To Levitate an Elephant

9. 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.

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 identitarian emblem of partisan destiny. The stoic images of pachyderms vanished, before 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 fairly sudden unveiling of a chromatic 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, beside a keeper dressed in pure white robes.

“Mr Barnum’s White Burmese White Elephant, ‘Toung Taloung,'” The Graphic Jan. 26, 1884

10. 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 the Harpers editorial cartoonist Nast employed the four-legged beast s an emblem of the party’s search for dignity, stolidity and stoic grace in the face of open graft and political corruption during Reconstruction, when many of the ideals of an end of racial enslavement and an extension of voting rights were sacrificed during the growth of a new gilded age.

Politics and circus games were elided in Nast’s anthropomorphic choice of an elephant, but in ways that barely suppressed open racism curried by exhibiting Toung Taloung beside African grey elephants as by a promoter who hardly hesitated to present a faux cosmopolitanism that barely concealed racial prejudice. 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.

11. The Sacred Elephant Phineas Barnum imported at personal cost gain increased attraction during sunset of Reconstruction as an icon: as questions of race and the extensive of rights to former slaves were debated in America, audiences came to question the whiteness of the “white elephant” whose “whiteness” was conflated with its sacrality or sacred nature. Barnum affirmed the sacred nature of the beast argued to be venerated in Burma’s court to promote the arrival of a white elephant his agent had bought from King Thibau Min of Burma, Toung Taloung, who was in transit via the Suez Canal to New York.

Nast loved depicting animals, but his latest anthropomorphic cartoon shifted the circus animal to a costumed elephant embodying principles sacred to the party, in ways that courted anxieties over racial identity that the circus impresario stirred up about the latest elephant he had bought. For Barnum openly courted public fascination with the ostensibly edifying spectacle of a “a technical white elephant” by acknowledging “there is no such thing as a really pure white elephant” but encouraging audiences to judge its purity. Already appearing in Scientific American in March, 1884, the quadruped curried questions of race, by repurposing of the popular image from the London press. Barnum’s new elephant was shown with an attendant of color, tusks intact, as an object of popular science that prominently engaged how American society had begun to essentialize racial differences in public space by a strong color line. On which side o the color line would this “white” elephant fall, and how accurate was the term used to differentiate human skin color? Barnum wanted to assure his audiences that the new pachyderm broke expectations by belonging to a more civilized, kinder, gentler race.

Drawing of Toung Taloung, after the London Graphic, Scientific American, Supplement
(New York, March 1884)

Nast tapped Barnum’s promoting skills in using a Sacred Elephant as a symbol of party purity. Barnum had peaked curiosity in white elephants, venerated in Siam, stoked wide speculation about its relation to the “black” African variety, inviting white circus audiences to judge Toung Taloung’s whiteness for themselves in a spectacle of popularized racial sciences. For by judging racial differences and the depth of epidermal identity, Barnum invited pubic audiences compare differences between the one venerated in Siam and a member of court society in Siam and its African cousin as a scientific difference echoing skin color, even displaying elephants side by side as a responsible showman, for audiences to classify by themselves. Vieled for exhibition, as if to curry interest in the “whiteness” most seen on its forehead and trunk, Toung Taloung was presented as a

The Graphic: An Illlustrated Newsletter, January 26 1884

And the appeal that he made to audiences was in the air by the time that Nast used a powerful image of the Sacred Elephant to represent the Republican Party in 1884, when the “separate but equal” policies encouraged by the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws were voided in public space, sanctioning segregation as well as the abridgment of constitutional rights by October 1883, the very year that P.T. Barnum brought a white elephant to display to a paying public so that it might view its difference from the African species. The circus ring conceit that there were two races of elephants was a curious extension of the color line that justified the restriction of civil rights in Reconstruction to the animal kingdom, and world. The voiding of civil rights believed guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment led to a century of institutions of race-based segregation, as the abolition of slavery was re-interpreted removed, as by Occam’s razor. In limiting the prohibition of enslavement from plans to segregate “Inns, public conveyances and places of public amusement,” including circuses of the sort where Toung Taloung was displayed, as the color lines that existed in times of slavery were perpetuated. As in a symbolic rehearsal of the issues at stake in questioning what race-based separations constituted a “badge of slavery or involuntary servitude . . . but at most, infringes rights,” the circumscribed liberties and Jim Crow laws rejected the belief that it was the role of a government “to mete out equal and exact justice to all, of whatever nativity, race, color, or persuasion,” that tabled civil rights in ways currently roiling the nation–a posture of legalizing segregated spaces that perhaps requires reparation, and has deep resonance.

The result was a deep remapping of public spaces across the country, which has been poorly registered in maps, in which Barnum’s choice to promote the exhibition of a Sacred Elephant as a central feature of his show came to occupy something close to center stage if it was only a circus show. Barnum was a part of Americana that the use of the elephant as a circus animal channeled in 1884, when the promise of the impending arrival of a real “white elephant”–the very Sacred Elephant in question–prized in Burma’s royal court, less as a democratic symbol than a form of purity. When Nash held up Barnum’s white elephant as an image of the probity of his Party, he compared the Republican’s purity to the albino elephant’s whiteness in ways that helped establish the four-legged beast as an icon of the Party. P.T. Barnum’s probity would be under public attack, in the course of 1884, as both historian Sarah Amato has argued and literary scholar Ross Bullen examined at greater length, using the characterization of the albino Toung Taloung as “white” to oppose the beast to African elephants in circus shows; the sacred nature of the pacific elephant was distinguished by its Siamese costume to highlighted its distinct skin coloration for crowds. In the wake of mixed reviews the animal shipped from Burma at great expense through the newly opened Suez Canal was exhibited in London’s Zoological Gardens, generated debate, Bullen argued, about its “whiteness” that Barnum used o attract as large an audience as possible in New York, affirming the “true whiteness” of the elephant.

The accuracy of using an adjective that during Reconstruction evoked race turned on Barnum’s willing mistranslation of the “chang puedk,” an it was known, as if he were a “racial imposter,” as the mottled flesh of the elephant Pearl of Siam led Barnum to fend off accusations of fraud and charges of deception. The exhibition of Toung Taloung intersected with fears of racial identity and authenticity in Reconstruction by provoking questions of race and truth that were struggled with daily, as the population was parsed in the official census-takers by percentages of African blood. Whereas many dismissed Barnum for the showmanship of announcing arrival of a “White Elephant” that had been briefly exhibited before being shipped to New York was not as “white” as current racial categories would imply. Were the deep anxieties about the legalization of racial barriers across much of the nation not enacted in what Bullen called the “Elephant Wars” of circus entrepreneurs? it is striking how the monochrome icon that debuted in recent years exploited similar anxieties about race and racial difference.

Barnum promoted the eagerness of audiences to judge for themselves to generate spin for the show that would be the next pachydermal act after “his mammoth predecessor” Jumbo had jointed his troupe. Front page articles heralded the arrival of the “Sacred Beast” for “the Great Moral Show” had led Barnum to rush anxiously from his inner office in Madison Square Garden to examine the elephant in New York harbor, shouting “Call a Cab! Notify the President!” as if this were an affair of state to se the certified sacred elephant “who has never shown the slightest indications of the savageness which is a characteristic of most elephants,” named “Gem of the Sky,” and not only “extremely gentle and docile” but bearing a signed certificate to be a sacred beast from the Second Minister of Royal Elephants that had been presented to the agents “of the Great Wealthy Man Barnum of America”: beside news of a contentious Republican convention, the front page headline “The Sacred Beast Here!” was accompanied by an attestation from Frank Vincent, former Consul to Siam and amateur naturalist, that Gem of the Sky was “one of the finest specimens of the sacred white elephant I ever saw in my life.” Vincent, who had a second career as an authority on the beast, had earlier attested in Harper’s, a state’s power grew the more sacred white elephants it owned, the sacred white Barnum imported may have provoked some anxiety as the promoter hadn’t yet seen the beast’s hue.

The “Sacred Elephant” Nast included prominently on the March 1884 predated ToungTaloung’s arrival on the cover of Harper’s Weekly. But it was already an image of the validity of the showman Barnum, who had shipped it via the newly opened Suez Canal to London with fanfare, and it was now on its way: the icon partisan probity appeared some three weeks before the anticipated arrival, but three months after Harper’s ran an article by the author of The Land of the White Elephant, promoting the sacred white elephant “we are told to expect in May” as not white per se, but of a “delicate shade which distinguishes the nose of a white horse” and “with a head the color of cochineal”–even if you would not know it from the cover of Vincent’s own 1882 illustrated book ignited interest.

And when the cartoonist included himself as presenting the sacred four-footed beast above the legend This animal is sure to win, if it is only kept pure and clean, and has not too heavy a load to carry,” the question of the truly sacred nature of the animal to party members affirmed its purity more than its whiteness: if the elephant, as yet unseen by Americans, was rumored to possibly be not pure white, the purity of the elephant was more at issue than its intersection with a racial phenotype, but the issue was probably unavoidably lying just beneath the surface: while religion was separate from politics, perhaps the veneration of white elephants by Buddhists was foreign enough to not be taboo: if the white elephants were guardians of Buddha, and became an emblem of state service and bravery in Thailand, was not the circus animal an apt icon of political probity? Perhaps the costumed circus animal, unlike previous anthropomorphic emblems for political parties, foregrounded the sacred tenets, emblazoned on the belt that dignified the beast as precepts to direct the Party to the gated White House by winning the popular vote.

Thomas Nast, ,”The Sacred Elephant,” Harper’s Weekly (March 8, 1884)

Nast costumed the elephant to question who might lead the Republican Party to the White House in 1884 with fit decorum before the nation. By featured the royally costumed elephant as sacred as the venerated white quadruped arriving in Barnum’s circus, readers would see its costume as befitting probity of the party–and sufficient to merit electoral victory.


Filed under American Politics, Donald J. Trump, political iconography, popular entertainment, Republican Convention

2 responses to “To Levitate an Elephant

  1. Jason Lewis

    “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
      command interest.

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