To Levitate an Elephant

12. The “father of American cartooning” himself channeled Barnum as a showman displaying the Sacred Elephant to the public as a path the right rider might guide to the White House, and maybe that he might be able to promote in newspapers by his pen. The party’s proper costuming in a fit platform would accord reverence comparable to that Siam’s court and Buddhists population accord the white elephant Barnum quite recently promoted in the press. Nast displays the zoological curiosity as the best public face for the Party to raise should it wish to be led to victory.

Detail of Nast as Barnum, holding newspapers, presenting Sacred Elephant
(Harpers Weekly, March, 1884)

The icon of the elephant was immersed in print culture. The quadruped adopted as an icon of the Grand Old Party in the 1880s bore less the importing of Aesop’s Fables than political survival. While Nast had adopted the indignation of a raging elephant to depict “The Republican Vote” that was about to bolt at the announcement of Grant seeking a third term as U.S. President in Third Term Panic (1874), the sleeping elephant dormant beneath the gaze of a visibly worried if dour Abraham Lincoln, who appears to worry about the future of a party, goes far beyond the caricaturing of party divisions by non-human animals.

Thomas Nast, “The Republican Vote,” Harper’s Weekly (1878)

If Nast had predicted the unity of the Republicans could carry the country in 1879, and shoulder its divisions by means of an electoral victory that kept the nation united, the “Compromise of 1877” allowed Republicans to hold the White House by bartering away blacks’ rights in ways that paved the way for Jim Crow era of segregation and reduced political rights in a racially divided country difficult to reconcile with the Republican tradition. The map now blinded the elephant, if the animal was poised to “carry our country” by 1879 on its massive back, in a feat of performance: if the raised trunk labeled “Maine” and tail emblazoned “California” sustain a vision of national unity, racial divisions were deeply ingrained.

Thomas Nast, “The Republican Animal Will Carry It” (1879)

If Nast saw the elephant as sustaining the nation, from Maine to California, in a remarkably pleasurable cartoon that paralleled the coast-to-coast national survey, the 1884 registered the color line by which the same states’ inhabitants were increasingly starkly divided on the ground.

The map blinded the elephant: for he Republican Party had conceded to the absence of the federal enforcement of civil rights in the southern states, leading to the increased circumscription of black or African American participation in the newly expanded franchise, and indeed of African American delegates to the Republican convention, in exchange for seating the 1880 President, the new dignity of the Republican Party seemed to table race: Hayes’ ascension grew as the adoption of segregation as a fact of southern life after the Compromise of 1877 placed his party in the White House in exchange for the protection of newly freed slaves’ civil rights and democratic participation, barely allowing the nation to balance in equitable fashion, given its salient fracture lines, on the back of an elephant. Byy 1879, the anthropomoprphic emblem of the party was buried beneath the new map of Reconstruction, as the 1877 “Compromise” had made a bargain with the devil, paralleling the rise of the KKK, to reverse the progress of Reconstruction to preserve the union.

The 1884 Sacred Elephant offers a new possibility: unlike the sleeping elephant dormant before the White House to the consternation gaze of the austere founding father of a Republican Party, The Sacred Elephant Nast depicted had risen from the ground, as if only awaiting a proper mount to advance to the White House. The quadruped of the “Sacred Elephant” transcended the iconography of Aesop’s animals, by embodying moral precepts sacred precepts to the party. And by portraying himself as Barnum, Nast elevated the role of his pen to promote the promise to elevate his party’s honesty, as if vouchsafing for the purity of the whiteness of the quadruped Barnum would publicly exhibit! Indeed, in ways eery to the current decision of the Trump administration, echoing the announcement on Fox News to have begun a “one-man at against critical race theory” within public institutions. The call to arms catalyzed an Executive Order denying “the United States is an inherently racist or evil country” and demonizing racial sensitivity training as a form of indoctrination, rather than a response to the erosion of civil rights.

Trump demonized “critical race theory” in nationalist terms, as if it were a foreign form of propaganda, more nefarious than Russian interference in the Presidential election, he described it as a “sickness” to be extirpated. Weeks after the Republican Convention assembled a range of speakers who denied Trump’s racist character, from the only African American in his cabinet to a retired football player while comparing him to Lincoln, seeking to defect a massive rollback on civil rights, FOX promoted the danger of “critical race theory,” without ever defining it, and Trump labeled what began as a form of racial justice as a “sickness” in the body politic “that cannot be allowed to continue” which demanded action so “we can quickly extinguish!” While accusing “Democrat run cities” as tolerating looting arson and violence, after race was blanched from the nation at the Convention, an Executive Order explained “race-based ideologies” had no place in the White House since it constituted an “attack on the virtues of America’s founding . . . and the nobility of the American character,“–as if that character existed apart from race, or that the nation could not be understood by understanding the determining role of chattel slavery in the nation’s foundation and its politics.

White House Conference on American History at the National Archives, September 17, 2020.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The danger of critical race theory seemed to surpass that of COVID-19 as an illness in the body politic. Only more scary than the prominence of Tucker Carlson’s show in the formulation of government policy was the status of the show as a forum for negotiating with the nation’s racist past. The directive for to ban the “indoctrination” of federal contractors and workers with “divisive and harmful sex- and race-based ideologies” not only demoted the role of race as an analytic category for understanding American history, but set a new red flag around historical criticism as if it were endangering the status quo. The directive whitewashed debate on the place of race in the nation, much as Toung Taloung whitewashed the construction of race and racial identity, and encouraged the literal painting of an African pygmy elephant by his competitor.

The Sacred Elephant was displayed by naturalizing categories of race that were divisive and at odds with a governmental ideal of equality. The blurring of racial difference in an albino elephant seems overdetermined as an emblem of partisan politics, denying the powerful place of the signification of race in a segregated public life. When Nast adopted the quadruped of a Sacred Elephant in 1884, the animal called attention to the detection of racial differences and the essentialization of race: far from an indeterminate signifier, the beast drew crowds as its display invited the detection of a confirmation of the depth of racial difference. Indeed, its display parallel the toleration of Jim Crow and race-based segregation, presenting the “white elephant” from Burma as a spectacle that replicated an essentialized notion of race-based differences by inviting viewers to grasp the extension of skin pigmentation as a category of difference in the natural world that extended into the animal kingdom, and fetishizing the signifying power of skin color as a determining factor of character–in “scientific” images highlighting the lightness of the elephant to its dark-skinned keeper. in Barnum’s crew

Toung Taloung in Scientific American (1884)

The white elephant would loose its attraction, but possessed an uncanny sense of the sensitivity to race and judgement on the part of Barnum that made it stand as a surrogate for the popular judgement on the beast’s inherent nature–and the relation of humans’ racial differences to the animal kingdom. As Jim Crow policies institutionalized across the United States had inaugurated segregationist policies, Republicans turned a blind eye to racial tensions; a lack of clarity about the purity of race and white identity was difficult to reconcile with the party and the principles of the nation, and seemed best to mask: the 1884 arrival of the albino circus performer in 1884 provided a new wrinkle in the use of the quadruped as an image of party unity that raises questions about the party in an era of segregation in powerful ways, whose history the current promotion of the four-legged circus performer may not consciously acknowledge.

The all-American circus animal suddenly became promoted as a stand-bearer and proud partisan emblem by championing its almost salvific role in public politics: as the circus man transformed the pachyderm distanced from the African elephants Barnum exhibited, such as Jumbo, Barnum’s newly displayed Sacred Elephant suggested a Party that subsumed race, to be ridden by a nominee revering civic values of Civil Service Reform, more than seeking profit from political office or personal gain, to ride to the White House without demeaning the decorum of a Party in danger of not honoring the sacred compact between it and its ideals. The elephant elevated party politics from the drama of corruption sought to dignify party principles beyond intraparty dispute.

13. But the examination of the spectacle of P.T. Barnum’s elephant seemed a way of promoting difficult debates about racial belonging and indeed the coding of exclusionary practices that the Supreme Court had mandated and that would long divide the nation. Was the theater of the circus a crucial mediator of the figure of the sacred elephant as a signifier of a color line, and the intensity of debates over the silent adoption of separate but equal policies, as much as of the purity of the Republican Party? The slippage was intentional, but the intentionality of the slippage has rarely been noted in the history of how parties became symbolized by quadrupeds, or the investment of meaning in quadrupeds as symbols of the alternatives between parties in public politics: as much as Aesop was invoked in earlier Nast cartoons, the icon of a sacred elephant as an icon of party due veneration openly channeled the circus, in ways the current party seems to channel–and merits far more attention because they were hardly value-free, and intertwined with the working out of racial identity in America in public life, perhaps registering the tension of public life that are so difficult to map collectively or comprehensively.

The circus elephant was an icon openly allegorical of race, as much as race was the shared subtext of the Republican Convention in 2020. As much as resting in legal tradition or th constitution, it seems fit that the convention tapped how P.T. Barnum’s popular performances exploited anxieties of racial difference: without orchestrating racial stereotypes as crudely as Barnum, Nast exploited them in a tongue in cheek manner that should call into question the staying power of the apparently arbitrary choice of the elephant as a party icon, and the redeployment of the elephant in recent years as an image of the party. Although the cartoonist registered horror at violence visited on slaves in the south, the effects of which he portrayed as dissolved by the Emancipation Proclamation in celebratory terms, it is also true he rarely invested agency as a cartoonist in African American subjects, and as a cartoonist did not rethink categories of race, so much as dramatize them.

Nast’s drawings in Harper’s had famously celebrated the deliverance brought by emancipation in paternalist terms as an end to southern humiliation that could be shared by the emancipated family: as if an act of emancipation by constitutional amendment liberated all racial inequalities and lifted race lines by promising well-paying jobs. The divide between races, so strong in nineteenth and twentieth century culture, could not be lifted, even if Nast believed–and hoped–that it might be. Indeed, the reduction of the meaning of “emancipation” that the institution of “Separate but Equal” allowed continued a racial polarity that divided America.

The cartoonist seized on the pure-white elephant to embody Republican standards. But he bequeathed a troubled if telling icon of political purity, that the current Republican candidate for President spooky channeled, almost to the point of channeling the elephant, as he recently addressed the Republican Convention before the current “red elephant” in Charlotte, NC–as if promising he would do his best to return to former status quo.

Andrew Harnik/AP

The solemnity of address quickly provoked a spoof parody website of a party “building a country just for us,” by announcing that the party “always stood for white wealth and power,” but “just couldn’t say so out loud” before: the elephant lacked stars, but elevated “Q”‘s cryptic pronouncements to a level of dignity as had Trump’s presidency–and the entrance of the party into a new level of circus entertainment of big-tent conspiracy theories that have leaked off-line to present Trump as an embattled hero of the Truth.

Parody Website

14. The Aesopian menagerie of fabled beasts was also embedded in clear constructions of categories of race and nineteenth-century racial sciences, in which the Sacred Elephant was to contrasted to the color of its African cousin, much as Barnum ad opposed Toung Taloung, the Burmese elephant he acquired with the certificate of Siam’s Elephant Keeper, from the variety of Arican elephants he had exhibited in the past: the history of the elephant as a radicalized emblem of party is often forgotten in the amnesiac Republican Party, whose proponents cast Dixiecrats as the most racist of governors or see Andrew Jackson as a bulwark against Civil War. Yet the white soul of the party that Nast presented to the public embodied purity, principled advocacy of a civil service, and proud American-ness in a white alternative to the elephant that most circuses displayed.

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

Nast adopted the middle-brow entertainment of the sacred elephant as a sort of tease, and an invitation from a newspaperman cartoonist–indeed, a viral editorialist!–inviting readers to take the high road, and enter elite culture, a promise that all middle-brow entertainments offer. Nast vouchsafed that the principle of party honesty shifted from the circus arena to a political arena in which his party might save face.

The invitation to find an able mount for the dignified white would hardly be distinguished by its sagging skin, but restore a needed dignity in a time of party corruption, promising a degree of purity eplaced by the current use of a pure-red elephant to suggest a similar sort of purity of party, if of one of openly less principled nature? Barnum had gone to great lengths to emphasize the sacred nature of the quadruped he had bought at Siam’s royal court, where elephants were fed select diets, serenaded to sleep by musicians, and entered the human world as links to the divine. Nast–a life-long Republican–had penned the raging elephant as the Republican Vote in 1874, in ways often cited as an origin of the mascot that would symbolize a large party in American political iconography as a beast. The choice of the sacred animal as able to advance to the White House should the party “keep the animal pure and clean,” consolidated the anthropomorphic image as a symbol of the party with deeper valence than many histories of cartooning or party mascots admit: the Sacred Elephant Barnum had bought and was on its way to be exhibited in the United States when Nast drew it was not only a piece of Americana, but a quadruped whose sacred character the American public would be asked to confirm.

Nast invested the Sacred Elephant with figural significance to the destiny of the Party’s value, dignifying the animal he used to depict the Republican Vote as a standard-bearer of the party’s purity especially compelling for his party to identify with and adopt in future years. The whiteness of the ‘Sacred Elephant,’ even if it was qualified, would suggest not only the purity and cleanliness that Nast evoked, but the purity of its race. For the ‘Sacred Elephant’ was also soon to be know for eliding race–a not so fine point implicit in the reverence it was accorded, unlike its African cousin, who seems depicted in the 1874 cartoon. Barnum was prompt to draw the distinction in displaying the new sort of elephant he would be displaying in his spectacle as a different variety of beast, much as Vincent had described the garlanding, serenading, and feeding of sacred elephants in Siam by their keepers. The diademed creature in exotic costumed was public-facing–and, like a circus animal, on view for open scrutiny and examination for evidence of its probity, unlike the deceptions and cunning showmanship P.T. Barnum generated interest in the sacred elephant Toung Taloung to the public–in ways Vincent had begun. Barnum met doubts about his own fraudulent display of Toung Taloung as white on his competitor as the elephant “Light of Asia” that revealed a uniform white on its body as if to make due on the adjective–provoking remark from the bypassers witnessing the pygmy elephant–

–whose striking whiteness in fact depended on a chemical bleaching. For in his eagerness to compete with Barnum’s show, Barnum’s competitor Forepaugh began with the smaller elephant obtained, pre-bleached, from a London salesman as a competitor to Toung Taloung, a process that had continued as long as he lived and was publicly exhibited as an alternate draw to Barnum’s show. (Forepaugh’s boast of the “Largest Show in the World” presaged Barnum’s use of the phrase “Greatest Show on Earth,” and boasted to present a global microcosm in its exotic menagerie)

But rather than being the true article, bleaching or painting of this small elephant killed the beast in November, 1884–Vincent or other “experts” had presumably already questioned, perhaps with Barnum’s own encouragement, by questioning “the genuineness of this elephant” as white: Barnum noted that the toes of the elephant of his Forepaugh were noted by experts to be in fact “very often found in elephants of the ordinary kind, without any pretension whatever to ‘white blood,’” even if photographs the above to document its whiteness suggested otherwise. Barnum contrasted the benefits of his own allegedly edifying popular show as an exhibit of the differences among elephants from different habitats and different “races” as if mediating the globe: he mediated racial differences as rooted in science, the display of a Sacred Elephant appeal to the authentic self-presentation of the party to an electorate. While Barnum & Bailey did not adopt an actual emblem of a globe until after World War I, or 1925, that made good on the promise to be the “Greatest Show on Earth,” it provided a quintessential middle-brow entertainment, long focussed on elephants, including Jumbo, presented as the largest Giant Elephant in the world–an African Bush elephant, born in Sudan, and first exhibited in the Garden des Plantes–that compared the prized elephant Barnum enterprisingly purchased from the London Zoo, to the skeleton of a mastodon unearthed in the American West–

–a spectacle continued, after Jumbo’s tragic death in 1885, when he was killed by a train, to the exhibit of Jumbo’s taxidermies skin and skeleton–

Display of Giant Elephant Jumbo’s Skeleton, with tusks (1888)

–in a theatrical display of popular science of edifying aims, much as the Sacred Elephant polarized racial sciences in ways that its “purity” raised fears of miscegenation that underlay a dogma of barriers of intermixing that barriers in public space, education, and social promotion were supposed to maintain, by being openly mapped onto racial differences.

The plans for Barnum to introduce a White Elephant into the menagerie that he used to entertain audiences rested on a significant financial investment, but occurred at a time when race lines were defined across American states, as the repeal of

15. The attraction of Toung Taloung rested in how the genuine” nature of the beast’s famed whiteness was deployed. The question of racial identity and purity was engaged in Barnum’s show as Toung Taloung was opposed to the African elephants that Barnum usually featured, asking the crowd to judge them to provoke racial anxieties in its evocation of a proud beast, in ways that give new meaning to the “Greatest Show on Earth” in the years after he had merged in 1881 with the Great International Circus run by his competitor, Bailey. The elephant authority Vincent had boasted the sacred elephant was accompanied by a white monkey, with “fur as white as the whitest rabbit,” underling an analogy to racial segregation migrated to the animal kingdom with striking fluidity. It would circulate as smoothly to the circus stage. Toung would be contrasted as a mulatto, to the “decidedly dark elephant,” beside the African elephant, creating the judgement of the racial identity of the mulatto animating the contemporary play, The Octoroon. Nast would know the play, premiered in 1858 to acclaim, the Sacred Elephant he depicted seemed in his mind an image of the purity of the party–although the actual White Elephant had a quite mottled hide.

Even when conceding the lack of a pure parallel to racial difference, Barnum made sure racialized categories were prominent for audiences who were predominantly white. Barnum exploited Vincent’s claim Toung Taloung was “as white as God makes ’em,” without artifice, to increased the fascination of crowds in an elephant only superficially whiter in its “light complexion;” he openly engaged his white audiences’ obsessions with racial parentage by rehearsing racial categories Vincent had staked out, comparing the White Elephant to the whiteness “of a negro’s palm,” deploying racial difference to attract audiences to a show that often amused audiences by deploying racial differences and and hierarchies, even when rehearsed with members of the animal kingdom.

While Nast did not echo performance of global racial differences, his cartoon unavoidably addressed race within the United States by the attraction of the purity of a white elephant as a sign of honesty. The interactive nature of a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t debate on race that Vincent and Barnum began caught on long after Nast’s cartoon of the Sacred Elephant, but did it underlay the Barnum’s competitors did charge him with not keeping his word on “whiteness” nonetheless, that heightened anxieties of racial differences to eat into the audience for his popular show, displaying what was announced as “scientifically verified” if probably painted or dyed whiter elephant, claimed more genuine than the “rank fraud” Barnum bought. Circus-Master Adam Forepaugh, who exhibited elephants in a competing show, featured cycling elephants, pyramidal formations of elephants, elephants in military drill and “elephant seances”–as well as a giant elephant, in his show. Forepaugh expanded a show of twenty-five by “Light of Asia,” a small elephant named Tiny, bought from an overseas English dealer painted with over fifty coats of premium paint, to compete with Barnum by its greater purity of its brilliant painted, bleached or dyed hide.

Arrival of “Light of Asia,” 1884

In response, Barnum fell back on his usually trick of comparison among elephants: he cleverly dyed one of his own elephants for exhibition beside Toung Taloung, by a process celebrated in the New York Times for the ingenious skill of skin coloring for reasons far beyond the circus ring. Barnum’s process of chemical whitening was, the newspaper judged, “of less interest to elephants than another class of our populations,” indeed, mapping the elephant to categories of race among Americans: Barnum’s process would not blacks’ appearance identical with “that of the white man,” echoing the qualifications Barnum made about Toung Taloung, but if might transform the “cleansed Ethiopian . . . of a dazzling whiteness, rivaling snow,” in nothing less than “a complete answer to Job’s question of whitening the Ethiopian” readily “applied without the slightest injury to colored people” to create a new race of “ex-colored men.” (The breadth of discussion generated by the elephant ran from how Terre Haute’s Saturday Evening Mail jested that after the arrival in town of “BARHUM’S new white elephant named Toung Toulong [sic.] the papers are already teeming with jokes about the man who asked his wife why she resembled the white elephant, etc,” suggesting how widely discussion

In an age when race defined lines of exclusion, and many whitened their skin so that they might pass, to navigate racial barriers, display of the fraudulent white elephant garnered attention as a reflection on racial ideologies. The elephant Barnum exhibited came to be known as “The Fraud” enacted the dominant acceptance of a “natural” racial hierarchy in a circus show. When Barnum charged Forepaugh of disguising his own elephants with dishonesty, he provoked latent fears of disrupting a race-based hierarchy by a disguise; the Sacred Elephant was imbricated in ideologies of race long before Barnum brought the beast through the Suez Canal to exhibit, but he magnified these connections by staging a contest of whiteness as theater. Nast did not openly gesture to the emotional intensity of intersections of the white elephant with racial sciences when using the middle-brow entertainment of a sacred elephant to dignify his own party, but in dignifying his party by a sacred elephant whose exhibition was impossible to separate from race to foreground the purity of its values, as much as tying the elephant’s prodigious memory to conservatism, the polysemy of the animal in the circus-stage performed qualities of the elephant seemed perfect for the festive atmosphere of a political convention for much of the twentieth century.

16. The entirely red elephant prominently displayed at the Republican Convention in 2020 was also, of course, an invitation to a membership of a club, and communicated a sense of those in the know. It of course communicated purity and authenticity in its red, quite unlike the probity of the individual candidate entitled to ride the beast as nominee, and the true hue of the candidate able to mount that rearing beast, who had regained tusks since 2000, if it managed to seem far more faniciful, and less of a streamlined not to the past. The party emblem recuperated the almost conscious elision of questions of race, only just below the surface of the circus beast in 1884, when the Sacred Elephant was mapped to its sacred status in Siamese society, now mapped onto red states that less valued social justice or deep inequities of education, voting rights, or health care, and seemed an apt icon to pander to fear.

The purity of the new mascot of the party seemed arbitrary, but was invested with meanings that, perhaps because its color was now pure red, bridged surface and depth as cunningly and effectively as the Sacred Elephant P.T. Barnum had brought to America to display.

To be sure, fascination of the elephants in nineteenth century spectacles grew as a spectacle of the exotic, of inherent drama and a skill of stagecraft: a full twelve elephants appeared during the final chorus for the 1871 premier of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida in Cairo’s opera house, written soon after the opening of the Suez Canal, in a staging that served in part to promote Cairo as more part of Europe than Africa, if not the new canal. But the skin color of the Siamese elephant, if believed sacred in Siam, won attention as the authenticity its whiteness, as in the spectacle of Aida, as much as an appropriation of an exotic other, bridging geographic and cultural distances by showmanship, the African animal, often cast as an object of imperial possession, was countered by the figure of the purity of the White Elephant, before its sign of excess was seen as a boondoggle which escaped classification. Toung Taloung became an emblem of purity in advertisements for discriminating goods as tea or soap.

Toung Taloung in a Tea Advertisement 1884

The identification of the circus with elephants continued–after the fall of 1885, when a marquis elephant in Phineas Barnum’s show, Jumbo, was tragically killed in a train collision in 1885, that led to display of the animal’s taxidermies hide and tours featuring the central place of the size of Jumbo’s skeleton in The Greatest Show on Earth. Telling comparison of the “white elephant” to a mulatto fed anxieties of race in an age when the U.S. Census classified citizens by fractions of “negro blood” by tabulating citizens as quadroons or octoroons.

The circus elephant still a standard bearer of the party in 1904, in a cartoon of a “Sacred Elephant” wearing a simliar costume to Barnum’s White Elephant, now even more festooned with platforms not of Reform but instead slogans– “World Power and Empire”, “Rooseveltism”, “High Protection”, “Prosperity”, “Open Door Treasury”, “”Good Crops”, and even “Increased Population” and “Fine Weather.”

Puck, 1904

This time, its display invited J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller to empty buckets of coins, after Titian’s Danae, as parading the elephant became a new icon of GOP finances, more than an ideal of principles, that also channeled race, as if the prosperity of the GOP would march forward imperially, felled by donations, despite vast inequalities of racial identity.

Nast selected the image of a Sacred Elephant to embody party principles before Barnum’s display of the Sacred Elephant led to accusations of deception. “The Sacred Elephant” inspired a partisan icon as a path to migrate to the White House, and of taking a stand on principles.

Speculation what had led Nast to select an elephant as an icon from other four-legged beasts, as in a popular 1874 cartoon suggesting the Republican vote strong but apt to be needlessly frightened as a braying “Democratic” donkey stoked fears of Grant trying to claim a third Presidential term, or Nast’s 1879 Harper’s cartoon that the Democratic donkey may be retrained from jumping off a cliff of financial ruin, to beat an overly “sluggish” Republican Party slept at the gate of the White House, as a dour Lincoln stood vigil over the slumbering beast–

Thomas Nast, “Stranger Things” Harper’s Magazine, 1879 (detail)
“Hold On–You may walk over that sluggish animal there!”

–that seemed unlikely to rise himself to reach the White House.

Neither of these images of an elephant would be seized on by party faithful, even if Nast was a proud Republican. The anthropomorphic cartoons were less memorable; the “Sacred Elephant” directed public judgement to the party’s purity and authenticity as central to its resurgence openly recalling Bartnum’s promotion of the authenticity of his White Elephant, in showing Nast protesting its purity: the party’s adherence to probity in ways would outlive Barnum’s beast. What has been cast by Ross as an “elephant war” not only mimicked the categories of race that were insufficiently addressed even by the conclusion of the Civil War during the period of Reconstruction, when the deliverance of African American households Nast had celebrated in 1868 as promising home ownership, education, literacy, and paying jobs, were not so evident as having been so transformative.

from Nast, “Emancipation of the Negro–the Past and the Future,” Harper’s Weekly, January 1863

The deliverance for which Nast hoped did not come–nor was an image of Lincoln placed above the hearths of the harmonious African American families he imagined. And the party that Nash represented in the elephant indeed seems to acknowledge the deep-lying resonance of color lines. For was not the whiteness of the elephant only tacit in Nast’s cartoon? If the “Sacred Elephant” by recalling how Barnum engaged doubts of its authenticity to assert the party’s probity, the discourse about race was so tied to the display of the elephant–contrasted to the African elephant’s blackness–exhibition of Toung Taloung seemed destine to trigger as the degrees of whiteness transposed the pseudo-science of race to showmanship. But before the exhibition and tour of the nation, the Sacred Elephant became a sign of authenticity for the Republican Party.

Nast adhered to the party’s probity of the party as he gestured to the probity of demonstration–as debates on falsification of whiteness in the placards for “Light of Asia” elephant claimed its whiteness was “proved by the highest scientific authority” in ways that recall the racial sciences, and Barnum displayed a painted elephant beside the Burmese albino. For Barnum’s promotion of a “white” elephant cunningly mobilized arguments about race, Sarah Amato has shown, in an advertising campaign that openly mobilized arguments about race and racial theories even more openly than the 2020 convention. The mistranslation of the epidermal descriptor of the elephant’s hide mobilized the attribute of color unable to be seen outside racial theories: Barnum cunningly used the translation of a term for albino elephant, “chang pheuak,” as “white,” pandering to widespread anxieties of race and “whiteness” among white audiences he invited to judge the elephants’ difference at first hand. The Thai term ‘chaang samkhan’ is “auspicious elephant,” removed from a color hierarchy, but was also translated as ‘white’–as “chang pheuak.” ‘albino elephant’–since its very auspiciousness grants its legal possession to the reigning monarch. In a spectacle alleging it offered an educational experience to a popular crowd about the thorny subject of spectators, and had raised the question of what “right” the elephant Toung Taloung had to be called “white” Barnum “pandered to sentiments of white solidarity” as display of his albino body “became anthropomorphized” as evidence of universal categories of racial difference in an allegedly scientific display of skin pigmentation to a broad paying public, perhaps invoking fascination with the attribution of whiteness as their own category to a beast.

To be sure, the image of the “elephant” had been a common cartoon icon for the nation’s body and the distorted by political machinery, the sort of sausage factory of diluting the popular will that was constructed on the back of an elephant a decade previous, in 1872, in a complexly allegorical  cartoon attacking the corruption of the Grant Administration, before the Election of 1872. No names are named, a villainous “Big Politician” who threatened to subvert the will of the people as he cast dust in their eyes, almost risking bringing down the giant constitution, by devolving politics to larceny by taxing as much as the elephantine Constitution could bear, suggesting the corruption that the treatment of the Constitution as a beast of burden could barely sustain and would soon be being worn down.:

Thomas A. Davies, “War! War! War! To the Knife of Political Corruption: Political Smash-Up” (New York, 1872)

While the elephant is hardly a recognizably American beast of burden, its performance as a circus animal was a clear demeaning of its legal value to the Union, whose sustained abuse through the political process working to benefit individuals, rather than the general public, would threaten the Republic’s demise. Was the African elephant cast as a beast of burden in this 1872 Political Smash-Up a beast of burden no longer able to stand for such abuse? The labor on which it was placed by the layering of corrupt money-stuffed conventions on its back, fed by a taxation apparatus worthy of cartoonist Rube Goldberg, to evoke the undue onus the corruption imposed on the political process.

The non-native beast was an African import, and if race remains the largest elephant in the room, the carnivalesque atmosphere of the convention–even if it was not an even of much fun–almost paraded the problem of race in America at the 2020 Convention, with the most visible Black Republican, Ben Carson, paraded out to endorse a Presidential candidate despite his openly racist bona fides. While Jay-Zee and Nas seemed to view the “Black Republican” as an endangered species, without a clear habitat as successful rap artists–“I feel like a black republican, money I got comin’ in/Can’t turn my back on the hood, I got love for them/Can’t clean my act up for good, too much thug in ’em/Probably end up back in the hood, like fuck it then”–Shawn Carter recognized the arrival of a new identity on the American scene. The ways that the Republican Party has viewed discussions about race, more than racial difference, as the truly toxic problem for American society buried the elephant in the room, marginalizing the pressing problem of its saliency.

17. Thomas Nast’s 1884 cartoon precede the arrival of the circus in town, by several months. But he hoped the truly sacred nature of Republican probity not be sacrificed in his cartoon of the “Sacred Elephant.” Vincent had already popularly described the novel beast for the same periodical, as if to drum up interest in the animal Barnum was planning to import. His use of the elephant as the proper coinage for the Republican Party suggested that the party had its own stock and pedigree. The current logo of the Republican Convention bears no platform, and is too sleek to do so, and only bears five stars, in somewhat cryptic fashion, as if it were designed to be interpreted as bearing whatever its viewer wanted to see. The display of its pure redness as a monochrome mascot staked claims about purity and authenticity, as well as suppressing other debates about the role of civic values in our polity in its championing of its inherent high-quality candidate. Far from the recumbent elephant who slumbered before the White House below the eyes of the first Republican President, the elevated elephant seemed to be levitating to the stars.

As if to one-up the three stars that distinguished the Republican elephant in the past, the five stars–allegedly to convey the Five-Star Experience in Charlotte, North Carolina–offered a performative triumphalism best described as circus-like, with intentinoally indeterminate meaning. The meaning of the rebranding of the party was not a Skull & Bones sort of symbolism, but nostalgically recalled the rearing elephant of a circus, its five stars suggested a costume without need of a platform. It surely went beyond the notion of a big-tent party, at a convention nominating a candidate who deviously disguised claims of reform with promoting his own financial interests.

The promotion of purity of this party elephant as the representative of red states alone seems to have encouraged its abandonment of blue from its body, its energy symbolically boosted by the addition fo two stars. While Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey ceased displaying circus elephants in 2015, after continued protests of animal rights’ activists and deaths of elephants in captivity what was deemed “pretty heavy-handed” physical discipline and [accomapnying] strain” in such traveling shows, there may be a nostalgic promise of restoring the performing elephant, a Barnum & Bailey icon of 133 years, from when Barnum brought Jumbo in the United States as part of his show in 1882. Rising consensus against captured elephants in shows led the elephants to be retired, Barnum must have hoped the attraction of a “white elephant” in 1884 generated debates about whiteness, the elephant logo unveiled at the 2020 Republican Convention suggested the ideological purity of the party that anointed Donald Trump’s candidacy. The sleek, streamlined, and almost even slender elephant that raised its trunk above speakers, while absent from the western zodiac, seemed a signal of sorts, almost able to be interpreted as an auspicious astrological augur of the crudest sort, if not just tracing a double-v as a premature claim of victory: the exultation in redness seems an ascension to an empyrean, or claim to victory.

detail of photo (c) Travis Dove/AP

The claim of victory might displace fears of race and racial violence that barely simmered beneath how nominating speakers, who conjured specters of the danger of “thugs” who staged social justice protests and antifa anarchists in thinly disguise terms. Trump gestured tacitly to purity of whiteness in the 2020 Republican Convention in multiple occasions in the convention that reintroduced a rearing elephant as a party logo, the elephant of pure and entire redness an apparent icon of probity against fears of coming violence evoked by speeches. It raises a bit of a pressing question: was Trump indeed acknowledging he aspired only to be President of only red states? One suspects so. In a convention marked by silence about the failure to contain the coronavirus, perhaps the largest elephant in the room, although there were several, the forward march of the Party seemed to silence any actual national events.

18. The Convention 2020 sometimes seemed to re-launch of the internet meme of a Red Elephant Party, as if a misbegotten exercise in macho emulating the Bull Moose Party, transcending and subsuming partisan terms in promoting the personal–with plenty of merchandise–replacing the Party or an idea of a platform with the personal ties to the candidate, promoted as an elephant, in highly dubious sites as Conservative News and Views, that imagine the President akin to a Messiah, celebrating his appointment of “rock-ribbed conservative justices” and his “annihilating defeat of Hillary Clinton” contrasted his authenticity to the overvaluation of “Gran Poobahs of DC” by “virtue of their educations [and] fancy credentials,” in 2018, determined to find confirmation of false charges of “alleged collusion” of the Trump campaign with Russian operatives.

Trump was shown mounted a red elephant, far from the White House gates, at work corralling votes for midterms that would disappoint and fluster him, on a boardwalk that might mark the course of a Border Wall.

Conservative News and Views, 2018

Was the ideal of a pure-red elephant even a possibility in the Cold War, or was it the ill-begotten consequence of a map? This was as if Trump rode a Red Elephant into the Convention, in place of a Party Platform, a political organization promoting national security, nationalism, and defining patriotism as getting behind President Trump–and a contingent to which the logo of the 202 convention seemed to wink. The triumphal elephant migrated from the dark recesses of the internet to an improbable icon of the Convention, a celebration of all things Trump, without a platform, but pedaling insinuations of the threat of socialism, loss of an American way of life, around the carnivalesque circus-like coloration of the Red Elephant’s monochrome hue, as symbol of purity beyond party, and ascendance of a Red Elephant over party.

Travis Dove | Credit: AP © Travis Dove

19. In the course of the mediated convention, a strong of endorsements that preposterously cast the nominee cast his role as pacifying a nation riven by division, as if enemy redoubts of cities were the targets for an ongoing war of attrition, promoted a vision seeing social protest as disruptions creating a cancer of insecurity only Trump could excise from the body politic; a political mascot of the party seemed to be rearing with newfound triumphalism in Charlotte, NC, as the elephant embodied, far beyond the icons of rearing elephants Republican nominee Wendell Wilkie used as icons of aspirationalism, became an icon of triumph; the famous circus animal befit a candidate who, as David Corn put it, approaches the presidency as performance art more than policy–

Louis DeLuca/Dallas Morning News June 2014

–although reclaiming performing elephant as akin to a zodiac sign in the sky, cast its capaciousness as capable to transcend the divisions in a body politic. The party has become the purveyor-in-chief of a body politic that was ostensibly imperiled by drug-dealers and sex traffickers crossing the border; socialists who sought to take away property and school choice; and un-American propaganda of systemic racism of the most un-American sort, that perpetuates “a sickness that cannot be allowed to continue.” Perhaps COVID-19 was the “elephant in the room,” glossed over by President Trump as an “amazing success,” moving away from any examination of its actual consequences deferred because “it is what it is.

The elephant is a classic middle-brow performance of the exotic. But it is hard to say whether the robust emblem of the RNC can hold off the nation’s fears as a bulwark against the levels of disorder Trump evoked. By casting the social justice protests against police violence of the summer as a form of “domestic terror” disrupting rights to property and run by “thugs,” social harmony seemed an elusive vision–activism was itself “rigged,” a scheme perpetuate by snarky socialists seeking to disrupt a status quo. The locked trunks of actual elephants at the 2014 Republican National Committee Site Selection meeting in Dallas suggested a lock-step progression, rehabilitating the All-American circus animal as a celebration, whose cranial capacity and the folds in its cerebral cortex–twice the mass of humans–that enabled navigational skills the nomadic animals developed to navigate expansive routes in ways that had less to do with memory than spectacle.

The stars across the pachyderm’s hide as if on a celestial firmament suggest the ascension of the candidate as the leader of a Free World in post-Cold War red, advancing as the nation’s body politic fell to pieces–and few blacks were in the audience, or among the delegates, and a small proportion of the speakers who endorsed the candidate.

The rearing elephant was so omnipresent as a brand in the spectacularity of the staged convention to be a planned part of visual messaging to raise the nation’s sagging spirits in the most choreographed of conventions, as if the one-time dignity of the old elephant was in need of rehabilitation. Was the racial identity of the elephant, reaching back to an icon of American showmanship, raised again in the affirmation a new icon for the party, lifting spirits of the faithful even as escalating infection rates of COVID-19 raised questions of the future of public health and public safety? It was hard to deny the extent to which our lives have been changed by the coronavirus, which seems to have created a new chronology even able to punctuate or truncate the Trump presidency, but the blanket denial of any change in welfare–the rising fatalities the result of what “is what it is” and is increasingly the largest elephant in the room.

20. The rearing red elephant unveiled at the scaled back Republican convention of 2020 was By 2020, the rising of the feet of the elephant that seems to be the symbol of the new GOP seems, in contrast, a figure that embraces intentional hyperbole–as if in an attempt to force the spirits of the nation upward, from the threat of a coronavirus that we had too long distanced was daily manifested in increased infection rates. Although convention participants wore ‘smart badges” that were Bluetooth-enabled to preserve records of their proximity to another to enable contact tracing lest anyone subsequently develop symptoms of COVID-19, no masks were worn. If the badges raise questions as a test case of digital privacy, spirits of convention-goers and the television audience were buoyed by the raised trunk of the elephant, whose nominee incited cries from the convention floor of “twelve more years!” after the roll call, in accepting the party nomination, in an auditorium that channeled Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Just two years after the last remaining circus elephants long showcased in extravagantly costumed spectacles were retired to a Center for Elephant Conservation founded in 1995 to dampen accusations of animal cruelty.

Jim Bourg/Reuters

In hopes to persuade the audience of the elephant in the room of COVID-19, the rearing elephant began raising its trunk seems to have been a message of unbridled optimism, as plans to detract attention from making healthcare affordability into central part of the opposing party’s political platform was tried to be drowned out by catcalls of the dangers of socialism. While the raised trunk was an innovation the Party adopted in 2019, the triumphant rearing animal with five stars attempted to raise the spirits of spectators as they tired to assemble the behemoth as more animated than a loose aggregation of states they trusted were still red–

–if the convention turned out to be a channeling of bread and circuses, with charges of “moving America forward,” victory over ISIS, and being tough on China continued amidst denials of America was a racist country, with calls to bind us together for a brighter future of school choice, tough borders, and the protection of the unborn, all bound in an elephant that was more a circus animal and a custodian of party memory, as the spectacle of the convention replaced the instilling of civic values.

Charlotte, NC/Republican Convention, 2020

While the prospective nominee conceded “it’s not the right time” for staging “a big, crowded convention,” in a mini-news conference in the White House Briefing Room, despite his taste for acclamation by a rally, shifting priorities to “tele-rallies and online -staged events],” without mentioning COVID-19 save to affirm that it was a purely local, and an to a national event, that prevented the bash he hoped to stage in Jacksonville, Florida, before hearing that infection rates had surged there–as if the surge was purely local, rather than across the south and southwest–

Doug Mills/New York Times

–but was, one can only assume, not yet in Washington, DC, if unfortunately seems to recast both Florida, where he had hoped to shift several nights of the convention, and South Carolina as far more drenched in pink that most other states in the union, denoting rising rates of infection per ten thousand–lest the event backfire and prove to create a “hot-spot” of communicating viral infection as much as a party message.

Drew Angeret/Getty Images

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.


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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