To Levitate an Elephant

The omnipresence of the elephant at the 2020 Republican Convention also masked that the quadruped not a generic mascot or arbitrary sign. The icon concealed buried if potent traces of racism and a quite creepy history of inequality, its circus origins a strand of Americana hardly untainted in its combined connotation of fun and partisan strength. An icon that had first signified party in post-reconstruction America turned a shoulder to deep racial inequalities within the nation, in ways that the current convention seemed to replicate, that left race the largest elephant not only in the room of the Convention, but the nation.

While the more traditional GOP quadruped once was an icon that bore the colors of the national flag, the elephant had, for some time, seemed a less pacific sort of beast. The icon with four feet stolidly placed upon the ground, if of imposing presence, had been transmitted as if it removed from history or valence save robust strength was in fact adopted at the very close of Reconstruction, from an actual widely exhibited elephant who had joined legendary American promoter P.T. Barnum’s traveling circus. Indeed, the elephant’s post-Reconstruction adoption as an image of party unity and pride paralleled the arrival in America of an albino elephant purchased from Bruma’s royal family to exhibit beside darker African bush elephants, attracting record-breaking crowds on Broadway in 1882, after advertising celebrated importation of “the largest elephant in the world.” The “white” identity of Toung Taloung reflected celebration of the Burmese Sacred Elephant tto be adopted in post-Reconstruction America of a quadruped as an icon of party unity.

The partisan beast was hardly arbitrary. For rather than an indeterminate emblem, the leaping red elephant that was resurrected at the 2020 Convention as an emblem of party purity had distinct historical valences. But if the skin-color of the pachyderm was not openly invoked in the 2020 Convention, as Barnum had boasted the whiteness an albino Burmese elephant he exhibited was more docile and well-tempered than its African cousins, the rising elephant was now a monolith, colored entirely red, as if it did not address race at all. The circus performer that was rehabilitated in a highly stage-managed convention bearing many bells and whistles of racist undertones, and demonization of the opposing “Democrat” party, subsumed any historical consciousness of skin-color in a solid red monolith mapped onto the continuity of red states in the 2016 election where Trump was victorious. As Republicans promoted a template of expanding the false continuity of the block of “red” states–

–as the key to victory, even as that masked increasingly atomistic politics of defining itself by a polarized electoral map rather than a nation.

The pure red elephant was a claim about partisan purity, and indeed seems to raise its trunk in triumphant celebration, as if celebrating the memory of the margin of electoral victory in 2016, five stars arrayed on its back in a “VV” for victory, oblivious to the divisions of race that interrupted its monochrome red as an icon of partisan identity.

The red elephant exulted as a monolith but concealed the increasingly atomistic nature of our politics, if one in which racial differences were subsumed or thought not to e so prominent, and held beneath he surface of an electoral continuity based in the Deep South, and those states Trump had so successfully “flipped’–conceals the close margins of the vote, or the elephant raised its trunk without heed for the tenuous nature of that block of red states which it seemed to embdy.

2016 Electoral College Results Mapped against Margins of Victory/Center for Politics

For it as the 2020 Republic Convention began, the coherence of the red elephant as effectivley endangered; the expanse of red states suggest the symbolic elephant might become endangered, putting problems of containing fragmentation of the 2016 electoral map on the front burner, and the margins of victory could not be counted to be replicated in a map.

National Public Radio, Biden Advantage Expands Beyond 270 Electoral Votes, August 3, 2020

The icon of the red elephant had, in fact, been recast only quite recently as the glue that would hold together a united party, by the purity of its red. While some interest arose about the Republican icon that was long assumed not to carry clear significance, it had long fans. Much speculation emerged as to what led it to be altered, circa 2000, to abandon the traditional icon of stars arrayed along its rump: online whispers grew at the downshifted and inverted stars of a right-facing elephant was copyrighted as the party emblem, –prompting concerned speculation online about the possibly malevolent intent of the symbol was perpetrated by a sort of secret society symbolism–possibly of diabolical connotations–generating responses disconcerted at the lack stability in the beast at odds with a party that had once prided straight talk:

Yet if the elephant was valued for its skills of memory, the red elephant seemed to show less cranial capacity when it was unveiled as a makeover for party identity. Abilities of memory seemed contracted in reclaiming its identity as a circus animal, reclaiming its roots in low-brow spectacle of P.T. Barnum as a form of truthful hyperbole, affirming itself as a site of spectacle by lifting its trunk in the air, front hooves of the ground, its flank emblazoned in five stars aligned in a sign of victory.

We have not recently looked closely at the stars in this abstract logo that seems a sleek embodiment of the American flag, But perhaps the internet made us look more closely at photoshopped details, altering our eyes and suspicions in new ways, as minor stylistic alterations assumed significance. Online conspiracy theories about the stars’ downward rotation smelled a corruption of patriotism, or a cryptic allusion to a pentagrammic symbol of satanism, offensive to a Christian Right–or revealing devious intent–that led the rebranding of the Republican Party after the Clinton years to be scrutinized on an internet awash with rumors of the diabolic nature of the feared influence of the Sigil of Baphomet, trademark of the Church of Satan, merging of black arts and party politics–if not Neo-pagan messages squirreled into the GOP’s message by unknown Democratic operatives, or revealing the rise of a hidden semiotic system preceding the cult of Q Anon’s pronouncements.

If the turning of the stars circa 2000 was tied to everything from satanism to Skull & Bones symbolism mirroring the ascendancy of George W. Bush in the party, the rebranding that followed Bush v. Gore seemed a sharp revision of the combativeness of the elephant, that had regained its tusks, whose form gained a curvature to suggest the robustness of the party–

–as the rightward-advancing pachyderm in the newly trademarked logo was both more animatedly moving, as if the red-white-and-blue elephant was sufficiently capacious for the party, stars shifted or not: the red elephant bearing five stars, as if for victory, seemed to replace the need for a platform when introduced at the 2020 Republican Convention.

Has the renewed prominence of the all-red elephant unveiled at the 2020 Republican Convention provided a means to lend coherence to a party increasingly atomized politics, around issues, constituencies, and without a platform, concealing voter suppression or gerrymandering as if it were a capacious container of fixed identity? The completely red pachyderm became part of the spectacle on the big stage as if to lend integrity to a party in the hyperpixillated politics of the age, and lend an illusion of integrity to a political system increasingly based on sectarian divisions, wedge issues, and ideological litmus tests, against the dark scrim of black backgrounds that only the elephant could redeem.

The emblem of the party animal masked the division of the body politic in the age of Trump, as it was necessary to subsume sectarianism within an increasingly stage-managed in the spectacle of party unity. THe elephant was elevated to the empyrean as if to bestow collective identity that belied a politics more defined by individual interests in a new symbol of party unity, masking divisions by glee at down-ballot voting. If our politics are increasingly disaggregated, identitarian and divisive, elevating an elephant seemed sufficiently capacious to distract by a sense of triumph. There was need for its symbolics given increasing pointillism of Republicans support for Trump in 2016, fragmented at its base–

The Upshot, 2016-Rpublican Voters estimated to Support Trump in Presidential Election

–that partly reflect the gerrymandered politics of an aggressively remade electoral map that was the partisan strategy of Redmap. More to the point, however, the habitat of the tusked quadruped seemed contracting.

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Filed under American Politics, electoral maps, Red states v. Blue States, Republican Convention, television

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