To Levitate an Elephant

Widespread gerrymandering, adopted as if normal politics, accentuated a sense of political partisan fragmentation has created a need to mask the level of dissensus in the body politic, for which a sleek elephant may fit the bill. The extent of political fragmentation was perhaps nicely illustrated on a county-level in the shift of voting preferences from the the 2016 Presidential election to the 2018 midterms, which placed a premium for the 2020 Republican convention to bridge a fragmentation in Republican constituencies who’s support seemed spotty to say the least–as the habitat of the elephant seems drastically diminished.

Cartometricic Analysis by William H. Frewy of David Leip’s Atlas of Presidential Elections

Perhaps the only hope was to raise an elephant to the empyrean, to paint a convincing image of as a identitarian emblem of partisan destiny, as speakers offered a revisionist history of the past summer, replete with violent mobs besieging cities, increasingly engulfed by “chaos and violence,” with nary a mention of COVID-19, save a gratuitous baseless promise of providing all with a vaccine by the year’s end, two months or so after the election. The promise to elevate our heritage occurred before a new image of an elephant, rearing its trunk, but oddly disembodied in red outline, far less interested in managing problems than in preening, seemed to resurrect the the circus animal in all of its hyperbole.

GOP 2020 Convention, detail of photo (c) Travis Dove/AP

A prancing quadruped raising its trunk was a jarring illustration of law and order that seemed to gesture more than previous years to the circus origins that placed the figure of elephant in American culture since the late nineteenth century, the period usually identified as Reconstruction. The recent alteration of the elephant as an emblem of party however extended how the beast had understandably morphed online, in ways that seemed to accept its origins as a circus animal, but belied the very color difference Barnum staged among elephants he exhibited in 1884, by importing at great expense a white elephant to be exhibited in his traveling shows. American cartoonist Thomas Nast, the great editorialist of the pen, and inventor of political caricatures, adopted the authenticity of a white elephant provided an anthropomorphic icon of partisan politics to invest the Grand Old Party with a grandeur the Party was somewhat surprisingly happy to adopt to define itself. As much as advocating color blindness, the docile Sacred Elephant made race central to partisan identity, if in ways that the icon was long shipped.

Barnum’s shows were staples of Americana, and the exhibition of the elephant was embedded in race–a frequent topic of popular entertainment and circus menageries, in odd balance in Nast’s own use of the elephant as a partisan icon, embodying the immensity and power of the Republican Vote. If the elephant had been a large popular attraction to boost attendance at the circus, the truculent quadruped was depicted by Nast as unloosed in its rage in reaction to rumors of a third term as under consideration for the popular President Grant, who had poorly managed the rise of resistance to Reconstruction, and as a political neophyte found an administration plagued by corruption.

Thomas Nast, “Republican Vote” from “Third Party Panic” (1874)

What genealogy of the elephant engaged by the new rebranding of the Republican elephant, long an icon of Republican identity at the 2020 Republican convention, now leaping into the air as if elevated with new sprint in its step, as a swoosh of tusked red? In an era that maps “so called Republicans” who refuse to repeal Obamacare over President Trump’s wishes, as Trump surrogates condemned all who doubted in 2016, the red-suited elephant matched red states’ increasing purity tests for party loyalty. The pure red elephant was itself an icon of purity.

Unlike the joyous icon of Wendell Wilkie, who embraced the elephant in mementos for donors, a beast of the party unabashed of its middle-brow origins in a circus ring, who extended an elongated trunk in unbounded optimism, the red elephant is far less fun or ebullient, but oddly weighty even if aspiring to the skies–far less combatively or truculently.

–or the similarly ebullient elephant with affiliation to Eisenhower, printed on popular handkerchiefs, in a “campaign on cotton.”

1. The mutation of the elephant to a politics of triumphalism in the 2020 Republican convention had precedent. But it seemed to map the coherence of the party as an alternate body for the endangered body politic, where racial differences didn’t exist, but we were spectators of a show: was the adopting the animal an eery white-washing of race in America, taking a symbol of a large voting block to a symbol of strength, purifying the elephant of its African origins? While elephants were long associated with triumphalism, as far back as Hannibal, were elephant seemed conducive to promoting the vision of a “law and order” President as if he were crossing the Alps, riding a troop of elephants of Republican voters not to impose peace and harmony on Gaul, but channel fascist talking points on the need for more law and order in American society? Bedecked with five oddly placed stars that recall its circus heritage the advancing elephant unveiled in Charlotte, NC suggested a march of red states across the electoral map, more than a show for partisan unity. The new triumphalism of this royal elephant unveiled at the Republican Convention was now adorned with stars, purged of blue, and seemed more separate than ever from the semiotics of national flag–and animated the long-dormant elephant in a new language of graphic design.

Or what seemed a new image for an old party, injected with new energy. Despite its symbolic degeneration of the elephant as a symbol of party If coded fears underlay and racialized policing were implicit in the “law and order” persona that the President invoked, the origins of the elephant in the cartooning of Thomas Nast from the 1870s to 1880s. For Nast seems to have codified the elephant as an icon of the Republican Party with considerable power in 1884, when “The Sacred Elephant” appeared in circus-like regalia the front page of Harper’s Weekly as an image of the party’s dignity. The image of “The Sacred Elephant” suggested the stakes of leadership of the party to which Nast belonged at what seemed a juncture of its identity. The cartoon referenced the elephant as an image of probity in the same year that the albino elephant Toung Taloung arrived in New York with much promotion from P.T. Barnum, who was promoted as a more civil and pacific sort of elephant–colored white, unlike the African pachyderm, joining the touring American circus years after the African elephant Jumbo had become the centerpiece of his show: described as “Mr. Barnum’s White Burmese Elephant’ in the popular press, as TRhe Graphic, the tools of lithography were used to showcase the curiosity of the elephant’s appearance, showcased beside its keeper dressed in white.

“Mr Barnum’s White Burmese White Elephant, “Toung Taloung,” The Graphic Manuary 26, 1884

1. The term “party animals” has a long history, indeed, immersed in the embedding of four-legged circus performers that responded to national debates about race, and racial identity, that P.T. Barnum had openly courted by promoting the addition of a new elephant in the year that Nast used the four-legged beast as an emblem of the party’s dignity. The circus that would become known as “The Greatest Show on Earth” in the 1920s exploited recent interest in the so-called sacred elephants of Siam, who were viewed as a new variety of animal from the larger African elephants, long prized for their mimicry as circus performers, and the ability to train them to lift people with their trunk, move in formation, or even stand in pyramids, provided Barnum with what he hoped was a distinct spectacle at the height of the debates about the institution of “Separate but Equal” policies in the United States, as the civil rights of blacks, guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, were questioned, and overturned. Exhibition of a “purified” white elephant was presented as a display of popular scientific interest, but mirrored the significance of a color line migrated to the animal kingdom, and to a global canvas.

Even if the elephant was not properly “white,” the shock of an elephant distinguished from his African counterpart–an albino elephant of a smaller variety–became spectacular attraction at the end of Reconstruction. Described as more pacific and civilized than its African cousin, curried public fantasias of race and racial identity in ways that Barnum must have been conscious, and extended the interest in elephants as performing icons and . The attraction of the elephant had been boosted in Barnum’s show, and indeed the 18881 unveiling of a “wooden elephant” in South Atlantic City, by land speculator and inventor James Vincent de Paul Lafferty, whose legs contained stairs that led to separate rooms in a body “floored and divided into rooms,” even as it received a patent in December, 1882, leading to its unseeing as a floors unveiling of a “wooden elephant” on the shores of South Atlantic City by land speculator, engineer, and inventor James Lafferty must have encouraged the circus promoter to seize on the expensive purchase of a “certified white elephant” imported by ship long associated with the remote Kingdom of Siam–or, as it was then known as a colony, Burma.

The variety of elephant described as more civilized and sacred than the African species, and to enjoy privileges at the Siamese court where it was serenaded to sleep and fed by attendants. All albino elephants were declared royal property in Burma, and the honored beast gained a new status from other circus animals from the moment of its arrival. If Lafferty had displayed a large wooden elephant on the shore of “South Atlantic City”–amidst sandy lots of beach grass, scrub pine, and bayberry bushes in a gambit to attract interest to the site that made constructing an elephant using several rooms worth the investment of $40,000 on a giant wooden quadruped as an attraction, the attraction was matched by Barnum’s purchase of an elephant with white patches on its forehead and trunk in 1883 for $200,000 from Rangoon, whose “qualified whiteness” akin to the biracial mulatto, that would set it apart from African elephants as from “full blooded blacks” or “black” African elephants. As much as an exotic animal, the elephant Barnum displayed was a mirror refracting attitudes toward race, brought from a new colonial context.

While the arrival was not to be compared with the feats of strength of the African elephant Barnum had shipped stateside, the agents who procured the elephant helped introduce the foreign beast to a party icon designed to provoke barely tacit debate over its “so-called whiteness” and Barnum argued an inescapably racialized descriptor might be judiciously applied to the elephant’s whiteness, although they should visit the show themselves to judge, practiced as he was in exploiting race in spectacles that promoted pseudo-scientific justifications of racial hierarchy to entertain audiences by confirming their superiority–even if the skin of the elephant was long seen as grey, the white elephant “whose color of the negro’s palm,” as a contemporary put it, could be presented as worthy of worship in Siam by virtue of its skin color, and whose distinctive skin pigmentation made it an object of curiosity worthy of public display.

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

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