Rarely has a political convention focussed so strongly on distracting attention from current actualities and reconstituting a disparate party as the 2020 Republican Convention that met to nominate Donald J. Trump. The mood was tense, and the nation as desperate for a powerful political icon. While the country had been counting COVID mortality rates and lamenting police violence and the injustice of health inequalities across the nation, a balloon of good news was levitated, a roly poly elephant leaping to the stars. Rarely has an animal assumed so much iconographic power and significance as the in the field of vision of spectators as the monochrome red elephant that the RNC adopted, seeking a needed sense of purity to the circus animal that was a longstanding symbol of the party. Amidst numerous bona fides to Trump’s character that were paraded from the platform in place of a platform, the tacit claim to “Support President Trump to Keep America Great” was captured by the almost floating icon of an elephant rising, lifting its trunk regally, unveiled in 2019 as moment marked by newly invigorated partisan identity, if not a reassuring rebranding.
The rising elephant aspired to the monumental scale of an already anointed candidate’s victory; more than a mirror and a map, its shiny surface akin to those shiny reflective gold plates on the latest skyscrapers adorned by “TRUMP,” was an emblem off which history slid, less as a future map than a monolith blending partisan confidence with revisionist history. Revisionist history was historical fabulation for Donald J. Trump, of course, who had adopted the elephant as something of a mascot for Trump Taj Mahal, one of the three casinos built on the New Jersey coastal resort town in the 1980s–before it went bankrupt in 1991, and Trump Casinos and Resorts filed for bankruptcy in 2004, but the elephants that adorned the Taj Mahal added a weirdly nostalgic glitz akin to a Crystal Palace for the fin de siècle, disguising the value of the property by sheer investments after the city decided to legalize gaming in a bid to rescue a sagging economy, that Trump could not resist as a scheme to make money at three new casinos, the centerpiece still remembered as decorated by gaudy elephants–in what might, in an alternative universe, have been the end of the story.
Trump Taj Mahal, Entrance, Atlantic City, New Jersey
The saddled elephant raring its trunk in orientalist garb might have been from the Crystal Palace’s East India Company’s exhibit. The striking image of luxury promised a new venture for the construction magnate, and the reburnishing of the party mascot of the elephant seemed to disguise the absence of any clear political platform, debates, business meetings, or slates of candidates at the Charlotte, NC convention–only speeches vouching for the candidate’s credibility despite all evidence to the contrary. The new elephant that had a complex racial history of proving the purity of. the party when it was introduced at the same period that P.T. Barnum had introduced to his circus the first “white elephant”–a Burmese beast, publicized as a “sacred elephant” to complement his crew of African Grey’s, as a sign. of the purity of their party. Some four years and one election cycle after the circus Barnum & Bailey had retired elephants from their show, after 145 years, the iconic raised trunk of circus animals entered the Republican party that Trump now adopted, the circus having complied to state and local laws that prohibit the use of bullhooks trainers long used to train the animals for their gaudy performances.
May, 2016 Final Performance of Trained Elephants at Ringling Bros., Barnum and Bailey Circus
In retrospect, the affidavits of credibility assembled at the 2020 Republican Convention were a rogue’s gallery anticipating the absence of unity or direction in the party with Trump at its helm. Herschel Walker took the stage with black Republican representative Tim Scott to vouch for Trump’s absence of racism. The revisionary history “honoring the great American story” as much as history minimized the place of race or white supremacy in the past or current party; while the convention occasioned no change in a political platform boasted to remain unchanged, the convention featured affidavits that Trump’s “actions” illustrated just “how much he cares about social justice and the Black community,” all evidence to the contrary. Before the red elephant that sought to celebrate the party’s integrity and honesty, perhaps Hershel Walker, Tim Scott, Vernon Jones and Nikki Haley all protested too much, their eyes on the elusive “black vote” in the general election, more than the politics the circus elephant embodied. The speakers bent backwards to minimize Trump’s place in America’s racial politics, claiming “free minds” in “a large and growing segment of the Black community who are independent thinkers . . . believe that Donald Trump is the President that America needs to lead us forward;” Jones vouched that Democrats no longer served “Black Americans’ interests” in the manner they might claim.
Yet the orange-tinged weightless elephant that raised its trunk victoriously behind each speaker seemed a form of cross-messaging in recuperating an icon of tinged origins. The “great American story” offered lip service to racial harmony from Walker–prompted to oppose the first African American senator from Georgia, Raphael Warnock–Scott, and Nikki Haley filled four nights of testimonials black voters would support Trump by testimonials that denied Trump’s open appeal to white supremacists in the election. Audiences may have been assured by the solidly red beast, branded with five stars in a ‘W’ semaphoring victory, that the party was Trump’s, and the platform always the same, and racism had no place in it. But as Haley vouched that “America is not a racist country,” the hopes to levitate the elephant behind the podium told another story, its slick surface resisting the archeology that this blogpost will attempt.
Unveiling the New Logo of the 2020 Republican National Convention, Charlotte, NC, 2019
Racial politics held centerstage of sorts in the new partisan icon. The mascot of a bloated elephant of wide torso not only coronated “The Donald” as the candidate of the party’s future but celebrated the purity of the party’s coalescing about the cult of a the other great elephant who was onstage in everyone’s minds. The rebranding was puprosely thin on any history, which it seemed to deflect off its shiny surface, but pregnant extravagant symbolism–predictably over-the-top, over-determined, gold-rimmed, and also, despite including the crown of Charlotte, SC. cheap. It may have also indicated the beginning of an end of cultivating an image of victory amidst mismanagement, self-inflicted crises, and deep social unrest. But it is more: the flat nature of this circus elephant, apparently returned to the ring after sojourning as a symbol of the party, unlike the abstract GOP elephant of just four years ago, seemed historically flat, bulked up and red hued, five stars seemingly blazoned in a W-shaped constellation as if an augur for electoral “victory,” was seemingly unveiled to celebrate its own utter obliviousness to its sense of past.
Perhaps this was a trick of gigantism: for by transforming what was once a circus animal to a monolith of “red states” and uniformity, used to suggest not a “big tent” politics, but, rather, an immobile and inflexible set of positions, values, and national identity, increasingly elided with the fears of allegations of electoral integrity to the need for a rambunctious, beyond normal political practice, and outside of its performance. The new vitality that was given to the elephant as a sleek, emoji-like character was an attempt to be forward-looking, as if incarnating the false “red wave” that only disguised the advantage among votes cast on election day–rather than those that arrived by early voting or absentee ballots.
Did the elephant symbolize the assembly of a new coalition of red states behind the all-but-presumed Republican nominee? The “red mirage,” or a red wave waiting to happen, was not after all a message of rallying an army of patriots to Save America in 2020–the partisan gains of a “red wave” fizzled in 2020 even more than it would again 2022. But the arrival of a bloated elephant seemed design to promote it, and to do so in coded ways. And in the adoption of the emblem of a ‘star-studded elephant’ standing before a navy blue crown was described in 2019 by RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel as incarnating in cartoon form the “traditions of the Republican Party” as much as a common sense of purpose that would fill the bill for a call to “Support the Elephant Heard,” one always suspected that it carried with it a sense not only of gigantism but dung. But was the rebranding of the red elephant not just a ground-plan for electoral victory in a future electoral map, that offered naught but a uniform red field, or a mirror of a monumental vision of a groundswell for a red dynamo of partisan strength–but a terrifyingly coded image? The resurrection of this old emblem of partisan unity as rearing on its feet, uniformly red, broadcast an. icon of consensus to the MAGA crowd with dark roots deep in American history.
But who could doubt that the distinct smell of copious dung all along? And the recent online sharing of an elephant encoding subtly placed KKK imagery, as if a game of seeing as, on the webpage of the Alabama GOP, may have only helped to unmask the “hidden content” and “hidden figures” for which the new county chair of the Lawrence County GOP apologized–as if without knowledge that the image derived from graphics commission by Mother Jones for an article in which David Corn observed how Trump persisted to foreground a politics of personal grievance to make a case for four, as if gaslighting the nation by evading the mismanagement of the real coronavirus crisis he had cast as a border crisis in new guise, and arguing that they party was appealing to white supremacists–and the currency of the adopted emblem in a GOP event in Arizona to promote a local candidate for law enforcement suggested that the image had traction in the party far beyond copyright infringement or accidental internet searches. Is it possible the graphic of hooded figures peering from conical pointed hoods from between the elephant’s column-like red legs was proudly appropriated as an in-the-know icon by party members?
Woody Harrington, Mother Jones (August, 2020)
The droppings of the upward-rearing circus elephant raising trunk on cue from an unseen circus-master were concealed in the three klansmen figures staring out from the Facebook page of Lawrence County’s Republican Party, but eerily conjured a past that few wanted to advertise. The graphic designed by Woody Harrington, newly adopted to announce the retirement of the former county chair and thank him for his service, suggested that the dung was not only always there all along–the graphic was first from an article that described how white supremacy was taking over the Grand Old Party–but its racist provenance. For as much as deriving from cut and paste–or accidental misuse–the original adoption of the elephant as a partisan icon was steeped in an iconography of steeped in a segregationist past.
The Facebook post, claimed incoming chair Shanon Terry, who made it, used an image that the incoming party chair claimed derived from a Google search engine, to have no hidden meaning, and to be without malice, in a “deep and sincere apology” such “hidden images that do not represent the views or belief of the Lawrence County Republican party,” responding to calls he resign from his role. But he may well have protested too much. In unveiling of a new red elephant as RNC mascot, the Republican Party elided the racially coded origins of the pachyderm were quite obscured by the red hued elephant rearing its trunk, the introduction of the emblem was an uncanny recuperation of the original radicalized intent of the circus elephant that recalled the racist connotations of circus elephants that were imported from Africa by P.T. Barnum for his circus when it was adopted as a partisan icon in 1884, or as the southern states emerged from Reconstruction without expanding the popular franchise, or inequities of enslavement, over a century ago, even if, as Terry claimed, “I did not properly review a cut and paste image used in that post from an internet search for a ‘GOP elephant.'” Yet as much as an accident, the Thomas Nast cartoon promoting the arrival in Barnum’s circus of an elephant of pure white skin not as “Towering Monarch of his Mighty Race” but akin to the white Burmese elephant that Barnum had purchased to expand his menagerie of African Greys.
Yet was the importance of the new emblem under-appreciated as a form of branding for 2020? Indeed the revision of the anthropomorphic emblem seems to hearken to the circus elephant that first inspired the logo of the Republican party, transforming a famous cartoon of American history into a partisan icon. The apparent solidity of an electoral “landslide” of 2016 in the sparsely populated “red states” was enlivened by appeal to white supremacy that went unacknowledged: to disguise his far fewer votes, he displayed the electoral map as a victory map, blue regions confined to its coasts and inland seas.
The elephantization of the political party conjured an invisible army of belonging with deep roots in the mumbo jumbo of circus performing–and, indeed, close ties to the popular circus animal, Jumbo, whose size may to some have incarnated the monumental scale of the Republic hopes. If the prestige of the elephant was coopted in England as a “traditional” symbol of divinity in the empire–and India–in the stuffed pachyderm bearing an imperial carriage displayed by the East India Co. of the Crystal Palace, in 1855, in full regalia, in the “Company Room,” just five years before Phineas T. Barnum brought the beast to his menagerie. The new circus elephant, as if to signal that Trump was a new political animal, not in the mold of the Grand Old Party of the past, but a future icon of red hope, seemed to pronounce itself as propelling enough red ink against the map to flood the nation a deep shade of crimson, unlike the more jig-saw like coloration of lighter reds, pinks, sky blues, or powder blues of electoral maps past.
Did Trump not imagine himself not only as a new political beast, whose public performance was able to paint the map red more fully than it had long been seen? The new elephant may have conjured similar aspirations and was a new sort of political symbol for a new candidate–if not a new party, in a variation of an old political icon for new partisan ends.
This was itself a sort of circus trick. It may be no surprise that the origins of the party’s icon of an elephant drew upon the anthropomorphic partisan emblem designed by American cartoonist Thomas Nast, and adapted from the advertisements and publicity that circus impresario and entrepreneur; Barnum was the first circus in America to focus a menagerie on elephants, in the reconstruction era, by tacit references to race and the geographic origins in an American vein: Jumbo, the first Bush Elephant in the circus, captured in Sudan by a game hunter in 1860, left Paris’ Jardin des Plantes for Barnum’s menagerie twenty-six years later, was such a crowd pleaser in New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1882 that two weeks’ ticket sales fully recuperated Barnum’s costs for purchase and transport overseas.
The elephant featured as the centerpiece of the “Greatest Show on Earth” was long tied to showmanship, and claims of grandiosity, inflating the spectacle offered circus-goers by skillful messaging and marketing that the Republican Party’s 2020 convention seemed eager to evoke to its own paying customers. If the nation needed a circus, the elephant seemed to occupy center Barnum displayed the elephant to paying audiences as the “Towering Monarch of his Mighty Race“–openly invoking racial ideals as an attraction–at the centerstage of his traveling menagerie, promoting it as the largest elephant held in captivity became a focus of mass communication. In future years, Jumbo was replaced by “sacred white elephant” of Burma, as a new centerpiece for currying racial fascination that, soon after it was presented as a new attraction in Barnum’s menagerie, become, mutatis mutandi, now the mascot and icon of the Republican party in the pen of the cartoonist Thomas Nast, he of father Christmas fame. From the appearance of the November, 1884 political cartoon used the purity of the white elephant assumed to cast the Republican vote as a group of voters scared by the prospects of a Democratic President of dictatorial pretenses remaining in office.
The progression or symbolic conversion from Barnum the skilled impresario to Nast’s cartoon came full circle in disturbing ways in Trump’s 2020 “coronation” as the Republican candidate for President in a convention that featured no contest of securing a nomination–but was a coronation of a victor, before the election. Barnum’s eager hocking of a hoax–a trickster “hocus pocus” redirecting his audience’s attention to concerns that were latent in the display of the menagerie, of detecting racial difference, were converted into showmanship in the circus he promoted, in ways that might be profitably compared to the disguise of racial anxieties and feelings of persecution or economic compromises within the identification of “hoaxes” that Trump pointed out to the electorate in his candidacy.
As Trump’s career as a real estate promoter eerily paralleled Barnum in his promotion of size, immensity, and over-awing over-the-top gilt grandeur–he was a promoter more than an actual expert in construction, and skilled in transforming his boardroom to a television set before the White House became one as well. His promotion of multiple hoaxes and slogans fed a candidacy as they generated new attention in which he based as a candidate, working with similar television set designers. And it comes as no surprise, in effect, that the introduction of a new symbol for the Republican party, a “red elephant” rearing with five stars featured on his body, seemed to embody the tradition of hoaxes and promotions that the use of the elephant as an icon for the Republican party had long enjoyed, since it was introduced by cartoonist Thomas Nast in the era of Reconstruction. But the white elephant–who Nast introduced in the press as a new symbol of partisan purity in 1884 as proudly possessing dignity unlike the beast fleeing from a gun–invested the President with over-sized jumbo value even as he was overstepping his office; the elephant as a trope recast the corruption-free party as a sacred beast as Barnum billed the latest circus attraction of pure skin color as a “Sacred Elephant” in not subtly racially coded terms–terms on which Thomas Nast seized, clever cartoonist as he was, as a braggadocio illustration of the Republican party’s new purity.
Trump, in adopting Nast’s clever cartoon, seemed more akin to a circus promoter even as the RNC promoted red elephant promoted as a new partisan brand. America was more than ever in recent memory haunted by blackness in the summer of 2020, as racial justice movements exploded across the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the cancer of the racist Trump Presidency: the RNC was proud of re-introducing the Red Elephant as an icon of redemption in 2020, a new symbol of the reborn party that would revitalize the nation, and, in an evocation of the associations of the elephant and memory, restore national traditions, poised as if newly resurgent over threats to the social body, a gold-limned red elephant, with a as if tattooed with an auspicious constellation of pentagonal stars across its side telegraphing a sign of victory.
Was this the elephant securing borders, defining the new edges of the polity, promoting those who were part of it and trampling no the rights of the undocumented, the underprivileged, and the unemployed?
The bush elephant Jumbo had indeed moved or been trafficked across borders to reach the London Zoo, and, more recently, been outfitted with a cage of its own bespoke design for transoceanic transport to New York, where it was first billed as an attraction of The Greatest Show on Earth: trafficked across the Mediterranean by a network of animal traders, first to the German traveling Menagerie Kreuzberg, Paris’ Jardin des Plantes, and London Zoo had featured “Jumbo” to impress audiences with his enormity, where “mumbo Jumbo” was a true crowd pleaser who delighted children and audiences alike. P.T. Barnum had renamed the elephant he bought for public display from the term of endearment,”Mumbo Jumbo” Londoners used to indicate its African origins, referencing to the masked male west African dancer, in Mandinka “Maamajomboo”, to promote its exoticism as a pagan idol, to foreground its size alone. If Mumbo Jumbo was a fallen idol of the imperial periphery become a popular attraction for London children to exercise imperialist imaginations, however, he felt it less reciprocal, and increasingly succumbed to increasing fits of rage. The showman Barnum did not curry religious hokum, but shortened the name of the elephant to bolster claims of gargantuan size that fit the Greatest Show on Earth; its iconic image gained center stage on promotional posters plastered towns he toured–long before the elephant was adopted as the emblem of the GOP, Barnum strikingly made the elephant into a curiosity of openly racial intent.
The arrival of the “white” albino elephant during the era of American reconstruction after Jumbo’s death, Toung Taloung, was promoted as a gentler and more civilized version of the African Bush, and indeed of a different race, to delight popular circus-going audiences with the notion of an elephant from a different corner of the world by clear analogy to the debates of blood-purity and skin color that were dominating America, as has been argued: the white elephant was not only an exotic beast, but Barnum’s celebration of its “white” constitution could be understood by white circus-goers as a response to the tensions around racial tensions in Reconstruction America. While the introduction of a red elephant as a revised emblem of a partisan icon was by no means referring to race as explicitly as had P.T. Barnum in displaying African or Burmese pachyderms, the partisan icon of a red elephant–invoking the size of the red states in the electoral map, channeled connotations of race for American audiences. Is it a coincidence that the red elephant was trotted out in 2020 as a purified elephant–now entirely red!–to meet the tastes of the Party of Trump? The large size of the elephant seemed capacious enough to contain the many hoaxes that Trump had promoted from before announcing his Presidency, in order to create a political movement rooted in promotion and promoting the sense of rugged stalwart isolation before the dangers of a rigged world.
The introduction of the red elephant as a party emblem boasted the chromic homogeneity of the GOP in ways that almost seemed to revive the long forgotten fascination in elephants as a nativist symbol. If the cartoonist Thomas Nast famously assigned the dignity, probity, and size of the popular central figure of the circus menagerie as an aspiration of how claims to dignity that might allow his party to win the White House once again, Trump consciously chose the beast of a uniformity of color to express aspirations of recreating the red map in the 2020 Presidential election, in selecting it as the new emblem of a party that had grown increasingly identified with his person, casting the new red elephant as a bold statement of partisan aspirations that may have bracketed race–but channeled the deeply racialized character of the white elephant of Reconstruction. While the story of Nast’s invention of the anthropomorphic icon has been often recited, the use of an elephant to incarnated the current capaciousness of a desired electoral victory echoed the rhetoric of securing the presidency by replicating the same margin of victory in red states alone, in the victorious image of a rearing, martial elephant, as if auguring a rise of red states in 2020 as staging a cartographic reconfiguration of the electoral map.
The elephant was an emblem of the go-it-alone spirit of the party, repurposing the animal affirm the capaciousness of a secessionist nation that echoed a Manichaean gloss of “sovereignty” RedStateSecession.org had extended across all of North America by 2019. The image of a “peaceful red state secession” was by no means mainstream in the political party, or a part of its platform, that no platform was ever devised for Trump’s renomination courted the broad worries of the dilution of a white majority nation filled with “illegal aliens” and foreigners Republicans had often mapped onto blue states–and echoed the strength that a “country formed from red states” might provide, in substitution for the internationalist commitments of a non-white majority nation that the actual United States held–promising the rebirth of a “country formed from Red States” alone, in a 2018 Facebook meme might generate a form of national renewal adhering to the U.S. Constitution. The pseudo-map, which circulated on social media and the internet, rather than in printed form, was itself a hoax–to use the terms Barnum claimed–using the smoke and mirrors of data visualization to crop the counties of an electoral map as if they would provide the new borders of a “new country formed from Red States” as if it was more faithful to the spirit of America–while leaving little question in the mind of viewers that the verb “follow” meant adhering to the politics of national renewal that were tied to a closure of national borders, embrace of white-majority culture, and refusal of “socialist” health care.
The pseudo-map existed only as a derivative copied form of the distribution of Republican voters in recent elections, but it was powerful and strong as an image of common like-minded ideological preferences and political cultures, a sort of resegregation of the nation that might reveal the enlargement of the old south, not suggesting only white-majority areas, but areas where conservative voters had won since 2018. While the bizarre image of the “Sovereign States of America” took the logic of rewriting sovereignty of clear borders to an extreme, in its explicit adoption of an electoral map, omitting Broward and Miami-Dade counties in Florida, omitting much of the Northeast, Illinois–home of Barack Obama–and Southern Wisconsin, as well as California and most all of Arizona, the monochrome icon seemed to willfully dispense with California, New York, and Washington out of hand, with a vitriol that only grew in the year of social justice movements of 2020.
The emblem of the big red elephant referenced a notion of a nation created from a congeries of conservative-dominant counties, disdaining “blue states” as compromises not worthy of inclusion, lest they sacrificed ideals of America’s purity in light of the danger of immigration by creating new borders for the nation as a nation. The elevation of the monochrome pachyderm became a floating signifier of the ideals of red purity on which the party would base itself in a new image of sovereignty, often asserting economic independence by the addition of oil- and gas-rich provinces within a “Sovereign States of America” of the like-minded social media bubbles, echoed in the attacks directed to “globalists” on Canada-based alt right networks like Rebel Media, that proposed a repurposing of nation as a concept and conceit, and would be mapped onto the new sacred collectivity of a purely red beast that threw earlier Republican’s red, white, and blue elephants out as relics of RINO’s–those “Republican in Name Only,” and to map a scrappy new collectivity which hewed to one geopolitical agenda and moral script. Did the “fantasy map” not only push the logic of extreme federalism to its ends, but in juxtapose the “Sovereign States of America” with a far-fetched notion of energy independence, dismissing the allegedly “internationalist” regions of the US-Mexico border, the northeast, and Pacific rim as an internationalist “Bluetopia”–by remapping the Keystone XL and other crude pipelines as in line with American economic interests located entirely on sovereign soil.
To be clear, the map was a bit of a “hoax,” or the logic of the hoax–a term deriving from “hocus pocus,” the claim of a magician or juggler, and itself the sham-Latin perversion of the sacramental claim that the host present the body of Jesus Christ–an etymological origin for “hoax” that was oddly appropriate to the re-presentation of the nation as another beast, and the rewriting of sovereign allegiance to an underlying fabric of America in red states alone, a blood and soil doctrine that mapped energy extraction to allegiance to the political party representing the nation.
The red elephant rising echoed the glee of remapping of national sovereignty as if sovereignty were lines of affect–ties to the true interest of the nation, evident in the preservation of racial hierarchies, preserved, in the circus, by the in If Trumpism depended on a new “red nation,” RedStateSecession.org materialized a cartographic rewriting of the nation and national sovereignty, often privileging energy independence and clear borders, and imposing those borders on a map, but affirming the elephant as an image of its capacious quality–adding the petroleum reserves of Alaska and shale deposits across Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba as if to make up for the absence of the wealth of California, the northwest, and the northeast from a “sovereign” map that would end culture wars. Revising the “Jesusland” map of 2004 to include shale deposits in the north integrated a network of petroleum pipelines from like-minded “red states” north of the border, imagining a “United States of America” of radically redrawn borders embracing Calgary, Regina, Edmonton and Saskatoon as its own endless reserve of energy and national wealth–a new fantasy of national “belonging” that denied the actually lopsided nature of the America’s population and wealth.
The fear of globalism was a steeped in internationalist rhetoric of “open borders,” disguising a disdain for national culture and America First, in its promotion of open borders, was deemed a dismantling of the nation as we know it. The map of “red America” was a rewriting of NAFTA, and a rewriting of the secessionist Civil War, imagining the Mason-Dixon line elevated to embrace all Pennsylvania, imagining the survey that defined the border disputes between Maryland, West Virginia and Delaware as a basis to expand the division between two “United States,” one blue and one red, a spectacle of sorts that engaged observers in the image of a remapped red United States, as if imagining the old northern border of the confederacy to be hiked to include the swing state of Pennsylvania, even above the “West Line” Charles Mason surveyed between Pennsylvania and Maryland in 1768, to create a mythic country of 2020 that expanded upon Trump’s surprising 2016 electoral victory, as if re-imagining the boundary line that became a division of slave states and free states as a division between Americans and internationalists. Indeed the determination of the new “boundary” able to preserve American integrity was cast as natural, but included the area along which the Keystone XL was planned to transport crude and Canadian shale reserves as well within the United States of America–arriving at an economic integrity that the Confederate States of America had lacked.
Such a realization of economic imperatives transcended the use of lines of latitude as a dividing line; the inclusion of the land where the Keystone ran within the “new nation” gave it an integrity often lacking in the division of the nation by political affiliations or voting patterns–
–but sought to prevent the fluid Geography_of_Gilead, in which “where the edges are we aren’t sure . . . they vary, according to the attacks and counter-attacks,” but try to preserve an image of American integrity as if it were “natural,” by incorporating the petroleum pipelines and the shale reserves from which they carry crude sludge to realize the adoption in the 2016 Republican Party platform of promoting the Keystone XL within a vision of “North American energy independence” as if the Bluetopian environmentalists of the previous Democratic administration had strayed from such ideals. The map realized an actual division that seemed economically viable, if it would indeed “Support #CALEXIT!” as the “Tale of Two Countries” meme suggested.
If the electoral map has become. a spectacle of repeated glossing, fetishizing, and analysis since 2008, often wrestling with an imagined discrepancy between the appearance of greater sovereign acreage of a party with fewer votes, essentializing “redness” lay in the eye of the observer, and the old partisan mascot served to embody the identity of a party that trumped reality, as if the continuity of red counties might gain sovereign status of its own.
There was something almost Barnum-esque, as much as Alt Right, in the prominence with which Trump raised th hoax of globalism to expose as a conspiracy of “globalist elites” as a threat to the nation in almost existential terms. P. T. Barnum had hewed the cultivation of hoaxes as a means to attract his audiences in the first age of mass-printing, viewing the “hoax” Barnum viewed as a part of the spectacle and business plan for the circus that he pioneered: from the display of mermaids to human freaks, Barnum promoted illusions to attract the complicity of spectators in “hoaxes” in ways surprisingly akin to the centrality of “hoaxes” as hooks able to attract and to consolidate support for Trump’s Presidency and presidential campaign. If some hoaxes served to distract attention of collusion of the Trump campaign and Russian government, Trump had long reserved ire for the allegedly internationalist “hoax” of global warming and climate change he had disdained revealed in 2015, before announcing his candidacy, through casting the coronavirus pandemic as “their new hoax” in the final year of his Presidency, from February to March of 2020, adopting the term “hoax news” later dropped to the damning “fake news” to suggest the extent of an information society that was rigged.
Trump’s labeling of “hoaxes” is not only an echo of QANON, but used the identification of hoaxes engaged in a “plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty” to attracted many supporters by seeing economic integration, internationalism, much as Barnum promoted hoaxes (if he didn’t call them that in announcements) as a way to attract audiences. For Trump, hoaxes served to stoke popular anger by unmasking how his opponents disrespected the nation’s integrity: Trump attacked “global warming hoaxsters” of scheming to raise higher taxes in January 2014, and labeling a “hoax provided a powerful way to rally his base before a new sense of the nation, freed from the allegedly pernicious logic of “open borders,” globalist elites, digital media and internationalism–the very same specters he decried on January 6, 2021.
If “hoax” was not at first among the preferred words of rage to use in his social media accounts, it grew as a way of voicing collective rage. A text analysis of Trump’s tweets charts how he grew aligned with political discourse as a way to vent his anger and direct the rage of his constituents, as his use of social media morphed from personal attacks promoting the bogus “birther” theory about Barack Obama’s birthplace–a primal hoax–to the calling out of hoaxes more quickly than they might be mapped, processed, or charted, as he alternated schoolyard insults to channel a paranoid persecution of describing hoaxes with greater traction as he ridiculed investigation into the Russian ties of his campaign and cabinet. The twittersphere encouraged Trump to act as a border guard, identifying “hoaxes” with illusory clarity on a medium that encouraged the retweeting falsehoods; as Trump attacked Fake News, his public statements included an increased number of falsehoods, according to Factba.se’s tracing, rising with his social media presence, calling out hoaxes became a broader truth game that extending to questioning the accuracy of voting machines of the 2020 Presidential election, allegedly both owned and operated from overseas. And as claims of a stolen election seem set to be relaunched in debates about voting integrity, the fierce urgency of identifying a hoax may loose momentum as they are increasingly evidently about race. The candidates’s visibly vertiginous delight in discerning of globalist hoaxes only came back to bite him only as he persisted casting the spread of COVID-19 not as a pandemic, but just another liberal hoax–stretching credibility in the face of cognitive dissonance of rising mortality rates of coronavirus and Trump claiming people’s surprise . . .
Claims of hoaxes–or fake news–had mutated into claims that the candidate alone understood or got global politics. The red elephant introduced in the 2020 Convention afforded a new image of the nation that was the inverse of the hoax. It was a statement of the credulity of the party and the party line, as well as an identity for partisan unity–channeling a mental imaginary rooted not in continuity or federalism, but a uniformity of consensus in Trump’s own words. Trump’s attachment to “hoaxes” as compelling fighting words defined much of his presidency, as much as his social media presence. But the identification of hoaxes as objects of scorn, and insults to the nation, found a counterpart in the newly triumphant icon of decorous anger Ronna McDaniel unveiled in 2019, in hopes to consolidate or conjure a new alliance of red states to promote the Republican hopes for victory in 2020.
One could detect a sense of the circus when political strategist Ronna McDaniel took it on herself to channel Vanna White and middle America, revealing a reinvigorated elephant as a new logo for the Grand Old Party for 2020, her flowing red dress underscoring to the new monochrome of icon. Having been named to lead the RNC by Donald Trump after she had served as a delegate from Michigan who supported Trump in 2016, as the vacancy opened, with Rience Priebus becoming Chief of Staff, with the only precondition dropping her maiden name to erase any hint she had supported her uncle Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, McDaniel was elevated to be the chair of the Party, ensured that she could be counted on for her allegiance to Trump’s agenda and to promote his brand–demonstrating allegiance by imitating Trumps’s own warnings of voter fraud before the 2020 election and warning widespread fraud had led to the electoral loss of the man she trumpeted as as a “moral leader” while using her zealous defense of Trump as a cover to steer RNC funds to companies run by family members or as a quid pro quo for donations.
Could not one say that the use of the red elephant by Trump, a man widely known to delight in manipulating details of his public image, and indeed his brand, channeled P.T. Barnum in re-presenting the red elephant as a party emblem to the 2020 Republican Convention in Charlotte, NC? The elephant that was displayed in the political convention that was located proudly in a southern state without explanation by RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel in 2019, as an icon of partisan purity by 2020. Was the red elephant not a recuperation of the spectacle of the elephant as a refraction of America’s still fraught racial politics? Barnum was a master of public relations, and used the magnificence of the elephant as a centerpiece for his show, and an elephant seemed to incarnate hopes for an augur of victory in the next Presidential election, in the memes and media circus of unveiling of an icon of partisan identity. The symbol of the 2020 Republican Convention was unveiled to bridge novelty and tradition within the Republican party, but invoked performative rituals of circus-going as a spectacle about race, whiteness, privilege, and spectatorship–as much as a new mascot. Its political symbolism might be placed in a volume of Circus Studies or political symbolism, a regal pachyderm that recalled the Monarch of Illusions by invoking the partisan remapping of American politics as a swath of red states. The energetic red elephant proposed as a new symbol of partisan identity seemed an attempt to reenergize the party headed and embodied by the circus-master Donald J. Trump.
Was not Barnum, a showman who had perfected the arts of mass communication in the Gilded Age, gliding from popular entertainments to mass spectacles with unprecedented ease, able to transform the circus into an economic machine and public spectacle in ways eerily akin to how Trump has changed the political process of the United States? As much as changing Free Speech, Trump has exploited anxieties by offering what audiences “wanted to see” in a new regime of politics and political performance, continuing a Barnum tradition of combining minstrelsy, freak shows, entertainers, collections of menageries, and clowns in a “big tent” of the profitable economy of the circus show. Barnum was not only an orchestrater who expanded the circus as an institution of modern life and mass culture, converting spectacles into profits by promising to transport audiences into the fantastic, but was a promoter who insistently promised “good faith” to his audiences even as this strained credibility.
Barnum was the great American creator of ‘hoaxes’ central to capturing public attention and framing public opinion. Although the “Sacred Elephant” he later displayed to extend anxieties of the determination of racial difference to the animal kingdom was not white, promotion of the elephant that was appropriated by Thomas Nast as an icon of the Republican party prominently triggered fears of the identity of racial characteristics by universalizing them to the ostensibly pleasurable arena of the circus. Hoaxes were there from the very start of Barnum’s career as a promoter of the fantastic and curious wonder for audience’s pleasure: Barnum’s career began with his purchase of a slave he exhibited as George Washington’s own Mammy–a figure able to cross racial lines, peddling racial stereotypes in a spectacle of servility. Barnum promoted the woman, Joice Heth, as a sideshow curiosity, importing the plantation economy into vaudeville, as the allegedly hundred and sixty one year old Mammy of the first president entertained white audiences with barely credible stories of how she had nursed George Washington, that promoted the social dynamic of a plantation as the American narrative, as he deployed race and racial anxieties in a human museum, in the American Museum in downtown New York from 1842: as improbably as the White Elephant he imported from Burma gained crowds as an alleged education on racial difference, Barnum began from exploiting desires, fears and boundaries of normalcy; mass advertising in printed flyers attracted audiences’ interest to freak shows, promising “prices reduced to suit all classes” and boasting of his own populism, offering audiences primarily “instruction and happiness” while pursuing financial gain. The show begged complicity with the master-showman–Barnum boasted at combining “smoke and mirrors” with “a little ‘clap-trap’ occasionally, in the way of transparencies, flags, exaggerated pictures, and puffing advertisements” in “the wildness of wonderfully instructive and amusing realities,” that set their own criteria of truthfulness.
Was prominent billing of a long-lived manny as a “natural and national curiosity” a template for inviting audiences to witness the contrast the “sacred” elephant to darker African elephants, shipped to America at Barnum’s expense?
P.T. Barnum had arrived at the use of the elephant as a focus on entertainment and moral instruction followed how his American Museum suggested a welcome traffic with and blurring of knowledge and science in the name of compelling illusions and pleasure. And after the Museum burned down in 1865, rather than being the end of his career, he promoted “P.T. Barnum’s Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus” as a road show, publicizing its contents for audiences across the nation. He returned to New York by 1877, promising to cater to all audiences’ pleasures by featuring the new addition of “$500,000 worth of Foreign Features” with assurance of “prices reduced to suit all classes,” emphasizing his egalitarianism. If Barnum boasted “the largest, finest, and best menagerie and circus in the world” he cast himself not as a promoter but as acting “to my countrymen and countrywomen as a minister of instruction and happiness, while pursuing my primary purpose of making money.” The arrival of a Bush Elephant purchased in 1882 from London Zoo as the central exhibit in the menagerie displayed in Madison Square Garden, promoted widely as “the largest elephant in captivity,” whose prominent billing and attracted such massive crowds to recoup costs of transport and purchase in just four days; Jumbo’s later 1885 death in a train accident led the elephant to be replaced him with the commanding attraction of a Burmese albino elephant, shipped to New York, to replace the bush elephant’s center stage in his menagerie. Barnum long exploited print advertising, and promoted the “sacred” Burmese, Toung Taloung, imported from the Near East, as a “white elephant” whose different stock than elephants of African origin was morally instructive, Barnum, as if its white skin denoted a different race, courting popular fascination with miscegenation and shades of skin color in Reconstruction America.
The hoax, as so often in recent years, was part of the point. Even if the display of the white elephant was more about race than exoticism, the shift from the size of the elephant Barnum promoted fit the times of Reconstruction, but tapped into the display of race and racial difference within Barnum’s promotion of a carefully curated image of Americana. Barnum featured exploitation of race in his showmanship in 1835 by exhibiting former slave Joice Heth to paying audiences, as the mammy of George Washington as a national curiosity in New York’s Niblo’s Garden. The hoax who delighted audiences by promising stories of raising “little George” for the Washington family, Barnum adeptly exploited the place of enslavement held in the national fabric of America led directly to his subsequent exploitation of an elephant in the racial politics of reconstruction America by 1884, when he had promoted the purity and probity of an albino “white elephant” before it arrived in New York by ship from London as an animal possessing greater distinct characteristics from the African Grey he had featured in his menagerie and traveling show–a probity featured as Nast used the pachyderm as an anthropomorphic icon of the Republican party that very year.
Who else but a zealot and convert to the cause of a candidate obsessed with political promotion and image would realize the critical importance of rebranding of the party in anticipation for the 2020 election, to take time to promote and announce the roll-out of a new political iconography of the elephant–a red elephant–with purity of purpose? While Trump’s commitment to steer the party to victory in 2018 midterms had failed to translate unprecedented advantages in fundraising McDaniel had ensured to a margin of victory, the largest elephant in the room of animating the electorate for the Presidential election.
Was it at all surprising Trump felt the party needed rebranding? The elephant would be a potent signifier of the purity of red states to those who wanted it, inviting images of a domestication of wildness, a channeling of white anger, and a sense of bucking tradition and loosening of decorum, all rolled into a rearing beast.
The redesigned “red elephant” was perhaps a white elephant of political iconography, but a new regime of truth for the political party. For in abandoning the red, white and blue to promote a uniformity of purpose and single mindedness that echoed the “sacred elephant” cartoonist Thomas Nast had adopted to represent the Republican party’s nobility by anthropomorphizing Barnum’s new exotic addition to his famed menagerie–a “white elephant,” nobler and more kind and docile than its African cousin–in ways that would consciously play to the consciousness of race among circus-goers in post-Reconstruction America. Was the new red elephant, distinctive in its chromatic design, a color that might not only signal rage, or anger at the declining moral standards and protection of liberties, but a conformity around an image, in ways that Trump, a master of the image, must have found appealing as a new branding of the political party under his own imprint?
While the elephant was long red, white, and blue, the new monochrome elephant projected an imaginary of a unified party, no doubt composed of “red” states, purified and poised to advance into the 2020 Presidential election as a united front, long before the social justice protests of 2020 that reacted in shock to George Floyd’s brutal murder by white police, head forced to the ground in Minneapolis by local police before a crowd of onlookers, and the social reckoning these protests bought by the convention itself. Having spent party funds on covering all legal fees related to defending the sitting President from charges of Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential campaign, McDaniel seemed to seek to make a fresh start for Trump’s campaign for reelection, adopting a logo of chromatic conformity for a campaign that would not adopt or issue a party platform, but that revolved around the new leader of the party.
How the party would map onto the country was a question that was on the front plate of many separatist groups by the summer of 2019, when the question of how a non-nation rightly secedes to create a ‘country’ prompted many cartographic fantasies rooted in the appeal that “nation” was an ethno-linguistic group of common customs, and the alleged principle that all states have the right to secede from the union: “red states” did not really follow state lines, but could be carved from electoral districts and drawn by software in a loopy map of alleged unity, not without appeal to many white supremacist ideals, avoiding most coastal regions, and larger cities outside Texas and Georgia. While this internet map originated from a political fringe, the fantasy of a monochrome elephant foretold a red coalition’s coming victory, as in inviting readers to contemplate the legal justification that might exist for eastern Texas, western Louisiana, or the western panhandle of Florida to secede from the nation.
Redesigning the very republic as if in DIY drawing of electoral districts, in an inelegant from of gerrymandering that dropped sections of Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Arizona, Colorado and Virginia and a strip of Nevada that echo the demand to “do your own research” to recognize your allies. The oppositional politics of the map of almost Manichean design was best met by a uniformly red elephant as its emblem. Perhaps the deep fantasy of cartographic excision was less based on the secession of the Civil War, than the Looney Tunes logic of separating Florida from the United States to the Atlantic with a saw in 1949, with the cry “that does it–South America, take it away!” to redraw the nation in the Red State Secession by cutting Broward, Palm Beach, and Miami-Dade counties from the Union, in a hardly convincing map of states that “follow the Constitution”–derived from electoral maps. The almost comic cohesion of a red elephant might enjoy suggests a regime of stagecraft and suggestion, that openly showed little but gestured to a rich history of political iconography far deeper than its crude cartography suggests.
The fantasy of the monochrome elephant might be sufficient to accommodate all local interests in a buoyant beast of even larger girth was hardly new. The image of a monochrome elephant s party logo began with the introduction of the animal by Republican cartoonist Thomas Nast, who took the image of an albino elephant–the first “white elephant” of allegedly greater purity than its African cousin–at the height of reconstruction to appeal to Republican’s adherence to greater dignity in their own party’s principled platform of reform. By the time that the convention to anoint Donald J. Trump as nominee for a party without a platform got underway, as if to tell us we had been watching dangerous performances all summer long in social justice protests spread across America, the remodeled red elephant that hearkened back to Thomas Nast’s pioneering use of the bull elephant to champion the vigor and capaciousness of a party to which he belonged as an image of the nation and the purity of its leadership. The recuperation of what Nast saw as an image of nobility and purity of purpose in Barnum’s new addition to the traveling menagerie boasting moral instruction was also in ways a return of the repressed, tapping into the racial anxieties that were projected onto the African elephant as an emblem of the domestication of the savage beast.
For elimination of all tricolor in the new brand of the President’s party recycled the very racial insensitivity and unsavoriness that the exhibition of circus elephants had long signaled. When circus entrepreneur P.T. Barnum extolled the purity of the exhibited albino “white” elephant he purchased to introduce to American audiences as a nobler alternative to African Greys, he desired to please circus-going audiences in Reconstruction America. Unlike the darker “cousin” Jumbo, who after being captured in Abyssinia in 1861, was sold by animal traders to the Jardin des Plantes as the largest elephant in captivity, and who Barnum had brought to America by boat from London as a centerpiece for his traveling show, Barnum promoted the albino elephant as a gentler, nobler, and more docile breed. The creature, described as of different cast and moral status than other elephants who had toured the nation, became a media sensation whose claims to purity Nast had channeled. While the cartoonist hoped to communicate the new moral character of the Republican party, in the very costume Barnum outfitted and exhibited the Burmese beast, the racial anxieties he tapped were eerily akin to those Trump stoked at the 2020 Convention. Barnum had promoted a beast not captured from Africa, but from Burma’s court, where it was regularly serenaded and invested with sacred character, suggested the subject removed from “blackness” and slavery, a different stock and perhaps race of elephant, in ways that the audiences of Barnum’s circus could not fail to appreciate and discern. Was the watered-down eugenics of Barnum’s beast not implicit in the “white elephant” by which Nast embodied his own political party?
The vaunted new red elephant was a new embodiment of the party, but mapped it onto red states. The new logo keyed into a color line, in ways that may hint at the future meaning of the semiotic weight of the party logo for generations who may only know the political animal and not the living beast. To be sure, whatever future semantic properties of the pachyderm as a symbol of political party were raised in 2010–as the animal’s significance seemed remote from then-current political debates–
–found an unexpected response as the Party of Trump reclaimed the elephant in ways that reclaimed its spectacularity in a circus, as the jumbotron in Charlotte, NC, unveiled the spectacle of the pachyderm, devoting far more attention as the party leaders who planed the meeting wanted to discuss the “new logo” combining the iconic elephant and the city’s crown, describing the city they claimed to be far more concerned with business and development of the city. The logo’s unveiling followed President Trump’s disgraceful call for members of the U.S. Congress to “go back to the countries from which they came” in a city viewed as “business-first, not politics-first,” calling the first order of the day being “the unveiling”–a term often associated with commemoration than politics.
The Republican Party unveiled a sleek lines of a new red elephant in preparation for the 2020 Republican Convention recuperated the performative origins of the once-sturdy quadruped as it appeared on the jumbotron, whose very size communicated how much air the presence of Donald J. Trump had sucked out of Charlotte’s Convention Center.
What the party billed as a 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 GOP 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.
The new “red elephant” was not only a logo to be used at the 2020 Republican Convention, but a branding of the party 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.
Donald Trump’s party may not have known how sharp his focus on Law & Order would be in 2019. But the focus on a red-state party, which commanded consensus as much as presented a platform, used the traditional party logo as an “proud and strong symbol” of–pardon the pun–a deeply truncated party, which might have been indeed a stuffed beast, eviscerated of any vital principles, and more of a symbolic avatar of fealty to a new ideal type of red states. The 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 sitting President. 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, no longer the American flag that the GOP had once pretended to incarnate for its members, but far more akin to the image of capaciousness and stolidity of tradition, known sufficiently embodied only by red states.
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. TO be sure, the pachyderm that was unveiled was not far from the mascot that was unveiled as a “proud and strong symbol of the Republican Party, trunk pointed toward 2012” at the Tampa Bay Convention, where the three stars in the field of a flag symbolized “equality, justice and opportunity”–celebrated as “core principles of our Constitution”–but the new elephant was conspicuously drenched red, and the five stars on its rounded core suggested the five-star experience that the convention planners assured convention-goer would experience–it was an experience not to be participated in, or indeed to draft a platform of principles, but to display consent.
As nation-wide movements promoting the sovereign secession of red states advanced online, embraced by the party as a basis for generating turnout and votes, Republicans seemed assured of the destined electoral landslide Trump had almost celebrated as an electoral victory of Republican voters in red states alone. The red elephant of 2020 expunged all blue from its body. Unlike earlier logos of party, the pure red pachyderm suggested a loyalty to party across a red expanse as projecting the fated destiny of an imagined electoral map, its identity in red states that the newly monochrome anthropomorphic icon spoke to as an aspirational emblem as a gold-limbed regal pachyderm. The purity of this party would not only be exclusive to “red states,” but in its iconography seemed to float a blue ball over the animal’s head, but encoded in not that hidden ways a doctrine of racial purity, obliged to the discourse of white supremacy that Trump had courted since 2011, talking up rumors that circulated about Barack Obama’s birthplace to launch them at the sitting president, claiming his “real doubts” and “people that actually have been studying it and they can’t believe what their finding”–seeding a discourse of aspersions and doubts parallel to his own process of considering his candidacy. The racial whistles that were keyed to white supremacists that were long part of Trump’s campaigns, from his advocacy of “birtherism” to his demonization of Mexican migrants as criminals.
Would the GOP be reborn with newfound unity and vitality and with an apparent spring in its step of an open endorsement of its racial purity? What, more to the point, would unveiling a pachydermal logo to much hype have to do with race, and racial inequality, even if the objectification of an elephant as a treasured icon of the party might be strikingly odd? More scary, perhaps, was how the pachydermal icon channeled display of the increasingly racial divisions that were submerged in the chest of the red beast. The elephant of single hue recalled the politics of racial division and race when it was first used by the Republican sympathizer Nast in Harpers in the age of Reconstruction, during the months after P.T. Barnum had promoted the impending arrival of a celebrated “white elephant” specially purchased of Burmese origins, whose alleged nobility endowed it with distinct treatment befitting its greater civility, wisdom, and social status as a member of a royal family. The albino elephant Toung Taloung appeared in graphic newspapers that testified to the whiteness of its skin, before it had arrived in New York City from London, where it had been theatrically displayed to audiences as a “Sacred Elephant” of far greater civility, wisdom, and social status than its darker African counterpart, a “White Burmese Elephant” of different and distinct geographic origin and cultural associations of civility–
The cartoonist Nash selected the albino elephant as a symbol of the purity of standards of the Party itself in 1884, to argue Party might ride such a beat to the White House if they maintained similar purity of purpose in their platform and in selecting their eventual nominee to occupy the throne atop the highly decorated tusked beast.
Nast’s image recalled formally nothing so much as the image of a stuffed elephant so celebrated when it was exhibited in indigenous regalia in 1854 in London’s 1855 Crystal Palace, sponsored by the East India Company. And the image of a lively monochrome electric red elephant employed in 2020, if not decked out in as much regalia, was as embedded in silences about race, and the silences about race became true elephants in the scripts of speakers at the 2020 Convention, that opened at the height of the COVID-19 epidemic and the searing social justice protest that many of the speakers at the convention cast as motivated by Antifa squads of marauding criminals.
Where did we get there from Thomas Nast’s hope of probity in the White Elephant? A good place to look would be in the circus origins of the beast that were recuperated so fully in 2020, this post argues. 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. Whereas Nast identified the braying of a 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.
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.
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, 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.
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 MoCA 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. Race-baiting was itself a projection of a political persona Trump knew or felt was more than entertaining, but was a center for his own brand, given the huge popularity of his proposal to block Mexican migrants by a wall, and even of his blank-faced open denials of racism, made amidst demonization of the dangers of those with darker skin.
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. IF the relevance of the divides of a Civil War resurfaced in 2020 and the Trump administration in a rhetoric of states’ rights, secession, and restriction of voting rights dominated public debate that seemed to revisit the politics of Reconstruction, the the elephant rebranded partisan values suggests a return of how race was re-presented in the purity of the white elephant–the “Sacred Elephant”–in Barnum’s traveling show and in Nast’s 1882 cartoon, drawn as Toung Taloung arrived in America, promising to “educate” American circus-goers by universalizing racial difference as a divide that extended even to the animal kingdom, and the differences of elephants form Africa and the empire.
The logic of the elephant belied a new language of inclusiveness. 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.
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.
Barnum had cast the stuffed pachyderm Jumbo as an image of the “big tent” spectacle that he saw not only as conquering America but his unique legacy as a circus man: while a stuffed taxidermied elephant long displayed at the old Tufts College as a bequest from its first trustee, in 1889, after five years of using the taxidermied skin in his traveling menagerie. If the stuffed skin was worn from travel, Jumbo became a centerpiece for the Barnum Museum of Natural History that had opened in 1884, as a site for retired circus attractions; the fluidity of the circus to the hall of science is preserved in the statue of Jumbo raising a trunk outside Barnum Hall–“Barnum Fecit,” over its door–as symbolic center of Tufts campus tours–even if the stuffed hide of the elephant barely entered the doors of Barnum Hall.
Jumbo’s corpse had channeled his famed performative skills in Barnum’s circus, but the red elephant unvieled in North Carolina channeled how Thomas Nast had imitated the publicity Barnum devised for Jumbo’s successor, the albino elephant Toung Taloung, featured to audiences as a more pure, and elevated, counterpart to the African Grey born in Sudan. The elephant was not only a natural spectacle in nineteenth century, but a site of fascination in an early era of globalization, an image of global dominance and “moral instruction” about races inseparable from colonialism and globalization. If the taxidermied pachyderm became a centerpiece of a “Barnum Museum” and a shrine to the circus entrepreneur among the “giant aggregation of living curiosities” Barnum assembled as tools for moral instruction that Barnum saw as a rival to the American Museum of Natural History, the “wonders” among the two menageries displayed in three rings was boasted to derive from the world’s “living curiosities” of benefit to “truthful moral instruction” extended to entertaining projection of racial characteristics to beasts.
While since emerged from the rooms of the Barnum Museum, the exemplarity of the immobile taxidermied pachyderm shifted the showpiece of the elephant’s performance in the circus to the Barnum Museum in ways that that echoed the spectacle of importing elephants as showpieces in nineteenth century America–even preposing to remove the stuffed elephant from Tufts College temporarily, in 1889, to rejoin the circus on a tour of England.
The unveiling of a life-size sculpture of Jumbo raising its trunk made the school mascot a new symbolic center of the Tufts campus in 2015, trunk exultantly raised for undergraduates, far more animated than the stuffed corpse, and more akin to the image of the elephant adopted as a triumphant icon of the Republican party soon after cartoonist Thomas Nast took the image of the albino elephant that Barnum later procured as an image of the party’s probity–a far more animated elephant than the stuffed skin that long stood in Barnum Hall–long after it had arrived as a mascot in the newly built Barnum Museum.
2. The episode of Americana is not a detour. For Barnum Americanzed circus elephants as visual attractions that cartoonists like Nast adopted the elephant as a sign of the integrity of the Union, and in defining the Republican party by its capacious and inclusive ability to defend 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 stuffed 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 zoo-goers who felt they were swindled to lose the locally treasured beast that was a source of cultural fascination and pride:
If the stuffed elephant at the Crystal Palace exhibited in “native” costume as an elegant conveyance, amidst 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 seized on again and rehabilitated, in the three-ring circus of the Trump Presidency?
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, elevating its enormous trunk emphastically, as if to communicate its power.
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. The 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.
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.
Could the nation forge a “red map” by a red elephant, sacrificing the pretense of consensus? The candidacy of a president is a very different matter; the red alliance the map purports to show is far more purple, but far less frozen in time. Yet the power of preserving an alliance of red states was so cartographically powerful that the red elephant seemed, in the summer of 2020, the new destiny of an allegedly invigorated Republican party and a reborn GOP, rooted, it was hoped, in the shoring up of the political fracturing of the county–although the divide of the nation did not break with a comparable illusion of territorial magnitude, or even break, as we know now, Donald Trump’s way.
If the shoring up the old electoral map of victory was the subtext of the convention, the hopes to continue an alliance across red states was hopefully embodied in the pure red elephant that pranced before viewers’ eyes.
The rearing elephant shopped around in committee and reviewed by experts for a Convention was to be the center of planned as a live event, and may have provided a far more powerful logo. The planning of convention spots was hurriedly improvised in the unexpected shift to television, as the President reached out to two close assistants of Mark Burnett, the former paratrooper who had hit it big as producer of Celebrity Apprentice, who had already once resurrected Donald Trump’s career. (After Burnett had made his mark in America by marketing “Survivor,” a cross between “The Swiss Family Robinson” and “Lord of the Flies,” often criticized as “fascist television” by critics, and wanted to transpose the tempo of a show whose contestants were systematically eliminated to an urban setting–that led the producer to contact Donald Trump as its fourth season was closing, as he planned a new show about Trump’s persona that was to the The Apprentice. ) Burnett associates were brought onboard by the GOP for an uptempo convention at Trump’s personal insistence arrived to oversee its video production in concert with White House staff for the four nights of the convention from August 24-28 in Charlotte, North Carolina, to create an architecture of a vision of the nation.
While the management of the convention may have marginalized the ascendant elephant, its invigorated form was hoped, P.T. Barnum-style, to distract television audiences from unease at police violence, racial profiling, and failure to manage the advance of COVID-19 across the nation. The party’s appeal threatened to fall flat. Alexandria Occasio-Cortez implored progressives to retake the mascot as “elephants deserve so much better” and adopt the political iconography that Republicans had remade at their convention as an avatar of Trump’s party, nothing rightfully the dissonance of a mascot deserving better “bc they are compassionate, empathetic creatures w nuanced social structures,” the herd mentality was on hand in ways that seemed to erase any notion of political memory, as the Convention agreed to adopt the same platform as in 2016, leading her to suggest that an animal that showed no regard for others–and a stubborn obstinacy and lumbering lack of care made the honey badger a far more fitting avatar and meme. Occasio-Cortez brilliantly skewered the inappropriate ways the party at pains to create the appearance of compassion that ran against its own–and Trump’s!–character, the elephant must have appealed as a single-minded bleating animal–hardly the stoic conservative emblem of a party familiar from earlier years, but had been the result of some introspection at how to “modernize” the icon of the party that had tried to rebrand itself as “Grand New Party” and not GOP, into a decidedly modern form that recuperated the winking circus performer of the past.
The attempt to invigorate the elephant never really got off the ground as it tried to reinvent itself in the Trump era–toying with the notion of insisting its initials were “Government of the People”–Lincoln’s phrase–but trying to call itself a Party of the Future, or simply “Our Party,” to instill an over-exaggeratedly forward-looking quality of truly cartoonish qualities, long absent from the four-legged beast, suggesting its considerate eagerness and insatiability, balancing any sense of its blue bloodedness squarely on four red legs.
4. The new re-design of the Party of Trump, however, that the red elephant was an invitation to the 2020 Convention of even more circus-like qualities, robustly announcing its identity as the product of red states.
Nurturing a mythical past of “sovereign states” that has been fueled by states’ rights activists, seeking grounds to retain separateness from federal oversight in everything from voting rights, health care, gun control, to public health mandates, in a crisis of managing relations of national jurisprudence to increasingly tenuous conceptions of states rights. The election of a states’ rights President committed to defend the protection of regional practices had created a crisis of jurisprudence that culminated in the balance of the nation’s highest court, and encouraged the concept of secession–in ways counterbalanced by the elevation of an elephant.
The prancing elephant had attempted the magic trick of concealing the deep fractures in the nation. The threat was perhaps no better incarnated for Republicans eager to redefine the party not in the social justice protests but in the social media groups, now banned by Facebook and Twitter but once nourished in the silos both provided in virtual space, that glorified secession as the logical consequence of earlier electoral maps–by using crude GIS software to trace new outlines of a new nation recuperating the continuity of red states. In the movement that nourished and nurtured a possibility of secession that led to the Siege of the Capitol to stay the certification of the. 2020 Presidential election, as crowds at the “Save America March” moved from the Ellipse to storm the Capitol Building and enter the Rotunda, the imagery of a Republic bounded by alternate sovereign borders tried to affirm their ties to the seat of American government to deny the transfer of power.
Groups often carrying Gadsden Flags to dignify their aggression as defiance in a symbol of secession that echoed the defense of liberties elided with the confederacy, but that embodied on social media as a secessionist movement that legitimized “rights” for owning guns and often identified with white resentment–an association heightened by its accompaniment by Confederate flags, also born by protesters who stormed state capitols in Pennsylvania, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, and California in a momentary flash of a fantasy of a red state sovereignty: the snake, a symbol of the resilience that Benjamin Franklin adopted as a rallying call to join the revolutionary arm, before Christopher Gadsden refashioned it as a flag, electrified audiences as a defense of local rights in danger of eclipse.
Extending the logic of a divide between “red” and “blue” states to a new level by suggesting a “red state” that might emerge, fully born, out of the former United States, as its own sovereign entity, a rhetoric of defending liberties had been bent to new ends in the declaration of sovereign borders. The promotion of a “sovereignty” as able to be mapped by a Border Wall had provided the basis for defining a new sense of states as sovereign entities, in a tortured logic of many, free from the yoke of federal control, where the talons of the imperial eagle adopted by the early republic might be holding AK47’s as laurels. The image of Sovereign States iconography was perhaps rooted in Texas, but the Gadsden flag belief in the right of unilaterally abolishing the existing governmental form and instituting a new government–fundamental in the Siege of the Capitol of January 6, 2021, incited at the conclusion of the Save America March, that was hatched online for weeks before on websites offering travel routes to Washington, DC–bent to its own end the once optimistic assertions that affirmed sovereign agency to redefine the nature of sovereign rule outside the political language of monarchy.
Online forums had bolstered a sense of sovereign separation, if not secession, in championing the precedent of “sovereign states” that, while not clearly mapping onto red states, suggested a streak of independence that had shrugged off centralized federal power, in the improbable configuration of a constellation of states from federal oversight–as gun ammunition websites championed the alternative history of “a rich history of sovereign states outside the control of the federal government”–celebrating a false genealogy of sovereign states in American history that glorified the independence of states’ rights as a secret map to American sovereignty that disaggregated the federal government as a cartographic rebuttal to federal oversight of voting rights and gun control laws via the “obscure history” of how ten independent states joined the union.
Would the notion of such disaggregated federal control provide a precedent for the protests that spread against the orderly transition of power on January 6, 2021? It certainly elevated the idea that only Donald Trump could unite the union in ways able to preserve and respect states’ rights. The birth of a legend of declaring sovereignty articulated on the virtual space social media to reify electoral divides created a sovereign divide that spilled over into real life in the storming of institutions of public government in the Siege of Capitol, or Storming of Capitol Hill, as social media groups mobilized on Gab and Parler, as much as Facebook and Twitter, marched to the seat of government, in an ecstasy of the dying throes of celebrating their ties to the final days of the Trump regime. A crowd enflamed by Trump’s tweet his Vice “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done” opened chants of “Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump!” Don, Jr. vented with frustration that gave voice to his father’s tortured logic when he exhorted the “Save America” crowd that “This is Donald Trump’s Republican party!” The attempt to assert the personal affective ties of leader to Party were more familiar from totalitarian pasts, but seemed to fit Trump, even if the insatiability of the elephant could not even encompass the insatiable concentration of power in the executive Trump desired, ever the insatiable beast which Kipling famously attributed its acquisition of a trunk to ‘satiable curiosity.
The personal bonds of leader to party had been hoped to be incarnated in an elephant that however improbably seemed able to defy gravity and rise into the air, ascendant in the empyrean. Even in late August, 2020, Donald Trump realized the high stakes of collective bonding to the nation. Pubic messaging faltered in the coronavirus pandemic even as it struggled to remain smooth. Hope that the stars would align to create a red-state electoral map again stretching from Arizona to Maine, down to Florida, seemed subliminally encoded in the imaginary constellation of five stars embedded in the bright red elephant designed for the 2020 Republican Convention to celebrate the rebrand the GOP as a Party of Trump. But the deeply racist origins of the party symbol, long purged by the mainstreaming of the pachyderm as a partisan icon, seem to reveal its racist lineage in a strategy based on rebranding the Republican Party as a red elephant in the heart of the Old South: newly star-studded to reflect the energy of the party, and its motivation in extending the Trump era, and almost recalling a double-“V” of victory as an astrological variant on national destiny, the design that Rona McDaniel promoted as a reflection of the vitality of the “traditions of the Republican Party” all but concealed the lack of interest in a convention whose triumphalism concealed that Trump faced no serious challenge.
There was no move to foreground a change in the party’s political platform, but the inauguration of a new symbol of the party, as if to prepare for the inauguration of a President with life-long ambitions, was short on the associations of elephants and memory than a new image of triumphalism, or a compelling bread-and-circuses forum to promote the inevitability of Trump’s candidacy as a vibrant occasion as the body politic suffered. The red elephant newly resurgent was something of a new vision of a “red body politic,” incarnating the will of red states as much as traditions of a party increasingly associated with White Supremacy, alt right blowhards, vitriolic racism, and capitalist mega-corporations, but now star-studded as if in an attempt to prevent the elephant fleeing the convention from running, as Stampy the elephant, past cheering Republicans celebrating they were “just plain evil,” back in 1994 episode, before being sent to a game reserve: if the 2020 actual convention might as well admit, twenty-six years later, to being “just plain evil,” the iconic elephant that was displayed onstage and television screens soared above the more pedestrian issues of the day.
Unlike Stampy, the red elephant seemed able to levitate above the grey experience of dark days of America in its incarnation of an American political party, if with selective amnesia about the past of an elephant whose first design as an icon of the party, as the extension of equal rights to black men were rolled back, the “White Elephant” was celebrated as an icon of purity, and a noble blanching of the African elephants popular in American circuses, and for Thomas Nast offered audiences an alternate icon to the Democratic donkey–of nobility and moral high grounds Republican traditions of whiteness were not on show in a red elephant rousing red states for Republican transcendence of a riven body politic, where official speeches, and endorsers responded to Democrats’ commitment to racial equity and equality, foregrounded claims that “America is not a racist country,” as Niki Haley put it, raising the specter of a decline into anarchy a democratic victory would bring, and the boisterousness of a red pachyderm. When one of the first speakers at the convention, the fear of the potential raging of African Americans or the violent destruction of property that many at the convention invoked in reference to social justice protests, was paired with the bizarre reference to enslavement as the status quo of the Democratic Party in 2020, by asserting that “The Democratic Party does not want Black people to leave their mental plantation.” Among personal assurances “Donald Trump is not a racist” but benevolently took a quarterback and kids to Disneyland, as he tried to rebrand Donald Trump. It was striking that the party was being rebranded at the same time, as if to foreground its purity of walking in lockstep.
And the very ancient neo-imperial emblem of the elephant seemed to be prematurely announcing the victory of the Republican Party, the elephant seemed especially oblivious of the freighted associations of what was long a quite openly racist icon of the Grand Old Party since it was adopted in 1884, at the height of Reconstruction after the U.S. Civil War.
5. The roots of the party mascot as a circus elephant was proverbially linked not just to the political circus, but tapped again for a forum o political entertainment in Charlotte, NC when it was introduced, as a spectacle that would distract from the rising toll on Americans of COVID-19. The coronavirus pandemic remained the proverbial “elephant in the room” during the convention, not addressing a topic of potential controversy for a President dependent on staging rallies around the nation.
It remained almost ever-present at the 2020 Convention, as if the pachyderm presented a forward-facing emblem that confirmed the party’s identity. Its presence masked the recognition of the transformation of the iconic tricolor elephant to a party to red hue, anticipating the ‘red’ nation that the party’s victory would represent: a red monolith, showing signs of vitality, distanced from any actual elephant, but staging the elephant as a made-for-TV image, unlike, say, the “Victory Elephant” at Cleveland in 2016, which seemed indeed a different political animal of red, white and blue.
The monocular elephant expressed the promotion of “red state” interests at the convention, in place of a party platform, and appeared onstage above the American flag, not resembling an actual elephant, but iconic symbol of onward advancement, in a hybrid between its circus origins and military charge, behind each speaker from Donald J. Trump to Don Jr, to Charlie Kirk, to select prime-time speakers to appeal to his constituency, not anticipating an acceptance speech to represent the party, but absorb adulation for his idea of the party as defending rights to gun ownership, a narrative of American progress, unlike the “darkest and angriest convention in American history” in a form that seemed to accept his destiny as the “bodyguard of American civilization.” Was the elephant not reborn as a totem for the strong sort of leadership Kirk assured Trump would provide, willing to fight and to advance toward combat with the other party.
The elephant was far from the associations of the elephant with a pacific beast, but an icon that communicated the personal strength of the nominee, rather than a collective party policy, and newly glistening nature of the icon was oddly absent from this most stage-managed of conventions. Trump had hired associates of Mark Burnett to coordinate with White House staff to make the Convention 2020 the sort of “gripping TV show” they had created for fifteen seasons of The Apprentice, through artful combination of pre-taped and live speeches featuring mostly non-political figures–and although Burnett denied speculation that he was involved. Burnett’s associates were heavily compensated for ensuring the seamlessness of the scale-backed convention for as broad an audience as possible. Burnett himself had distanced himself from Trump recently, but Trump revered him for his ability to “impose retrospective logic on the chaos” of the boardroom sections of Trump’s successful TV Show, as James Poniewozik wrote–shaping the format of The Apprentice from 2011. Was his presence felt in what was billed as “the people’s convention,” in a Reality TV air, through the new sort of convention that his associates helped stage?
While other Presidential candidates had of course had slogans, Trump’s sense of branding had led him to promote his candidacy by a brand and a slogan–“America First”–of capacious and indeterminate meaning, as both a smokescreen to news coverage and as predetermining the information about his candidacy that his base would want to here. As if keen to tarnish his opponent as if their platform was against American greatness, Trump brandished the slogan as a grounds for his candidacy in a way that mobilized a slogan as a premise and brand: the roll-out that Trump’s partner in crime and long supporter RNC chair Ronna McDaniel to. a new elephant emblem for the party on August 1, heralding the unveiling in transactional terms as a way to promote the emblem of Charlotte with the sleek-skinned red pachyderm, while refusing to engage President Trump’s recent comment four foreign-born members of congress should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came”–presumably the “shithole countries”–rather than using their status as members of government to persist “viciously telling the people of the United Stats” how to organize their government, as if these members of the American government were not American. McDaniel unveiled the new brand for the party in the star-studded red elephant set atop the city’s emblem of the royal crown, as a presumably more “American” image of the nation.
2 responses to “To Levitate an Elephant”
“The fear of globalism was a steeped in internationalist rhetoric of ‘open borders.’ ” Open borders is no longer rhetoric, sir. What you caricatured in September 2020 as an irrational “fear” is now a brute reality for those affected by it. Just since Biden took office, an estimated one million unvetted persons have entered the US. They have overrun and trashed farms and ranches, spread COVID, tuberculosis, and other diseases around the US with taxpayer-funded courtesy transportation by the Biden administration, and engaged in myriad other illegal activities. And, by the end of 2021, it is estimated that there will be at least two million. Biden’s open-borders policy also facilitates the drug trade, child trafficking, and threats to our national security. This is the Democratic Party’s extremism on fully display.
Rhetorical terms are social instruments, and the rhetoric of a map is neither removed from actuality nor political ideas. Political rhetoric is however exploits how one understand actuality for political ends. This is why maps are of such interest to me, and imho