Monthly Archives: September 2020

Local Air Quality this Fire Season in California

The tracking of local air quality is a contemporaneous way to track the effects of the fire seige that initiated clusters of fires across the western seaboard to be ignited at the end of a long, dry summer from August 25. We were not really struck unawares by the dry lightning, but had left forests languishing, not beneath electricity lines–as last year, around this time–but under a hot sun, and high temperatures that we hardly registered as changing the ecosystem and forest floor. This year, the sun turning red like a traffic light in the middle of the afternoon, we were forced to assess the air quality as the blue sky was filled with black carbon plumes from nearby fires that at times left a grittiness in our eyes.

October 1, 2020

Confronted with a red sun through pyrocumulus haze, we followed real-time surveys of air quality with renewed attentiveness as an orange pyrocumulus clouds blanketed usually blue skies of the Bay Area, obscuring the sun’s light, suffusing the atmosphere with a weirdly apocalyptic muted light, that were hardly only incidental casualties of the raging fires that destroyed houses, property, and natural habitat–for they revealed the lack of sustainability of our warming global environment.

EPA/World Air Quality Index/New York Times September 15, 2020

The soot and fog that permeated “clean cities” like Portland and San Francisco came as a sudden spike in relation to the black carbon loads that rose in plumes from the fires, as if the payload of the first bombs set by climate change. The shifting demand for information that evolved as we sought better bearings in the new maps of fires that had become a clearly undeniably part of our landscape was reflected in the skill with which the sites of incidence of dry lighting strikes that hit dried out brush and forest floors, the growing perimiters of fires and evacuation zones across the west coast, and the plumes of atmospheric smoke of black carbon that would leave a permanent trace upon the land, liked to the after-effects of holocausts created by atom bombs by Mike Davis. The measurement of wind carrying airborne smoke emerged as a layer of meaning we were beginning to grasp, a ghostly after-effects of the fields of flams that began from sites of lightning hitting the earth in a Mapbox wildfire map of fields of fire across the states, radiating resonant waves akin to earthquake aftershocks, a lamination on hex bins of the fires that seemed a new aspect indicating their presence in the anthropocene.

The suitably charcoal grey base-map of the state integrates approximate origins of fires, fire spread and greatest intensity of hotspots from satellite imagery courtesy Descartes Labs and NOAA, and air pollution data integrates the fires’ spread across our picture of the state. While human reviewed and sourced, the satellite data embodies the ravages of fire across the state in ways echoed by its black charcoal base map, and reflects the need to develop new visual tools to process their devastation.

Mapbox Wildfire Maps/CalFire Data/OpenStreetMap/Los Angeles Times Sept 28, 2020

While we began to measure air quality to meet new needs to track ground-level ozone, acid rain, air toxins, and ozone depletion at an atmospheric level, the increased tracking of more common air pollutants since 1990 included airborne particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), carbon monoxide (CO), and ozone (O3), we track the effects of wildfire smoke by hourly levels of each at local points, parlaying sensors into newsfeeds as wildfires rage. If stocked with labels of each chromatic layer, are these real-time updates lacking not only legends–but the temporal graph that would clarify the shifting data feeds that lead us to give them the illusion of purchase on the lay of the land we are trying to acknowledge this fire season?

Berekeley, CA October 1, 2020/Clara Brownstein

Watching slightly more long-term shifts in quality of air that we breath in the Bay Area, we can see striking spikes of a maximum just after the lighting siege began on August 19, 2020 across much of the state, as air quality decisively entered into a hazardous zone, tracking PPM2.5 concentrations, but entering the worst fifteen air days since registration four times since 1999, when Bay Area Air Quality Management District began reporting the levels of fire smoke in inhabited areas.

Particulate Matter (PM 2.5) Concentrations in Bay Area, August 15-Septmeber 13, 2020/
Bay Area Air Quality Management District

We measure fires by acreage, but the sudden spikes of air quality, while not exceeding the smoke that funneled into the Bay Area during the North Bay Fires in 2017, when the Tubbs and Atlas Fires devastated much of the Wine Country, created a run of high-smoke days, were followed by a set of sudden spikes of the atmospheric presence of particulate matter that we tried to track by isochomes, based on real-time sensor reading, but that emerge in better clarity only in retrospect.

It is true that while the AQI maps that offer snapshots of crisp clarity of unhealthy air might serve as an alarm to close windows, remain indoors, and call off school–

AirNow AQI map in Bay Area after Lightning Fires, August 22, 2020

–as particulate matter spread across the region’s atmosphere. We are used to weather maps and microclimates in the Bay Area, but the real-time map of particulate matter, we immediately feared, did not only describe a condition that would quickly change but marked the start of a fire season.

Not only in recent days did the sustained levels of bad air suggest an apocalyptic layer that blanketed out the sun and sky, that made one feel like one was indeed living on another planet where the sun was masked–a sense heightened by the red suns, piercing through grey smoke-cover that had seamlessly combined with fog. Although the new landscapes of these AQI maps generate immediate existential panic, we should be more panicked that while we call these fires wild, they release unprecedented levels of toxins once imagined to be detected as industrial pollutants. The seemingly sudden ways that black carbon soot blanketed the Bay Area, resting on our car hoods, porches, windowsills and garbage bins were not only an instant record of climate emergency, but the recoil of overly dry woods, parched forests and lands as overdue payback for a far drier than normal winter, months and a contracted rainy season that had long ago pushed the entire state into record territory. The lack of soil moisture has brought a huge increase of wildfire risk, not easily following the maps of previous fire history, and persistence of “abnormally dry” conditions across a third of California, focussed in the Sierra and Central Valley–the areas whose forests’ fuel loads arrive carbonized in particulate form.

Local monitors of air quality suggest the uneven nature of these actual isochromes as maps–they are reconstructions of what can only be sensed locally, and does not exist in any tangible way we can perceive–but presented what we needed to see in a tiler that made differences popped, highlighting what mattered, in ways that left cities fall into the bottom of the new colors that blanketed the state, in which local sensors somehow revealed what really mattered on August 20: if the “map” is only a snapshot of one moment, it showed the state awash in ozone and PPM.

AirNow/August 20, 2020
Air Quality Index

We were in a sort of existential unfolding in relation to these maps, even if we could also read them as reminders of what might be called “deep history”: deep history was introduced by Annalistes to trace climatic shifts, the deep “undersea” shifts of time, on which events lie as flotsam, moved by their deep currents that ripple across the economy in agrarian societies, suggesting changes from which modern society is in some sense free. “Deep History” has to some extent been reborn via neurosciences, as a history of the evolution of the mind, and of cognition, in a sort of master-narrative of the changes of human cognition and perception that makes much else seem epiphenomenal. If the below real-time map was time-stamped, it suggested a deep history of climate of a more specific variety: it was a map of one moment, but was perched atop a year of parched forests, lack of groundwater, and increased surface temperatures across the west: Sacramento had not received rain since February in an extremely dry winter; its inter was 46% drier than normal, and the winder in Fresno was 45% dryer in February. They are, in other words, both real-time and deep maps, and demand that we toggle between these maps as the true “layers” of ecological map on which we might gain purchase.

The levels of dessication of course didn’t follow clear boundaries we trace on maps. But at some existential level, these flows of particulate matter were not only snapshots but presented the culmination and confirmation of deep trends. We have to grasp these trends, to position ourselves in an adequate relation to their content. For the deep picture was grim: most of California had enjoyed barely half of usual precipitation levels after a very dry winter: Sacramento has had barely half of usual rainfall as of August 20 (51%); the Bay Area. 51%; parts of the Sierra, just 24%. And wen we measure smoke, we see the consequences of persistent aridity.

August 28, 2020/AirNow
Air Quality Index

These are the layers, however, that the maps should make visible, And while these shifts of particulate matter that arrived in the Bay Area were invisible to most, they were not imperceivable; however, the waves of smoke that arrived with a local visibility that almost blanketed out the sun. Perhaps there was greater tolerance earlier, tantamount to an ecclipse. Perhaps that seemed almost a breaking point.

For almost a month after the first fires broke, following a sequence of bad air days and spare-the-air alerts marked our collective entrance to a new era of climate and fire seasons, fine soot blanketed the state at hazardous levels, leaving the sense there was nowhere left to go to escape.

September 13, 2020
Air Quality Index

We had of course entered the “Very Unhealthy” zone. If real-time maps condense an immense amount of information, the snapshot like fashion in which they synthesized local readings are somewhat hard to process, unless one reads them with something like a circumscribed objective historical perspective that the levels of PPM5 provides. In maps that are data maps, and not land maps, we need a new legend, as it were, an explanation of the data that is being tracked, lest it be overwhelmed in colors, and muddy the issues, and also a table that will put information on the table, lest the map layers be reduced to eye candy of shock value, and we are left to struggle with the inability to process the new scale of fires, so unprecedented and so different from the past, as we try to gain bearings on our relation to them.

Of course, the real-time manner that we consume the “news” today

militates against that, with feeds dominating over context, and fire maps resembling increasingly weather maps, as if to suggest we all have the skills to read them and they present the most pressing reality of the moment. But while weather maps suggest a record of the present, these are not only of the current moment that they register. Looking at them with regularity, one feels the loss of a lack of incorporating the data trends they depict, and that are really the basis of the point-based maps that we are processed for us to meet the demand for information at the moment, we are stunned at the images’ commanding power of attention to make us look at their fluid bounds, but leave us at sea in regards to our relation to what is traced by the contour lines of those isochrones.

Bay Area Air Quality Management, PM2.5 Concentrations, August 15-September 13, 2020

We can, in the Bay Area, finally breathe. But the larger point re: data visualizations is, perhaps, a symptom of our inflow of newsfeeds, and lies in those very tracking maps–and apps–that focus on foregrounding trends, and does so to the exclusion of deeper trends that underly them, and that–despite all our knowledge otherwise–threatens to take our eyes off of them. When the FOX newscaster Tucker Carlson cunningly elided the spread of wild fires ties to macro-process of climate change, calling them “liberal talking points,” separate from climate change, resonating with recent calls for social justice movements to end systematic racism in the country: although “you can’t see it, but rest assured, its everywhere, it’s deadly. . . . and it’s your fault,” in which climate change morphed to but a “partisan talking point” as akin to “systematic racism in the sky.”

While the deep nature of the underlying mechanics by which climate change has prepared for a drier and more combustable terrain in California is hard to map onto to the spread of fires on satellite maps, When climate denialism is twinned with calls for reparations of social injustice or gun control as self-serving narratives to pursue agendas of greater governmental controls to circumscribe liberties, befitting a rant of nationalist rage: the explanations on “our” lifestyles and increased carbon emissions, only pretenses to restrict choices we are entitled to make, Carlson was right about the depths at which both climate change and systematic racism offer liberal “lies”–especially if we squint at tracking maps at a remove from deep histories, and cast them as concealing sinister political interests and agendas, the truly dark forces of the sinister aims of governmental over-reach in local affairs.

“Structural racism” is indeed akin to the deep structure of climate change if the cunning analogy Tucker Carlson powerfully crafted for viewers did not capture the extent of their similarities. For if both manifest deep casualties created by our society, both depart from normalcy and both stand to hurt the very whites who see them as most offensive. The extent of inequalities of systematic racism as present in our day-to-day life as is the drying out landscape. And the scope of climate change is able to be most clearly registered by the evident in trends of diminished precipitation, groundwater reserves or temperature change that create environmental inequalities, too often obscured by the events of local air quality or maps of social protests that respond to deep lying trends.

To be sure, the tracking of environmental pollutants underlay the national Pollution Prevention Act of 1990, and led to a number of executive orders that were aimed to set standards for environmental justice among minority communities who long bore the brunt of industrial pollutants, from lead paint to polluted waters to hazardous waste incinerators. And, as we are surrounded by racial inequalities that are visible in systematic inequalities before the law, and have lowered life expectancies of non-whites in America by 3.5 years, increasing rates of hypertension, cancer, and systematic disenfranchisement of blacks–these extensive inequalities hurt whites, and hurt society. As Ibrahim X. Kendi perceptively noted, White Supremacists affirm the very policies that benefit racist policies even when they undercut interests of White people; they “claim to be pro-White but refuse to acknowledge that climate change is having a disastrous impact on the earth White people inhabit.” Is there a degree of self-hatred that among Carlson’s viewers that informs Carlson’s frontal attack on climate change and structural racism as myths, more content to blame non-Whites for structural inequalities.

But these inequalities are evident in the differences in air quality that climate change creates. For if the AQI maps tell us anything, it is the absence of any preparedness for the interconnections of fire, smoke, and large dry stretches of a long story of low precipitation that have created abnormally dry conditions–indeed, drought–across the state.

California Drought Monitor, Sept. 17, 2020/Brad Rippey, U.S. Department of Agriculture

The intensity of severe drought across the conifer-dense range Sierras raises pressing questions of federal management of lands: the moderate to severe drought of forested lands intersect with the USDA Forest Service manage and the over 15 million acres of public lands managed by the federal government manages or serves as a steward.

–that crosses many of the dried out wildland and rangeland forested with conifers and dense brush, a majority of which are managed by federal agencies–19 million acres, or 57%– but with climate change are increasingly drier and drier, which only 9 million are privately owned.

Ownerships of California Forests and Rangeland
USDA Forest Service Management (Purple), National Parks (Lavender), Bureau of Land Management (Orange)

Yet the reduction of Wildland Fire management by 43.98% from FY2020 to FY2021 in President Trump’s budget continued the systematic erosion of funding for the United States Forest Services. As California weathered longer and longer fire seasons under Donald Trump’s watch, Trump made budget cuts $948 million to the Forest Service for fiscal year 2020, after defunding of US Forest Services by reducing mitigating fire risk by $300 million from FY 2017 to FY2019, cutting $20.7 minion from wildlife habitat management, and $18 million from vegetation management–a rampage beginning with cutting USFS research funding by 10% and Wildland Fire Management by 12% in FY 2018! While blaming states for not clearing brush in forests, sustained hampering of managing federal lands rendered the West far less prepared for climate change. As the costs of containing wildfires rise, the reduction of the Forest Service budget has provoked panic by zeroing out funding for Land and Water conservation–alleged goals of the Trump Presidency–and cuts grants to state wildfire plans by a sixth as fire suppression looms ever larger.

By defunding of forest management, rangeland research, and habitat management, such budgetary measures pose pressing questions of our preparedness for the growing fire seasons of future years; stars that denote public land management might be targets for future dry lightning.

Ecosystems of California (2016)

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Filed under Climate Change, climate monitoring, climate sciences, data visualization, fires

To Levitate an Elephant

The Republican Party unveiled a sleek red elephant in preparation for the 2020 Republican Convention that seemed a strange recuperation of the circus origins of the once-sturdy quadruped. The rejuvenation of the vitality of the old elephant staged a rebirth of the party at a time when its ties to the nation had been increasingly tenuous, and seemed to mask the deep fragmentation that the politics of divisive opposition had been stoked by the shock jock tactics of a President over his first term. The classic abstracted pachyderm was no longer an iconic mascot of the past–it had not been the weighty icon of the past, laden with memories for years–but the division of the party was threatening, as was the division of the nation, by the time the Republican Party had assembled and decided not to adopt any platform in 2020, but to accept disruption and assurances of law and order as an identity the old red-white-and-blue mascot would no longer do to express.

As nation-wide movements promoting the sovereign secession of red states advanced online in virtual space of social media, embraced by the party as a basis for generating turnout and votes, Republicans seemed so assured of an approaching electoral landslide as something like destiny that the electoral map of victory became something of a mirror, finding their identity in red states alone in ways that were unveiled in the newly monochrome anthropomorphic icon of a red pachyderm as the aspirational emblem of the GOP would be reborn with newfound unity and vitality and with an apparent spring in its step.

If the first appearance of the “symbolic pachyderm” occurred in Harpers weekly as a stolid party poised at the brink of an open pit of chaos which was only slightly covered by the false support flimsy campaign platforms afforded its bulk, the image of the stolid beast of the party that was slandered in the 1874 election as newspapers accused the party of corruption, that may have led the mighty elephant to trip into the abyss of chaos. If the boastful Democratic donkey that saw itself as Caesar terrified forest beasts, and led Minerva’s owl to drop her tablet, the imposing party struggled not to fall into the abyss of chaos on platforms that could hardly sustain it from the fNew York press’s charges of corruption, let the party somehow loose the stability of Republican voters.

Thomas Nast, “Third Term Panic” (Harpers Weekly, 1874)

The newly designed Republican elephant of 2020 unveiled in Charlotte, North Carolina, attempted to invest strengthened unity for a party that had changed its identity, in ways that threatened its resilience. The proverbial four blind men who came to describe an elephant might not detect the chromatic shift, but the seismic shift in partisan identity was huge in a party whose sense of identity was being strong-armed by the . The prime political parties of American politics were defined since the late nineteenth century were symbolized by animals in ways that reveal the dominance of the popular press and editorial cartooning of Harpers magazine, where cartoonist Thomas Nast elevated the elephant to a symbol of party, embodying the collective vote in less that laudatory ways, have become potent signifiers their partisans invested with positive qualities to define their affinities, invested in tricolor mascots imbued with patriotism, the elephant associated with memory, probity, and intelligence bearing three stars, and the donkey, populist, dedicated, and stubborn in holding its ground, emblazoned with four. 

The elephant had by the 1970s and 1980s retained its stability in abstract form, but seemed an unassailable image of the party’s security, its sleek form a clear contrast to the far more fluid, and perhaps mutable, Democratic donkey–and, when the streamlined icon emerged int he late 1970s, to assert its modernity.

Democratic donkey and Republican elephant

The new “red elephant” was not only a logo unveiled at the 2020 Republican Convention, of course, but an emblem that had arisen on social media, akin to the new emblems of patriotic devotion that were first engraved by the U.S. Mint on national currency to offer evidence of the piety of the after the Civil War, when Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase received letters from ministers beseeching him to include adequate “ recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins,” and imploring him “What if our Republic were not shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation?,” leading Chase to impress upon the Director of the Philadelphia Mint the need of a device able to depict “the trust of our people in God . . . on our national coins” by a device and motto proclaiming national recognization of God, reasoning that it was evident that “no nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense.” Facebook groups Red Elephant media launched March 5, 2017 or The Red Elephant–a FB group and twitter handle, @redelephantt–founded April 9, 2018–suggested the new hue of the populist party of Donald J. Trump , an aggregator and amplifier of tweets by folks like Rep. Jim Jordan, Rep. Matt Gaetz, Gov. Ron De Santis and Marjorie Taylor Greene, a new republican Party that issued the post-inaugural proclamation to be back in other form.

The immensity of a far more animated elephant was a symbol primarily of hulking power, when it was first employed as a symbol of the Union; at the start of the U.S. Civil War, an anti-secessionist Republican party was imagined in an early lithography to render the anthropomorphic elephant an image of power and fire-arms, imagining, in an early New York lithograph, the contest between North and South in terms of a stoic beast, of little naturalism, whose dignity was backed up by fire-arms and the American flag, while a Democratic donkey seemed to squint at the imposing stature of the elephant who symbolizing order, Constitution in his pocket, and sword in his hand, wearing the patriotic stockings before his effete counterpart, “Jeff”–Jefferson Davies, who barely noticed his rural forces are far outnumbered by fire-power and canon, as he scrutinizes him warily through his eyepiece.

“Jeff Sees the Elephant,” E. B. & E. C. Kellogg/lithography by George Whiting, 1861-62
Jeff Sees the Elephant, 1861-2

The recognition scene between a patriotic elephant, donning both a patriotic hat band, stockings and slippers of red and white stripes and stars on a blue field, the American flag behind him, seems to register a divide of Civil War: the elephant armed with bursting guns coolly stares down the scrawny foppish Democrat donkey who lifts a monocle to better apprehend his foe. The future emblem mapped the cleavage between the union and confederates, where an elephant presumed to articulate the union and the donkey the intrepid resilience of the individualistic Democrat. During midterm elections of Republican Abraham Lincoln’s first term in office, when Jefferson Davies was the nominal “President” of seceded confederate states, was the precedent on which the great cartoonist Thomas Nast drew, but was designed long before the deadly violence of Civil War. The crisis of staking out political conditions out of which the animals emerged was pressing, if the dandy Davies seemed to barely orient himself by lifting his monocle to assess the scale of union munitions suggested that the elephant was an icon that was worth noticing.

The elephant long attracted circus-goers in America, but the entrance of elephants in political discourse and iconography demand being placed on a global map. If Lincoln adopted the elephant was a powerful symbol of union, and an announcement of the route of southern armies, which became a mascot of the Republican party, the impressive image of inclusion and monumentality was less evident in the new red elephant, lifting its trunks as if to smell the air, unveiled at the Republican Convention of 2020, when the wonder of the elephants that Siam’s King Mongkut hoped to introduce into “the forests of America” in 1861 had receded into history. The attributes of the animal mascot had over the years become fluid, long before the new elephant’s sleek form recaptured its circus origins, reclaiming its status as a circus animal, far from the upright animal who held his sword as a dignified cane. Lincoln judiciously had turned down the offer of a pair of elephants from his royal stock to propagate in American forests, but despite his respectful demurral that “our political jurisdiction . . . does not reach a latitude so low as to favour the multiplication of the elephant,” he readily adopted the iconography of the elephant as an emblem of the union by 1864: in the campaign, he used the slogan “the Elephant is Coming!” to promise the benefits of union as a partisan symbol.

The divide between a munitioned north that held the constitution in its pocket was drafted after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a wartime measure toward the abolishing of enslavement, defending the field of stars and stripes before the propertied southern landowners symbolized by the Kentucky planter and slave-holder who was President of the Confederate States of America, an office and entity the United States never recognized–here mocked as a foolish gentleman leading farmers into battle. By 2020, the Grand Old Party had been internally wrestling with groups promoting the idea that red states might gain an independent sovereign status. While the notion of such a secession was an intellectual siloing, ignoring that the the economic productivity of “blue states” allowed fiscal solvency and social services across many poorer regions of the nation, the 2020 Convention in Charlotte, SC was an attempt to create a sense of coherence in a party that had been animated mostly by its fear of Trump’s twitterfeed over four years, and hoped to find a possible reconciliation in which the party might in fact be best embodied by Donald Trump, even if a large part of his appeal as a Presidential candidate was his status as a political outsider. Was Trump now to be celebrated as an elephant limned by a border of gold, but also reclaiming its popular origins?

1. The new mascot was unveiled for the GOP, sleeker and redder, recalling the imperial grandeur; the party would be energized as if to disguise its new status as Party of Trump, by a new mascot rearing its trunk. And although the President boasted of his abilities to correctly identify the image of a pachyderm in the routine Montreal Cognitive Assessment Test in late July, the elephant even became a sign of Trump’s own mental acuity and recall, after he was administered a test for Parkinson’s or dementia he boasted he’d actually “aced.”

Was it a coincidence that, about a month before the 2020 Republican convention, Donald Trump measured his success at a routinely administered test to FOX’s Chris Wallace, by describing having “aced” the Montreal Cognitive Assessment by his adeptness identifying an elephant? Wallace almost scoffed spontaneously he’d undergone the test himself, and knew it well–“”It’s not the hardest test–they have a picture and it says, ‘What’s that?” and it’s an elephant‘” Trump claimed identifying the pachyderm was a sense of extraordinary acuity, as he took the opportunity to taunt his opponent, Joe Biden, who he challenged to take the cognitive test as well.

Montreal Cognitive Assessment Test Administered at Walter Reed

This was not a great moment in American politics. Was it not a delicious irony that the test focussed on the elephant, that image of Republican unity that featured in MoCA test his physicians administered had indeed been revised, for 2020, as a rightward facing red beast, raising its trunk as if to rear, in an attempt to promote party unity?

Perhaps it was karma that the httMoCA test that the VA was administering to test the President’s cognitive condition included the emblem of the republican party where he ha emerged as candidate of choice, and the koanic haiku “man-woman-person-camera-tv” was included, as well, per POTUS, as the memory words–a selection that was not on most versions of the test itself, but seem a softball question for Walter Reed physicians to pitch to the former TV personality, whereas standard fare word lists are non-associative and without clear reference or oppositions–“hand, nylon, park, carrot, yellow”; “face-velvet-church-daisy-red.”

Facing the VOX crew, and wishing that he was being interviewed by a woman, “man-woman-person-camera-TV” suggested Trump was riffing on his actual setting, in real time, more than describing the Walter Reed test. But the centrality of the elephant to this test of President Trump’s personal memory received less attention than the fanciful word chain that became a knowing meme: the place of the emblem of the party in the MoCA Test at Walter Reed may have been randomly selected, but was a bit of a reflection on the transformed nature of the Republican party that had emerged with Trump at the helm, and the unveiling by August 1, 2020 of a star-studded (or encrusted) pachyderm before a blue crown as the new “convention logo reflects both the energy of this vibrant city and traditions of the Republican Party,” as well as the one-ring circus direction that the party was headed by the very nominee once worried to tarnish the Party’s reputation permanently.

The one-week infomercial of a convention was entering full gear in its planning stages when Mike Wallace was interviewing Trump in the Rose Garden; President Trump was probably taking a break from reviewing its program and imagining how his improbable leadership of the party whose leaders had only recently feared the deep damage The Donald might inflict on the party’s image, urging him at length to “tone down” his pleasure to bait his base by anti-immigrant rhetoric, as Trump dismissed apologies–“I have nothing to apologize for”–and assured “I’ll win the Latino vote”–and pooh-poohed that he was a novelty candidate, even if he was clearly a different political animal. When he advanced to being the standard-bearer for the GOP, as assurances his candidacy would implode melted, his anti-immigrant comments were repressed, elided, or rolled into the media sensation Trump knew he was.

At PGA meeting at Trump International Golf Course at Rancho Palos Verde, CA, July 6, 2020/Nick Ut/AP

The collective memory of the party was at stake in the new convention–where the basis for forming a party of red states alone seemed to be being tested, the resistance to even pretend to frame a platform in at the Charlotte NC convention suggested, in programming that seemed to foreground both that Donald Trump was not a racist and that he would keep America save from Black Lives Matter social justice protests, that the very logo of the party–a white elephant that dated from Reconstruction–had preserved quite racially encoded memories of its own, that might haunt the party Trump had reshaped, long identified since Thomas Nast bequeathed two anthropomorphic beasts to both parties, in the years after the U.S. Civil War.

There was a logical difficulty in hoping a pure red state republic that some of the planners of the 2020 Republican Convention must have been aware: if the Trump base could be counted upon, red states remained dependent on federal transfer payments or support for food stamps, temporary assistance for needy families, subsidized insurance, and Medicaid, and were far poorer states, reliant on effective subsidies to pay troops, the fund infrastructural projects and disaster relief, many of which were increasing due to human-caused climate change. The party was dependent on a good showing in more than red states, and the polls,, as much as they were discredited and discounted by the sitting President, looked bad. But the proximity of the party to The Donald meant that the elephant had to be redesigned to buoy the party’s hopes–putting on the front burner the problem of how to assimilate Donald Trump to a party of long term memory.

Christopher Weyant, Boston Globe

The representation of red states as a base demanded an image of Republican identity demanded a redesign of its logo identified with the interests of red states with grandeur, that might meld the strongly separatist rhetoric in which the image of a Sovereign States of America might exist–without echoing the Confederate secession, even if the image of a Confederate States of America was dear symbolism to Trump’s base. The new elegant if streamline elephant, now emblazoned with five stars that seemed to forecast the “W” of victory, seemed to embrace a “big tent” politics in its size, but was for the first time incarnated in red alone.

And in an era in which we have a President able to channel his inner P.T. Barnum more openly than his predecessors, he sought to unite the party in his increasingly capacious body, by mining a rich tradition of political iconography speaking before a redesigned symbol of the party that perhaps tapped Nast’s icon in recalling a circus–and in recalling the curiosity “white elephant’ that Barnum had imported from Burma, where it was revered as a symbol of purity and power, and whose display to circus audiences implicitly promoted it as a purer version than its African cousin who was a popular component of American circuses, whose appearance was often the culmination and final act of the spectacular form of popular entertainment.

2. If the circus elephants Barnum displaced were such Americanized images as popular behemoths and visual attractions that cartoonists in the Civil War had already adopted the elephant as a sing of the Union, and of the Republican party that defended the union. If Lincoln was said to adore the elephant as an image of the Union’s robustness, the currency of the elephant as a trick in the trade of circus exhibitions may have appropriated the curiosity of the mammoth-sized beast because of its size and to show the marvel of its domestication: if elephants had been taught to dance in the Jardin des Plants, in costume, exhibition of a stuffed elephant at London’s 1851 Crystal Palace by the East India Company bearing a royal carriage that increased its exotic dignity and elevated its ceremonial role as transit vehicle, if the taxidermied skin was a source more of fascination than vivacity, prefigured Barnum’s spectacular display of elephants to popular crowds: the popularity of the museified pachyderm prefigured exhibition of a giant African Grey at London’s Zoological Gardens, and Barnum eagerly bought what was then the largest elephant in captivity to hawk to American audiences in his traveling show, over public objection and anger of London zoogoers who felt they were swindled to lose the locally treasured beast that was a source of cultural fascination and pride:

Walter Goodall, Crystal Palace, 1855 (London)

If the stuffed elephant at the Crystal Palace exhibited in “native” costume as an elegant conveyance, anidst the Pavilion the East India Company populated with material goods, jeweled costumes, and elephant saddles, was far from the way Barnum later displayed elephants in his traveling company with fewer costumes than later adopted for circus elephants as forms of kitsch–Barnum promised contact with the vivacity of enormous beasts’ feats as a popular entertainment, in a tradition of American circus men, probably independently from Lincoln’s near fetishization of the tusked animal to emblematize the unity of the Union he promised in his Presidential campaign. But the connotations of elephant and party that paralleled the popular display of elephants Barnum dramatically pioneered grew as the costumed resumed for the Burmese White Barnum had added to his menagerie by 1884, amidst heated racial politics of Reconstruction, adopting the Burmese beast to provoke debates on the purity of racial descent and skin pigmentation in post-Civil War America, as they were confronted, processed and intensely debated outside southern states, rather decisively increased the adoption and attention to the elephant as a mascot of the Republican Party, as the “white elephant” Toung Taloung arrived in New York City as a fascinating new feature of Barnum’s public display.

The prized white elephant Barnum exhibited was a revered beast, whose purity of stock, evident in the pigmentation of its skin, he argued was more civilized and considerate elephant than the African greys standard in American circuses; the spectacle in Reconstruction was a symbol of racial purity, and the calculation of percentages of racial descent among Americans in the census. Nast adopted the white elephant to suggest the probity the Republican party would do well to adopt in 1880, to regain the White House–the “sacred elephant,” as the Burmese “white elephant” he had purchased was known, not a resident of forests, but a member of the royal court, serenaded and costumed with eastern luxuries. If the venerated white elephant, here shown in the sort of costume he wore in Barnum’s circus, offered a model of comportment Nast argued might lead back to the White House in 1880, the unconscious echo of the circus elephant in the new logo of 2020 seemed to suggest a pure red party would retain power. Is it any surprise that this circus animal was siezed on again and rehabilitated, in the three-ring circus of the Trump Presidency?

Thomas Nast, “the Sacred Elephant,” 1884

The new logo of an elephant rearing his trunk, and advancing, marked the “second coming” of Trump, and destined advance of a newly Trumpified party, although what new beast was slouching toward Washington, D.C. was hard to determine by the red- trunked elephant. Rising above the speaker’s podium as if leaping into space, sporting five stars that seemed to summon a sense of astrological destiny, the proud adoption of a new elephant seemed to suggest an abandon to the race-baiting oratory Trump reintroduced in American politics.

Rather than evoking probity, the elephant suggested the reborn party that rose from a geography of red states where it was now rooted. Cartoonists had recently cast the old guard of the Party as in fear of the President, but the 2020 Republican Convention seemed to remake a platform-free party proudly in an elephant of his own mold, in what would be perhaps his last hurrah before the Convention Committee in late August, as the nation was reverberating with the potent echoes of George Floyd’s killing by overzealous racist police. Trump, newly affirmed by his cognitive assessment, and energized by the demonization of Black Lives Matter, staged a complex affirmation of a unified party, largely rooted in an appeal to a party overwhelmingly white: few would have remembered how George Orwell as a Burmese policeman associated with conscription into the “dirty work of Empire” when, as an assistant superintendent of Imperial police, 1922-27, he felt conscripted into service of empire when tasked with shooting the venerated elephant with a shotgun. George Orwell struggled with wearing a “mask” of imperialist as he claimed to perpetrate the murder of the unruly disruptive elephant, sensing that where the “white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom he destroys.” But the image of tyranny and domination was one that was almost embraced in the Republican party in the prominence of white faces and speakers that it featured and the ideal of restoring order they proclaimed.

If George Orwell lamented being the target of local hatred to empire and his own disquiet with his role as imperial enforcer, Trump cultivated the image of an enforcer at the Republican Convention, accepting the endorsement of the national association of Police Organization for the “most pro-law enforcement president we ever had” as he affirmed that the “violence and bloodshed we are seeing” in the summer of 2020 was only “the direct result of refusing to allow law enforcement to protect our communities.” Trump had exploited support of the Customs and Border Patrol in 2016 to promise a 2,000 mile border wall, and he promoted an endorsement from the national police organization–a collection of 1,000 unions–by promising to hire more police before cries to curb police violence, and “give law enforcement, our police, back their power.” The endorsement responded to Trump’s promised to “actively prosecute” all who attacked law enforcement amidst racial tensions, thundering “I will ALWAYS back the men and women in blue, and never let you down. LAW AND ORDER WILL PREVAIL!”

The power with which he spoke, raising his right hand to make his point, echoed the upwardly raised trunk of the invigorated partisan symbol of Republicans, lifting its trunk as if to communicate its power.

President Donald Trump speaks at Republican National Committee convention, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Charlotte. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Was anyone aware of the racial connotations of purity by which the emblem of the elephant was claimed by Republicans in Reconstruction America? The preening insatiability of the red elephant communicated a sense of the eagerness of Republicans to map their candidate onto the body politic, a lumbering but advancing red behemoth, testifying to the electoral majority that the party would assemble in semaphore, in ways that the earlier tricolor icons of pachydermal stolidity had refused to capture as incarnations of a body politic. If the party’s stolidity seemed to convey a sense of order and conservatism in its earlier iterations, adding far more sobriety to an animal once figured by American cartoonists as a circus animal, from the time of the venerable Thomas Nast, master cartoonist of the late nineteenth century, the transmission of this partisan logo seemed to be less and less of a mascot of the party, than a symbol of purity. And if the elephant had become almost a glyph, robbed of semantic value–

–the unveiling of the rearing all-red elephant for a convention that was in a sense the kick-off of Trump 2020, a campaign that team Trump had been planning since 2017, seemed to recast the body politic as a unity of red states alone, without even pandering to the rest of the nation.

3. It is hard not to read the adoption of a new red elephant as party mascot as a unification not of the union–as Lincoln had intended and his party seems to have eagerly accepted–than the sufficiency of the unity of red states in the Trump Presidency, or Republican Party that was now stage-managed as Trump. The “red elephant” that was the descendent proclaimed and adopted descended from the “white elephant” of the 1880 campaign, but as the product of miscegenation of the new tribal currency of the “red states” as not only a base of the Republican Party, but a new identity as a “true” America which defined itself by its patriotic intensity, and their opposition to the representatives of “blue states,” and indeed the purity of Republican identity as a creed and dogma: if the prominence of anti-miscegenation laws in may states in the South long after the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation extended voting rights officially to African Americans–and were only removed long after the war’s end in Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, South Carolina and Alabama–the very construction of “racial purity” and its fetishization increased the popular attraction of a “white elephant,” and expectation a “white elephant” might adhere to a different metric of civility than its African grey counterpart, and be treated and exhibited in the circus as, by analogy, distinct by its “race.” Red states were invested in the Trump era as a different beast than the states defined as “blue,” to the extent that preposterous claims of electoral fraudulence were entertained in the red states not only as a way of retaining political power, but as Michigan, Georgia, and Arizona–perhaps especially that state that lay in proximity to the border and border wall–were seen as “Republican” territory and recognized as red.

As soon as the new logo was unveiled, it was difficult not to see the attention to this pure-red beast as a reminder of the sufficiency to hold together the unity of the “sea of red” or of red states that Trump had long gloated over as a confirmation of a long over-exaggerated scale of his political victory in 2016 as a “landslide” and a confirmation of the intensity of his relation to the nation that he argued he would protect. It was hard not to remember the intensity with the the Trump family had baited the news media and their base by images of a map of a “sea of red” emblazoned with the taunting challenge “Try to impeach this” as a rather vainglorious boast on the even of the first impeachment of President Donald Trump, and which had only intensified in the 2020 Campaign that was increasingly fought and waged in openly oppositional if not Manichaean terms of political dualism, and later cast as combat tot he death that might itself prefigure Civil War if Trump did not emerge as the victor. Never mind that the map distorted population distribution or that “blue” voters who had supported the Democratic candidate had, indeed, outnumbered those who voted “red” for Donald Trump. This retweeted graphic where Trump received the majority of votes was an emblem of collective unity for candidate Trump in 2020, that led to the use of collective nouns with abundance that seemed to shrink the distance between him and his followers, and elevate the nature of one color in openly tribal terms of political contestation, rather than government, and understood that redmap as a direct tie to the President Trump, rather than to a party or an ideology debated or articulated as a political platform. Indeed, Representatives and Senators in the Republican party were increasingly seen as beholden not to their constituents, or the rule of law, or Constitution but to the appeal Trump exercised over their constituents.

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County-by-County Presidential Vote, 2016

The fetishization of the electoral divide became a mantra and promise for the Trump’s candidacy, as what he saw as an electoral acclamation–even if by concealing his loss of the popular vote–became an affirmation of his political inevitability and identity, and preaching to the “base” that was identified by red states came to conceal the lack of anything like a political platform by 2020: the continuity of red made the political terrain seem something like a mirror–a direct presentation of the nation of which it was the imposing incarnation.

2016 Electoral Map, by County
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Filed under American Politics, Donald J. Trump, political geography, political iconography, Republican Convention