd-sourced lightening storm whose disastrous advance was targeting he Capitol from the heavens, as if it came from a 1930s Hollywood studio, or a recent thriller about the need to save society in a single moment, summoned the associations from early modern medicine of a critical point, but the critical point was in the social body–as the impending advance approached the Capitol, rocking its foundations as never before as the thunder was called down from the heavens, more spectacularly than Avengers: Endgame.
The ESRI story map map of the tunnels underneath the Capitol that in some version appears crossposted on TheDonald.Win conjured a troubling sense of enforcing the transparency of government the protestors had claimed, by luring them through maps of a hidden “sprawling underground world . . . curving like tentacles made of brick,” evoking, if playfully, the logic of secret routes of underground access to restore democratic representation by force in a world gone disastrously wrong and demanded repair lest the tentacles of the opposition party–the Democrats–might gain control of the U.S. Congress, by the double whammy of the previous night’s election of two Democratic Senators from Georgia as well as an African American Vice President.
The moment of crisis became imminent, but the routes to power were made to seem almost present to one’s eyes; it helped that Capitol Police were poorly equipped with old plastic shields that broke on impact, lifting the advancing mob a further sense of the invincibility despite their utterly unfounded claims to power. The image of tunnels that could allow the mob to gain easy access to Senate chambers, in air ducts repurposed in the Cold War as structures of civil defense were not even needed. The advance of members of the rally as Trump asked the assembled crowd to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue Constitution Avenue, to “save the Republic” by taking the Constitution in to their own hands, as he wrapped up his speech, some two hundred crowd members were already advancing on the Capitol by 12:33, moving past bike racks and other obstacles as they took over the inauguration stands, moving past officers who were not outfitted with shields, shouting “Hey! We’re breaking the wall!” with glee or sneaking through fences, entering the capitol from the west and from the east as the police finally declared a riot by 1:46, overwhelmed, according to recent forensics, by about 28 to 1, as over three thousand, four hundred members of the mob exulted in their new identity and success at forcing the police to pull back inside the building by 1:56, no longer able to secure the inaugural stands, as Trump was still speaking. The protestors who engaged Capitol Police and city police grew to an estimated 9,000, obsessed with creating transparency in the electoral tabulation. Fear of direct access to the Capitol grounds grew, increasing the giddy sense of success as police were waiting for reinforcement, and the mob broke windows to the Senate Chambers climbing on the the mid-terrance, and entering the east and west sides as police defence lines crumbled by 2:28.
The image of direct access to the chambers of government teased Trump supporters as a promise of transparency, as map of the tunnels underneath the Capitol Building that circulated on TheDonald.Win in anticipation of the event not an image in itself of the failure of electoral transparency. Don Jr., never the brightest bulb but the most eager, seems to have been overly transparent in telling the assembled crowd in Freedom Plaza that the time had indeed come to confront Republican representatives reluctant to support the seating of electors that would confirm the transition of power, claiming “we’re coming for you and we’re going to have a good time doing it,” hours before the crowd attacked the U.S. Capitol to affirm his overly earnest claim that “we have a country to save and [rioting] doesn’t help anyone.”–after urging the crowd, “if you’re gonna be the zero and not the hero” to prevent the transition of power, “we’re coming for you and we’re gonna have a good time.”
They were rather supposed to be having a good time. They advanced to the U.S. Capitol, having been urged on by how President Trump nurtured fantasies of “Making America Great Again” with existential urgency, and had delegated responsibility with urgency by letting them know that it was their turn to fight at the gates: “It is up to you and I to save this Republic! We are not going to back down, are we? Keep up the fight!” The barbarians were brought to the gates, and he all but invited them in, by activating their discharge down Pennsylvania Avenue, to bring a conclusion to what he had long postponed or deferred as a conclusion to the election that he had long argued would decide America’s future was at stake, with President Trump telling his supporters that his opponent would “destroy the American dream,” building anticipation for “the most important election in the history of our country” to magnify his supporters’ sense of a mission; as Trump predicted that the cities would be given over to roaming crowds of “violent anarchists,” and intoning about the existential dangers that immigrants who crossed the border, and failed to show up for court hearings would cross the border en masse–indeed, only by sending Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol who had become his personal army to find immigrants failing to show up for immigration court hearings could the U.S. Border and the nation be kept secure and we allow “a socialist agenda to demolish our cherished destiny” as a nation.
The barbarians had been summoned to the gates of power, by the logic of claims of lack of transparency. Perhaps they were also looking for violent anarchists, but they acted more like insurrectionists. Trump had cultivated an image of instability, akin to the specter of the invading migrants by celebrating the border wall as a prop for his Presidency, arguing “if we had a wall, we wouldn’t have any problems.” If the specter of immigrants as a threat to the nation’s sovereignty, tied to electoral transparency, the moment of revanchism had come as the tocsin sounded when the President called his base into action to forestall the transition of power. “They cross the border, and they they disperse across the country,” Trump had long warned of immigrants; but the the many busloads of protestors who arrived in Washington, DC, assembled before the authoritative structure of the prime chamber of American government, ready to cross barricades to target the U.S. Congress, staking a counterweight to its historic representational functions in their own bodies, as they sought to make their voices heard with urgency, least the boundary to the nation be opened, and the security of the state be fully compromised. The barbarians had now crossed police lines, barricades, bicycle racks, and overpowering officers as they invaded the halls of government. The arrived out of a distinct sense of a mission to defend the electoral results they wanted, with a sense of cheering the man to whom they were bonding for a final time, assembling before mesmeric screens that magnified the face of the outgoing President to whom they played homage, and who would instruct them to interrupt the certification of electoral votes, in deeply personal tones, as if it was the final plea to relitigate the election.
As late as April, Trump has continued to praise the crowd that arrived for his speech at Freedom Plaza as patriots, before fundraisers, boasting about its the size of the January 6 rally as if it offered a testament to his holding power in the party, but quickly claiming “he wasn’t talking about the people who went to the Capitol.” It is difficult to estimate the size of the crowd, or of the mob that besieged the Capitol as Trump spoke: if he claimed a number as large as 250,000, and althouht 100,000 is a likely exaggeration, it was at least 10,000; as they approached the Capitol, the crowd gained a density of 5 square feet per person, mosh-pit style, that both allowed it to gain a new sense of identity, and to overpower unarmed police. During Trump’s speech, he spent most of his speech acting as if he had been playing out the tallies of votes on an electoral map in a non-stop loop in his head for months describing fraudulence across states–Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada, and then several counties in Georgia, to conclude in contradictions of an obsessive–“We were ahead by a lot, until within a number of hours, we were loosing by a little”. Trump seemed to have counted on the audience replaying the same electoral maps, tallying cases of fraudulence in comprehensive detail–illegal ballots, never audited; the astounding alleged “error rate” of Dominion Voting Systems in Fulton County–late-arriving ballots in Detroit; dead people voting in Arizona; back-dated ballots in Wisconsin; ballot-harvesting in Pennsylvania, votes received after the deadline, an accumulated variety of dizzying wrongs. They were recited in disturbing detail as if to turn back the clock on the election, and demand that the tallying of electoral votes just not occur, given all these wrongs. All conveyed a deep sense of being wronged, and a vast conspiracy of wrongs, all allowed to exist, if folks did not show righteous rage. Did he imagined we had all visualized the possibility that all states were not called, and the electoral map remained unsettled as more legal cases were pending, or ballots needed to be recounted.
In fact, the lack of clarity in the electoral maps of 2020 flipped, for the first time, the tabulation of electoral votes across the country into what was openly portrayed as a crisis of representation, unable to be resolved by the usual manner of the tabulation of votes, in which despite the clear majority of votes won by one candidate, the final tally of electoral votes were not clear on the map–and some television news stations seemed to expect the block of red states that ensured an electoral victory in 2016 to be repeated, and left Trump deferring any conclusion to the election until January 6, 2021.
Trump affirmed his refusal to concede, and urged the rally to refuse to accept these results as well, stewing in what he portrayed, again, performatively and pleadingly, as a crisis in representation that his own Vice President had failed to maneuver around. He taunted the crowed by insisting on the mendacity of Democrats who were all talk and no action, would undercut the America First policy, and fail to defend rights to Free Speech that was in danger of being curbed, with freedom of religion and of owning guns–articulating “rights” that extended from gun control to religious practice. The chaotic jumble of multiple flags dominated by the five letters long used to promote luxury complexes concealed the presence cultivated from white supremacist groups, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, all groups expected to be at the event, heirs to the supposed promises of a Lost Cause who wove separatist flags of different stripes, suggesting loyalty to deep truths. Trump lionized the patriotism of the crowd, which he insisted were “totally appropriate” in all ways, pronounced the election not only rigged, in a keyword of his campaign, and marred by a range of unprecedented “abuses” that can “never happen again,” distinguishing the crowds of 30,000 at the Save America Rally where he promised he would never concede as the crowd already approached the seat of the U.S. Congress in tactical garb before he concluded speaking.
As if hoping for a last-minute reversal of fortune, Donald Trump invited these barbarians into the gates, having granted them honorifics as “patriots committed to the honesty of our elections and the integrity of our glorious republic,” ready to “patriotically make your voices heard.” “I have never been more confident in our nation’s future,” he said in closing, reminding the patriots assembled that “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country any more.” These patriots arrived on the perimeter of the U.S. Capitol, convinced that they would present a new ideal of sovereignty, a popular sovereignty, that would overturn not only the certification of electors but the falsity of a tainted electoral process, as if they might replace it with direct sovereignty evoked in the sea of flags that so exultantly if chaotically unified the voices and identity of the mob that rushed the U.S. Capitol, streaming their success on social media, to give a transparency to their own actions that they found lacking in the electoral process. The prominence of defensively waved confederate flags beside TRUMP 2020 banners, American flags, and a range of flags from the Gadsden Flag to the Blue Line Flag to states’ flags, suggested defending an imaginary of the nation greater than the actual nation; they proclaimed a project of patriotism and national reinvention, glorifying as “revolutionary” insurrectionism.
There was something deeply fraught and un-American in the dissonance of the crowd-sourced populism of these men and women who arrived to accomplish what could not be accomplished at the ballot box. But there they were, claiming populist roles for themselves and claiming identity as patriots, taking selfies and filming one another, defending an administration that had signed into law the America CARES Act that offered targeted relief for industries hard hit by the pandemic–whose Title IV boasted relief for airline industries and the financial sectors in the form of massive tax write-offs, and over $25 billion of loans and loan guarantees to aircraft carriers alone and over $15 billion to defense industries–as if it was a populist movement, redefining populism as a mission of unwittingly preserving interests of corporate elites. The huge tax write-offs of the CARES Act that allowed “carry-back” provisions allowing companies to deduct losses from the profits they had recently reported, even if they were unrelated to COVID-19 or the pandemic, boasted the outright gift allowed ultra-wealthy Americans to consolidate their social safety nets by deducting personal losses from non-business income, at a time they were worried about their income security, in a manner demanded by the Americans for Tax Fairness non-profit, bolstering their financial profiles of the wealthiest of the 1%, and ensuring their hospitals, health centers, , even as hospitals were overwhelmed. What were these people doing defending their ground at Freedom Plaza?
These yahoos were not from the edges of empire, from outside of the borders of the nation, but were claiming to be from its heartland. They were, rather, crowd-sourced from social media platforms and news sources of political disaggregation, animated by the inflation of abstract values–arriving not from the southwestern border we had been warned of an invasion by gangs, drug lords, child-traffickers, and illegal aliens, but from across the nation. They were different barbarians, promoting popular sovereignty. The Alexandrian poet Konstantine Kavafy began Waiting for the Barbarians, by imaging the expectation of their arrival as government ground to a halt: toga-wearing legislators, bored, seem to wait something to break the logjam of their work to lift them from their idleness: “Why should the Senators still be making laws?/ The barbarians, when they come, will legislate.” The hope that those who invaded the Capitol grounds had for forestalling government would respond to what they saw as the true emergency–the end of the Trump Era, the fear of losing automatic weapons, immigrant protection programs, and the fear of a fraying of law and order that the Republican party had encouraged them to believe were all too imminent, warranting the emergency sign of flying an inverted American flag.
When Elias Canetti examined the formation of the crowd’s sense of license, tracing it from a moment of ‘discharge’ when they had arrived on the terrace, exulting in sense of short-lived victory. The members of the crowd at the moment of discharge, Canetti argued, sense of bonds to one another solidify. He would have been struck by the theatricality of the formation of a crowd that formed with a clear sense of timing: this crowd was long prompted by an urgent sense that January 6, 2021 was a critical day in the history of democracy, and of the union, and as the final moment of the selection of an American President, not by an election, but the final moment to question that election’s results–a true critical moment in the preservation of a democracy.
The crowd that progressed from the Ellipse gained new clarity as a body as they moved down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the Mall, and entered in waves into the chambers of the U.S. Capitol. They arrived to fulfilled their ambitions to fill the “our house”–occupying the architecture of the ship of state and government. They had arrived with an ease as surprising to many members of the mob as their leaders, as well as the President they would continue to support in his calls for patriotic defense of liberties.
The crowd that wanted to preserve the “red map” FOX Anchor Tucker Carlson displayed as
backdrop of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” the highest-rated news program Fox airs, to orient viewers to his perspective and to the news. Perhaps that map has helped promote Carlson’s improbable rapid emergence and designation as the hands down “front runner” for the Republican nomination in 2024: a race-baiting, dynamic figure who would affirm the Trump constellation, and fluidity of the White House and Fox news, who Roger Stone had attempted to persuade to run for President against Barack Obama, all the way back in 2012. A young Conservative pillar whose news show began by featuring the backdrop of the electoral map in November, 2016, the most watched Fox News program of the year, Carlson made clear his promotion of Trump from the start, and adopted the conversion of the electoral map from a form of consensus to a declarative statement that Donald Trump was associated in a telling hanging of the map-of 2016 election results Trump had displayed in the White House in a frame–an image he had long given out to visitors to the West Wing, as if in a sign to the broadcaster who had in early 2016 heralded Trump as able “to fight Washington corruption, not simply because he opposes it but because he has actually participated in it” in Politico, able to become “the most ferocious enemy Ameican business has ever known,” as if he were Teddy Roosevelt: Tucker Carlson even went so far as to openly sanction Trump’s vulgarity by his allegedly pugnacious populism, creating a person of the former President struck a clear chord for viewers.
Did Carlson help to inspire the riots? Carlson’s “fighting words” crystallized Trump’s ability to represent the other America Carlson had tapped at The Daily Caller, piling scorn on Washington as a seat of corruption even at CNN, sanctioned Trump’s vulgarity as of a piece with his ability to attack Washington, e exponent he became as founder of the Daily Caller, who left CNN and MNBC for Fox. Trump had never participated in public politics, if he had threatened to since 1996 or earlier, but Carlson’s uncanny knack to converet any position to a pleas to sound like a righteous rebellion against double talk and political corruption anointed Trump as the one able to take on Washington, before Trump had even won the Republican nomination, and was incarnated in the very map of “election results” that magnified the size of Trump’s small share of the popular vote, by making it seem that Trump “big red, using the visual of the county-by-county vote as a proxy of sovereignty which he tweeted out to his 70+ million followers during his second impeachment. An example that might be understood in Trump’s taste for “truthful hyperbole,” it does the trick of showing his victory in 2,626 counties to Hillary Clinton’s 487, but cleverly masked that she had almost three million more popular votes.
The cultic status of the alternative map Carlson long used as a backdrop to tell the news was perhaps a form of brainwashing. It was the map, to be sure, that the crowd in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021 believed to exist, and obstinately refused to stop believing in. Tucker promoted the map as he baited viewers by denigrating social justice protests as the work of “criminal mobs,” and identified the insurrectionary riot as only seeking to promote “justice.” The crowd hoped to turn back the clock on the electoral map, by a license prefigured by interactive tallying electors FOX invited viewers to build interactively and to share in teh 2016 and 2020 elections–
–maps that may have contributed to entitlement to dimiss the electoral maps perpetuated by “Fake News Media.”
Much as Carlson had spoken from before the map of Trump’s 2016 victory, the same map before which Carlson later dismissed the presence of white supremacists in any responsible role at the rally–and even denied it was an armed insurrection–the spokesperson who has been a major apologist for Trump, promoting the illusion of a “heartland” victory of 2016 across Trump Country, a stretch of the nation that had come into existence in 2016, convincing viewers to keep their eyes on the prize, and imagine “your own 2016 presidential election forecast” as if the election could be personalized to reflect their historical role to promote a Trump victory on the “road to 270.” Their arrival in Washington, DC was bracketed by a sea of blue streamed from red states across the nation, as if to continue the Presidential campaign and to bring it to a final conclusion, as the 2020 electors were being certified.
Were they not an expression and manifestation of Carlson’s own sense of utter indignation at being wronged? This was the need to actually attack Washington, DC, and what way to do so than by attacking the Joint Session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol? The collective rage of the crowd was cast in righteous terms, and they had been baited by the very categories FOX news had purveyed. Advancing to the U.S. Capitol as Senators and Congressmen stalled for time to prevent state electors from being certified, the crowd aimed to empty the U.S. Capitol of the sacrality it commands. They did not need the government any more, or need its representatives. The argument in early 2016 that “Trump is leading a populist movement” led Carlson to invoke Teddy Roosevelt, while attacking the elitism of Republicans. In a robust attack on his former party for their attention to details of sexism, he attacked “people who were to slow to get finance jobs and instead wound up in journalism” as betraying the Party of Ideas, dismissing Trump’s critics as “fixated on fashion and hair,” and in an explicit sense to effeminate to appreciate Trump’s robust challenge as lying in straight talk and masculine confrontation–as if he were not a Member of the Tribe.
Was this a crowd that channeled the righteous indignation that Carlson had summoned over four years, from when he scolded a political caste of “Washington Republican” to let them know that he believed voters “know more about Trump than the people who run their Party,” the attack on the elites who were beholden to vested interests, as only “proof that you live nowhere near a Wal-Mart” in their priggish readiness to call Trump “a ridiculous buffoon with the worst taste since Caligula.” This wrath of Carlson was in a sense the wrath of the mob, directed by the conspiracy theories he had spun about an attempt to “bypass voters” and the autopsy he delivered from his news desk of a man Minnesota police killed. Carlson’s accusations of “rigging the election” led to the anger of the mob as they targeted that symbol of Washington–the Capitol–to “make their voices heard.”
Were the the true barbarians of whom the United States senators and congresspeople were in fear, and took the place of actual invaders? In a chastening poem that meditates on the dynamic of an end of the Byzantine empire, that evokes the fall of Rome to outsiders, poet and historian C. P. Cavafy drew on his erudition to conjure the dramatic scene of an utter inability of senators as they wait for the arrival of the “barbarians” to see the large picture. They have retreated from the larger consequence of inviting the crowd who posed as “patriots” to enter their very chambers in a perverse attempt to defend their country–or the country of red states and white majority with which they identified . Cavafy describes the legislators “bored with eloquence and public speaking,” as they found that with the specter of the barbarians from across the southern border were hidden behind, senators fled from the specter of the advancing MAGA mob, relinquishing their offices in fear: after four years of affirming the sacrality of the border wall to the nation, they shamelessly cowered from these barbarians without responsibility.
President Trump had incited the crowd to occupy the sacred architecture of government, in the neoclassical Palladian capitol building that he spoke before–what Joe Biden affirmed, in the hours of the riot, as an unprecedented assault on the very “citadel of liberty” and heart of government, occupying the sacred space of government and “most sacred of American undertakings,” the “sacred ritual” of the certification of the Electoral College vote, by occupying and filling the architecture of government into which they flowed. President Trump talked of the Capitol not as a sacred architecture or citadel, but the arms and tactical gear brought to the rally made clear it was a site to be filled: President Trump described an “egregious assault on our democracy,” a strange collective, as if the Capitol were a site of a wrong, rather than sacred, where the “brave senators and congressmen and women” would be cheered on, as in a sporting event, while not cheering much for others, to “make our voices heard” and in doing so “take back our country,” shifting sacrality from the architecture of the Capitol and making it appear a site to be filled by a cheering and booing crowd, as it had been almost evacuated of sacrality in a Presidency that was committed to the sacrality of the border wall. Teh rioters who affirmed a red-state religion of states rights held many obsolete flags–campaign flags, confederate flags, Betsy Ross flags, crusaders’ flags–not only to create a lineage for their protest but to protest their patriotism during the insurrection.
Only less than a thousand of those attending the Save America Rally on January 6, 2021 forced their way into the doors of the U.S. Capitol, hardly a fraction of the minimum size of 250,000 Trump claimed to face, as the “low number a few hundred thousand, high 2-3 million” that the rally organizers had promoted–but the spark for the crowd was set by the urgent request to save their country, from a threat that was all too real. The social media whistleblower who urged his followers to “take action” before the Capitol Riots taunted the Capitol police on poor planning for an event he hoped would attract three million American patriots, as if they were woefully underprepared for the reckoning the Save America Rally would create over the coming days.
The apparent abdication of the President from his executive responsibility was mirrored in the refusal of Republicans to recognize the danger of advance of militant resisters of a peaceful transfer of power. If only eight hundred entered the U.S. Capitol on January 6, breaking police lines and forcing their way into locked and guarded doors, the dissolution of momentum as the crowd could no longer fill the cavernous rotunda seemed to let it dissipate energy, but the insurrectionary force of entrance had already destabilized the workings of government and shocked the nation. It seems probably the organizers expected many more would have followed, as they insurrectionists hung Trump 2020 flags atop the Capitol building, from flags of the Trump campaign to other lost causes, from the Confederacy to South Vietnam–and tore down the American flag from the flagpole, to replace it with a Trump flag. When they entered the chambers of Congress, they cried “Trump won that election!”
They communicated a truly chaotic sense of exultation and arrival, as if that was their purpose. The many flags of imagined nations that no longer exist were on display at the insurrection linked the riots to an imagined heritage by radical telescoping and “umbrella descriptor” able to conjure “utopic” parallel worlds of whiteness. From the assembly of a “new American to the refighting of lost battles–evident in the many flags of the Confederate States of America; Trump 2020; Thin Blue Line–the array of flags suspended on the walls of the Capitol and from its flagpoles and windows suggest realities that were all no longer past, but, as Danielle Christmas reminds us, but synchrony of imaginary spaces which –from the Betsy Ross flag; the Confederacy; League of the South; Knights Templar; Vinland–validated a sense of belonging to a heritage of whiteness, in the attempts to give a national coherence to white nationalism, and even more a sense of authenticity and transparency to their aims. The attempts to untangle the mashup to sanctify their cause in hyper-masculine tropes eliding patriotism and militancy may explain the ebullient apparent chaos in the use of Confederate flags with neo-pagan flags, militant flags of crusaders, early revolutionaries, and diehards of the 2020 election, were images of white strength. Against the backdrop of accusations of failed transparency, an iconography of “lost causes” staked out an authenticity of faith, for all its fakeness and lack of historical accuracy.
While his social media followers may have been unmoored from any stable epistemological ground, the ability to warp the truth over the past five years may have made it incumbent upon them to respond to this lack of truth, to dislodge them from ties to any reality other than his refusal to concede the already decided Presidential race, as he sent his own troops into battle to rally against the reality of his political defeat. The flags pronounced claims to faith in lost causes that both magnified the crowd and its energetic claims to belonging to groups that were more transparent than the alleged “false media” narrative of an election defined, in contrast, by a lack of transparency. The power of belonging in a crowd no doubt attracted many to the Capitol, as it would reprise the many rallies Trump had staged nationwide since 2015.
But after promising his audience that he would accompany their progress down Pennsylvania Avenue, Trump cannily left the rally he had called, gleefully watching the progress to the U.S. Capitol on television from the White House with friends and advisors, as if relinquishing center stage; he abdicated responsibility for inciting the ensuing violence he followed gleefully in the Oval Office with his son and several advisors, and seems to have waited for his Vice-President to summon the National Guard, so ecstatic was Trump in what seemed an Insurrection Party with a soundtrack of upbeat rock. The open transparency of these patriots was on view for all to see, and was being documented live on camera, evident from the map of cel phone signals from towers near the Mall and U.S. Capitol as the crowd advanced.
Animated by the defense of a sense of patriotism, if not of the delicate boundaries of the Republic, when Trump vowed “we will never give up, we will never concede,” at the very start of his speech, repeating the useful conceit “we won by a landslide,” he created a bond of collective relation to the crowd, before he affirmed that if “we don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country any more.” The tweet that arrived to the followers who all had brought their phones to stream the event to which they were amassed to follow lit up at 2:24 p.m. with the alarming news the acting President of the Senate failed to question the validity of seating electors, and indeed lacked the “courage to do what should have been done to protect our County and our Constitution” that triggered the mob to form from the crowd, waving a raucous abandon of flags semiotically difficult to process–TRUMP 2020 flags; Betsy Ross flags; Gadsden flags; 2nd Amendment flags thin blue line flags; and, of course, confederate flags–in an abandon of over-signification born of deep desire to destabilize sovereign unity, lifted by an eery undercurrent of red MAGA hats. The guns, explosive devices, and tacitical policing gear as well as hunting weapons were fetishized as a protected”right,” enshrined in the Amendment ratified in 1789, although those rights derived from the English common law notions of preserving the peace–not the libertarian “liberties” of owning guns that span hunting rights or self-defense, rather than the common defense. Yet the keeping of military arms for use in local militia was appropriated with expansion of the very term “militia”, now fetishized as a right of border protection and vigilantism without local regulation.
INdeed, the personalization of rights to “defend” the nation inside the “well-regulated militia” that the Second Amendment affirmed as a right central to preserving “the security of the state” has become delegated to self-run groups, often composed of Border Patrol members or military veterans, designed to preserve their sense of security deemed “necessary to the security of a free state” has increasingly elevated “right” to bear arms into an obligation, staged with theatrics on the very structure of the inaugural stands transformed to grounds of a tactical campaign of defense, whose propulsive energy soon became one of aggressive assault.
About a sixth of the way through President Trump’s address–and just after he claimed that the voice of the crowd of believers that would not be silenced, martial chanting filled the space that Elias Canetti, who found that history of the twentieth century a history of mass psychology–termed the “acoustic mask” of the collective, more akin to sports events than individual articulation, a subsuming of the self in the crowd, of openly martial tones. Canetti’s distinction between the “open” crowd whose expansion knew no limits and from the “closed” crowd that fills an architectural space to take it over, and fills it while sacrificing its mass size. The crowd at the Capitol combined both aspects, as it was a crowd that had assembled at multiple earlier rallies and online, but was determined to expand to fill the architecture of the Capitol, opening a preserve of government as it was determined to make its voices heard. Architecture provided a stimulus for the crowd to gain its sense of a unity, Canetti argued in his distinction between the “open” and “closed” crowds, echoing the image of the Nuremberg Rallies of Hitler, no doubt, when he claimed that architecture “postpones [the crowd’s] dissolution,” but the limited number of entrances to the closed space where the crowd assembles not only attracts them, as a space that the crowd will fill, harnessing the power of the crowd which realizes with a sense of sudden entitlement that “the space is theirs.”
The transformation of the space outside the Capitol to an architecture of protest, even not able to be entirely filled, affirmation of the stakes of the battle for rights that was at hand. For Canetti, the architecture of the space–here symbolized by the inaugural stands, and by the open architecture of the Capitol dome, becomes filled as it invited mobilization. Indeed, the filling of the space transformed the crowd into a collective surge, whose motion through space “reminds them of the flood” or crucial metaphors of conceiving the crowd as a stream, tide, or waves–metaphors usually based on water, to illustrate its cohesion–that are, mutatis mutandi, the very terms often applied to the migrants on the southwestern border, but are now poised to enter not the country but the seats of government power. In the context of a history of crowds over the twentieth century, Elias Canetti sought to understand the psychology of mass movements of Fascism outside of a Freudian concentration on ego, and relation of self to collective, but as a new configuration of. self to collective. The crowd allowed him to focus on the question of the political fusion of self with crowd as a moment when all inhibitions are overcome by a drive toward greater density and physical proximity; the procession of the crowd as it moved toward the U.S. Capitol became a mob, gaining identity to cross the Capitol’s perimeter, realizing its transformation from the open crowd of online space to the physical space that it might occupy: in this case, the mass of Trump supporters that was assembled before the U.S. Capitol was it fear of the arrival of the barbarians that Trump has himself warned against,–but seemed to seek acceptance as a new political unit. They gained power as a mob as they approached the U.S. Capitol, defining their power by their proximity to the U.S. President, and growing in power as their distance diminished to the Capitol building that appeared within their vision on the horizon, just out of reach of their own pressing raucous popular demands as the mob acted as a militia.
The centrality of gun rights as the crowd outside the U.S. Capitol became a militia itself, was recouped in subsequent call for a “Million Militia March” on inauguration day, a counter-protest in grotesque parody of the Million Mom March, which 20 years ago drew an estimated 750,000 to protest an epidemic of gun violence, or the Million Man March, against the continued infringement of civil rights in America by police violence. The sustained transposition of constitutional originalism as justifying a “right” to bear arms is diffused in claiming the assertion of a full-blown “right to insurrection” should government overstep its constitutional right, distilling the notion of a well-regulated set of liberties to a “well-regulated militia” engaged in aggressive self-defense–far from the founders’ original intent. If the fear of southerners of slave insurrections , affirmation of a “right to insurrection” within the Second Amendment is argued as a basis to keep politicians in line, or a check against arbitrary authority of rulers. A protest on Inauguration Day was planned to include a return, this time “carrying Our weapons, in support of Our nation’s resolve.”
Was not the call to an insurrection the very term that the members of the mob would adopt for themselves, proclaiming an insurrection that was able to The “right to insurrection” was claimed by the mob as they assembled before the inaugural stands, and proceeded to the Capitol. Drawn toward the Capitol as if to hope to fill its space, the logic of the crowd that had assembled was oriented toward the building where Trump had baited them to disrupt the votes, as if it was within their power to do so, removing and prohibition from entering the property that they were convinced was their own to possess, instructed by the leader to whom their banners all proclaimed fealty.
Many waved an American flag, but far more wove banners of Trump’s campaign slogan, repurposed for insurrection, or adopting other symbols of an allegiance that was more originalist than the members of Congress assembled to certify the electors. The crowd members acted as if they were mobilized as a separate country–the nation of Trump 2020, of Confederate America, or of America Made Great Again, as they pursued the MAGA agenda into the halls of government to finally make their voices heard; this was a country deeply tied to White Supremacy, to the founding fathers, and asserted that the state of affairs had become an emergency, and a new allegiance to foundational principles had to be asserted and proclaimed. From imagined lands to alternate realities, the flags provided an imagined inheritance of precedent–often of mythical nature, as the so-called “Vinland Flag,” repurposed from an old punk band that suggested an original pre-American world discovered by Norse voyagers who had arrived in North America in the eleventh century, repurposed to suggest a mythic white majority nation for extremists, often combining it with the image of a modern semi-automatic AK-47 as if it was a territory worthy of armed defense.
The approached the U.S. Capitol, waving Second Amendment flags and hanging their banners that celebrated the recent candidacy of Donald J. Trump as if it was indeed marked by victory, still with meaning, not able to be consigned to a trash-heap of history. The moment of heightened proximity to one another outside the White House walls marked the transformation of the audience to a mass, identified by professions of patriotism, patches, clothing, hats, and the acoustic mask of any cry they could improvise. They wished they had brought a boom box, and had a soundtrack by which to enter the chambers of Congress in a mask of dignity.
As martial chanting was a mask, a new collective identity by assuming the power to overturn sovereignty, the flags, MAGA caps, and weapons and tactical gear were a mask of identity by which they were made suddenly visible, accountable, and politically powerful, in collective denial Trump had lost the Presidential vote of 2020: as much as perpetuating a big lie that Trump planted, they laid claim to the collective identity that would not be ignored Trump championed. The acoustic mask was mirrored in the mask of signs, flags, demands, and an interruption to politics as normal. The flags were a baiting of power, a refusal of the sovereign power of the Joint Session of Congress, and a denial of its authority to certify electors: the mass of Trump supporters offered a new form of power, a delegitimization of the sovereignty of the U.S. Capitol itself, as the crowd presented a new form of power, ready to supplant it, unassailable by Capitol police, but that had in this moment before the Rotunda assumed an identity of invulnerability, in the new identity they presented as members of a crowd, and took a new sense of their own power as a crowd, attracted to their own ability to “save America” lest it not be “Great” anymore. They had all been, after all, invited to the event.
1. Trump urged the crowd to step into the breach opened by political polarization across the nation, to right the ship of state at the site of government, by going to the U.S. Capitol. This was the dominant trope of the deep risk of the Republic that American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had channeled, as a task of righting the voyage of the Republic lest it plummet into fatal waters. And the crowd approached, as if it embodied the hopes of the Republic and of mankind, magnifying its own power as a renewal of the Union, akin to a new state of civil war, and of democratic dignity, if the collective construction Longfellow called for imagined timbres from across the nation would be used to “bring tribute, great and small/and help to built this wooden wall . . . of oak and maple, and pine wood; iron, and pitch, and hemp,” to contain “humanity with all its fears.” For Longfellow, the shore was a site of contact, commerce, and danger of natural forces, rather than the fantasy of native purity Trump mapped as a source of fears to be contained by the still unbuilt border wall as a reimagined architecture of sovereignty. When Schoen read the envoi from “The Building of the Ship” inseparable from American Presidents standing steadfast in the face of disunion from Abraham Lincoln’s admiration of how the verses powerfully “stir men” on the eve of the Civil War to Franklin Delano Roosevelt sending them with Wendell Wilkie to Winston Churchill–“Sail on, O Ship of State!/Sail on, O Union strong and great./Humanity with all its fears . . . /Is hanging breathless on thy fate”–before the United States entered World War II, as a commitment of solidarity the former Lord of Admiralty, desperate for reassurance of an Atlantic alliance, would see “applies to you people as it does to us.” (Churchill would frame the hand-written letter on the walls of his Chartwell home, “I think this verse applies to your people, as it does to us.”
In electing to recite the poem in closing arguments, Schoen’s reading tied Presidential authority and a foundational reading of the constitution to the nation’s fate. His lawyerly reading of the envoi for the ship’s departure summoned an array of Presidential authority in defense of Trump’s accusation of violence that mimicked the exhibition of multiple flags arrayed behind Trump as he addressed the Ellipse on the morning of January 6, 2021, taking the figurative reading as a declaration of the innocence of his client in the face of the violence against the capitol and due process, and even Trump’s own taunting words by which he worked the crowd into a mission to move on the Joint Session. Longfellow’s poem had long provided a powerful topos of national unity, and transnational unity, any sense of the shared collective meaning of a transcendence–and the transcendent role of Presidential authority–were hard to recuperate days after the insurrection incited by an intense partisan opposition of an outgoing President, hard to read as deferring fears of the lack of consensus Trump hammered home in provoking the crowd by insisting the media suppresses “free speech” and urged them “we’re going to have to fight much harder” to prevent a “sad day for our country” of the ship of state hitting the rocky shoals of a smooth Presidential succession. In delegating the defense of the constitution to the crowd he addressed, he summoned a flase populism by inciting crowd members to band together, and gain their unity in order to defend their version of false “freedoms”–freedom of speech without fear of reprisal for hate speech, at a “Free Speech Event” to protest second amendment rights to possess guns; freedom of the”right” to assemble to promote civic disunion.
Schoen’s stilted reading of the trimeter of the envoi beseeched us to place faith over fears–“faith triumphant over our fears”–seemed to steel the nation against the insurrection. Longfellow’s language of righting the course of the ship of state became the language of a mob seeking to make their voices heard, in an insurrectionary slogan that granted license to trespass government property to disrupt Congress before electors were certified. And the mob of rioters who advanced on the U.S. Capitol inspire more fears for the future of the unity of state, than a manufactured by a steel wall of concrete core might stop, impelled by the fear that America as they knew it might suddenly stop if Joe Biden assumed the Presidency, and the America Made Great Again would no longer be America any more.
While we are increasingly deadened by data visualizations that track the infectious spread of COVID-19 across the world and country, their logic has often been implicit. As much as tracking real-time data of deaths and “hot-spots” in the world and the nation, we trust the data viz to orient us to the infectious landscape to better gain understanding of viral spread. We seek to grasp nature of the virus’ transmission, and perhaps hope that we can better grasp its spread. We depend on these daily updates to retain a sense of agency in the chaos, but realize that they are provisional, contingent, and selective snapshots, based on testing, and exist at a time delay from the virus’ actual distribution–without much predictive value. We maddeningly realize they are dependent on testing rates and reporting, and only as good as the datasets which they re-present.
On the heels of a 5% statewide positivity rate on December 5, 2020, California was declared in a state of shut down in all its counties. It almost seems that such graphics have started to fail us, as the spread of the virus overflows the boundaries of the map and permeates its space. The choropoleth renders individual counties all but indistinct, the state drowned in widespread infections, with only a few of its less populated regions as refuges. With a flood of purple overflowing the coastal counties, the delta, the Central Valley, and the entire south of the state, was there even any point in mapping the danger of viral spread beyond a state of red alert?
While mapping offers little comfort in the era of saturation of heightened risk, the color-codes alert inhabitants to the danger of increased stresses on the public health system–as much as visualization challenges to translate tools of data aggregation to visualize the pandemic., as December 6 rates grew by December 19. As we shift to map a decreasingly multi-colored state by the moderate, substantial and widespread virus, and widespread cases seem to flood the state, the map offers a security of some sort of monitoring of the pandemic’s spatial spread.
The sea of purple is like Spinal Tap going raising the volume “up to eleven,” and are a sign that we are in unexplored territory that won’t be accommodated by a simple color ramp–or, indeed, a familiar cartographic iconography among our current tools of styling space. While we are used to maps embodying meaning, what the colors of the map embody–beyond risk–is unknown. To be sure, at a time when fatalities from the coronavirus in the south of the state have skyrocketed from the middle of the month, hitting records in ways terrible to even contemplate, the field of purple is a deeply human story of loss, as a surge of hospitalizations have flooded the entire healthcare community, and stretched facilities of critical care beyond anything we have known, filling half of intensive care beds in LA County at Christmas. 2020 enough to make it hard to feel any relief in the close of a calendar year, as if that unit still held any meaning, and very grim about 2021: and while the CDC allowed that there may already be a new, more contagious strain, in the nation two days before Christmas, the arrival of the more contagious strain in California and Colorado increased alarm before New Year’s.
How to get a handle on the novel coronavirus that we have been pressing against COVID-19 dashboards since March to grasp better, and will we able to do so in 2021?
Whatever sense agency the maps impart, it is an agency that is only as good as the compromised sense of agency that we expect in an era of geolocation, on which most maps track reports of infection. Even as we face the rather grim warning that we are waiting for the arrival of a vaccine that, in the Bay Area, rates of immunization face steep obstacles of vaccine distribution due to pragmatics of freezer space required, training of extra health care workers, and monitoring and tracking the two-stage process of vaccination, we will depend for public sanity on maintaining clear communication in maps. The actual tracking of the novel coronavirus doesn’t translate that well to a state-wide model, or a choropleth, although it is the method for public health advisories that makes most sense: we do not have small-scale public health supervision in most of the nation, although they exist at some counties. The stressed Departments of Public Health in areas are without resources to manage COVID-19 outbreaks, public health compliance, or retaliations for public health violations: and the effort to create public health councils to manage compliance and violations of public health orders may be seen by some as an unneeded bureaucracy, but will give local governments resilience in dealing with an expanding epidemic, at the same time as governmental budgets are stressed, and no body of law about COVID violations exists.
Rather than map on a national or state-wide level, we can best gain a sense of how much virus is out there and how it moves through attempts of contact tracing–even if the increasing rates of infection may have gone beyond the effectiveness of contact tracing as a methodology that was not quickly adapted by a federal government the prioritized the rush to a vaccine. The basis for such a map in LA county can reveal the broad networks of contagion, often starting in small indoor gatherings across the region, and moving along networks of spatial mobility across the city and San Fernando Valley, and help embody the disease’s vectors of transmission as we watch mortality tallies on dashboards that give us little sense of agency before rising real-time tolls.
If such ESRI maps suggest a masterful data tracing and compilation project, the data is large, but the format a glorification of the hand-drawn maps of transmission that led to a better understanding of the progress of Ebola on the ground in 2014, used by rural clinics in western African countries like Liberia and Rwanda to stop the infectious disease’s transmission and monitor the progress of contagion to limit it–as well as to involve community members in the response to the virus’ deadly spread.
We may have lost an opportunity for the sort of learning experience that would be most critical to mitigate viral spread in the United States, as no similar public educational outreach was adopted–and schools, which might have provided an important network for diffusing health advisories to families, shifted predominantly to distance learning and providing meals, but we became painfully aware of the lack of a health infrastructure across America, as many openly resisted orders to mask or to remain indoors that they saw as unsubstantiated restrictions of liberty, not necessary measures.
We are beyond contact tracing, however, and struggling with a level of contagion that has increased dramatically with far more indoor common spaces and geographic mobility. Yet the broad public health alerts that these “news maps” of viral spread offer readers omits, or perhaps ignores, the terrifying mechanics of its spread, and the indoor spaces in which we know the virus is predominantly acquired. The rise of newly infectious mutated strains of the novel coronavirus was in a sense inevitable, but the rising tension of what this means for the geographical distribution and danger of the coronavirus for our public health system is hard to map to assess its wide distribution, and we take refuge in mitigation strategies we can follow.
Why have we not been more vigilant earlier to adapt the many indoor spaces in which the virus circulates? It bears noting that the spread of virus in the state was undoubtedly intensified by over a hundred deaths and 10,000 cases of infection to spread in the density of a carceral network, which seems an archipelago incubating the spread of viral infections in the state. We only recently mapped the extent of viral spread across nineteen state prisons by late December 2020, tracked by the Los Angeles Times, but often omitted from public health alerts–
–and the density of Long-Term Care centers of assisted living across the state, which were so tragically long centers of dangers of viral spread, as the New York Times and Mapbox alerted us as the extreme vulnerabilty of elder residents of nursing homes, skilled nursing facilities, retirement homes, assisted-living facilities, residential care homes who cannot live alone was noted across the world. The data that was not provided in the grey-out states interrupted the spread of infections among those often with chronic medical conditions was not surprising, epidemiologically, but terrifying in its escalation of the medical vulnerability of already compromised and vulnerable populations–and steep challenges that the virus posed.
unlike those greyed out states that fail to release data on deaths linked to COVID-19 infections, congregate on the California coast: while the New York Times depicted point-based data of the over 100,000 COVID-related deaths in nursing homes are a small but significant share of COVID deaths, exposure for populations with extraordinarily high probability of possessing multiple possibilities for co-morbidities is probably only a fraction of infections.
We strain to find metrics to map the risk-multipliers that might be integrated into our models for infectious spread. It seems telling to try to pin the new wave of infections in a state like California to increased contact after Thanksgiving–a collective failure of letting up on social distancing in place since March–as the basis for a post-Thanksgiving boom in many regions of the state, using purely the spatial metrics of geolocation that are most easily aggregated from cell phone data in the pointillist tracking of individual infections in aggregate.
Based on cell-phone data of geolocation, a proxy for mobility or social clustering that offered a metric to track Americans’ social proximity and geogarphical mobility–including at shopping centers, oceanside walks in open spaces, and even take-out food curbside pickups, as well as outdoor meals and highway travel, few counties curbed aggregation as one might hope–although the fifty foot metric accepts the many outdoor congregations that occurred, well within the Cuebiq metric, wearing or without masks. A magenta California registered pronounced proximity, grosso modo, discounting any mindful innovative strategies in the state.
It is stunning to have a national metric for voluntary mobility, rough as it is, to measure internalization of social distancing protocols and potential danger of a post-holiday COVID-19 bump. To be sure, we are stunned by geolocation tools to aggregate but risk neglecting the deeper infrastructures that undergird transmission, from forced immobility. While geolocation tools offer opportunities for collective aggregating whose appeal has deep historical antecedents in measuring contagion and anticipating viral transmission by vectors of spatial proximity, geospatial tools create a geolocation loop in visualizations which, however “informative” perpetuate a spatiality that may not clearly overlap with the actual spatiality of viral transmission.
Even if we demanded to map what were the novel coronavirus had “hot-spots” in mid- to late March, as if processing the enormity of the scale we didn’t know how to map, aggregating data without a sense of scale.
Across the summer, it seems best to continue to map daily numbers of cases, relying on whatever CDC or hospital data from Hopkins we had, trying to aggregate the effects of the virus that was spreading across the country whose government seemed to provide little economic or medical plan, in maps that tallied the emergence of new cases, as new hotspots appeared across the land, meriting attention difficult to direct.
We are plowing infections and mortality with abandon in a steady diet of data visualizations that purport to grasp disease spread, that were once weighted predominantly to the New York area, even as they spread throughout the nation by the end of March, but remaining in the thousands, at that point, as even that low threshold was one by which we were impressed. The tracking of the local incidence of reported cases seemed to have meaning to grasp the meaning of transmission, with a pinpoint accuracy that was assuring, even if we had no way to understand the contagion or no effective strategy to contain it. But we boasted data visualizations to do so, focussing on the nation as if to contain its spread in antiquatedly national terms, for a global pandemic, not mapping networks of infection but almost struggling to process the data itself.
After all, the John Snow’s cholera maps of John Snow are the modern exemplars foregrounded in data visualization courses as game-changing images as convincingly precise pictures of infection progressing from a water pumps in London neighborhoods is often seen as a gold standard in the social efficacy of the data visualization and information display. The elevation of the pinpoint mapping of cholera mortality in relation to a water pump from which the deadly virus was transmitted in a nineteenth-century London neighborhood:
The Snow Map so successfully embodies a convincing image of contagion that it has taken on a life of its own in data vis courses, almost fetishized as a triumphant use of the plotting of data that precisely geolocated mortality statistics allow, and can indeed be transposed onto a map of the land to reveal the clustering of death rates around the infamous Broad St. pump, that created a legible vector of the transmission of diseases in the Soho neighborhood, so convincing to be touted as a monument of the data sciences.
Snow is lauded for having effectively showed that, in ways that changed scientific practices of collective observation and public health: rather than being communicated by miasmatic infections that spread to low-lying London from the Thames, mortality rates could gain a legibility in proximity to a pump that transmitted an infectious virus, often presented as a conceptual leap of Copernican proportions (which it was, when contrasted to miasma that emanated from the Thames to low-lying areas–if it anticipated a bacteriological understanding of viral transmission). The association of danger with the water procured on errands from neighborhood pumps however replaced the noxious vapors of a polluted river, as in earlier visualizations of the miasma that lifted the noxious fumes of the polluted Thames river to unfortunate low-lying urban neighborhoods, who were condemned by urban topography to be concentrations of a density of deaths of more striking proportions and scale than had been seen in the collective memory.
Snow made his argument by data visualizations to convince audiences, but he mapped with a theory of contagion. But if Snow’s maps works on how the virus is communicated in outdoor spaces–and how a single site of transmission can provide a single focus for the aggregation of mortality cases, COVID-19 is an infection that is most commonly contracted in indoor spaces, shared airspace, and the recycled unfiltered air of close quarters. And the indoor spaces where COVID-19 appears to be most often transmitted stands at odds with the contraction in outdoor common spaces of the street and service areas of water pumps, that create the clear spacial foci of Snow’s map, and the recent remapping by Leah Meisterlin that seeks to illuminate the urban spaces of the contraction of cholera in a digital visualization as a question of intersecting spatialities.
Current visualization tools compellingly cluster a clear majority of cholera deaths in proximity to a publicly accessible pump where residents drew water where viral pathogens that had colonized its handle. But we lack, at this point, a similarly convincing theory of the transmission of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.
But the logics of COVID-19’s communication is nowhere so crisp, and difficult to translate to a register that primarily privileges spatial contiguity and proximity–it is not a locally born disease, but a virus that mutates locally across a global space: a pandemic. And although contact-tracing provides a crucial means of trying to track in aggregate who was exposed to infection, we lack any similarly clear theory to metaphorically grasp the contagion–and are increasingly becoming aware of the central role of its mutation to a virus both more infection and that spreads with greater rapidity in confronting the expansive waves of infection in the United States–as if an escalated virulence grew globally in the first months of this rapidly globalized pandemic.
Our dashboards adopted the new versions of web Mercator, perhaps unhelpfully, to offer some security in relation to the nature of viral spread, which, if they served as a way of affirming its truly global scope–
–also suggested that global traffic of the virus demands its own genomic map, as the virus migrates globally, outside strictly spatial indices of global coverage, and that perhaps spatial indices were not the best, in the end, for accounting for a virus that had began to develop clear variants, if not to mutate as scarily as many feared, into a more virulent form.
And it may be that a genomic map that allow the classification of viral strains of genomic variability demand their own map: for as we learn that genomic mutation and variation closely determines and affects etiology, communication of the viral strains offers yet a clearer illustration that globalization articulates any point in terrestrial space to a global network, placing it in increased proximity to arbitrary point not visible in a simple map, but trigger its own world-wide network of markedly different infectiousness or virulence.
From December 4 2019, indeed, we could track emergent variants of the virus best outside of a spatial scale, as much as it reminded us that the very mobility of individuals across space increased the speed and stakes of viral contagion, and the difficulty to contain viral spread, in the interconnected world where viral variation recalled a flight map, set of trade routes, or a map of the flow of financial traffic or even of arms. Mutations were understood to travel worldwide, with a globalism that a spatial map might be the background, but was indeed far removed, as we moved beyond questions of contact tracing to define different sizes of genomic mutation and modifications that we could trace by the scale of mutations, not only the actual places where the virus had arrived.
Was place and space in fact less important in communicating the nature of COVID-19’s increasing virulence?
The maps of genomic variation traced not only the globalization of the virus, but its shifting character, and perhaps etiology across some thirty variants by late April, that show both the global spread of the virus, and the distinct domination of select strains at certain locations, in way that researchers later theorized the ability to “track” mutations with increasing precision. If researchers in Bologna defined six different variants of coronavirus from almost 50,000 genomes that had been mapped globally in laboratory settings to map variants of the virus whose signatures showed little more variability than strains of the flu in June, variations of signatures seemed a manner to map the speed of coronavirus that had traveled globally from by February 202 to the lungs of the late Franco Orlandi, an eighty-three year old retired truck driver from Nembro, Italy, whose family could not place China on a map when, following diagnostic protocol, attendant physicians in Bergamo asked if Orlandi had, by chance, happen to have traveled to China recently.
Despite lack of serious mutation, thankfully, the data science of genomic sequencing of the COVID-19 cases triggered by genomic mutations of SARS-CoV-2 genome of just under 30,000 nucleotides, has experienced over time over 353,000 mutation events, creating a difficult standard for transmission into equivalent hot spots: some hot spots of some mutations are far more “hot” than others, if we have tried to plot infections and mortality onto race, sex, and age, it most strikingly correlates to co-morbidities, if all co-morbidities are themselves also indictors of mortality risk. While the mutations have suggested transmission networks, have the presence of different levels of mutations also constantly altered the landscape of viral transmission?
It makes sense that the viral variant was tracked in Great Britain, the vanguard of genomic sequencing of the novel coronavirus as a result not only of laboratory practices but the embedded nature of research in the National Health Services and the monitoring of public health and health care. Enabled by a robust program of testing, of the some 150,000 coronavirus genomes sequenced globally, England boasts half of all genomic data. Rather than being the site of mutations, Britain was as a result the site where the first viral variant was recognized and documented, allowing Eric Volz and Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London to examined nearly 2,000 genomes of the variant they judged to be roughly 50% more transmissible than other coronavirus variants, magnifying the danger of contagious spread in ways feared to unroll on our dashboards in the coming months. As teams at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine studied the variant in late 2020 in southeast England, they found it to be 56% more transmissible than other variants, and raised fears of further mutations in ways that rendered any map we had even more unstable.
The virus SARS-CoV-2 can be expected to mutate regularly and often. While England boasts about half of all global genomic data on the virus, of the 17 million cases of SARS-CoV-2 infections in the United States, only 51,000 cases of the virus were sequenced–and the failure to prioritize viral sequencing in America has exposed the nation to vulnerabilities. And although California has sequenced 5-10,000 genomes a day of the novel coronavirus samples by December, and Houston’s Methodist Hospital have mapped 15,000 sequences as it watches for new viral variants; an American Task Force on viral variants will be rolled out early in 2021, as the discovery of viral mutations haves spread across five states in the western, eastern, and northwestern United States. While it is not clear that the viral variant or mutations would be less susceptible to polyclonal vaccines, most believe variants would emerge that would evade vaccine-induced immunity.
While I was phone banking in Texas, Nevada, and other states in months before the 2020 election, I fielded a surprising number of questions of access to absentee ballots and mail-in voting, as well as being assured by many voters that they had refrained from mailing in ballots, and were planning to drop their ballots off directly in polling stations, or brave the lines, to ensure their votes counted. I’d like to think they did. (The woman I reached in Texas who had moved from Nevada and was awaiting an absentee ballot to arrive two days before the election, past the deadline of registering in Texas, may have not.) Even as we advance through “Trump’s final days of rage and denial,” and charges of fraudulence and the robbery of red states from the Grand Old Party’s self-appointed King haunt public White House pronouncements and social media posts, the electoral map that provide the formal reduction of how votes were tallied is cast as a contested ground, questioned on the basis of voting machines, absentee ballots, and socially distanced voting practices, as if these inherently distance the franchise and undermine democratic practice. Donald Trump invites the nation to squint at the map, examine its mediated nature and instability, querying the resolution of any election as, shockingly, only a handful of congressional Republicans admit he lost a month after voters cast seven million votes for his opponent, whose victory 88% of Republicans in Congress refuse to acknowledge.
Unlike other elections, for a month after Election Day–November 3, 2020–the nation waited in eery limbo, uncertain about the legitimacy of the election so that even by December 2, CNN was projecting victors in several “swing” states. Although the New York Times and AP projected the conclusion of the election on paper, announcing late-arriving news of electoral victory almost a full week after Election Day, seeking to invest a sense of conclusion in a protracted debates–if oddly channeling “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
The inset map still indicated three states still “not called.” But the new President Elect appeared boosted by the classic alliance of Democratic voters that Donald Trump saw as unlikely, and had failed to align in 2016.
Months after Election Day, CNN was still “projecting” Biden’s surpassing the electoral vote threshold of 270, shifting two midwestern and one southern state to the Democratic column, with Arizona: the delay of verification in a range of legal gambits still being followed by the Trump campaign, which raised over $170 million to press its case for recounts, investigations into allegations voter fraud through the Save America PAC, disorientingly stubbornly refusing to admit the validity of the electoral map, and even repeating, into December, hopes that an opening for a Trump victory materialize if one state select electors, to reassemble the swath of red that flooded the national map back in 2015 as if playing a puzzle: “If we win Georgia, everything falls in place!” The electoral map was something of an idol of the Republican Party, as Donald Trump’s hopes for electoral victory faded, but refused to recede into mid-December.
Weeks after Election Day, we entered into a weirdly protracted attempt to game the electoral map, long after the initial tallying of votes had ceased. A range of recounts, hand-counts, investigations of absentee ballots and even querying of the legitimacy of voting machines have been launched to challenge the representational validity of the electoral map in ways that should give us pause for how it aimed to undermine the representational value of the voting practices. In querying the functions of the map as representation–by querying the tabulation of votes that comprise the electoral map–Trump has stoked tensions in representational democracy. With unsettling abandon, Trump stoked national tensions by refusing to acknowledge he did not win the election, as if determined to break with Presidential decorum for a final time, as if seeking to leave a legacy of disruption in his wake.
To be sure, gaming the electoral college has emerged as a recognized campaign strategy in 2020, increasingly distancing the franchise of the nation, as campaigns focussed with assiduity on the prospect not of “swing state” voters as in the past, but in flipping or holding a slate of states, that left the electoral map rendered as a sort of jigsaw puzzle that would add up to 270 votes from the electoral college, as the Wall Street Journal reminded us by mapping the Republican “game plan” that Donald Trump long knew he faced for holding onto tot the states where often slim majorities put him in office, as Democrats aimed to flip states to their column: the rhetoric of “gaming” the map to create the victorious outcome was echoed in the news cycle,–and not only in the Journal–in ways that seemed to have dedicated the distribution of public rallies that Donald Trump held long before announcing his candidacy officially, almost as soon as he entered office, in an attempt to solidify the bonds of the red expanse he celebrated as America’s heartland with his political charisma.
If Trump may have wished he didn’t take the southern states so much for granted, he had targeted Pennsylvania, Florida, and Montana–as well as Arizona and Nevada–by staging rallies, in those pre-COVID years, as if to shore up his support as if investing in the electoral votes of 2020.
If that map from National Public Radio, based Cook’s Political Report and the White House, only takes us through 2019, the campaign stops of Biden and Trump show a density to Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, and North Carolina that suggest the depths of commitment to the gaming of the electoral map, and a deep battle in Arizona between the population centers in Phoenix and its suburbs and more rural regions.
The metaphor of “gaming” the map was hard to stop, and its logic seems to have inevitably led to the endless endgame that may result in clogging the nation’s courts with suits about the circumstances of mail-in voting in multiple states. Trump’s insistence in claiming the election not “over,” as if unfamiliar with someone else setting the parameters for television attention, speechless at the unfolding of a narrative shattering conviction of his inability to lose–that “in the end, I always win“–is not only a deepest reluctance to admit losing.
The logic of the gaming of the electoral map clearly has him and his campaign in its sway. The deeply personal sense of the election as a referendum on him and his family may have been rooted in a sense o the legal difficulties that his loss might pose: among the many emails that were sent to his base, pleading for campaign donations to the “Save America” PAC, which seemed the last line of defense to Make America Great Again,” supporters were begged to do their part in “DEFENDING THE ELECTION” and hope they hadn’t “ignored Team Trump, Eric, Lara, Don, the Vice President AND you’ve even ignored the President of the United States” given how much was on the line. The sense of impending alarm reminds us of the confidence that Trump lodged in preserving the red electoral map of 2016, a confidence that seemed almost born from his ability tot game the electoral map yet again, and overcome the polls even after they pollsters had tried to recalibrate their predictive strategies and demographic parsing of the body politic.
1. The very close margins voting margins suggest we narrowly escaped an alternative history of a second Trump term, and can explain the tenacious grip that Trump seems to have had on an alternative outcome, an outcome that he has tried to game in multiple ways and strategies that eerily echoes with the strategies of gaming the electoral map that seems to have occurred through the orchestration of telling postal delays, delayed returns of absentee ballots, and the strategic gaming of the distribution of a distanced franchise. It forces us to contemplate the counterfactual history of the far darker reality of a scenario where his expectations came true. Indeed, it should make us consider the closeness of overturning democracy. In was as if the reporting of the timestamped electoral map of Saturday, November 7 that was an inset of the Times only encouraged resistance to admitting the failure of Trump to preserve the “red swath” of 2016 across what coastal elites long bracketed as “flyover country,” where the effects of economic recession had never stopped.
It had almost happened. In Trump’s White House, a boisterous watch party was underway, crowded with FOX anchors, watching the big screen that FOX results showed to the audience, anticipating the reality of a second Trump term. But all of a sudden, Trump was so incredulous he refused to admit seeing Arizona called at 11:20 as a Biden victory, shouting to no one in particular, “Get that result changed!” Hoping to calm her triggered boss, who must have been catapulted into alternate scenarios of having to leave the White House where he had expected to encamp, former FOX employee Hope Hicks fretted about the newsfeed.
Could the map be changed? Trump was frustrated at his in ability to manipulate the news, and already apprehensive at what endgame was in store. At this point, it seems, Trump’s every-ready servile son-in-law, Jared Kushner, hurriedly placed a direct call to Rupert Murdoch to rectify the call, assuring better data would arrive from Arizona’s COVID-denying governor, Doug Ducey (R), to restore the state’s redness on the electoral map, in desperate hopes of jerry-rigging his electoral fortunes. Back in 2016, Trump had indeed only won Arizona by the narrowest of margins–by about half of the margin by which Romney won in 2012–and only third-party candidates’ popularity concealed that Democrats boosted margins of victory in precincts beyond Republicans, flipping seventy precincts to their column–perhaps as Maricopa County featured a PAC that attracted millions of dollars to defeating Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s bid to consolidate an anti-immigrant agenda.
Trump quickly recognized the danger a flipped state posed to hopes for another red swath, as the contestation over the state that he had hoped to pry from the Democratic map was a poor omen of the election, and needed to be stayed.
In 2017, Trump was so enamored of the expanse of his electoral victory to given paper copies to White House visitors–until he framed a version for the West Wing, five months after the election. And if the state is visibly fragmented in an identical mosaic in the map that Trump framed in the White House, the brilliant red of nearby Nevada and bright red diagonal suggest the state was more firmly in Republican hands than we might remember. After hoping that The Washington Post might celebrate his hundredth day in office by featuring the “impressive” the electoral map on its front page, his pride in the map led it framed the map in the West Wing, a reporter from One America News Network obligingly showed.
This alternate world of electoral victory created what must have been a prominent counter-factual map that had dominated the Trump team’s plans for victory in 2020. The White House watch party must have been haunted by the very same map of which Trump was so proud.
We read more maps than ever before, and rely on maps to process and embody information that seems increasingly intangible by nature. But we define coherence in maps all too readily, without the skepticism that might be offered by an ethics of reading maps that we all to readily consult and devour. Paradoxically, the map, which long established a centering means to understand geographical information, has become regarded uncritically. As we rely on maps to organize our changing relation to space, do we need to be more conscious of how they preset information? While it is meant to be entertaining, this blog examines the construction of map as an argument, and proposition, to explore what the ethics of mapping might be. It's a labor of love; any support readers can offer is appreciated!