The emblem of the GOP has been rotated a few times in recent years, as the upward-pointing stars that dotted the back of the elephant emblem that had signified robustness of party unity since the post-Civil War era, as a pacific sort of beast, with four feet stolidly placed upon the ground—
–was altered, in an inexplicable way, circa 2000: the downshifted and inverted stars on the now right-facing elephant, prompted symbolic speculation on the possibly malevolent intent of what seemed secret society symbolism at odds with a party that had once prided straight talk.
We had never looked closely at the stars in this abstract logo that seems a sleek embodiment of the American flag, But perhaps the internet made us look more closely at photoshopped details, altering our eyes and suspicions in new ways, as minor stylistic alterations assumed significance. Online conspiracy theories about the stars’ downward rotation smelled a corruption of patriotism, or a cryptic allusion to a pentagrammic symbol of satanism, offensive to a Christian Right–or revealing devious intent–that led the rebranding of the Republican Party after the Clinton years to be scrutinized on an internet awash with rumors of the diabolic nature of the feared influence of the Sigil of Baphomet, trademark of the Church of Satan, merging of black arts and party politics–if not Neo-pagan messages squirreled into the GOP’s message by unknown Democratic operatives, or revealing the rise of a hidden semiotic system that preceded the cult of Q.
If the turning of the stars circa 2000 was tied to everything from satanism to Skull & Bones symbolism mirroring the ascendancy of George W. Bush in the party, the rebranding that followed Bush v. Gore seemed a sharp revision of the combativeness of the elephant, that had regained its tusks–
–as the rightward-advancing pachyderm in the newly trademarked logo was both more animatedly moving, as if the red-white-and-blue elephant was sufficiently capacious for the party, stars shifted or not.
The alteration of the elephant as an emblem of party understandably morphed online. But what genealogy of the elephant was engaged by the new rebranding of the Republican elephant, long an icon of Republican identity and independence, at the 2020 Republican convention, leaping into the air as a swoosh of tusked red? In an era that maps “so called Republicans” who refuse to repeal Obamacare over President Trump’s wishes, as promoted by Trump surrogates in 2016 to condemn all who doubted, the red-suited elephant matched red states’ increasing purity tests for party loyalty, and less the joyous icon of Wendell Wilkie. If Wilkie’s elephant–a memento for donors–was a joyous beast of the party unabashed of its middle-brow origins in a circus ring, extending its trunk in unbounded optimism, the red elephant is far less fun or ebullient.
1. The mutation of the elephant to a politics of triumphalism in the 2020 Republican convention had precedent. But it seemed to map the coherence of the party as an alternate body for the endangered body politic, where racial differences didn’t exist, but we were spectators of a show: was the adopting the animal an eery white-washing of race in America, taking a symbol of a large voting block to a symbol of strength, purifying the elephant of its African origins? While elephants were long associated with triumphalism, as far back as Hannibal, were elephant seemed conducive to promoting the vision of a “law and order” President as if he were crossing the Alps, riding a troop of elephants of Republican voters not to impose peace and harmony on Gaul, but channel fascist talking points on the need for more law and order in American society? Bedecked with five oddly placed stars that recall its circus heritage the advancing elephant unveiled in Charlotte, NC suggested a march of red states across the electoral map, more than a show for partisan unity.
Despite its symbolic degeneration of the elephant as a symbol of party If coded fears underlay and racialized policing were implicit in the “law and order” persona that the President invoked, the origins of the elephant in the cartooning of Thomas Nast in 1870s. The image of the Republican Party that Nast devised in 1884, however, on the front page of Harper’s Weekly, “The Sacred Elephant,” suggested the stakes of leadership of the party to which Nast belonged at what seemed a juncture of its identity. The cartoon referenced the elephant as an image of probity in the same year that the albino elephant Toung Taloung arrived in New York with much promotion from P.T. Barnum, years after the African elephant Jumbo had become the centerpiece of his show,, by bringing the elephant that was long associated with the remote Kingdom of Siam–
–to promote a variety of elephant rumored more civilized and sacred than the African species, and even enjoy more privileges at the Siamese court. While the arrival was not to be compared with the feats of strength of the African elephant Barnum had earlier shipped stateside, the agents who procured the elephant helped introduce the foreign beast to a party icon as it notoriously provoked public debates over its “so-called whiteness” and Barnum argued an inescapably racialized descriptor might be judiciously applied to the elephant’s whiteness, although they should visit the show themselves to judge, practiced as he was in exploiting race in spectacles that promoted pseudo-scientific justifications of racial hierarchy to entertain audiences by confirming their superiority–even if the skin of the elephant was long seen as grey.
The Sacred Elephant Phineas Barnum imported from Siam gain increased attraction during sunset of Reconstruction as an icon: as questions of race and the extensive of rights to former slaves were debated in America, audiences came to question the whiteness of the “white elephant” whose “whiteness” was conflated with its sacrality or sacred nature. Barnum affirmed the sacred nature of the beast argued to be venerated in Burma’s court to promote the arrival of a white elephant his agent had bought from King Thibau Min of Burma, Toung Taloung, who was in transit via the Suez Canal to New York. If Nast loved depicting animals, his latest anthropomorphic cartoon shifted the circus animal to a costumed elephant embodying principles sacred to the party, in ways that courted anxieties over racial identity that the circus impresario stirred speculation of the newest elephant he had bought–courting public fascination with the ostensibly edifying spectacle of a “a technical white elephant” by acknowledging “there is no such thing as a really pure white elephant” but encouraging audiences to judge its purity. Already illustrated in Scientific American in March, 1884, Barnum’s new elephant was shown with an attendant of color, tusks intact, as an object of curiosity for a society that was redrawing its own color line.
Nast tapped Barnum’s promoting skills in using a Sacred Elephant as a symbol of party purity. Barnum had peaked curiosity in white elephants, venerated in Siam, stoked wide speculation about its relation to the “black” African variety, inviting white circus audiences to judge Toung Taloung’s whiteness for themselves in a spectacle of popularized racial sciences. For by judging racial differences and the depth of epidermal identity, Barnum invited pubic audiences compare differences between the one venerated in Siam and a member of court society in Siam and its African cousin as a scientific difference echoing skin color, even displaying elephants side by side as a responsible showman, for audiences to classify by themselves. And the appeal that he made to audiences was in the air by the time that Nast used a powerful image of the Sacred Elephant to represent the Republican Party in 1884, when the “separate but equal” policies encouraged by the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws were voided in public space, sanctioning segregation as well as the abridgment of constitutional rights by October 1883, the very year that P.T. Barnum brought a white elephant to display to a paying public so that it might view its difference from the African species.
The conceit that there were two races of elephants was a curious extension of the color line that justified the restriction of civil rights in Reconstruction to the animal kingdom, and world. The voiding of civil rights believed guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment led to a century of institutions of race-based segregation, as the abolition of slavery was re-interpreted removed, as by Occam’s razor. In limiting the prohibition of enslavement from plans to segregate “Inns, public conveyances and places of public amusement,” including circuses of the sort where Toung Taloung was displayed, as the color lines that existed in times of slavery were perpetuated. As in a symbolic rehearsal of the issues at stake in questioning what race-based separations constituted a “badge of slavery or involuntary servitude . . . but at most, infringes rights,” the circumscribed liberties and Jim Crow laws rejected the belief that it was the role of a government “to mete out equal and exact justice to all, of whatever nativity, race, color, or persuasion,” that tabled civil rights in ways currently roiling the nation–a posture of legalizing segregated spaces that perhaps requires reparation, and has deep resonance. For the result was a deep remapping of public spaces across the country, which has been poorly registered in maps, in which Barnum’s choice to promote the exhibition of a Sacred Elephant as a central feature of his show came to occupy something close to center stage if it was only a circus show.
When Nash held up Barnum’s white elephant as an image of the probity of his Party, he compared the Republican’s purity to the albino elephant’s whiteness in ways that helped establish the four-legged beast as an icon of the Party. P.T. Barnum’s probity would be under public attack, in the course of 1884, as both historian Sarah Amato has argued and literary scholar Ross Bullen examined, using the characterization of the albino Toung Taloung as “white” to oppose the beast to African elephants in circus shows; the sacred nature of the pacific elephant was distinguished by its Siamese costume to highlighted its distinct skin coloration for crowds. In the wake of mixed reviews the animal shipped from Burma at great expense through the newly opened Suez Canal was exhibited in London’s Zoological Gardens, generated debate, Bullen argued, about its “whiteness” that Barnum used o attract as large an audience as possible in New York, affirming the “true whiteness” of the elephant.
The accuracy of using an adjective that during Reconstruction evoked race turned on Barnum’s willing mistranslation of the “chang puedk,” an it was known, as if he were a “racial imposter,” as the mottled flesh of the elephant Pearl of Siam led Barnum to fend off accusations of fraud and charges of deception. The exhibition of Toung Taloung intersected with fears of racial identity and authenticity in Reconstruction by provoking questions of race and truth that were struggled with daily, as the population was parsed in the official census-takers by percentages of African blood. Whereas many dismissed Barnum for the showmanship of announcing arrival of a “White Elephant” that had been briefly exhibited before being shipped to New York was not as “white” as current racial categories would imply. Were the deep anxieties about the legalization of racial barriers across much of the nation not enacted in what Bullen called the “Elephant Wars” of circus entrepreneurs? it is striking how the monochrome icon that debuted in recent years exploited similar anxieties about race and racial difference.
Barnum promoted the eagerness of audiences to judge for themselves to generate spin for the show that would be the next pachydermal act after “his mammoth predecessor” Jumbo had jointed his troupe. Front page articles heralded the arrival of the “Sacred Beast” for “the Great Moral Show” had led Barnum to rush anxiously from his inner office in Madison Square Garden to examine the elephant in New York harbor, shouting “Call a Cab! Notify the President!” as if this were an affair of state to se the certified sacred elephant “who has never shown the slightest indications of the savageness which is a characteristic of most elephants,” named “Gem of the Sky,” and not only “extremely gentle and docile” but bearing a signed certificate to be a sacred beast from the Second Minister of Royal Elephants that had been presented to the agents “of the Great Wealthy Man Barnum of America”: beside news of a contentious Republican convention, the front page headline “The Sacred Beast Here!” was accompanied by an attestation from Frank Vincent, the former Consul to Siam, that Gem of the Sky was “one of the finest specimens of the sacred white elephant I ever saw in my life.” In India, Vincent, who had a second career as an authority on the beast, had earlier attested in Harper’s, a state’s power grew the more sacred white elephants it owned, the sacred white Barnum imported may have provoked some anxiety as the promoter hadn’t yet seen the beast’s hue.
The “Sacred Elephant” Nast included prominently on the March 1884 predated ToungTaloung’s arrival on the cover of Harper’s Weekly. But it was already an image of the validity of the showman Barnum, who had shipped it via the newly opened Suez Canal to London with fanfare, and it was now on its way: the icon partisan probity appeared some three weeks before the anticipated arrival, but three months after Harper’s ran an article by the author of The Land of the White Elephant, promoting the sacred white elephant “we are told to expect in May” as not white per se, but of a “delicate shade which distinguishes the nose of a white horse” and “with a head the color of cochineal”–even if you would not know it from the cover of Vincent’s own 1882 illustrated book ignited interest.
And when the cartoonist included himself as presenting the sacred four-footed beast above the legend This animal is sure to win, if it is only kept pure and clean, and has not too heavy a load to carry,” the question of the truly sacred nature of the animal to party members affirmed its purity more than its whiteness: if the elephant, as yet unseen by Americans, was rumored to possibly be not pure white, the purity of the elephant was more at issue than its intersection with a racial phenotype, but the issue was probably unavoidably lying just beneath the surface: while religion was separate from politics, perhaps the veneration of white elephants by Buddhists was foreign enough to not be taboo: if the white elephants were guardians of Buddha, and became an emblem of state service and bravery in Thailand, was not the circus animal an apt icon of political probity? Perhaps the costumed circus animal, unlike previous anthropomorphic emblems for political parties, foregrounded the sacred tenets, emblazoned on the belt that dignified the beast as precepts to direct the Party to the gated White House by winning the popular vote.
Nast costumed the elephant to question who might lead the Republican Party to the White House in 1884 with fit decorum before the nation. By featured the royally costumed elephant as sacred as the venerated white quadruped arriving in Barnum’s circus, readers would see its costume as befitting probity of the party.
The “father of American cartooning” himself channeled Barnum as a showman displaying the Sacred Elephant to the public as a path the right rider might guide to the White House, and maybe that he might be able to promote in newspapers by his pen. The party’s proper costuming in a fit platform would accord reverence comparable to that Siam’s court and Buddhists population accord the white elephant Barnum had recently promoted in the press. Nast displays the zoological curiosity as the best public face for the Party to raise should it wish to be led to victory.
The icon of the elephant was immersed in print culture. When the quadruped was adopted as an icon of the Grand Old Party in the 1880s it was less as the the result of Nast’s Aesop’s fables iconography: while he had shown a raging elephant in Third Term Panic (1874), in which the overweening cries of Democratic donkey, dressed in a lion’s skin, sent an elephant charging over cliff at the idea President Grant sought a third term, or a sleeping elephant lying at a dour Lincoln’s feet before 1880, Nast caricatured collective party divisions by non-human animals: but the quadruped transcended Aesop’s animals, by embodying the very moral precepts sacred precepts to the party. Posed as Barnum, Nast promoted the promise to elevate the party’s honesty, as if vouchsafing for the whiteness of the quadruped his circus would publicly exhibit!
The all-American circus animal became a stand-bearer and proud partisan emblem by championing its almost salvific role in public politics: as the circus man transformed the pachyderm distanced from the African elephants Barnum exhibited, such as Jumbo, Barnum’s newly displayed Sacred Elephant suggested a Party that subsumed race, to be ridden by a nominee revering civic values of Civil Service Reform, more than seeking profit from political office or personal gain, to ride to the White House without demeaning the decorum of a Party in danger of not honoring the sacred compact between it and its ideals. The elephant elevated party politics from the drama of corruption sought to dignify party principles beyond intraparty dispute.
But displaying a sacred elephant as an icon of party due veneration after P.T. Barnum’s performances exploited anxieties of racial difference: without orchestrating racial stereotypes as crudely as Barnum, Nast registered horror at violence visited on slaves in the south, without investing agency as a cartoonist in African American subjects, casting the deliverance brought by emancipation in paternalist terms as an end to southern humiliation that could be shared by the emancipated family: as if an act of emancipation by constitutional amendment liberated all racial inequalities and lifted race lines by promising well-paying jobs. The divide between races, so strong in nineteenth and twentieth century culture, could not be lifted, even if Nast believed–and hoped–that it might be. Indeed, the reduction of the meaning of “emancipation” that the institution of “Separate but Equal” allowed continued a racial polarity that divided America.
The cartoonist seized on the pure-white elephant to embody Republican standards. But he bequeathed a troubled if telling icon of political purity, that the current Republican candidate for President spooky channeled, almost to the point of channeling the elephant, as he recently addressed the Republican Convention before the current “red elephant” in Charlotte, NC–as if promising he would do his best to return to former status quo.
The solemnity of address quickly provoked a spoof parody website of a party “building a country just for us,” by announcing that the party “always stood for white wealth and power,” but “just couldn’t say so out loud” before: the elephant lacked stars, but elevated “Q”‘s cryptic pronouncements to a level of dignity as had Trump’s presidency–and the entrance of the party into a new level of circus entertainment of big-tent conspiracy theories that have leaked off-line to present Trump as an embattled hero of the Truth.
2. The Aesopian menagerie of fabled beasts was also embedded in clear constructions of categories of race and nineteenth-century racial sciences, in which the Sacred Elephant was to be opposed to its African cousin, much as Barnum ad opposed Toung Taloung, the Burmese elephant he acquired with the certificate of Siam’s Elephant Keeper, from the variety of Arican elephants he had exhibited in the past: the history of the elephant as a radicalized emblem of party is often forgotten in the amnesiac Republican Party, whose proponents cast Dixiecrats as the most racist of governors or see Andrew Jackson as a bulwark against Civil War. Yet the white soul of the party that Nast presented to the public embodied purity, principled advocacy of a civil service, and proud American-ness in a white alternative to the elephant that most circuses displayed.
Nast adopted the middle-brow entertainment of the sacred elephant as a sort of tease, and an invitation from a newspaperman cartoonist–indeed, a viral editorialist!–inviting readers to take the high road, and enter elite culture, a promise that all middle-brow entertainments offer. Nast vouchsafed that the principle of party honesty shifted from the circus arena to a political arena in which his party might save face.
The invitation to find an able mount for the dignified white would hardly be distinguished by its sagging skin, but restore a needed dignity in a time of party corruption, promising a degree of purity eplaced by the current use of a pure-red elephant to suggest a similar sort of purity of party, if of one of openly less principled nature? Barnum had gone to great lengths to emphasize the sacred nature of the quadruped he had bought at Siam’s royal court, where elephants were fed select diets, serenaded to sleep by musicians, and entered the human world as links to the divine. Nast–a life-long Republican–had penned the raging elephant as the Republican Vote in 1874, in ways often cited as an origin of the mascot that would symbolize a large party in American political iconography as a beast. The choice of the sacred animal as able to advance to the White House should the party “keep the animal pure and clean,” consolidated the anthropomorphic image as a symbol of the party with deeper valence than many histories of cartooning or party mascots admit: the Sacred Elephant Barnum had bought and was on its way to be exhibited in the United States when Nast drew it was not only a piece of Americana, but a quadruped whose sacred character the American public would be asked to confirm.
Nast invested the Sacred Elephant with figural significance to the destiny of the Party’s value, dignifying the animal he used to depict the Republican Vote as a standard-bearer of the party’s purity especially compelling for his party to identify with and adopt in future years. The whiteness of the Sacred Elephant, even if it was qualified, would suggest not only the purity and cleanliness that Nast evoked, but the purity of its race. For the Sacred Elephant was also soon to be know for eliding race–a not so fine point implicit in the reverence it was accorded, unlike its African cousin, who seems depicted in the 1874 cartoon. Barnum was prompt to draw the distinction in displaying the new sort of elephant he would be displaying in his spectacle as a different variety of beast, much as Vincent had described the garlanding, serenading, and feeding of sacred elephants in Siam by their keepers. The diademed creature in exotic costumed was public-facing–and, like a circus animal, on view for open scrutiny and examination for evidence of its probity, unlike the deceptions and cunning showmanship P.T. Barnum generated interest in the sacred elephant Toung Taloung to the public–in ways Vincent had begun. Barnum met doubts about his own fraudulent display of Toung Taloung as white on his competitor as the elephant “Light of Asia” that revealed a uniform white on its body as if to make due on the adjective–
–depended on a chemical bleaching, a practice that Barnum’s competitor Forepaugh began with the smaller elephant obtained, pre-bleached, from a London salesman as a competitor to Toung Taloung, a process that had continued as long as he lived and was publicly exhibited as an alternate draw to Barnum’s show. (Forepaugh’s boast of the “Largest Show in the World” countered the menagerie of the “Greatest show on Earth.”)
But rather than being the true article, bleaching or painting of this small elephant killed the beast in November, 1884–Vincent or other “experts” had presumably already questioned, perhaps with Barnum’s own encouragement, by questioning “the genuineness of this elephant” as white: Barnum noted that the toes of the elephant of his Forepaugh were noted by experts to be in fact “very often found in elephants of the ordinary kind, without any pretension whatever to ‘white blood,’” even if photographs the above to document its whiteness suggested otherwise. Barnum contrasted the benefits of his own allegedly edifying popular show as an exhibit of the differences among elephants from different habitats and different “races” as if mediating the globe: he mediated racial differences as rooted in science, the display of a Sacred Elephant appeal to the authentic self-presentation of the party to an electorate. While Barnum & Bailey did not adopt an actual emblem of a globe until after World War I, or 1925, that made good on the promise to be the “Greatest Show on Earth,” it provided a quintessential middle-brow entertainment, long focussed on elephants, including Jumbo, presented as the largest Giant Elephant in the world–an African Bush elephant, born in Sudan, and first exhibited in the Garden des Plantes–that compared the prized elephant Barnum enterprisingly purchased from the London Zoo, to the skeleton of a mastodon unearthed in the American West–
–a spectacle continued, after Jumbo’s tragic death in 1885, when he was killed by a train, to the exhibit of Jumbo’s taxidermies skin and skeleton–
–in a theatrical display of popular science of edifying aims, much as the Sacred Elephant polarized racial sciences in ways that its “purity” raised fears of miscegenation that underlay a dogma of barriers of intermixing that barriers in public space, education, and social promotion were supposed to maintain, by being openly mapped onto racial differences.
The plans for Barnum to introduce a White Elephant into the menagerie that he used to entertain audiences rested on a significant financial investment, but occurred at a time when race lines were defined across American states, as the repeal of
3. The attraction of Toung Taloung rested in how the genuine” nature of the beast’s famed whiteness was deployed. The question of racial identity and purity was engaged in Barnum’s show as Toung Taloung was opposed to the African elephants that Barnum usually featured, asking the crowd to judge them to provoke racial anxieties in its evocation of a proud beast, in ways that give new meaning to the “Greatest Show on Earth” in the years after he had merged in 1881 with the Great International Circus run by his competitor, Bailey. The elephant authority Vincent had boasted the sacred elephant was accompanied by a white monkey, with “fur as white as the whitest rabbit,” underling an analogy to racial segregation migrated to the animal kingdom with striking fluidity. It would circulate as smoothly to the circus stage. Toung would be contrasted as a mulatto, to the “decidedly dark elephant,” beside the African elephant, creating the judgement of the racial identity of the mulatto animating the contemporary play, The Octoroon. Nast would know the play, premiered in 1858 to acclaim, the Sacred Elephant he depicted seemed in his mind an image of the purity of the party–although the actual White Elephant had a quite mottled hide.
Even when conceding the lack of a pure parallel to racial difference, Barnum made sure racialized categories were prominent for audiences who were predominantly white. Barnum exploited Vincent’s claim Toung Taloung was “as white as God makes ’em,” without artifice, to increased the fascination of crowds in an elephant only superficially whiter in its “light complexion;” he openly engaged his white audiences’ obsessions with racial parentage by rehearsing racial categories Vincent had staked out, comparing the White Elephant to the whiteness “of a negro’s palm,” deploying racial difference to attract audiences to a show that often amused audiences by deploying racial differences and and hierarchies, even when rehearsed with members of the animal kingdom.
While Nast did not echo performance of global racial differences, his cartoon unavoidably addressed race within the United States by the attraction of the purity of a white elephant as a sign of honesty. The interactive nature of a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t debate on race that Vincent and Barnum began caught on long after Nast’s cartoon of the Sacred Elephant, but did it underlay the Barnum’s competitors did charge him with not keeping his word on “whiteness” nonetheless, that heightened anxieties of racial differences to eat into the audience for his popular show, displaying what was announced as “scientifically verified” if probably painted or dyed whiter elephant, claimed more genuine than the “rank fraud” Barnum bought. Circus-Master Adam Forepaugh, who exhibited elephants in a competing show, featured cycling elephants, pyramidal formations of elephants, elephants in military drill and “elephant seances”–as well as a giant elephant, in his show. Forepaugh expanded a show of twenty-five by “Light of Asia,” a small elephant named Tiny, bought from an overseas English dealer painted with over fifty coats of premium paint, to compete with Barnum by its greater purity of its brilliant painted, bleached or dyed hide.
In response, Barnum fell back on his usually trick of comparison among elephants: he cleverly dyed one of his own elephants for exhibition beside Toung Taloung, by a process celebrated in the New York Times for the ingenious skill of skin coloring for reasons far beyond the circus ring. Barnum’s process of chemical whitening was, the newspaper judged, “of less interest to elephants than another class of our populations,” indeed, mapping the elephant to categories of race among Americans: Barnum’s process would not blacks’ appearance identical with “that of the white man,” echoing the qualifications Barnum made about Toung Taloung, but if might transform the “cleansed Ethiopian . . . of a dazzling whiteness, rivaling snow,” in nothing less than “a complete answer to Job’s question of whitening the Ethiopian” readily “applied without the slightest injury to colored people” to create a new race of “ex-colored men.” (The breadth of discussion generated by the elephant ran from how Terre Haute’s Saturday Evening Mail jested that after the arrival in town of “BARHUM’S new white elephant named Toung Toulong [sic.] the papers are already teeming with jokes about the man who asked his wife why she resembled the white elephant, etc,” suggesting how widely discussion
In an age when race defined lines of exclusion, and many whitened their skin so that they might pass, to navigate racial barriers, display of the fraudulent white elephant garnered attention as a reflection on racial ideologies. The elephant Barnum exhibited came to be known as “The Fraud” enacted the dominant acceptance of a “natural” racial hierarchy in a circus show. When Barnum charged Forepaugh of disguising his own elephants with dishonesty, he provoked latent fears of disrupting a race-based hierarchy by a disguise; the Sacred Elephant was imbricated in ideologies of race long before Barnum brought the beast through the Suez Canal to exhibit, but he magnified these connections by staging a contest of whiteness as theater. Nast did not openly gesture to the emotional intensity of intersections of the white elephant with racial sciences when using the middle-brow entertainment of a sacred elephant to dignify his own party, but in dignifying his party by a sacred elephant whose exhibition was impossible to separate from race to foreground the purity of its values, as much as tying the elephant’s prodigious memory to conservatism, the polysemy of the animal in the circus-stage performed qualities of the elephant seemed perfect for the festive atmosphere of a political convention for much of the twentieth century.
4. The red elephant prominently displayed at the Republican Convention in 2020 was also, of course, an invitation to a membership of a club, and communicated a sense of those in the know. It of course communicated purity and authenticity in its red, quite unlike the probity of the individual candidate entitled to ride the beast as nominee, and the true hue of the candidate able to mount that rearing beast, who had regained tusks since 2000, if it managed to seem far more faniciful, and less of a streamlined not to the past. The party emblem recuperated the almost conscious elision of questions of race, only just below the surface of the circus beast in 1884, when the Sacred Elephant was mapped to its sacred status in Siamese society, now mapped onto red states that less valued social justice or deep inequities of education, voting rights, or health care, and seemed an apt icon to pander to fear.
The purity of the new mascot of the party seemed arbitrary, but was invested with meanings that, perhaps because its color was now pure red, bridged surface and depth as cunningly and effectively as the Sacred Elephant P.T. Barnum had brought to America to display.
To be sure, fascination of the elephants in nineteenth century spectacles grew as a spectacle of the exotic, of inherent drama and a skill of stagecraft: a full twelve elephants appeared during the final chorus for the 1871 premier of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida in Cairo’s opera house, written soon after the opening of the Suez Canal, in a staging that served in part to promote Cairo as more part of Europe than Africa, if not the new canal. But the skin color of the Siamese elephant, if believed sacred in Siam, won attention as the authenticity its whiteness, as in the spectacle of Aida, as much as an appropriation of an exotic other, bridging geographic and cultural distances by showmanship, the African animal, often cast as an object of imperial possession, was countered by the figure of the purity of the White Elephant, before its sign of excess was seen as a boondoggle which escaped classification. Toung Taloung became an emblem of purity in advertisements for discriminating goods as tea or soap.
The identification of the circus with elephants continued–after the fall of 1885, when a marquis elephant in Phineas Barnum’s show, Jumbo, was tragically killed in a train collision in 1885, that led to display of the animal’s taxidermies hide and tours featuring the central place of the size of Jumbo’s skeleton in The Greatest Show on Earth. Telling comparison of the “white elephant” to a mulatto fed anxieties of race in an age when the U.S. Census classified citizens by fractions of “negro blood” by tabulating citizens as quadroons or octoroons.
The circus elephant still a standard bearer of the party in 1904, in a cartoon of a “Sacred Elephant” wearing a simliar costume to Barnum’s White Elephant, now even more festooned with platforms not of Reform but instead slogans– “World Power and Empire”, “Rooseveltism”, “High Protection”, “Prosperity”, “Open Door Treasury”, “”Good Crops”, and even “Increased Population” and “Fine Weather.”
This time, its display invited J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller to empty buckets of coins, after Titian’s Danae, as parading the elephant became a new icon of GOP finances, more than an ideal of principles, that also channeled race, as if the prosperity of the GOP would march forward imperially, felled by donations, despite vast inequalities of racial identity.
Nast selected the image of a Sacred Elephant to embody party principles before Barnum’s display of the Sacred Elephant led to accusations of deception. “The Sacred Elephant” inspired a partisan icon as a path to migrate to the White House, and of taking a stand on principles.
Speculation what had led Nast to select an elephant as an icon from other four-legged beasts, as in a popular 1874 cartoon suggesting the Republican vote strong but apt to be needlessly frightened as a braying “Democratic” donkey stoked fears of Grant trying to claim a third Presidential term, or Nast’s 1879 Harper’s cartoon that the Democratic donkey may be retrained from jumping off a cliff of financial ruin, to beat an overly “sluggish” Republican Party slept at the gate of the White House, as a dour Lincoln stood vigil over the slumbering beast–
–that seemed unlikely to rise himself to reach the White House.
Neither of these images of an elephant would be seized on by party faithful, even if Nast was a proud Republican. The anthropomorphic cartoons were less memorable; the “Sacred Elephant” directed public judgement to the party’s purity and authenticity as central to its resurgence openly recalling Bartnum’s promotion of the authenticity of his White Elephant, in showing Nast protesting its purity: the party’s adherence to probity in ways would outlive Barnum’s beast. What has been cast by Ross as an “elephant war” not only mimicked the categories of race that were insufficiently addressed even by the conclusion of the Civil War during the period of Reconstruction, when the deliverance of African American households Nast had celebrated in 1868 as promising home ownership, education, literacy, and paying jobs, were not so evident as having been so transformative.
The deliverance for which Nast hoped did not come–nor was an image of Lincoln placed above the hearths of the harmonious African American families he imagined. And the party that Nash represented in the elephant indeed seems to acknowledge the deep-lying resonance of color lines. For was not the whiteness of the elephant only tacit in Nast’s cartoon? If the “Sacred Elephant” by recalling how Barnum engaged doubts of its authenticity to assert the party’s probity, the discourse about race was so tied to the display of the elephant–contrasted to the African elephant’s blackness–exhibition of Toung Taloung seemed destine to trigger as the degrees of whiteness transposed the pseudo-science of race to showmanship. But before the exhibition and tour of the nation, the Sacred Elephant became a sign of authenticity for the Republican Party.
Nast adhered to the party’s probity of the party as he gestured to the probity of demonstration–as debates on falsification of whiteness in the placards for “Light of Asia” elephant claimed its whiteness was “proved by the highest scientific authority” in ways that recall the racial sciences, and Barnum displayed a painted elephant beside the Burmese albino. For Barnum’s promotion of a “white” elephant cunningly mobilized arguments about race, Sarah Amato has shown, in an advertising campaign that openly mobilized arguments about race and racial theories even more openly than the 2020 convention. The mistranslation of the epidermal descriptor of the elephant’s hide mobilized the attribute of color unable to be seen outside racial theories: Barnum cunningly used the translation of a term for albino elephant, “chang pheuak,” as “white,” pandering to widespread anxieties of race and “whiteness” among white audiences he invited to judge the elephants’ difference at first hand. The Thai term ‘chaang samkhan’ is “auspicious elephant,” removed from a color hierarchy, but was also translated as ‘white’–as “chang pheuak.” ‘albino elephant’–since its very auspiciousness grants its legal possession to the reigning monarch. In a spectacle alleging it offered an educational experience to a popular crowd about the thorny subject of spectators, and had raised the question of what “right” the elephant Toung Taloung had to be called “white” Barnum “pandered to sentiments of white solidarity” as display of his albino body “became anthropomorphized” as evidence of universal categories of racial difference in an allegedly scientific display of skin pigmentation to a broad paying public, perhaps invoking fascination with the attribution of whiteness as their own category to a beast.
4. Thomas Nast’s cartoon did precede by some months the arrival of the circus in town, but asked that the truly sacred nature of Republican probity not be sacrificed in his cartoon of the “Sacred Elephant” that Vincent had already popularly described for the same periodical. His use of the elephant as the proper coinage for the Republican Party suggested that the party had its own stock and pedigree. The current logo of the Republican Convention bears no platform, and is too sleek to do so, and only bears five stars, in somewhat cryptic fashion, as if it were designed to be interpreted as bearing whatever its viewer wanted to see. The display of its pure redness as a monochrome mascot staked claims about purity and authenticity, as well as suppressing other debates about the role of civic values in our polity in its championing of its inherent high-quality candidate.
As if to one-up the three stars that distinguished the Republican elephant in the past, the five stars–allegedly to convey the Five-Star Experience in Charlotte, North Carolina–offered a performative triumphalism best described as circus-like, with intentinoally indeterminate meaning. The meaning of the rebranding of the party was not a Skull & Bones sort of symbolism, but nostalgically recalled the rearing elephant of a circus, its five stars suggested a costume without need of a platform. It surely went beyond the notion of a big-tent party, at a convention nominating a candidate who deviously disguised claims of reform with promoting his own financial interests.
The promotion of purity of this party elephant as the representative of red states alone seems to have encouraged its abandonment of blue from its body, its energy symbolically boosted by the addition fo two stars. While Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey ceased displaying circus elephants in 2015, after continued protests of animal rights’ activists and deaths of elephants in captivity what was deemed “pretty heavy-handed” physical discipline and [accomapnying] strain” in such traveling shows, there may be a nostalgic promise of restoring the performing elephant, a Barnum & Bailey icon of 133 years, from when Barnum brought Jumbo in the United States as part of his show in 1882. Rising consensus against captured elephants in shows led the elephants to be retired, Barnum must have hoped the attraction of a “white elephant” in 1884 generated debates about whiteness, the elephant logo unveiled at the 2020 Republican Convention suggested the ideological purity of the party that anointed Donald Trump’s candidacy. The sleek, streamlined, and almost even slender elephant that raised its trunk above speakers, while absent from the western zodiac, seemed a signal of sorts, almost able to be interpreted as an auspicious astrological augur of the crudest sort, if not just tracing a double-v as a premature claim of victory: the exultation in redness seems an ascension to an empyrean, or claim to victory.
The claim of victory might displace fears of race and racial violence that barely simmered beneath how nominating speakers, who conjured specters of the danger of “thugs” who staged social justice protests and antifa anarchists in thinly disguise terms. Trump gestured tacitly to purity of whiteness in the 2020 Republican Convention in multiple occasions in the convention that reintroduced a rearing elephant as a party logo, the elephant of pure and entire redness an apparent icon of probity against fears of coming violence evoked by speeches. It raises a bit of a pressing question: was Trump indeed acknowledging he aspired only to be President of only red states? One suspects so. In a convention marked by silence about the failure to contain the coronavirus, perhaps the largest elephant in the room, although there were several, the forward march of the Party seemed to silence any actual national events.
5. The Convention 2020 sometimes seemed to re-launch of the internet meme of a Red Elephant Party, as if a misbegotten exercise in macho emulating the Bull Moose Party, transcending and subsuming partisan terms in promoting the personal–with plenty of merchandise–replacing the Party or an idea of a platform with the personal ties to the candidate, promoted as an elephant, in highly dubious sites as Conservative News and Views, that imagine the President akin to a Messiah, celebrating his appointment of “rock-ribbed conservative justices” and his “annihilating defeat of Hillary Clinton” contrasted his authenticity to the overvaluation of “Gran Poobahs of DC” by “virtue of their educations [and] fancy credentials,” in 2018, determined to find confirmation of false charges of “alleged collusion” of the Trump campaign with Russian operatives.
Trump was shown mounted a red elephant, far from the White House gates, at work corralling votes for midterms that would disappoint and fluster him, on a boardwalk that might mark the course of a Border Wall.
Was the ideal of a pure-red elephant even a possibility in the Cold War, or was it the ill-begotten consequence of a map? This was as if Trump rode a Red Elephant into the Convention, in place of a Party Platform, a political organization promoting national security, nationalism, and defining patriotism as getting behind President Trump–and a contingent to which the logo of the 202 convention seemed to wink. The triumphal elephant migrated from the dark recesses of the internet to an improbable icon of the Convention, a celebration of all things Trump, without a platform, but pedaling insinuations of the threat of socialism, loss of an American way of life, around the carnivalesque circus-like coloration of the Red Elephant’s monochrome hue, as symbol of purity beyond party, and ascendance of a Red Elephant over party.
In the course of the mediated convention, a strong of endorsements that preposterously cast the nominee cast his role as pacifying a nation riven by division, as if enemy redoubts of cities were the targets for an ongoing war of attrition, promoted a vision seeing social protest as disruptions creating a cancer of insecurity only Trump could excise from the body politic; a political mascot of the party seemed to be rearing with newfound triumphalism in Charlotte, NC, as the elephant embodied, far beyond the icons of rearing elephants Republican nominee Wendell Wilkie used as icons of aspirationalism, became an icon of triumph; the famous circus animal befit a candidate who, as David Corn put it, approaches the presidency as performance art more than policy–
–although reclaiming performing elephant as akin to a zodiac sign in the sky, cast its capaciousness as capable to transcend the divisions in a body politic. The party has become the purveyor-in-chief of a body politic that was ostensibly imperiled by drug-dealers and sex traffickers crossing the border; socialists who sought to take away property and school choice; and un-American propaganda of systemic racism of the most un-American sort, that perpetuates “a sickness that cannot be allowed to continue.” Perhaps COVID-19 was the “elephant in the room,” glossed over by President Trump as an “amazing success,” moving away from any examination of its actual consequences deferred because “it is what it is.“
The elephant is a classic middle-brow performance of the exotic. But it is hard to say whether the robust emblem of the RNC can hold off the nation’s fears as a bulwark against the levels of disorder Trump evoked. By casting the social justice protests against police violence of the summer as a form of “domestic terror” disrupting rights to property and run by “thugs,” social harmony seemed an elusive vision–activism was itself “rigged,” a scheme perpetuate by snarky socialists seeking to disrupt a status quo. The locked trunks of actual elephants at the 2014 Republican National Committee Site Selection meeting in Dallas suggested a lock-step progression, rehabilitating the All-American circus animal as a celebration, whose cranial capacity and the folds in its cerebral cortex–twice the mass of humans–that enabled navigational skills the nomadic animals developed to navigate expansive routes in ways that had less to do with memory than spectacle.
The stars across the pachyderm’s hide as if on a celestial firmament suggest the ascension of the candidate as the leader of a Free World in post-Cold War red, advancing as the nation’s body politic fell to pieces–and few blacks were in the audience, or among the delegates, and a small proportion of the speakers who endorsed the candidate.
The rearing elephant was so omnipresent as a brand in the spectacularity of the staged convention to be a planned part of visual messaging to raise the nation’s sagging spirits in the most choreographed of conventions, as if the one-time dignity of the old elephant was in need of rehabilitation. Was the racial identity of the elephant, reaching back to an icon of American showmanship, raised again in the affirmation a new icon for the party, lifting spirits of the faithful even as escalating infection rates of COVID-19 raised questions of the future of public health and public safety? It was hard to deny the extent to which our lives have been changed by the coronavirus, which seems to have created a new chronology even able to punctuate or truncate the Trump presidency, but the blanket denial of any change in welfare–the rising fatalities the result of what “is what it is” and is increasingly the largest elephant in the room.
6. The rearing red elephant unveiled at the scaled back Republican convention of 2020 was By 2020, the rising of the feet of the elephant that seems to be the symbol of the new GOP seems, in contrast, a figure that embraces intentional hyperbole–as if in an attempt to force the spirits of the nation upward, from the threat of a coronavirus that we had too long distanced was daily manifested in increased infection rates. Although convention participants wore ‘smart badges” that were Bluetooth-enabled to preserve records of their proximity to another to enable contact tracing lest anyone subsequently develop symptoms of COVID-19, no masks were worn. If the badges raise questions as a test case of digital privacy, spirits of convention-goers and the television audience were buoyed by the raised trunk of the elephant, whose nominee incited cries from the convention floor of “twelve more years!” after the roll call, in accepting the party nomination, in an auditorium that channeled Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Just two years after the last remaining circus elephants long showcased in extravagantly costumed spectacles were retired to a Center for Elephant Conservation founded in 1995 to dampen accusations of animal cruelty.
In hopes to persuade the audience of the elephant in the room of COVID-19, the rearing elephant began raising its trunk seems to have been a message of unbridled optimism, as plans to detract attention from making healthcare affordability into central part of the opposing party’s political platform was tried to be drowned out by catcalls of the dangers of socialism. While the raised trunk was an innovation the Party adopted in 2019, the triumphant rearing animal with five stars attempted to raise the spirits of spectators as they tired to assemble the behemoth as more animated than a loose aggregation of states they trusted were still red–
–if the convention turned out to be a channeling of bread and circuses, with charges of “moving America forward,” victory over ISIS, and being tough on China continued amidst denials of America was a racist country, with calls to bind us together for a brighter future of school choice, tough borders, and the protection of the unborn, all bound in an elephant that was more a circus animal and a custodian of party memory, as the spectacle of the convention replaced the instilling of civic values.
While the prospective nominee conceded “it’s not the right time” for staging “a big, crowded convention,” in a mini-news conference in the White House Briefing Room, despite his taste for acclamation by a rally, shifting priorities to “tele-rallies and online -staged events],” without mentioning COVID-19 save to affirm that it was a purely local, and an to a national event, that prevented the bash he hoped to stage in Jacksonville, Florida, before hearing that infection rates had surged there–as if the surge was purely local, rather than across the south and southwest–
–but was, one can only assume, not yet in Washington, DC, if unfortunately seems to recast both Florida, where he had hoped to shift several nights of the convention, and South Carolina as far more drenched in pink that most other states in the union, denoting rising rates of infection per ten thousand–lest the event backfire and prove to create a “hot-spot” of communicating viral infection as much as a party message.