Extreme Climate and Re-Entering the Paris Accords

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.

Lowest Temperatures in Coutnry, February 12-16/New York Times, February 18, 2021

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.

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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.

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Metageographical Pavement

One of the consequences of the pandemic is we follow rates of infections, mortality, virus variants, and, now vaccination rates, to try to make order of world whose disorder seems more prominent than ever. The globalization of a viral spread able to diffuse in the atmosphere was measured, before its pathways of infection were understood, refracted in rates of reported infections, racial disparities of hospitalization, and divergent responses to viral outbreak. The stresses in a community that was already keenly insecure about health care security had a reassuring carpet ripped out from under it, trying to answer the question of what held us together, or would held us together in the pandemic days, unclear how to map its huge public health threat. In the increasingly empty streets I walked regularly during the pandemic months hoping to find distance and a sense of space, names struck on the sidewalk served as a sort of company, and a ghost-like version of a community that had once animated the area where most, until recently, were remaining indoors, watching the striking disparities in rates of infection where we lived.

Divides of COVID-19 per 1,000 residents/March, 2021
COVID-19 Cases against Weekly Average in Berkeley CA

As the residential bonds in Oakland and across the county frayed, I began to find traces in the concrete of the history of deep divisions, and imagined I was reading a lot in the markers of a sense of lost meanings that were, even if often obscured, inscribed in the the street, uncovering old spatialities marked by these imprints became a form or “botanizing the asphalt” helped reorient me place, recognizing a history of exclusion traced from the 1920s, amidst fears and fissures of the recent pandemic. To be sure, the names stamped on the pavement in this area that seemed defined by older buildings were perhaps a preserve of old imprints, ranging from the strikes that emulated scrollwork, escutcheons, and inverted triangles or crisp diamonds, of a first generations of sidewalk pavers from the turn of the last century, who seemed to advertise the modernity of paved sidewalks, to the circumspect surnames of men like “G.N. Noble,” “J.E. Morgan,” “J. H. Fitzmaurice,” or the common mark “Griset”–less adorned signatures seemingly belonging to taciturn artisans whose craft less easy to associate with elegance or modernity of earlier eras. The innovation of affording a house with new sidewalks worn off, these men perhaps often repaved broken sidewalk.

But the sense of a historical depth these signs in the asphalt offered seemed something akin to clues of an old neighborhood that arose along policed lines, and seemed a counterbalance to the disparities of health access, insurance, or even adequate data among urban populations that were increasingly hit by the tragedy of infections of COVID-19, from which there seemed little refuge from confronting, and, in those days, even much hope of stability. These small explorative itineraries promised a sense of stability, as if by mapping that world again on foot. Such strikes of pavers were absent on most of the larger traffic corridors of Berkeley like Martin Luther King or San Pablo, and foreign to the old town of Ocean View below, but seemed striking evidence of the areas most dense for single-family housing around my home, evidence of the old policies of racial exclusion created by realtors who had sought to keep Berkeley as s unique “white” preserve free from African American dance halls, Chinese immigrants, or often those without “pure Caucasian blood”–by exclusionary zoning laws that led to a suburban paradise, zoned for single family residences. Were these markers on the ground not effective markers and evidence of exclusivity of the street sidewalks that were paved, as much as I wanted to see them as pride of the artisans and contractors of the past?

As our world was fracturing on multiple divides, the textured plaques of immigrants who paved concrete in the early twentieth century offered a textured pedagogy of immediacy, making present on less traveled pathways how the old city grid in almost redemptive ways. The excavation of that grid was a way of orienting myself to the past inhabitants of the region oddly comforting, and not only as a way to explore the nucleus of the urban sprawl. These markers seemed like unrecognized monuments of sorts, both of dividing lines in the city organized by property lines and markets in the first half of the twentieth century, and the cleavages in home ownership by which it was defined. The sudden stoppage of the cities’ edges of broken streets is the nucleus of the current grid, whose groundplan has hardly been changed, if Oakland now runs far, far past Foothill Boulevard.

As I walked daily in the residential area of the Berkeley-Oakland border, despite the presence of contractors listing Oakland or Berkeley, a few Berkeley contractors in Oakland (Burnham) and of The Oakland Paving Co. in Berkeley, or Blake & Birger Co in Berkeley, most–but not all–of the squat triangular stamps of A. Salamid, son of the concrete contractor Frank, from Monopoli in southern Italy, were struck on land squarely in Oakland–if the border was vague. The stamps were perhaps the surviving traces of a broad project stretching from 1906 to the 1930s, parallel to the definition of neighborhoods of single-family houses, a sharp contrast to as dizzying data sheets of infections and fatalities, but that seemed data too, if not precise data-points, seemed they marks that might map or rescue individual voices from the past as records of a past spatiality. Either the boundary between Berkeley and Oakland had itself shifted, over the years, perhaps, or, far more likely, realtors had developed ties to private contractors independently of location, and what I took as a public space was paved only as it was privately, unlike the city sidewalks I had spent exploring in my youth.

Were the residential sidewalks on which I walked paved in Berkeley and Oakland before single-family residences in the start of the last century to carve appealing enclaves of single family residences by drawing exclusionary lines?

P.M. Henning, Cement Contractor–10/1928; 6446 Regent Street, Oakland CA
(on Oakland-Berkeley Border)
Blake and Birger Company ’06/3095 Bateman, Berkeley CA

My eyes were often downturned. Walks during the pandemic I re-explored the residential neighborhood, navigating streets as if reading a map of a place I live for the first time: the inscribed names of old pavers popped out with new significance as records of past spatialities–and of mortalities–as if there was a necrology engraved whose superficial reading uncovered an era of the past, when the first residential codes were created in Berkeley from the start of the twentieth century, hoping to exclude populations by zoning regions for residential housing.

Moving in a neighborhood streets increasingly empty of pedestrians or car sounds, earlier versions of neighborhood seemed to peak out from the stones of pavers that real estate companies set in the East Bay, read not using maps, by surprisingly early evidence of habitation a century ago which I’d never considered. What was a rather straightforward insertion of an old-school calling card for contractors, perhaps placed for questions of liability or as a statement of their skill, in the uninhabited streets now seemed almost archeological discoveries that conveyed mortality not present before. The pavement I was increasingly pounding conjured underfoot lives of earlier contracters, generations of engineers and craftsmen, the builders of public spaces in the East Bay to welcome the huge nubmer of homes sold in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco Fire and Earthquake that had devastated the downtown and made many residents eager to relocate across the bay: the increased mobility in the Bay Area of the early twentieth century raised fears of the transformation of Berkeley’s character, but also of the promotion of a new residential community, in ways that brought an abrupt increase of density to the area around the old state university. Iif the pandemic suggested a stoppage of time, from the first days of shelter-in-place policies, or lockdown, the name of the paver almost effaced by pedestrians gained an unexpected pathos, offering material bearings to a past world a century earlier–as if that calling card begged me to define my historical relation to a place; I’d long taken such strikes for granted, perhaps the progress of the pandemic made me realize i was taking for granted my own health.

Telegraph Avenue at Alcatraz Avenue/Oakland CA

In 1909, sidewalks in the city were still emerging from tracts, if we look at a cartogaphic time machine of a local map from the era, as Prince Street began to emerge between the Woolsey Tract, Newburry Tract and Harmon Tract, and Berkeley still part of the Oakland Township, in George F. Cram’s 1908 Map of the City of Oakland, creeks not undergrounded, and many sidewalks only recently paved by men who probably wanted to advertise their wares for the incoming .

1901 Rusell St., Berkeley CA (C.B. Burnham, later Burnham & Co.)
533 63rd Street/Oakland CA (Schnoor Bros, 1909)

The poignancy of stamps demanded attention as fragments of buried pasts, now rising to the surface. If we were entering a new era, with worries about future assemblies and the fate of common spaces across the country, the sidewalk was something of a register of the past, and a register of past spatialities, across the neighborhood, that I–long after considering GPS and global projections for some time as shifts of spatial regimes–seemed to offer evidence particularly poignant of human actors and lives, where I started to search for clues of distraction, signs of interest, and rootedness. Akin to an unexpected encounter with an apparent USGS benchmark–unofficial, but one which stared me back as in the header to this overly meditative post, made this flâneur’s exploration of sidewalks something like an archeology of past spatial regimes, in an attempt to get better bearings on where we were.

As health insecurity, geographic mobility, and infection rates were tracked globally, and different viral strains presented a global problem difficult to digest, reaffirming the local seemed to be a glimpse of fragmented microhistories etched in the concrete pavement beneath my feet, in weeks when I spent many previous evenings drowning in statistical pictures of a pandemic that revealed deep fractures and divides, illuminating huge disparities in health access and cost that fragmented the nation in new ways, and became increasingly hard to find coherence I wanted to read. And the apparently anodyne traces in the sidewalk of the paving of neighborhood sidewalk in the old residences of the new Berkeley neighborhood to which I had moved provided a weird interlocutor of the deep history of an area long zoned for single family housing, designed to marginalize non-white and poorer families outside its own boundary lines, legislating the zoning of more affluent single-family housing and residential areas from 1916 with only implicit references to race, ethnicity, or wealth, creating neighborhoods realtors boasted to be hard-wired with legal “protection against an invasion of Negroes and Asiatics” in what would be a workaround for fear of mobility. The invisible walls that the adoption of strict codes of residential zoning for exclusive single-family homes in Berkeley to persist, in an uncomfortable legacy of realty agents, rapacious developers, and landlords created a longstanding barrier to creating public housing projects in California as their exclusionary tactics became a national model, leading it to be praised by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover when he set as a universal goal of home ownership the right to live in a Berkeley-style single-family zone that omitted members of color, as if it were a universal right.

Was it possible that the private reveries I took in what I took to be public space, I wondered, tied to a historical landscape of single-family residences, long ago created by realtors and real estate promoters in the East Bay, that had created almost a model of the the single-family home that would be idealized in the United States into the late twentieth century, in its expansive suburbia that was engineered as a utopia of single-family residences, all too often by excluding people of color and non-whites who were cast as “invaders” of residential space? Was the persistence of residential zoning as a program of “white resistance” underwritten by eugenics inscribed in the names of individual pavers, often immigrants, the low level technicians of realtors whose names survive outside of single-family homes, the men who who prepared sidewalks for neighborhoods zoned residential or for single-family housing? While the racist origins were left inexplicit and deeply uncomfortable to recognize, the fracturing of land in my neighborhood of neighborhood zoning echoe dissparities of an uneven landscape of health care costs, and unequal access to health care?

Health Cost Inequalities across the United States as the COVID-19 Pandemic Arrived/CDC

These were a reflection, in large part, of the first laws of residential zoning, work around solutions for rapacious realtors who sought to keep a rustic era of Berkeley in place, and to exclude undesirable arrival within the state and retain “the same social and racial groups” before the Home Owners Loan Corporation’s maps of suburbanization underwritten by the Federal Government set rates for mortgages, an improvised “plan for protecting property values” by zoning for residences, ostensibly to prevent “the evils of uncontrolled development,” but that did double duty by excluding outsiders, and maintaining continuity within a market dominated by realtors who by 1947 openly agitated to introduce restrictive covenants of property sales limiting home ownership to “members of the Caucasian race.”

As I walked in a neighborhood close to regions long zoned for residential housing, 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. If I found, as if fleeing from the question of food insecurity and rates of infection, in more existential ways to whatever I might see, as if looking for peacefulness under a rock–an intensity that led me to notice a flower, tree, or park in new ways was encouraged by a sense of deprivation of contact during the first year of the pandemic, the uninhabited streets seemed something like a ghost town.

Meditative morning strolls during stay-at-home orders hit the Bay Area provided a form of needed reflection. The inhabitation of the flâneur’s role as an urban spectator of pavement filled a drive for grounding, and assessment, that turned as if by default to the actual ground. And walking with downcast eyes one morning, I delighted not four blocks from my house, almost laughing as I noticed a curious placement of a joking benchmark–clearly not placed by the USGS, but imitating its authority, in ways that seemed something like a breath of relief as it burst the tension that increasingly felt before the deep red graphics that mapped the current dispersion of confirmed coronavirus infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, as the viral spread of maps of the virus’ spread came to dominate the range of maps we daily read, and to place us before maps in particularly disempowering ways. As insecurities grew unlike what we’d experienced, I looked for stability in odd places in the unnoticed signs of old benchmarks and pavers’ names seemed partial texts. As my own travels contracted to a radius of a few miles most days, the ground seemed the best place to find meaning, as newspapers grew exhausting to read for their depressing news.

The faux benchmark managed to maintain a sense of brio and absurdity in described geospatial position that managed to separate geodesy from the distributions of deaths, and to remind me of the propositional or fictional nature of all maps–and wonder about who ever had placed cryptic geomarkers the size of coffee lids in plain sight. While hardly suggesting a real datapoint as a marker, its whimsy had an unexpected appeal I was proud of noticing.

Prince Street and Halcyon Court, Berkeley CA

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.

Prescriptive instructions is rarely what one might expect from a enchmark. But the many benchmarks sunken or situated in the ground across the Bay Area were intended to provide sighting points for surveyors to take the bearings on the lay of the land for home owners and realtors, even if the lay of the land was what was uncertain now, and since no certainty could be afforded by a survey, the ironic tone of address was actually welcome.

United States Geodetic Survey Markers
National Geodetic Survey Explorer; Oakland CA and Berkeley CA

these maps were intended to help determine property lines, and to subdivide lots in the early property markets of the East Bay–suggesting how much property maps provided a basis by which real estate markets had long shaped the region. For if property and realty have dictated the artificial landscaping of the Bay Area by projecting a landscape of single-family residences that shaped what was intended as a semi-urban enclave in Berkeley and vicinity–San Leandro; El Sobrante; Walnut Creek; Piedmont; Danville–that struggled to stay out of the category. While I imagined this was the project of the East Bay suburbs for some time, Orinda seemed to spin out of the Bay Area as a white project itself.

Enabled or classification of suburbia, the fantasy landscape of single-family residences was one of social and racial exclusion traced by survey lines, and in fact etched on the pavements that realtors acted as brokers on real estate boards, even before Duncan McDuffie promoted a landscape of racial and ethnic divisions of exclusivity and desirability of building lots in ways that still haunt the history of housing in Berkeley, and the East Bay as a whole–where over 85% of the land is zoned and subdivided for residential housing, creating an artificial bastion that pretends it is not a planned community, as realtors exploited a land-use division that proved particularly attractive and rewarding to exploit from before World War I, but which residential zoning became a quick fix to create enduring protections for “good” neighhborhoods, excluding non-caucasians: as an older home-owner I met one morning after we got coffee at the same shop reminded me, the line was firmly drawn around downtown Berkeley’s Shattuck Avenue, the dotted line below, south of which the black community lived, and above it “where the racists lived.”

Early Zone Map for Berkeley, CA/Single-Family Residence Zoning marked by “1”; two families by “2”; “3” permits multi-family housing/City of Berkeley

Described as an ethnic preserve safe from “invaders,” the racialized landscape of singe-residence zoning in Berkeley became a template for a nation from the 1920s, a proof of product of the design of tacit but powerful barriers and divides in space, that the area of the Oakland-Berkeley landscape I’d lived for the past decade, rediscovering traces of the eager repaving of the asphalt outside individual lots by pavers like Burnham & Co. or The Oakland Paving Co, seeking to reconstruct a utopia of desired landscapes of private residences less vulnerable to “outsiders.” The spate of early paving immediately following a burst of urban growth in the demand that escalated after the 1906 San Fransisco Earthquake, seemed to seek solid ground on the old land first settled by the Chochenyo/Huchiun band.

443-447 McCauley Street, Oakland CA

In a sea of overpriced properties, a landscape of residential exclusivity defined a new utopian model for the nation. The model, promoted by then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover as the model to which the nation was entitled, became a surrogate bucolic community designed by property lines and rules. Berkeley was a high-income residential neighborhood placed cheek by jowl the industrializing rail entrepôt of Oakland, and viewed outsiders as dangerously foreign to this enclave of business owners and professionals, surrounded by apparently natural borders of rivers, parks, and open space to preserve itself as an enclave, even after it was shocked by the huge influx of displaced San Franciscans who arrived in numbers after the 1906 earthquake and fire to migrate across the bay and double the local population in 1906-8and bring an influx of demand for homes with the result that by 1916, the dominant logic of real estate was the single family home, comprising 90% of the local build landscape in ways that created a profitable template that realtors sought to secure–and that now dominates the over-zoned real estate bubble across multiple enclaves that have come to dominate and define land-use across much of the entire East Bay.

The logic of land development is only recently beginning to redress as an “ugly history” and a legacy of racial disenfranchisement that was a model that predated the collapse of an urban housing boom of the 1920s, when the Federal Housing Administration created the needed housing insurance program to bolster the value of properties, and fluid real estate market, by extending exclusive protections to middle class home-owners by a strikingly similar three-tier ranked system that pointed excluded low-income areas from similar mortgage guarantees, creating among Oakland’s diverse inhabitants that have fragmented the city along property lines in the maps of the Home Ownership Loan Association that are still evident today. The status of the faux benchmark imitating USGS monument was not an official marker, of course. But it caught my attention one day as a formal sort of joke, placed on the ground over the streets I had so often walked, without being noticed. The disk is less a “benchmark” struck by USGS, but it reminded me of the declaration of a 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. But somehow, the benchmark grabbed my attention as a needed sense of levity in a pavement that seemed increasingly grey.

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 contagion, 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” one might do well to embrace.

I made an effort to try to explore the city streets in detail, following itineraries for bearings as a flâneur of post-pandemic space of increasing distance, I noticed in my weekly step counts.

Displaying IMG_6475.jpg
Increasing Step Counts of Spring, 2021

As much as searching for the authentic, the pavement stared back to puncture the hubris of that universalism, 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.

GeoMarker on Claremont Blvd. and Russell St., Berkeley CA

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.

The pandemic prompted a sense of uncovering a hidden spatial architecture, parallel to that of Berkeley but lying there underfoot all the time-an architecture that reminded me of the cartographic roman a clef urban fantasia, China Miévilles’ The City and the City; I had uncovered an urban topography lying on the surface but out of sight for most, including, until this point, myself, that my increasing itineraries led me to uncover, lying on the concrete surface of the sidewalk, instead of the street, that offered a sort of running commentary on the building and occupancy of Berkeley.

GeoMarker on Milvia St. and University Avenue, Berkeley CA

The local Berkeley reference to Malvina Reynolds, who was inspired to write a lament of the landscape of houses of “Ticky Tacky [that] all look just the same” about the increased social conformity of San Francisco tract housing, Little Boxes (1962), the local folk singer’s critical reflection on architectural conformity of South San Francisco; it quickly became a recognized anthem emblematic of unease at the lack of invention about lifestyles in postwar America more broadly, after being quickly taken up and popularized by her friend Pete Seeger, who recognized its balladic power as a deep allegory for the conformity of lifestyles, adding to it several verses himself. If Reynolds was a social observer, struck by the housing formations she saw while she and her husband drove through San Francisco so acutely to ask her husband to drive them to La Honda as she wrote a song inspired by the sight of tract housing that would “convey to people things that they already knew that didn’t know they knew or hadn’t thought about,” in the words of her daughter, but hadn’t put into words, she would be surprised to see the words transposed to Berkeley of course slyly transposed the dangers of an advance of social conformity Reynolds saw in South San Francisco to the East Bay.

South San Francisco, CA

Reynolds’ lines on tract housing, situated at the busy intersection of Milvia St. and University Ave., reminded me–“There’s a beige one–and a grey one/And a brown one and a khaki one“–of the shadow cartography the markers seemed to be creating by signing to pedestrians. The faux geomarkers oriented pedestrians at a slant to the built geography of Berkeley, as if ironic and knowing comments on it. And as I walked, I found the strikes of local pavers on the sidewalks of south Berkeley oriented me to a shadow geography of built space. I unintentionally and then intentionally read more in th ecourse of itineraries across South Berkeley and North Oakland, seeing the expansion of calling cards of masters of concrete stamped on the sidewalk in strikes as material records of the rapid growth of a new paved spatiality in the 1910s and 1920s in my neighborhood, no more evident than in the many inset meter boxes stamped by “Art[isanal] Concrete” patented from around 1914, and which have spread over most all of Oakland and Berkeley, iconic monuments to a local supplier that was only recently replaced.

College Avenue and Woolsey St.

And while the names of contractors who seem to have provided the first streets of the region with sidewalks had long registered in my subconscious as a curiosity of the region, these oddly dispersed names, often matched with dates, were increasingly read not as part of the landscape, but somehow evidence of a receded past, and of past lives, in ways that I never imagined, even as a trained historian: the nine imprints–or strikes–that mirror housing lots signed by “G.R. Noble, Contractor” along a block of Hillegass Avenue of older houses along which I regularly walked along had long suggested he had worked with a realtor who had sold the lots for new residents: if not nearly as stylized as some, or linked to a date, the contractor who had identified himself suddenly became a sign of mortality, as the names and dates that swung back to my attention in a melancholy key–“Villata-1931”; “J. Catucci — 1916”; “J. B. Castellotti 1921”–suggested signatures of a post-World War I expansion of paved sidewalks and housing lots. The strikes without years stood out–L. J. Lorenzetti; T. J. Garvey; “Ed” Doty; W. O. Nelson–as if orphans, refusing to slide into their surroundings but springing from the streets of my north Oakland neighborhood as epitaphs of a bygone age of sidewalk paving and settlement of the East Bay. While they probably never had similar significance as mortal records, it was almost inescapable that these marks from a century ago marked out a lost age, that suddenly seemed to reach out to me as I looked with my eyes downward cast at the ground.

Burnham Co./Prince St, Berkeley CA
W. O. Nelson/Derby St. and Warring, Berkeley CA
W.O. Nelson, Berkeley CA 1909 (Telegraph Avenue at Alcatraz Avenue)
Ensor Buel, 1945/Deakin St., Berkeley CA

Was I just looking at the pavement too long, using my phone to preserve what seemed time-stamped snapshots of some sort of memorial elegance, or was this a weird form of middle-aged mourning for a lost past lying at my feet? The strikes set by these pavers a century or so as markers of guarantees of quality and professional calling cards gained a sense of palpability as epitaphs of past lives. They seemed able to indicate as never before a sense of loss, as well as offering a window into the past of the paving of driveways and sidewalks of older houses when many sidewalks had not been uniformly paved.

W.E. Ensor, 1924/Alcatraz Avenue at Raymond St, Oakland CA

My friend Jeff, who I’d taken to talk about Kafka and Modiano with during the pandemic, had warned me sagely when I moved into the neighborhood I would be often walking into a time warp, to a zone inhabited by ghosts of a Berkeley past. The local Self-Realization Foundation was in fact shuttered during the pandemic, and the front of the aquarium store thankfully become legit and an increasingly essential business, amidst scattered community centers and legal advocacy groups. But the time warp became more real, as his words hit me in unexpected ways in a few years, as the streets grew more emptied, the names on the sidewalk gained resonance, and the sounds changed as urban traffic receded from local space. A very worn early strike set by Blake and Bilger–faint but barely legibly dated 1909, two digits in a distinctive triangle’s center–barely visible with abraiding, surfaced on the sidewalk on Prince Street.

Prince Street above Shattuck Avenue/Berkeley CA (Blake and Bilger 09)

Was I looking for these signs stenciled into the pavement because my eyes were downcast, or because I wanted to find a trace for another sort of community lying before my eyes? As archeologists talk about place as “haunted” by earlier records of habitation, and spatialities of settlement, the past seemed oddly comforting and dear to hold close, even if it was hardly legible with time. To be sure, the city was haunted by a specter of racial covenants and despite a long term effort to desegregate neighborhoods framed as residential to preserve clear lines of racial division.

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Filed under Berkeley CA, mapping the US-Mexican border, San Francisco, Urban Space

Order on the Border: Prologue or Retrospective View?


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.

People rioting on the west side of the Capitol with Trump flags
Pro-Trump Protestors at West Side of U.S. CapitolThomas P. Costello/USA Today via Reuters

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–

Donald Trump Reviews U.S.-Mexico Border Wall at Alamo, TX Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021
(AP Photo/Alex Brandon
)

–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.

Flag of Gonzalez Canon at Texas State Capitol

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.

President Trump signs border wall plaque on Jan. 12, 2021, in Alamo, Texas
(Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

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.

Border Patrol operations in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Texas. Cartography by Eric Leinberger. 
Eric Leinberger/US Border Patrol Operations in Lower Rio Grande against Migrants, 2011

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.

Trump in El Paso: Dueling rallies show border wall support, opposition
MAGA Border Wall Rally at El Paso Texas, 2019

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.

Come And Take It': A Texan Symbol Of Defiance For Sale : NPR

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.

What Trump owes his supporters, and now, the country | PBS NewsHour
2016 Presidential Candidate Trump Shows Border Wall Map Allegedly Given by 2015 Rally-Goer in Fayetteville, NC/
Johnathan Drake/Reuters

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?

Border Wall | Sierra Club
Proposed Levee Wall Constructed in Rio Grande Valley, 2017
Expanded Levees Proposed along Rio Grande Valley
Existing and Proposed Border Wall beside the Rio Grande River and Valley (2017)/Sierra Club

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.

Donald J. Trump, left, with Mayor Ed Koch, center and New York Gov. Hugh L. Carey, pointing to a rendering of what would become the Grand Hyatt Hotel, in June 1978. A crucial factor behind the hotel’s construction was 40-year tax break that has cost New York City $360 million to date.
Trump at June, 1978 groundbreaking for Grand Hyatt, Associated Press

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.

President Trump Visiting Border Wall at Alamo, TX, January 12, 2021–Alex Brandon/AP

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.

Gregory Bull, AP/President Trump Approaches Improvised Podium at Calexico, CA (Oct 26, 2018)

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.

The Alamo,” uncredited poster (1961)

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.

Trump Uses Mount Rushmore Speech to Deliver Divisive Culture War Message -  The New York Times
July 4, 2020/Anna Moneymaker, New York Times

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 Associated Press

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.)

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Filed under border barriers, border cartography, border wall, Donald Trump, US-Mexico Border, US-Mexico Border Wall

Mobs and Jobs

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, imagining the crossing of caravans from south of the border with near anticipation. Vigilantes had patrolled the border for years, animated by an ethos of defense of national borders, and mobilizing within the Customs and Border Patrol to find meaning in the slogan to defend deportations of migrants that “we need strong borders,” and “we have no country if we have no border,” as if he were defending American families, and the “blood” of those families, and celebrating his defense of borders and accusing his opponents of open borders. The border of the U.S. Capitol was rendered open on the morning of January 6, 2020, as the Congress was about to confirm the electoral votes that elected Joe Biden as U.S. President, but an inside job of unknown sources seems to have invited these barbarians into the Capitol, to make their voices heard, in an imagined insurrection and a performative karioki coup.

The urgent need to securing the border was distilled into the platitude “a nation without borders is not a nation” after the 2020 election. But if the question of shoring up the border became the basis on which Trump was elected, the busload of flag-waving supporters oft he President bcame something of a revanchist id for the former President, as on the eve of his formal exit from office who broke police barriers, doors, and windows of the United States Capitol was not from outside the nation, but bussed in from multiple domestic states. Calling a reprisal of his earlier rallies to question the reported tabulation of the 2020 election, Trump encouraged his base to refuse the certification of the election, rallying the barbarians to the gates to destabilize the democratic process by fighting for him. Whereas the violation of constitutional principles had long been feared to be coming from the security state, the questioning of votes in states that were expected to vote Trump and deemed “red” led many to buy tickets to Washington, for the final paroxysm of a Trump rally, a large contingent of armed men, many in tactical gear, arriving to break the security barriers, doors, and windows of the Capitol itself to secure the election for their candidate to Keep America Great.

Donald Trump has been rumored to be convinced of his program of overturning the election’s results as he promoted the continued “audits” of votes in several states from Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia, long crucial electoral puzzle pieces for Trump’s Presidential campaigns, carefully calibrated to manufacture victory. If the focus on “audits” that were unprecedented as able to overturn the election, that have reverberated in the online forums of QAnon and other outlets of a revisiting of the outcome of Election Day. The crowd-sourcing of a final protest that overran the Capitol building, cast in insurrectionary terms as a struggle for governmental control, and rooted in the false populism social media has magnified, perhaps with the acknowledgment only declaring a state of emergency or provoking an insurrection would enable the results of the election ever to be overturned. Proliferation of pro-Trump “caravans” across the nation that headed to Washington to fight the aftermath of the election were a new register of group think, rooted in the fear of an end of a “Trump Era” posed an earthquake of political proportions rarely recognized in full, moblizing multiple caravans before and after the election, in a show of force to prevent Trump from loosing the election, and waving MAGA flags from Michigan to Florida to Oregon to North Carolina, seeking to mobilize swing states by a show of force on the road, honking horns, and sharing images of themselves on social media, often rebroadcast on the Russian funded RT television network as public shows of patriotic gore, reveling in thumbs up.

Busloads of local Trump supporters participated in D.C. protest | News |  northcentralpa.com

Did they appropriate the approaching “caravans” in response to which Donald Trump became a National Emergency in November, 2018, and prepared for the National Emergency of Februrary, 2018? Trump had presented the migrant caravan as a specter of globalist proportions as a threat to the nation, whose numbers were fleeing countries who “have not done their jobs” from Guatemala, Honduras, to El Salvador in halting cross-border immigration, nations he blamed for the crisis of refugees of global proportions, but potentially including among them “unknown Middle Easterners” tied to terrorists or affiliated with ISIS. The caravans served confuse global geography, and created an instrumental crisis of unprecedented proportions as Trump sent the troops to halt an unprecedented 1,000 Central American migrants applying for refugee status in three days. Proclaiming the need for “bringing out the military for a National Emergency” led over 5,000 active-duty troops to arrived at the border lest the “caravans” enter American territory, a specter that seemed only to reaffirm the need for $8 billion for a continuous border wall. The specter of these invading migrant caravans from afar grew as a vulnerability, as the mythic migrants of the Golden Horde known by the hue of their tents: migrant traffic triggered subsequent declarations of national emergencies in Central America, rippled through Guatemala against Hondurans, and triggered fears of compromised border security.

Trump supporters oddly appropriated the “caravan” as a term of force and extra-ordinary circumstances of crisis that called for collective action. Was the assembly of such “caravans” not communicating a sense of the impunity of moving across space, demonstrating patriotism by flags that almost celebrated separatism from a rule of law?

“Oregon for Trump 2020 Labor Day Cruise Rally” in Oregon City, ORE
Michael Arellano/AP

And 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. Was the logic of the men who attacked the U.S. Capitol, live streaming the siege as a similarly mediatized event?

The crowd that assembled to hear Donald Trump at the March to Save America Rally were animate with a level of urgency to save the nation that they viewed in danger if Joseph R. Biden’s Presidential victory was certified, and the electoral college victory long announced by the Mainstream Media came to pass. Their world was about to shatter. The recourse to a siege became the only option for an audience of Trump supporters existentially uneasy at the fear of the compromise or end of an old order where Fox News would be the dominant voice reporting White House actions to its 4 million viewers. The action was extreme, but 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. The march promised to be a reiteration of earlier marches for Trump and a reunion of sorts to invade the capitol by actual “caravans” that would arrive from across the country, shunning mask mandates, and posing as Patriots, from Florida to California to Arizona. They announced their imminent arrival to one another exultantly as they made their way to protest the election in Washington, DC, boldly announcing their imminent arrival on social media to the world. “DC Hear We COME!!!!! #StoptheSteal” [sic] above emoji of American flags; when they arrived, they waved the same flags that melded their identity as “Trump supporters” and “Trump’s MAGA Army from across the nation” with defense of an imagined nation, boasting solidarity by brandishing the same flags to again reject the election’s loss.

Washington DC Rally in November 14 2020/Evy Mages, Washingtonian
The Million MAGA March on November 14, 2020. Photograph by Evy Mages.
November 14, 2020/Evy Mages, Washingtonian

This was all staged. 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. The decisive votes of such voters were argued to have thrown the election, in terms that the largely white constituency of Trump voters were likely to better know from the odds of betting on a horse or sports game: 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. Wth 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.

The suspension of anything like a neat conclusion of the Presidential election 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. Despite the increasingly disturbing division of the nation into the ‘red’ and ‘blue’ division of electoral votes from states, by far the greatest shares of the rioters at the U.S. Capitol came not from “red” states, at all, but Trump voters from those large urban areas where the votes swung to Biden in the end by a narrow margin indeed–they were from spaces, or counties, that had perhaps themselves felt or experienced the sense of being robbed and the very swing of pendulum in the reporting of electoral votes that Trump had himself felt so aggrieved: his narrative of a shift in voting patterns made sense to them and echoed their isolation. While rioters hailed assembled a broad extent of America, they were most ratcheted up and angered by Trump’s narrative, and most likely to coalesce on January 6.

We imagine, thanks to news photography in no small part, that the rioters were embodied by the Angry White Man, affiliated with a local separatist militia-style groups, and feeling they were fulfilling an oath with righteousness:

But the scraped metadata from mobile devices who visited the U.S. Capitol on January 6–far more dense than on previous Wednesdays–that provided a picture that was particularly illuminating of the overlap between social media devices used in the Capitol census block with those posting videos on Parler: if few were from Maine, Montana, and North Dakota, the densely isolated tagged locations from southern Michigan, Florida, North Carolina, Arizona and Atlanta correlate onto a sense of outrage and no doubt betrayal by the final reporting of vote tallies, and commitment to forestall the feared results of the election, particularly dense near the US-Mexico border in southern California.

Arcs traced from the metadata of folks who uploaded videos to Parler from that census block on January 7, 2021 traced the sourcing of the crowd for the March to Save America, the final potlatch after six years of MAGA events, protests, counter-protests and festivities that delivered the rage of the nation during the final certification of the electoral votes after the tabulation of the votes from each state: while each was presented as a threshold of deception by Trump supporters and online news sites–from the false voters who deceived the nation by voting by mail to the counting of votes without adequate oversight or by potentially shady ways to the electors’ selection in each state, this was presented as the final moment to preserve a MAGA culture and retain a news dominance and social media presence in the nation: MAGA bastions as the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers–long present in anti-government activities from the standoff at the Bundy Ranch, the Three Percenters, and other “Patriot” movements that had been founded in the aftermath of President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Seeing the end of the Trump Presidency as an era marked by widespread Black Lives Matter and Antifa protests, the anger at an end to the Trump /Presidency was presented as an end to sovereignty and a threat to sovereign defense against a deeply illegitimate Presidential election. The overlap between the local disappointment in the Presidential election’s results intersected with the narrative of an illegal gaming of the ballots that expanded fears promoted of a “rigged” election in 2016, by investing the tabulation of an actual election with deep and pervasive illegitimacy. 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!” by inviting citizen groups more akin to vigilantes monitor irregular voter behavior, he created a logic for political involvement in a coming election. The faux populist movement of the Trump Candidacy would culminate in its aggrieved calls for rectifying injustices done to The Donald into the Biden Presidency, and after the date of inauguration, with the former President issuing, in late February, 2021, Trump proclamatory statements lamenting the “Continuing Political Persecution of President Donald J. Trump” that refused to separate himself from the nation, playing with the tally of votes cast; even if he had decisively lost the election by over seven million votes, Trump let the world and his followers know, of their danger of disenfranchisement. Trump warned, as voting rights were being stripped of African Americans, of how “attacks by Democrats willing to do anything. to stop the almost 75 million people (the most votes, by far, ever gotten by a sitting president) who voted for me in the election,” not being able to remind his readers that this was an election many moreover “feel that I won.”

Was Trump referring to the attempt to stop them from staging a siege of the U.S. Capitol? As they arrived to rally behind the outgoing President who resisted admitting his electoral loss from across America, with a large share from Texas, Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and southern California, did they realize that the Capitol building where they were taking their protest had been largely constructed by enslaved laborers, rented from their ownersenslaved laborers to quarry sandstone and complete the construction, unable to attract skilled construction workers to Washington, DC, to construct a hall that the U.S. Congress would move from Philadelphia in 1800? The assertion of a right to preserve Confederate traditions of dissent, separatism, and grievance in a misguided defense of alleged liberties and rights to defend a status quo ante Trump. Archeologists speak of the “haunting” of a place by evidence of the remains of past civilizations or cities that survive underground–as a “city within the city,” erased by time–and one has to wonder at the ghosts of the enslaved who constructed the U.S. Capitol that the protestors faced with their confederate flags raised. Did they encounter the ghosts of enslaved laborers who cleared land for the building, haul sawed lumber and stone to the site ceded from two slave states, Maryland and Virginia?

Slaves of men paid for their labor had been conscripted into labor from clearing the site for building to carpentry, stonecutting, and bricklaying from 1795 to 1800–only one hundred and twenty two are known, by first names, from slaves of the White House architect, “Tom, Peter, Ben, Harry” whose owner was paid for their labor, or “Negro Dick,” whose owner received five dollars a month–and the enslaved Philip Reid, from the foundry that cast the Statue of Freedom for the dome of the U.S. Capitol in 1855, and devised a pulley and tackle system to raise the allegorical figure to its peak. When Michelle Obama described her husband’s Presidency as an overcoming of this past, was a presumption that electing a woman or a black person would be grounds for electing a U.S. President, who should be elected for their own–as if it disguised the claim of an elite that her candidate could bring he nation redemption.

Perhaps few of the protestors who invaded the U.S. Capitol knew the history of its construction in detail, even if Congress had finally recognized in 2012, ten years previous, and Michelle Obama reminded the nation in 2015, in her call to nominate Hillary Clinton as a Presidential candidate; for many, the line was a dog whistle painting a picture so stock to be evidence of their arrogance and sense of entitled self-righteousness. Were they aware of being used to stage a siege they felt reflected their own populist interests of direct democracy? When flag-wavers descended to sites of ballot counting in 2020, waiving campaign flags, American flags, “Don’t Tread on Me” flags to endorse state-wide audits of paper ballots and absentee ballots to review machine tallies with a skepticism bordering on alarmism. But the destabilizing of confidence, deployed in 2016, extended to alleged irregularities warranting voting machines demanded certification as “fraud-free” that threatened to undermine a democratic process, unleashing a river of groundless skepticism in of an alternative media universe of the filter bubble of FOX news, NewsMax and OANN.

The narrative of a stolen election was crucially deployed by Donald Trump in his speech at March to Save America to dovetail with the energy of protests that contested local ballot tallies that had grown increasingly contested as a demand to reveal a hidden or gamed truth. Such 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 observed ‘rigged’ came to be a “keyword” in the national political discourse, but extended the corruption to the mechanics of vote counting. The exposure of a “rigged” politics undermined civic participation in unprecedented skepticism: ‘rigged’ described the uneven economy, the tax system, and increasingly deferred any outcome of the election and injected the news cycle with faux populism replicated in social media to 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 and claims of widespread fraudulence disrupted the resolution of any outcome. In the past, Trump feigned honesty when telling rallies “the election is going to be rigged–I’m going to be honest!” By late summer he implied to mainstream 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 2020 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. Crowds protested as patriots in Detroit, Philadelphia, Portland, Las Vegas and Atlanta, bearing similar flags outside of arenas and capitol buildings, asserting liberties and demanding and end to improper practices of tabulating votes. At the end of a Summer of Protests, to which the Capitol Riots are oddly assimilated, the demand to Stop the Steal was cast as a petitioning of justice, designed as if to address the Supreme Court. The extension of doubt preceding the Capitol Riots fanned populist grievances as if they were infringements on constitutional rights, deferring acceptance 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 Contest Ballot Counting in Pennsylvania on steps of State Capitol, November 4, 2020/Gabriella Bhaskar
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Filed under American Politics, Capitol Riots, Donald Trump, political iconography, Presidential Elections

Coronavirus Advances

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?

Dec. 5, 2020

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.

San Francisco Chronicle, December 6 2020
SF Chronicle, December 19, 2020

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.

ESRI

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.

Hand-Drawn Public Health Map of Ebola Transmission in Liberia (2014)

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–

Coronavirus Cases Reported in Nineteen California Prisons, Dec. 21, 2020

–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.

Coronavirus Deaths linked to Nursing Homes in United States, December 4, 2020

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.

New York Times/CueBiq Mobility Data

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.

Increased Spatial Closeness within Fifty Feet/CueBiq/Graphic NBC News, Nigel Chiwaya and Jiachan Wu

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.

March 26, 2020

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:

John Snow, “Cholera Deaths in Soho”

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.

Open-Air Water Pumps Tainted by Cholera measured in John Snow’s Map

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–

NextStrain

–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.

NextStrain

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.

NextStrain

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?

Global Distribution of Sars-CoV-2 Variants, March 15, 2020/Los Alamos National Laboratory

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.

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A Socially Distanced Franchise?

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.”

New York Times, November 8, 2020

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.

CNN, December 2 2020

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.

https://www.npr.org/2019/06/18/733505037/trump-set-to-officially-launch-reelection-but-hasnt-he-been-running-all-along

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.

New York Times, November 8 2020, “Results as of Saturday at 10:30 Eastern/ Map Shows Maine and Nebraska statewide vote

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.

Trey Yingst (ONN), May 11, 2017/Twitter
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Filed under 2020 election, data visualization, Donald Trump, electoral maps, Presidential Elections