To Levitate an Elephant

Perhaps the map was not supposed to be colored red as a negative value, creating a semantic dissonance the President found cognitively troubling that the map he was used to seeing in electoral terms was suddenly afflicted in ways that forced him to change the plans to bring crowds to a convention that he had hoped to promote.

Doug Mills/New York Times

Even in shifting the convention to a highly mediated platform, he sought to downplay coronavirus as a threat, taking comfort that the number of new cases per thousand seemed localized, if he had recently impressed the importance of not counting infections lest the numbers be high.

7. Perhaps the Red Elephant would come to the rescue after all. The new emblem was displayed for public adulation by channeling Vanna White at the convention’s start. In the most choreographed of conventions, the brand of a rearing elephant was embraced by handlers keen about consciously and adeptly marketing his brand–and promoting a brand able to belie a declining national economy or public health crisis.

Could the nation’s spirits be raised by levitating an elephant to the skies, monumentalizing the pachyderm to assert the frayed body politic’s continued unity, in the face of all evidence to the contrary?

If the elephant in the room might have been COVID-19, or the poor reaction to the coronavirus that was overpowering American health policy and the most vulnerable populations, speakers called our attention to the possibility of a “shining city” that was to be on the horizon, if not a hill, even as jobless rates rose, violence divided the nation, and unfolding scandals, where the Cult of the Shining City is openly less inclusive, openly rooted in white identity, and rehabilitates dark links to the religious right in its revivalism: the badge of the red elephant.

The Republican emblem began as a partisan cartoon penned by the “father of American cartooning,” Thomas Nast, became the logo of the party in an era of print literacy, designating dignity, the Harpers cartoon suggested something akin to a circus was readily adopted in to promote partisan politics in paraphernalia of the Grand Old Party, less as an icon of strength and dignity, than an alternative to the chaos of the planks of a Democratic Party, from “Inflation” to “Reform”–

Thomas Nast, “Third-Term Panic” (1874), featuring The Republican Vote

The anthropomorphic icon of the Grand Old Party’s robust strength grew as a herd of elephants, a voting block whose coherence and allegiance promised stability in the face of fear, later associated with a forward slow march that embodied something like conservatism. If Nast shaped public opinion by his pen in 1874, the refiguring of this logo at the most mediated of all political conventions sought to fabricate an icon of triumphalism. If Nast was a master-editorialist at a time when the electoral map broke, divided by party, ten years later, in Scribners Weekly (1884), along a fault line seemingly too modern to be true, the elephant has assumed figural status embodying Republican hopes for the future.

Scribners Weekly, 1884

While what was Republican was imaged as oaf-like and broad-based, the increasingly red elephant seemed no longer a weight designed to anchor the Republic as “the Republican vote,” in woods where other animals ran wild, but a grandiose sense of tradition of party unity, as a super-political body that was able to preserve a right-thinking part of the nation as the political map grew increasingly starkly divided into contiguous chunks, able to be assembled not by a nation, but by the states that might–Alaska, Florida, Texas, West Virginia, Iowa, Tennessee, Oklahoma–be counted on to vote Republican, and the elephant was actually an fissile collage.

The emblem of consistency shifted in step with idealogy, folks feared, as the party’s logo reared its head again in 2020, far beyond the rotation of stars that was spotted in the suited elephant of 2000. By 2020, as if in deference to the battle between red and blue states, the GOP elephant shifted its costume to a uniform hue to a solid red, as in red states, that suddenly seemed a sign of intransigence and obstinacy.

If the elephant emblem was argued to be outdated in conoting consensus, capaciousness or its dignity and memory in the Age of Trump,–let alone the sense of sagaciousness of the wise elephant, seen as a sign of wisdom. As the partisan territoriality of “red states” entered the language as opposed to what were now termed “battle-ground states,” i.e., where the stakes of elections still mattered, the isomorphism between “red states” and Republicanism perhaps made the monochrome animal inevitable–as if to banish any trace of that elephant’s once had what might be seen as a blue brain–or casting the upper body and head bearing downward-facing stars red for his Trump-Pence 2020 campaign buttons–buttons designed as if to ensure more red than blue ink appeared on them, with red mapping the site of the elephant’s renowned cranial capacity.

The very choice of an endangered species was noted to be particularly poor taste in an era when the habitats and ecosystems in which African and Asian elephants live are threatened by climate change and global warming that the party has now come to deny.

8. Did not a purely red elephant in 2020 parallel an increased isolationist identity of the GOP? Surely “red” was only acceptable after the Cold War was over, and the “red state” became a basis for authenticity as much as a dignity, ready to be sacrificed amidst aspirations to embody broad-based consensus. Already by 2004, the elephant was advancing in a field of red, as if the banner for a separatist group of “red states” as the term entered common parlance from party strategists. In part, the fact that only three states changed “color” between the 2000 to 2004 elections led the terms to be almost naturalized, after blue state/red state became a structural national characteristic after being popularized in 2000, in an apparent inheritance of Bush v. Gore, which has born such fruit for the nation; the apparent alternation in color aligned party between 1976 to 2004 seems to have meant that the elephant was not uniformly red, as independent broadcast networks were ten influential enough to alternate chromatic conventions to avoid favoritism by the media.

The refashioned elephant unveiled at the Republican Convention was aspirational: the rearing or roaring elephant seemed almost imperial, in an unavoidably odd echo of a Lion Rampant, as if clinging to an old image of national pride resisting global change with its claws drawn.

It was hardly a surprise 2020 branded a rearing elephant, five stars now inverted upright on its back, to provide a visual attraction for glossing and interpretation. While designed ostensibly to foreground “a five star experience” that would await those attending the 2020 GOP Convention, offering to showcase a city and an “experience,” far more than affirming a party or integrity in a Presidential candidate.

Perhaps for a President whose favored rhetorical trope is creative hyperbole, application of unneeded modifiers capture the rhetorical figure where one might best locate Trump’s ascendancy; the red elephant was a field of insistent self-promotion of Trump’s skill at the branding excess. The hyperbolic elephant cast as a constellation to illustrate the fate of the party, and the showman’s ability to levitate a concept as heavy as an elephant to an asterism to promote his brand, or to promote a substitute for a party platform whose five starts seem to float in the sky–

2020 Republican Party Logo

–as a constellation of the new Republican Party, deifying a President fresh from South Dakota who only half-jokingly claimed his place on Mt. Rushmore as an apotheosis of his Presidency, as a new Augustus.

Was the ascendance of the RNC–as much as GOP–as a new form of heavenly ascension–

Cassiopeia

–that seemingly inscribed the future of the party in an astrological map, as much as an electoral one?

If so, it demanded little imagination to be seen as elevating the elephant to the firmament of the party.

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

As if to raise the eyes of the party faithful to the skies, the new star-studded elephant, proclaimed Ronna McDaniel, would as be a logo that “reflects both the energy of this vibrant city and traditions of the Republican Party” that had joined itself to the fate of Trump and All Things Trump, as a candidate lacking serious opposition transformed the convention into a coronation, and placed th rearing elephant before a crown,ostensibly to acknowledge the North Carolina city named after Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, but situating a prancing elephant with trunk raised before the crown in ways suggestive of the transformation of the Republican Convention into a coronation.

9. Could the elephant assume a sense of destiny? The pseudo-astrological status of this new constellation-like pachyderm, if an imagined constellation that hardly looked pachydermal, raised challenging questions of how to imagine an airborne 8-13,000 pound animal in the sky, seemed a sort of prognostication. Was a pseudo-astrological animal a map for the party’s future, or a promulgation of the nation’s destiny?

Although a far cry from how Barnum subsumed the elephant into debates about race in the late nineteenth century, a century after the first Bengal elephant was exhibited on American shores, the elephant Nast depicted was not only part of a menagerie of Americana, but an icon of sacred whiteness. Nast seems to have adopted the elephant to suggest the political circus in which a sitting President sought to break with tradition by seeking a third term, but the elevation of the elephant as if an astrological sign seem akin to an apotheosis of The Donald–the ultimate in pronounced showmanship. The attempt to elevate the endangered pachyderm into the zodiacal astrological panoply Roman and Arabic astronomers had discerned in the starry night sky seemed a stretch. Or is the nation facing a far diminished imagination in accepting the fire stars as a convincing symbol to locate an elephant in the empyrean, even if it didn’t appear in the sky?

Albrecht Dürer, Celestial Map (Northern Hemisphere), 1515

The new emblem seems, indeed, the ultimate in con jobs. Not only is the elephant is not an astrological sign familiar to Renaissance eyes, but few television viewers would be aware of its place in the ancient Mahabote zodiac and Myanmar astrological chart; the tuskless variety does, by coincidence, align with the unconventional values of a platform-free convention of the sort Republicans adopted in 2020, it its versatility and unconventional nature, if the use of the tusked elephant that was insistent on being in control of its own destiny, unpredictable, and a true risk-taker guided by his passions might be quite apt indeed.

The ancient Myanmar monks revered the tusked and tuskless elephants alike as powerful symbols, and the candidate was demanding as much, in a convention that balanced deep desires to control a platform with great tragedy that the elephant had ever ascended to the nation’s fated destiny.

August 24, 2020/Travis Dove, AFP

The elephant was certainly a figure of a celebration exceeding expectations, rising hopes for vitality often absent from the old logo of the GOP in that most mediated of conventions. The image of the elephant cunningly was a cypher of a star chart, seeking to recover a lost dignity twinned to a sense of destiny in keeping with the royalist tone of the convention coronating the Trump family’s platform-free convention. And although the astrological configuration of an elephant did not appear in the sky, it augured an astrologically determined destiny for the future, so clearly did the party demand obeisance and veneration to a regal Prince.

10. Veneration of the elephant as a sacred being that walked the ground was on the surface as distanced from the new logo as could be. The values of the rearing pachyderm were left intentionally vague, as the five stars that were pasted on its hide, but seemed a smoke and mirrors for ascendance, rather than a true figure of strength. It is hard to imagine the ascendance of the elephant as something as ill-fated as Hannibal trying to cross the Alps by imagining the pacific animal transported out of its habitat to serve as a military machine. But the very values of the elphant as the kindred spirit of the elephant as “tenacious, stubborn, virile, and powerful” echoed how the candidate surely wanted to promote as an aspect in all things Trump, the reduction of the population ranges of actual elephants to an actual rump suggests the tragic fate of actual elephants in an increasingly overdeveloped world.

The question of whether the Republican Party indeed deserves the elephant as an emblem might be glanced at in conclusion. For the rearing elephant might may be raging against projected extinction, if this was far from GOP delegates’ minds as could be. For the last decade has seen the pronounced drop of populations of wild elephants by over 60%–a decline that pops out of the map, as many face extinction in the broad lands once inhabited by roaming herds from the Savannah to the rainforests, restricted to ever-diminishing parcels of undeveloped land. A rearing elephant in the logo suggested awareness of habitat loss, poaching, and the fragmentation of historic routes of elephant migration was of course hardly the intent of designers seeking to rebrand the party: the GOP would be more likely to open areas of active trade of ivory tusks.

Rejecting global warming is codified in the party without a platform, despite decreasing habitat of actual living elephants in African landscapes have fragmented, devastating elephant populations, already set back by poaching, and development; a real-world census tracking landscapes of the loss of elephant populations reveals the extent of decimation, with declines over 5% annually in red, and 2-5% orange, with tourist sites as Tanzania and Mozambique experiencing high casualties and loss, as homes of herds in the Northeast Democratic Republic of Congo and southwestern Zambia now lie on the edge of extinction.

Great Elephant Census

The declining populations of pachyderms was not on the table at the convention, and was farthest than most other things from delegates’ minds, even if it might not deserve to be so marginalized.

The elevation of the GOP elephant was a floating signifier and odd icon of the political firmament that had ascended from a caricature to political symbolism, by branding the hide of the elephant “GOP” in ways that later became a brand. Such symbolic appropriation is deeply disrespectful to the habitat of the noble roaming beast, and sequestered in a fixed, and apparently narrowing, region of our own country, ill-fitting for many and with diminishing dignity.

The intent to capture echoes of astrology–even if the charge of satanism remained more real to some–recuperate an upward pointing star, but recast the pachyderm as a candidate for a constellation or future foretold–even if the five stars hardly suggested the elephant’s body or raised trunk in ways that might be clearly or definitively read, as daily terrible stories of impending famine and anarchy only compel us to try to look hopefully for any possible auspicious signs of a better future in the stars.

Elephant’s Trunk Nebula (IC 1396) in Cepheus

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

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