Category Archives: American Politics

Mobs and Jobs

We had been waiting for barbarians for some time. The President had, for over six years, mapped the threat of the barbarians advancing from across borders as a security threat. And so we imagined that they would arrive from the edges of empire, the edges where the acting President had been mapping threats of their arrival for five years. When they did arrive on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, the picture was not clear: ten thousand had entered the grounds, and some had scaled the scaffolding set for the inauguration two weeks off; even if the border was fortified by a complex system of defense, informed by threats a border that without adequate defenses would leave the nation facing an existential threat, the grounds of the Capitol were breached to protest the transition of that the Presidential election had determined. Waving confederate flags, the rioters may not have only been inspired by the outlandish claims of fraud and failure of governance in Trump’s speech that morning, but of insurrection. The logic of insurrection was embodied in the confederate flags so many held, trumpeting rights by evoking the logic that the South had a right to separate the union–a “sacred right of insurrection” that excused their disturbance of civil peace.

While invoking such a “right of insurrection” was not central in the impeachment proceedings House managers presented, and not articulated in President Trump’s speech, the rights to perpetuate a distasteful drama was one that he delighted in amplifying in his final day as U.S. President–and scarcely needed a map to do. Donald Trump loves a drama, and reprised his role as dramaturge in the month long aftermath of the election. The seeds of doubts placed in the vote tally over multiple months had occurred in local audits amidst charges of rigged voting, reprising the power of “rigged” as a rallying cry in 2016, animating his base and motivating believers with the false news that there were 1.8 million dead voters, already registered, who would be casting ballots in 2016. They were not only registered but, Trump assured Sean Hannity, “some of them absolutely vote,” and the image of zombie voters helped kill the promise of representative government. In addition, with 2.5 million voters that were cross-registered between states, and voting twice, the uncertainty of legitimacy became a narrative of injustice, crafted to disorient and impassion, as the question of a conclusion of the Presidential vote was already primed for uncertainty and indeterminacy in 2016, so that it was almost in the eye of the beholder: while the numbers may be credible,–they were wielded to disorient, suggesting a desire for massive voter fraud able to be attributed to “bad actors” that seemed a scheme to sow division and uncertain outcomes, exploiting potential animosity in the electorate to defray any conclusion in the Presidential election, as if exploiting divisions among parties in an increasing tribal sense.

As the 2016 contest heated, it was notable that Trump’s campaign website appealed in all caps echoing social media to “Help Me Stop Crooked Hillary From Rigging This Election!” Inviting citizen groups more akin to vigilantes monitor irregular voter behavior, he created a logic for political involvement in a coming election. When flag-waving followers descended to the sites of ballot counting in 2020, waiving campaign flags, American flags, “Don’t Tread on Me” flags in the occasion of state-wide audits of paper ballots and absentee ballots to review machine tallies diffused a skepticism of alarmism, destabilizing and distancing any conclusion of confidence, they echoed a strategy already deployed in 2016. But this time, they carried the problems of ballot counting to a county level, voting machines, demanding certification that the ballot tallies were “fraud-free” that had never been seen before, in shock jock tactics, sewing a level of distrust and dissent that promised to undermine the democratic process long term, having unleashed a river of groundless skepticism whose merits were cast aside. And the staged assemblies that proliferated at state capitols in the aftermath of the 2020 Presidential election seem almost an amping up of the populist rage that reached a crescendo in the license of crossing police barricades, the steel pipe reviewing stands recently assembled on the Capitol’s west front, to break down doors and windows in invading the U.S. Capitol, and proclaim it the “people’s house.” Breaking down the barriers, and flooding the Capitol, was almost a projection of the fears of migrants storming the nation, but this time the barbarians arrived fully armed, asserting rights–freedom of assembly; freedom to won guns; freedom to form a well-armed militia–that migrants never claimed.

Back in 2016, public intellectual and linguist Geoff Nunberg aptly noted the danger ‘rigged’ gained as a “keyword” in the national political discourse, launched by both Democrats and Republicans to frame civic participation in unprecedented levels of skepticism and doubting of social ties: ‘rigged’ described the uneven economy, the tax system, and increasingly deferred any outcome of the election and injected the news cycle he toxic term with a newfound populism replicated in social media that served only to exponentially escalate that “built-in biases, so that losers may feel that the system is rigged against them,” by using a term expressing anger at unfair business practices or fraudulent investment into the arena of politics as only Trump could. The new charge of incompetence of elected officials disrupted the resolution of any outcome; Trump acted as if he was mustering honesty when telling rallies “the election is going to be rigged–I’m going to be honest!” and in late summer dropping hints to respected left-wing media he would not even accept a victory by Hillary Clinton in September, pushing the limits of a candidate’s sense of grievances while acting as if airing grievances as just another victim of fraud, mirroring the charge of a “rigged economy” many felt, and boosting his won support. The Presidential vote was itself “rigged,” involving dead voters, rigged voting machines, a massive scam of democratic principles discounting rights, demanding protest on the grounds of patriotism, that made the flag-waving demonstrators in the mob feel immune to charges of insurrection as they were waving American flags, many the very flags waved at stage capitol buildings months previous with similar megaphones, to assert American values that were under attack.

Protestors Contest Counting of Election Ballots at Pennsylvania State Capitol, November 4 2020/Gabriella Bhaskar

Arriving in Detroit, Philadelphia, Portland, Las Vegas and Atlanta, protesting bearing similar flags outside of arenas and capitol buildings, both asserting liberties and demanding improper practices of tabulating votes be stopped. It was not forgotten in any way that these protests concluded the Summer of Protests, seeming to draw the line at The extension of doubt about the 2020 election that preceded the Capitol Riots fanned populist grievances as if they were infringements on constitutional rights, deferring the conclusion of electoral results by extending a narrative that had no happy end. The protest rallies that sprang into action as lawsuits proliferated in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Michigan with recounts demanded in Arizona and Wisconsin to prevent states from “flipping” and electoral votes to be claimed by Joe Biden.

Protestors mobilized a rhetoric of grievance that sought to expand the electoral map, long after the election. Their doubts were amplified on social media to destabilize the electoral map, creating “grey spaces” as if puzzle pieces that did not cohere, letting the world puzzle by holding narrative conclusion in abeyance into 2021, distending the election’s narrative by sewing deep doubts about secure results and preventing consensus from emerging from the electoral college.

US 2020 election live interactive results map: Race still on knife edge as  votes counted in key states | Hong Kong Free Press HKFP

As the problems proliferated from dead voters and cross-registration to how battleground states relied on duplicitous voting machines or made “unconstitutional” changes in voting practices, the narrative of grievance grew, calling into question the distribution of electoral votes that led us to tally up possible distributions of alternative futures.

Pa. Election 2020: Trump sues in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan; asks for  Wisconsin recount in 2020 presidential election results - 6abc Philadelphia

The waiving of flags from the 2020 campaign as votes were being tallied at multiple cities morphed expression of concern about the tally of votes to questions of constitutional rights. Questions of outrage had suggested a criminal theft was at work, undertaken by elected officials, discounting their legitimacy and treating the tally of votes as an extension of the never-ending Presidential campaign but now leveling charges of broad electoral fraud before federal and state buildings, waving flags to assert the constitutional rights at stake.

Fulton County, GA/John Bazemore, AP
Congressman Jim Jordan holding a megaphone and standing with Stop The Steal protestors
Philadelphia, PA/Mark Kauzlarich, REUTERS

The militant-like assertion of flag waving became a basis to assert the preservation of rights, and to “fight for them” to protect them, “fight against big tech, big donors, big media,” “fighting with one hand tied beyond your back,” and collectively “fight like hell and [realizing] if you don’t fight like Hell, you’re not going to have a country any more.” The expansive claims of unconstitutional grievances recapitulated on the morning of the January 6 rally at Freedom Plaza, escalated by a charge they were perpetuated by Big Tech, and announced as the basis for a loss of freedom, and presented as a final chance to fight for their rights. Many believed no other politicians would fight for them. Trump used the verb “fight” some twenty times, making sure they had heard, letting them know, “now, we’re out here fighting” as if defending constitutional rights that would be taken away, beginning with election security, an election security that was in doubt, and, Trump used the false collective, would be resolved as “we’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue,” and break the third wall between rally and government, “we’re going to the Capitol and we’re going to give . . . ”

Even without the addition of the activating words “them hell,” the crowd was not only activated, filled with righteousness as they waved more flags, hoping to make their voices heard and their rights to wave flags. Congregating before the Capitol as electors were being certified, holding banners proclaiming their loyalty to Trump and refusal to concede the election, lest constitutional rights be sacrificed. Their righteous indignation was animated by the slogan “Stop the Steal,” instead of “Build the Wall,” but the “steal” would be a robbery of the wall, and of security domestic or electoral. Trump exploit the apparent lack of conclusion as if it were an expanded denouement of the 2020 Presidential election, targeting the Capitol building as the culmination of a false narrative of remedying a deep, deep failure of electoral transparency. Presenting the innocuous sounding “march” as a last opportunity to make their voices heard, the unprecedented targeting of Congress and elected representatives sought to interrupt the transition of power, by interrupting tabulation of electoral votes: in questioning the transparency of congress, the march questioned the transparency of how the nation mapped onto the halls of representation, whose organizers pledged in allegedly figurative terms commitment to appear at Freedom Plaza “fight to expose this voter fraud and demand transparency and election integrity” as a civic duty.

Despite confirmations of no evidence any voting system, the combative terms sought to prevent an absence transparency argued to undermine American democracy, in the narratives that President Trump devoted his final months in office to perpetuating. The hopes to continue his claim on Presidential power was almost secondary, after a narrow election both for the Presidency and Congress, than the prevention of a loss argued to be enabled by massive voter fraud, fake news, and dissimulation, and claims for fraudulence that multiplied and perpetuated to erode the very foundations of the alleged democracy for which Congress stood. If electoral loss was apparently determined by the inclusion of absentee ballots of long-undercounted minority voters, the claims of an erosion of democracy was a claim of a loss of the entitlement of white voters that Trump had come to embody, and protection of their interests, tied to hateful myths of “replacement” of the franchise and white majority status of America, a shattering of a global picture that mapped, in the frenzy of counter-charges of the perpetuation of fraudulent voting, pursued in multiple lawsuits, that seemed to seek to turn back time, literally, to the first returns of electoral votes and the projections of possible Trump victory, rooted in a misunderstanding of voter trends and patterns that would not deviate from early results. But it was also to turn back time, by whatever means necessary, to white regimes of the past, embodied in the sea of white supremacist flags, confederate flags, MAGA flags, flags of crusaders, and TRUMP 2020 flags, preserving fake dreams in the name of continuing what Amy Kremer, in the two week, cross-country bus tour rallying support for what were literally the troops, claimed would be the second and perhaps more important goal of the March on Washington: “to support one another,” to nourish false fantasies of a lack of transparency, and to hearken back to an era of “electoral transparency” that excluded access to the ballot by many.

This was an image of governance, combined with the imagery and logic of impending wrath, designed to take back the coutnry by an occupation of the Capitol from “corrupt politicians” who had distorted the votes, as the true delegates from all fifty states might fight the ultimate reality game, claiming to be liberators and “rightful masters,” a mashup of Lincoln’s famous call to power with the urgency of a playstation episode of Star Trek: Invasion, and a call to summon their skills of combat as the moved to occupy the capitol grounds to remediate the alleged absence of transparency, even if that meant crumbling the pillars of democracy. The brewing battle referenced in Gothic font and brewing clouds implied an apocalyptic battle between Trump and the “Deep State” of liberals, staged in the arena of the U.S. Capitol itself, echoed in increased social media chatter on “battle stations” and “dropping the hammer” and an approaching “war” over stolen votes suggested a destruction of government and appealed as inhabiting a huge exercise of cosplay.

The invocation of a revolutionary mythology, a crowd-sourced lightening storm whose disastrous advance was targeting he Capitol from the heavens, as if it came from a 1930s Hollywood studio, or a recent thriller about the need to save society in a single moment, summoned the associations from early modern medicine of a critical point, but the critical point was in the social body–as the impending advance approached the Capitol, rocking its foundations as never before as the thunder was called down from the heavens, more spectacularly than Avengers: Endgame.

The ESRI story map map of the tunnels underneath the Capitol that in some version appears crossposted on TheDonald.Win conjured a troubling sense of enforcing the transparency of government the protestors had claimed, by luring them through maps of a hidden “sprawling underground world . . . curving like tentacles made of brick,” evoking, if playfully, the logic of secret routes of underground access to restore democratic representation by force in a world gone disastrously wrong and demanded repair lest the tentacles of the opposition party–the Democrats–might gain control of the U.S. Congress, by the double whammy of the previous night’s election of two Democratic Senators from Georgia as well as an African American Vice President.

The moment of crisis became imminent, but the routes to power were made to seem almost present to one’s eyes; it helped that Capitol Police were poorly equipped with old plastic shields that broke on impact, lifting the advancing mob a further sense of the invincibility despite their utterly unfounded claims to power. The image of tunnels that could allow the mob to gain easy access to Senate chambers, in air ducts repurposed in the Cold War as structures of civil defense were not even needed. The advance of members of the rally as Trump asked the assembled crowd to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue Constitution Avenue, to “save the Republic” by taking the Constitution in to their own hands, as he wrapped up his speech, some two hundred crowd members were already advancing on the Capitol by 12:33, moving past bike racks and other obstacles as they took over the inauguration stands, moving past officers who were not outfitted with shields, shouting “Hey! We’re breaking the wall!” with glee or sneaking through fences, entering the capitol from the west and from the east as the police finally declared a riot by 1:46, overwhelmed, according to recent forensics, by about 28 to 1, as over three thousand, four hundred members of the mob exulted in their new identity and success at forcing the police to pull back inside the building by 1:56, no longer able to secure the inaugural stands, as Trump was still speaking. The protestors who engaged Capitol Police and city police grew to an estimated 9,000, obsessed with creating transparency in the electoral tabulation. Fear of direct access to the Capitol grounds grew, increasing the giddy sense of success as police were waiting for reinforcement, and the mob broke windows to the Senate Chambers climbing on the the mid-terrance, and entering the east and west sides as police defence lines crumbled by 2:28.

Architect of the Capitol via Wayback Machine

The image of direct access to the chambers of government teased Trump supporters as a promise of transparency, as map of the tunnels underneath the Capitol Building that circulated on TheDonald.Win in anticipation of the event not an image in itself of the failure of electoral transparency. Don Jr., never the brightest bulb but the most eager, seems to have been overly transparent in telling the assembled crowd in Freedom Plaza that the time had indeed come to confront Republican representatives reluctant to support the seating of electors that would confirm the transition of power, claiming “we’re coming for you and we’re going to have a good time doing it,” hours before the crowd attacked the U.S. Capitol to affirm his overly earnest claim that “we have a country to save and [rioting] doesn’t help anyone.”–after urging the crowd, “if you’re gonna be the zero and not the hero” to prevent the transition of power, “we’re coming for you and we’re gonna have a good time.”

They were rather supposed to be having a good time. They advanced to the U.S. Capitol, having been urged on by how President Trump nurtured fantasies of “Making America Great Again” with existential urgency, and had delegated responsibility with urgency by letting them know that it was their turn to fight at the gates: “It is up to you and I to save this Republic! We are not going to back down, are we? Keep up the fight!” The barbarians were brought to the gates, and he all but invited them in, by activating their discharge down Pennsylvania Avenue, to bring a conclusion to what he had long postponed or deferred as a conclusion to the election that he had long argued would decide America’s future was at stake, with President Trump telling his supporters that his opponent would “destroy the American dream,” building anticipation for “the most important election in the history of our country” to magnify his supporters’ sense of a mission; as Trump predicted that the cities would be given over to roaming crowds of “violent anarchists,” and intoning about the existential dangers that immigrants who crossed the border, and failed to show up for court hearings would cross the border en masse–indeed, only by sending Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol who had become his personal army to find immigrants failing to show up for immigration court hearings could the U.S. Border and the nation be kept secure and we allow “a socialist agenda to demolish our cherished destiny” as a nation.

The barbarians had been summoned to the gates of power, by the logic of claims of lack of transparency. Perhaps they were also looking for violent anarchists, but they acted more like insurrectionists. Trump had cultivated an image of instability, akin to the specter of the invading migrants by celebrating the border wall as a prop for his Presidency, arguing “if we had a wall, we wouldn’t have any problems.” If the specter of immigrants as a threat to the nation’s sovereignty, tied to electoral transparency, the moment of revanchism had come as the tocsin sounded when the President called his base into action to forestall the transition of power. “They cross the border, and they they disperse across the country,” Trump had long warned of immigrants; but the the many busloads of protestors who arrived in Washington, DC, assembled before the authoritative structure of the prime chamber of American government, ready to cross barricades to target the U.S. Congress, staking a counterweight to its historic representational functions in their own bodies, as they sought to make their voices heard with urgency, least the boundary to the nation be opened, and the security of the state be fully compromised. The barbarians had now crossed police lines, barricades, bicycle racks, and overpowering officers as they invaded the halls of government. The arrived out of a distinct sense of a mission to defend the electoral results they wanted, with a sense of cheering the man to whom they were bonding for a final time, assembling before mesmeric screens that magnified the face of the outgoing President to whom they played homage, and who would instruct them to interrupt the certification of electoral votes, in deeply personal tones, as if it was the final plea to relitigate the election.

As late as April, Trump has continued to praise the crowd that arrived for his speech at Freedom Plaza as patriots, before fundraisers, boasting about its the size of the January 6 rally as if it offered a testament to his holding power in the party, but quickly claiming “he wasn’t talking about the people who went to the Capitol.” It is difficult to estimate the size of the crowd, or of the mob that besieged the Capitol as Trump spoke: if he claimed a number as large as 250,000, and althouht 100,000 is a likely exaggeration, it was at least 10,000; as they approached the Capitol,  the crowd gained a density of 5 square feet per person, mosh-pit style, that both allowed it to gain a new sense of identity, and to overpower unarmed police. During Trump’s speech, he spent most of his speech acting as if he had been playing out the tallies of votes on an electoral map in a non-stop loop in his head for months describing fraudulence across states–Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada, and then several counties in Georgia, to conclude in contradictions of an obsessive–“We were ahead by a lot, until within a number of hours, we were loosing by a little”. Trump seemed to have counted on the audience replaying the same electoral maps, tallying cases of fraudulence in comprehensive detail–illegal ballots, never audited; the astounding alleged “error rate” of Dominion Voting Systems in Fulton County–late-arriving ballots in Detroit; dead people voting in Arizona; back-dated ballots in Wisconsin; ballot-harvesting in Pennsylvania, votes received after the deadline, an accumulated variety of dizzying wrongs. They were recited in disturbing detail as if to turn back the clock on the election, and demand that the tallying of electoral votes just not occur, given all these wrongs. All conveyed a deep sense of being wronged, and a vast conspiracy of wrongs, all allowed to exist, if folks did not show righteous rage. Did he imagined we had all visualized the possibility that all states were not called, and the electoral map remained unsettled as more legal cases were pending, or ballots needed to be recounted.

In fact, the lack of clarity in the electoral maps of 2020 flipped, for the first time, the tabulation of electoral votes across the country into what was openly portrayed as a crisis of representation, unable to be resolved by the usual manner of the tabulation of votes, in which despite the clear majority of votes won by one candidate, the final tally of electoral votes were not clear on the map–and some television news stations seemed to expect the block of red states that ensured an electoral victory in 2016 to be repeated, and left Trump deferring any conclusion to the election until January 6, 2021.

Election Night Returns, New York Times
Post-Election Map of Lawsuits, Recounting of Ballots, and Contested Election Returns/Epoch News

Trump affirmed his refusal to concede, and urged the rally to refuse to accept these results as well, stewing in what he portrayed, again, performatively and pleadingly, as a crisis in representation that his own Vice President had failed to maneuver around. He taunted the crowed by insisting on the mendacity of Democrats who were all talk and no action, would undercut the America First policy, and fail to defend rights to Free Speech that was in danger of being curbed, with freedom of religion and of owning guns–articulating “rights” that extended from gun control to religious practice. The chaotic jumble of multiple flags dominated by the five letters long used to promote luxury complexes concealed the presence cultivated from white supremacist groups, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, all groups expected to be at the event, heirs to the supposed promises of a Lost Cause who wove separatist flags of different stripes, suggesting loyalty to deep truths. Trump lionized the patriotism of the crowd, which he insisted were “totally appropriate” in all ways, pronounced the election not only rigged, in a keyword of his campaign, and marred by a range of unprecedented “abuses” that can “never happen again,” distinguishing the crowds of 30,000 at the Save America Rally where he promised he would never concede as the crowd already approached the seat of the U.S. Congress in tactical garb before he concluded speaking.

As if hoping for a last-minute reversal of fortune, Donald Trump invited these barbarians into the gates, having granted them honorifics as “patriots committed to the honesty of our elections and the integrity of our glorious republic,” ready to “patriotically make your voices heard.” “I have never been more confident in our nation’s future,” he said in closing, reminding the patriots assembled that “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country any more.” These patriots arrived on the perimeter of the U.S. Capitol, convinced that they would present a new ideal of sovereignty, a popular sovereignty, that would overturn not only the certification of electors but the falsity of a tainted electoral process, as if they might replace it with direct sovereignty evoked in the sea of flags that so exultantly if chaotically unified the voices and identity of the mob that rushed the U.S. Capitol, streaming their success on social media, to give a transparency to their own actions that they found lacking in the electoral process. The prominence of defensively waved confederate flags beside TRUMP 2020 banners, American flags, and a range of flags from the Gadsden Flag to the Blue Line Flag to states’ flags, suggested defending an imaginary of the nation greater than the actual nation; they proclaimed a project of patriotism and national reinvention, glorifying as “revolutionary” insurrectionism.

There was something deeply fraught and un-American in the dissonance of the crowd-sourced populism of these men and women who arrived to accomplish what could not be accomplished at the ballot box. But there they were, claiming populist roles for themselves and claiming identity as patriots, taking selfies and filming one another, defending an administration that had signed into law the America CARES Act that offered targeted relief for industries hard hit by the pandemic–whose Title IV boasted relief for airline industries and the financial sectors in the form of massive tax write-offs, and over $25 billion of loans and loan guarantees to aircraft carriers alone and over $15 billion to defense industries–as if it was a populist movement, redefining populism as a mission of unwittingly preserving interests of corporate elites. The huge tax write-offs of the CARES Act that allowed “carry-back” provisions allowing companies to deduct losses from the profits they had recently reported, even if they were unrelated to COVID-19 or the pandemic, boasted the outright gift allowed ultra-wealthy Americans to consolidate their social safety nets by deducting personal losses from non-business income, at a time they were worried about their income security, in a manner demanded by the Americans for Tax Fairness non-profit, bolstering their financial profiles of the wealthiest of the 1%, and ensuring their hospitals, health centers, , even as hospitals were overwhelmed. What were these people doing defending their ground at Freedom Plaza?

These yahoos were not from the edges of empire, from outside of the borders of the nation, but were claiming to be from its heartland. They were, rather, crowd-sourced from social media platforms and news sources of political disaggregation, animated by the inflation of abstract values–arriving not from the southwestern border we had been warned of an invasion by gangs, drug lords, child-traffickers, and illegal aliens, but from across the nation. They were different barbarians, promoting popular sovereignty. The Alexandrian poet Konstantine Kavafy began Waiting for the Barbarians, by imaging the expectation of their arrival as government ground to a halt: toga-wearing legislators, bored, seem to wait something to break the logjam of their work to lift them from their idleness: “Why should the Senators still be making laws?/ The barbarians, when they come, will legislate.” The hope that those who invaded the Capitol grounds had for forestalling government would respond to what they saw as the true emergency–the end of the Trump Era, the fear of losing automatic weapons, immigrant protection programs, and the fear of a fraying of law and order that the Republican party had encouraged them to believe were all too imminent, warranting the emergency sign of flying an inverted American flag.

Thomas P Costello/USA Today

When Elias Canetti examined the formation of the crowd’s sense of license, tracing it from a moment of ‘discharge’ when they had arrived on the terrace, exulting in sense of short-lived victory. The members of the crowd at the moment of discharge, Canetti argued, sense of bonds to one another solidify. He would have been struck by the theatricality of the formation of a crowd that formed with a clear sense of timing: this crowd was long prompted by an urgent sense that January 6, 2021 was a critical day in the history of democracy, and of the union, and as the final moment of the selection of an American President, not by an election, but the final moment to question that election’s results–a true critical moment in the preservation of a democracy.

The crowd that progressed from the Ellipse gained new clarity as a body as they moved down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the Mall, and entered in waves into the chambers of the U.S. Capitol. They arrived to fulfilled their ambitions to fill the “our house”–occupying the architecture of the ship of state and government. They had arrived with an ease as surprising to many members of the mob as their leaders, as well as the President they would continue to support in his calls for patriotic defense of liberties.

Tucker Carlson
AP/Rex/Shutterstock

The crowd that wanted to preserve the “red map” FOX Anchor Tucker Carlson displayed as

backdrop of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” the highest-rated news program Fox airs, to orient viewers to his perspective and to the news. Perhaps that map has helped promote Carlson’s improbable rapid emergence and designation as the hands down “front runner” for the Republican nomination in 2024: a race-baiting, dynamic figure who would affirm the Trump constellation, and fluidity of the White House and Fox news, who Roger Stone had attempted to persuade to run for President against Barack Obama, all the way back in 2012. A young Conservative pillar whose news show began by featuring the backdrop of the electoral map in November, 2016, the most watched Fox News program of the year, Carlson made clear his promotion of Trump from the start, and adopted the conversion of the electoral map from a form of consensus to a declarative statement that Donald Trump was associated in a telling hanging of the map-of 2016 election results Trump had displayed in the White House in a frame–an image he had long given out to visitors to the West Wing, as if in a sign to the broadcaster who had in early 2016 heralded Trump as able “to fight Washington corruption, not simply because he opposes it but because he has actually participated in it” in Politico, able to become “the most ferocious enemy Ameican business has ever known,” as if he were Teddy Roosevelt: Tucker Carlson even went so far as to openly sanction Trump’s vulgarity by his allegedly pugnacious populism, creating a person of the former President struck a clear chord for viewers.

Did Carlson help to inspire the riots? Carlson’s “fighting words” crystallized Trump’s ability to represent the other America Carlson had tapped at The Daily Caller, piling scorn on Washington as a seat of corruption even at CNN, sanctioned Trump’s vulgarity as of a piece with his ability to attack Washington, e exponent he became as founder of the Daily Caller, who left CNN and MNBC for Fox. Trump had never participated in public politics, if he had threatened to since 1996 or earlier, but Carlson’s uncanny knack to converet any position to a pleas to sound like a righteous rebellion against double talk and political corruption anointed Trump as the one able to take on Washington, before Trump had even won the Republican nomination, and was incarnated in the very map of “election results” that magnified the size of Trump’s small share of the popular vote, by making it seem that Trump “big red, using the visual of the county-by-county vote as a proxy of sovereignty which he tweeted out to his 70+ million followers during his second impeachment. An example that might be understood in Trump’s taste for “truthful hyperbole,” it does the trick of showing his victory in 2,626 counties to Hillary Clinton’s 487, but cleverly masked that she had almost three million more popular votes.

The cultic status of the alternative map Carlson long used as a backdrop to tell the news was perhaps a form of brainwashing. It was the map, to be sure, that the crowd in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021 believed to exist, and obstinately refused to stop believing in. Tucker promoted the map as he baited viewers by denigrating social justice protests as the work of “criminal mobs,” and identified the insurrectionary riot as only seeking to promote “justice.” The crowd hoped to turn back the clock on the electoral map, by a license prefigured by interactive tallying electors FOX invited viewers to build interactively and to share in teh 2016 and 2020 elections–

FOX Interactive Projected Electoral map/July 7, 2016

–maps that may have contributed to entitlement to dimiss the electoral maps perpetuated by “Fake News Media.”

Much as Carlson had spoken from before the map of Trump’s 2016 victory, the same map before which Carlson later dismissed the presence of white supremacists in any responsible role at the rally–and even denied it was an armed insurrection–the spokesperson who has been a major apologist for Trump, promoting the illusion of a “heartland” victory of 2016 across Trump Country, a stretch of the nation that had come into existence in 2016, convincing viewers to keep their eyes on the prize, and imagine “your own 2016 presidential election forecast” as if the election could be personalized to reflect their historical role to promote a Trump victory on the “road to 270.” Their arrival in Washington, DC was bracketed by a sea of blue streamed from red states across the nation, as if to continue the Presidential campaign and to bring it to a final conclusion, as the 2020 electors were being certified.

Were they not an expression and manifestation of Carlson’s own sense of utter indignation at being wronged? This was the need to actually attack Washington, DC, and what way to do so than by attacking the Joint Session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol? The collective rage of the crowd was cast in righteous terms, and they had been baited by the very categories FOX news had purveyed. Advancing to the U.S. Capitol as Senators and Congressmen stalled for time to prevent state electors from being certified, the crowd aimed to empty the U.S. Capitol of the sacrality it commands. They did not need the government any more, or need its representatives. The argument in early 2016 that “Trump is leading a populist movement” led Carlson to invoke Teddy Roosevelt, while attacking the elitism of Republicans. In a robust attack on his former party for their attention to details of sexism, he attacked “people who were to slow to get finance jobs and instead wound up in journalism” as betraying the Party of Ideas, dismissing Trump’s critics as “fixated on fashion and hair,” and in an explicit sense to effeminate to appreciate Trump’s robust challenge as lying in straight talk and masculine confrontation–as if he were not a Member of the Tribe.

Was this a crowd that channeled the righteous indignation that Carlson had summoned over four years, from when he scolded a political caste of “Washington Republican” to let them know that he believed voters “know more about Trump than the people who run their Party,” the attack on the elites who were beholden to vested interests, as only “proof that you live nowhere near a Wal-Mart” in their priggish readiness to call Trump “a ridiculous buffoon with the worst taste since Caligula.” This wrath of Carlson was in a sense the wrath of the mob, directed by the conspiracy theories he had spun about an attempt to “bypass voters” and the autopsy he delivered from his news desk of a man Minnesota police killed. Carlson’s accusations of “rigging the election” led to the anger of the mob as they targeted that symbol of Washington–the Capitol–to “make their voices heard.”

Were the the true barbarians of whom the United States senators and congresspeople were in fear, and took the place of actual invaders? In a chastening poem that meditates on the dynamic of an end of the Byzantine empire, that evokes the fall of Rome to outsiders, poet and historian C. P. Cavafy drew on his erudition to conjure the dramatic scene of an utter inability of senators as they wait for the arrival of the “barbarians” to see the large picture. They have retreated from the larger consequence of inviting the crowd who posed as “patriots” to enter their very chambers in a perverse attempt to defend their country–or the country of red states and white majority with which they identified . Cavafy describes the legislators “bored with eloquence and public speaking,” as they found that with the specter of the barbarians from across the southern border were hidden behind, senators fled from the specter of the advancing MAGA mob, relinquishing their offices in fear: after four years of affirming the sacrality of the border wall to the nation, they shamelessly cowered from these barbarians without responsibility.

Nick Anderson, MAGA Mob/Tribune Agency

President Trump had incited the crowd to occupy the sacred architecture of government, in the neoclassical Palladian capitol building that he spoke before–what Joe Biden affirmed, in the hours of the riot, as an unprecedented assault on the very “citadel of liberty” and heart of government, occupying the sacred space of government and “most sacred of American undertakings,” the “sacred ritual” of the certification of the Electoral College vote, by occupying and filling the architecture of government into which they flowed. President Trump talked of the Capitol not as a sacred architecture or citadel, but the arms and tactical gear brought to the rally made clear it was a site to be filled: President Trump described an “egregious assault on our democracy,” a strange collective, as if the Capitol were a site of a wrong, rather than sacred, where the “brave senators and congressmen and women” would be cheered on, as in a sporting event, while not cheering much for others, to “make our voices heard” and in doing so “take back our country,” shifting sacrality from the architecture of the Capitol and making it appear a site to be filled by a cheering and booing crowd, as it had been almost evacuated of sacrality in a Presidency that was committed to the sacrality of the border wall. Teh rioters who affirmed a red-state religion of states rights held many obsolete flags–campaign flags, confederate flags, Betsy Ross flags, crusaders’ flags–not only to create a lineage for their protest but to protest their patriotism during the insurrection.

Storming of the United States Capitol/Sam Corum/Getty Images

Only less than a thousand of those attending the Save America Rally on January 6, 2021 forced their way into the doors of the U.S. Capitol, hardly a fraction of the minimum size of 250,000 Trump claimed to face, as the “low number a few hundred thousand, high 2-3 million” that the rally organizers had promoted–but the spark for the crowd was set by the urgent request to save their country, from a threat that was all too real. The social media whistleblower who urged his followers to “take action” before the Capitol Riots taunted the Capitol police on poor planning for an event he hoped would attract three million American patriots, as if they were woefully underprepared for the reckoning the Save America Rally would create over the coming days.

The apparent abdication of the President from his executive responsibility was mirrored in the refusal of Republicans to recognize the danger of advance of militant resisters of a peaceful transfer of power. If only eight hundred entered the U.S. Capitol on January 6, breaking police lines and forcing their way into locked and guarded doors, the dissolution of momentum as the crowd could no longer fill the cavernous rotunda seemed to let it dissipate energy, but the insurrectionary force of entrance had already destabilized the workings of government and shocked the nation. It seems probably the organizers expected many more would have followed, as they insurrectionists hung Trump 2020 flags atop the Capitol building, from flags of the Trump campaign to other lost causes, from the Confederacy to South Vietnam–and tore down the American flag from the flagpole, to replace it with a Trump flag. When they entered the chambers of Congress, they cried “Trump won that election!

They communicated a truly chaotic sense of exultation and arrival, as if that was their purpose. The many flags of imagined nations that no longer exist were on display at the insurrection linked the riots to an imagined heritage by radical telescoping and “umbrella descriptor” able to conjure “utopic” parallel worlds of whiteness. From the assembly of a “new American to the refighting of lost battles–evident in the many flags of the Confederate States of America; Trump 2020; Thin Blue Line–the array of flags suspended on the walls of the Capitol and from its flagpoles and windows suggest realities that were all no longer past, but, as Danielle Christmas reminds us, but synchrony of imaginary spaces which –from the Betsy Ross flag; the Confederacy; League of the South; Knights Templar; Vinland–validated a sense of belonging to a heritage of whiteness, in the attempts to give a national coherence to white nationalism, and even more a sense of authenticity and transparency to their aims. The attempts to untangle the mashup to sanctify their cause in hyper-masculine tropes eliding patriotism and militancy may explain the ebullient apparent chaos in the use of Confederate flags with neo-pagan flags, militant flags of crusaders, early revolutionaries, and diehards of the 2020 election, were images of white strength. Against the backdrop of accusations of failed transparency, an iconography of “lost causes” staked out an authenticity of faith, for all its fakeness and lack of historical accuracy.

While his social media followers may have been unmoored from any stable epistemological ground, the ability to warp the truth over the past five years may have made it incumbent upon them to respond to this lack of truth, to dislodge them from ties to any reality other than his refusal to concede the already decided Presidential race, as he sent his own troops into battle to rally against the reality of his political defeat. The flags pronounced claims to faith in lost causes that both magnified the crowd and its energetic claims to belonging to groups that were more transparent than the alleged “false media” narrative of an election defined, in contrast, by a lack of transparency. The power of belonging in a crowd no doubt attracted many to the Capitol, as it would reprise the many rallies Trump had staged nationwide since 2015.

But after promising his audience that he would accompany their progress down Pennsylvania Avenue, Trump cannily left the rally he had called, gleefully watching the progress to the U.S. Capitol on television from the White House with friends and advisors, as if relinquishing center stage; he abdicated responsibility for inciting the ensuing violence he followed gleefully in the Oval Office with his son and several advisors, and seems to have waited for his Vice-President to summon the National Guard, so ecstatic was Trump in what seemed an Insurrection Party with a soundtrack of upbeat rock. The open transparency of these patriots was on view for all to see, and was being documented live on camera, evident from the map of cel phone signals from towers near the Mall and U.S. Capitol as the crowd advanced.

Animated by the defense of a sense of patriotism, if not of the delicate boundaries of the Republic, when Trump vowed “we will never give up, we will never concede,” at the very start of his speech, repeating the useful conceit “we won by a landslide,” he created a bond of collective relation to the crowd, before he affirmed that if “we don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country any more.” The tweet that arrived to the followers who all had brought their phones to stream the event to which they were amassed to follow lit up at 2:24 p.m. with the alarming news the acting President of the Senate failed to question the validity of seating electors, and indeed lacked the “courage to do what should have been done to protect our County and our Constitution” that triggered the mob to form from the crowd, waving a raucous abandon of flags semiotically difficult to process–TRUMP 2020 flags; Betsy Ross flags; Gadsden flags; 2nd Amendment flags thin blue line flags; and, of course, confederate flags–in an abandon of over-signification born of deep desire to destabilize sovereign unity, lifted by an eery undercurrent of red MAGA hats. The guns, explosive devices, and tacitical policing gear as well as hunting weapons were fetishized as a protected”right,” enshrined in the Amendment ratified in 1789, although those rights derived from the English common law notions of preserving the peace–not the libertarian “liberties” of owning guns that span hunting rights or self-defense, rather than the common defense. Yet the keeping of military arms for use in local militia was appropriated with expansion of the very term “militia”, now fetishized as a right of border protection and vigilantism without local regulation.

INdeed, the personalization of rights to “defend” the nation inside the “well-regulated militia” that the Second Amendment affirmed as a right central to preserving “the security of the state” has become delegated to self-run groups, often composed of Border Patrol members or military veterans, designed to preserve their sense of security deemed “necessary to the security of a free state” has increasingly elevated “right” to bear arms into an obligation, staged with theatrics on the very structure of the inaugural stands transformed to grounds of a tactical campaign of defense, whose propulsive energy soon became one of aggressive assault. 

John J. Appel

About a sixth of the way through President Trump’s address–and just after he claimed that the voice of the crowd of believers that would not be silenced, martial chanting filled the space that Elias Canetti, who found that history of the twentieth century a history of mass psychology–termed the “acoustic mask” of the collective, more akin to sports events than individual articulation, a subsuming of the self in the crowd, of openly martial tones. Canetti’s distinction between the “open” crowd whose expansion knew no limits and from the “closed” crowd that fills an architectural space to take it over, and fills it while sacrificing its mass size. The crowd at the Capitol combined both aspects, as it was a crowd that had assembled at multiple earlier rallies and online, but was determined to expand to fill the architecture of the Capitol, opening a preserve of government as it was determined to make its voices heard. Architecture provided a stimulus for the crowd to gain its sense of a unity, Canetti argued in his distinction between the “open” and “closed” crowds, echoing the image of the Nuremberg Rallies of Hitler, no doubt, when he claimed that architecture “postpones [the crowd’s] dissolution,” but the limited number of entrances to the closed space where the crowd assembles not only attracts them, as a space that the crowd will fill, harnessing the power of the crowd which realizes with a sense of sudden entitlement that “the space is theirs.”

The transformation of the space outside the Capitol to an architecture of protest, even not able to be entirely filled, affirmation of the stakes of the battle for rights that was at hand. For Canetti, the architecture of the space–here symbolized by the inaugural stands, and by the open architecture of the Capitol dome, becomes filled as it invited mobilization. Indeed, the filling of the space transformed the crowd into a collective surge, whose motion through space “reminds them of the flood” or crucial metaphors of conceiving the crowd as a stream, tide, or waves–metaphors usually based on water, to illustrate its cohesion–that are, mutatis mutandi, the very terms often applied to the migrants on the southwestern border, but are now poised to enter not the country but the seats of government power. In the context of a history of crowds over the twentieth century, Elias Canetti sought to understand the psychology of mass movements of Fascism outside of a Freudian concentration on ego, and relation of self to collective, but as a new configuration of. self to collective. The crowd allowed him to focus on the question of the political fusion of self with crowd as a moment when all inhibitions are overcome by a drive toward greater density and physical proximity; the procession of the crowd as it moved toward the U.S. Capitol became a mob, gaining identity to cross the Capitol’s perimeter, realizing its transformation from the open crowd of online space to the physical space that it might occupy: in this case, the mass of Trump supporters that was assembled before the U.S. Capitol was it fear of the arrival of the barbarians that Trump has himself warned against,–but seemed to seek acceptance as a new political unit. They gained power as a mob as they approached the U.S. Capitol, defining their power by their proximity to the U.S. President, and growing in power as their distance diminished to the Capitol building that appeared within their vision on the horizon, just out of reach of their own pressing raucous popular demands as the mob acted as a militia.

The centrality of gun rights as the crowd outside the U.S. Capitol became a militia itself, was recouped in subsequent call for a “Million Militia March” on inauguration day, a counter-protest in grotesque parody of the Million Mom March, which 20 years ago drew an estimated 750,000 to protest an epidemic of gun violence, or the Million Man March, against the continued infringement of civil rights in America by police violence. The sustained transposition of constitutional originalism as justifying a “right” to bear arms is diffused in claiming the assertion of a full-blown “right to insurrection” should government overstep its constitutional right, distilling the notion of a well-regulated set of liberties to a “well-regulated militia” engaged in aggressive self-defense–far from the founders’ original intent. If the fear of southerners of slave insurrections , affirmation of a “right to insurrection” within the Second Amendment is argued as a basis to keep politicians in line, or a check against arbitrary authority of rulers. A protest on Inauguration Day was planned to include a return, this time “carrying Our weapons, in support of Our nation’s resolve.”

Evan Vucci/AP

Was not the call to an insurrection the very term that the members of the mob would adopt for themselves, proclaiming an insurrection that was able to The “right to insurrection” was claimed by the mob as they assembled before the inaugural stands, and proceeded to the Capitol. Drawn toward the Capitol as if to hope to fill its space, the logic of the crowd that had assembled was oriented toward the building where Trump had baited them to disrupt the votes, as if it was within their power to do so, removing and prohibition from entering the property that they were convinced was their own to possess, instructed by the leader to whom their banners all proclaimed fealty.

Many waved an American flag, but far more wove banners of Trump’s campaign slogan, repurposed for insurrection, or adopting other symbols of an allegiance that was more originalist than the members of Congress assembled to certify the electors. The crowd members acted as if they were mobilized as a separate country–the nation of Trump 2020, of Confederate America, or of America Made Great Again, as they pursued the MAGA agenda into the halls of government to finally make their voices heard; this was a country deeply tied to White Supremacy, to the founding fathers, and asserted that the state of affairs had become an emergency, and a new allegiance to foundational principles had to be asserted and proclaimed. From imagined lands to alternate realities, the flags provided an imagined inheritance of precedent–often of mythical nature, as the so-called “Vinland Flag,” repurposed from an old punk band that suggested an original pre-American world discovered by Norse voyagers who had arrived in North America in the eleventh century, repurposed to suggest a mythic white majority nation for extremists, often combining it with the image of a modern semi-automatic AK-47 as if it was a territory worthy of armed defense.

Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency

The approached the U.S. Capitol, waving Second Amendment flags and hanging their banners that celebrated the recent candidacy of Donald J. Trump as if it was indeed marked by victory, still with meaning, not able to be consigned to a trash-heap of history. The moment of heightened proximity to one another outside the White House walls marked the transformation of the audience to a mass, identified by professions of patriotism, patches, clothing, hats, and the acoustic mask of any cry they could improvise. They wished they had brought a boom box, and had a soundtrack by which to enter the chambers of Congress in a mask of dignity.

As martial chanting was a mask, a new collective identity by assuming the power to overturn sovereignty, the flags, MAGA caps, and weapons and tactical gear were a mask of identity by which they were made suddenly visible, accountable, and politically powerful, in collective denial Trump had lost the Presidential vote of 2020: as much as perpetuating a big lie that Trump planted, they laid claim to the collective identity that would not be ignored Trump championed. The acoustic mask was mirrored in the mask of signs, flags, demands, and an interruption to politics as normal. The flags were a baiting of power, a refusal of the sovereign power of the Joint Session of Congress, and a denial of its authority to certify electors: the mass of Trump supporters offered a new form of power, a delegitimization of the sovereignty of the U.S. Capitol itself, as the crowd presented a new form of power, ready to supplant it, unassailable by Capitol police, but that had in this moment before the Rotunda assumed an identity of invulnerability, in the new identity they presented as members of a crowd, and took a new sense of their own power as a crowd, attracted to their own ability to “save America” lest it not be “Great” anymore. They had all been, after all, invited to the event.

1. Trump urged the crowd to step into the breach opened by political polarization across the nation, to right the ship of state at the site of government, by going to the U.S. Capitol. This was the dominant trope of the deep risk of the Republic that American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had channeled, as a task of righting the voyage of the Republic lest it plummet into fatal waters. And the crowd approached, as if it embodied the hopes of the Republic and of mankind, magnifying its own power as a renewal of the Union, akin to a new state of civil war, and of democratic dignity, if the collective construction Longfellow called for imagined timbres from across the nation would be used to “bring tribute, great and small/and help to built this wooden wall . . . of oak and maple, and pine wood; iron, and pitch, and hemp,” to contain “humanity with all its fears.” For Longfellow, the shore was a site of contact, commerce, and danger of natural forces, rather than the fantasy of native purity Trump mapped as a source of fears to be contained by the still unbuilt border wall as a reimagined architecture of sovereignty. When Schoen read the envoi from “The Building of the Ship” inseparable from American Presidents standing steadfast in the face of disunion from Abraham Lincoln’s admiration of how the verses powerfully “stir men” on the eve of the Civil War to Franklin Delano Roosevelt sending them with Wendell Wilkie to Winston Churchill–“Sail on, O Ship of State!/Sail on, O Union strong and great./Humanity with all its fears . . . /Is hanging breathless on thy fate”–before the United States entered World War II, as a commitment of solidarity the former Lord of Admiralty, desperate for reassurance of an Atlantic alliance, would see “applies to you people as it does to us.” (Churchill would frame the hand-written letter on the walls of his Chartwell home, “I think this verse applies to your people, as it does to us.”

In electing to recite the poem in closing arguments, Schoen’s reading tied Presidential authority and a foundational reading of the constitution to the nation’s fate. His lawyerly reading of the envoi for the ship’s departure summoned an array of Presidential authority in defense of Trump’s accusation of violence that mimicked the exhibition of multiple flags arrayed behind Trump as he addressed the Ellipse on the morning of January 6, 2021, taking the figurative reading as a declaration of the innocence of his client in the face of the violence against the capitol and due process, and even Trump’s own taunting words by which he worked the crowd into a mission to move on the Joint Session. Longfellow’s poem had long provided a powerful topos of national unity, and transnational unity, any sense of the shared collective meaning of a transcendence–and the transcendent role of Presidential authority–were hard to recuperate days after the insurrection incited by an intense partisan opposition of an outgoing President, hard to read as deferring fears of the lack of consensus Trump hammered home in provoking the crowd by insisting the media suppresses “free speech” and urged them “we’re going to have to fight much harder” to prevent a “sad day for our country” of the ship of state hitting the rocky shoals of a smooth Presidential succession. In delegating the defense of the constitution to the crowd he addressed, he summoned a flase populism by inciting crowd members to band together, and gain their unity in order to defend their version of false “freedoms”–freedom of speech without fear of reprisal for hate speech, at a “Free Speech Event” to protest second amendment rights to possess guns; freedom of the”right” to assemble to promote civic disunion.

Schoen’s stilted reading of the trimeter of the envoi beseeched us to place faith over fears–“faith triumphant over our fears”–seemed to steel the nation against the insurrection. Longfellow’s language of righting the course of the ship of state became the language of a mob seeking to make their voices heard, in an insurrectionary slogan that granted license to trespass government property to disrupt Congress before electors were certified. And the mob of rioters who advanced on the U.S. Capitol inspire more fears for the future of the unity of state, than a manufactured by a steel wall of concrete core might stop, impelled by the fear that America as they knew it might suddenly stop if Joe Biden assumed the Presidency, and the America Made Great Again would no longer be America any more.

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To Levitate an Elephant

The Republican Party unveiled a sleek red elephant in preparation for the 2020 Republican Convention that seemed a strange recuperation of the circus origins of the once-sturdy quadruped. The rejuvenation of the vitality of the old elephant staged a rebirth of the party at a time when its ties to the nation had been increasingly tenuous, and seemed to mask the deep fragmentation that the politics of divisive opposition had been stoked by the shock jock tactics of a President over his first term. The classic abstracted pachyderm was no longer an iconic mascot of the past–it had not been the weighty icon of the past, laden with memories for years–but the division of the party was threatening, as was the division of the nation, by the time the Republican Party had assembled and decided not to adopt any platform in 2020, but to accept disruption and assurances of law and order as an identity the old red-white-and-blue mascot would no longer do to express.

As nation-wide movements promoting the sovereign secession of red states advanced online in virtual space of social media, embraced by the party as a basis for generating turnout and votes, Republicans seemed so assured of an approaching electoral landslide as something like destiny that the electoral map of victory became something of a mirror, finding their identity in red states alone in ways that were unveiled in the newly monochrome anthropomorphic icon of a red pachyderm as the aspirational emblem of the GOP would be reborn with newfound unity and vitality and with an apparent spring in its step.

If the first appearance of the “symbolic pachyderm” occurred in Harpers weekly as a stolid party poised at the brink of an open pit of chaos which was only slightly covered by the false support flimsy campaign platforms afforded its bulk, the image of the stolid beast of the party that was slandered in the 1874 election as newspapers accused the party of corruption, that may have led the mighty elephant to trip into the abyss of chaos. If the boastful Democratic donkey that saw itself as Caesar terrified forest beasts, and led Minerva’s owl to drop her tablet, the imposing party struggled not to fall into the abyss of chaos on platforms that could hardly sustain it from the fNew York press’s charges of corruption, let the party somehow loose the stability of Republican voters.

Thomas Nast, “Third Term Panic” (Harpers Weekly, 1874)

The newly designed Republican elephant of 2020 unveiled in Charlotte, North Carolina, attempted to invest strengthened unity for a party that had changed its identity, in ways that threatened its resilience. The proverbial four blind men who came to describe an elephant might not detect the chromatic shift, but the seismic shift in partisan identity was huge in a party whose sense of identity was being strong-armed by the . The prime political parties of American politics were defined since the late nineteenth century were symbolized by animals in ways that reveal the dominance of the popular press and editorial cartooning of Harpers magazine, where cartoonist Thomas Nast elevated the elephant to a symbol of party, embodying the collective vote in less that laudatory ways, have become potent signifiers their partisans invested with positive qualities to define their affinities, invested in tricolor mascots imbued with patriotism, the elephant associated with memory, probity, and intelligence bearing three stars, and the donkey, populist, dedicated, and stubborn in holding its ground, emblazoned with four. 

The elephant had by the 1970s and 1980s retained its stability in abstract form, but seemed an unassailable image of the party’s security, its sleek form a clear contrast to the far more fluid, and perhaps mutable, Democratic donkey–and, when the streamlined icon emerged int he late 1970s, to assert its modernity.

Democratic donkey and Republican elephant

The new “red elephant” was not only a logo unveiled at the 2020 Republican Convention, of course, but an emblem that had arisen on social media, akin to the new emblems of patriotic devotion that were first engraved by the U.S. Mint on national currency to offer evidence of the piety of the after the Civil War, when Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase received letters from ministers beseeching him to include adequate “ recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins,” and imploring him “What if our Republic were not shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation?,” leading Chase to impress upon the Director of the Philadelphia Mint the need of a device able to depict “the trust of our people in God . . . on our national coins” by a device and motto proclaiming national recognization of God, reasoning that it was evident that “no nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense.” Facebook groups Red Elephant media launched March 5, 2017 or The Red Elephant–a FB group and twitter handle, @redelephantt–founded April 9, 2018–suggested the new hue of the populist party of Donald J. Trump , an aggregator and amplifier of tweets by folks like Rep. Jim Jordan, Rep. Matt Gaetz, Gov. Ron De Santis and Marjorie Taylor Greene, a new republican Party that issued the post-inaugural proclamation to be back in other form.

The immensity of a far more animated elephant was a symbol primarily of hulking power, when it was first employed as a symbol of the Union; at the start of the U.S. Civil War, an anti-secessionist Republican party was imagined in an early lithography to render the anthropomorphic elephant an image of power and fire-arms, imagining, in an early New York lithograph, the contest between North and South in terms of a stoic beast, of little naturalism, whose dignity was backed up by fire-arms and the American flag, while a Democratic donkey seemed to squint at the imposing stature of the elephant who symbolizing order, Constitution in his pocket, and sword in his hand, wearing the patriotic stockings before his effete counterpart, “Jeff”–Jefferson Davies, who barely noticed his rural forces are far outnumbered by fire-power and canon, as he scrutinizes him warily through his eyepiece.

“Jeff Sees the Elephant,” E. B. & E. C. Kellogg/lithography by George Whiting, 1861-62
Jeff Sees the Elephant, 1861-2

The recognition scene between a patriotic elephant, donning both a patriotic hat band, stockings and slippers of red and white stripes and stars on a blue field, the American flag behind him, seems to register a divide of Civil War: the elephant armed with bursting guns coolly stares down the scrawny foppish Democrat donkey who lifts a monocle to better apprehend his foe. The future emblem mapped the cleavage between the union and confederates, where an elephant presumed to articulate the union and the donkey the intrepid resilience of the individualistic Democrat. During midterm elections of Republican Abraham Lincoln’s first term in office, when Jefferson Davies was the nominal “President” of seceded confederate states, was the precedent on which the great cartoonist Thomas Nast drew, but was designed long before the deadly violence of Civil War. The crisis of staking out political conditions out of which the animals emerged was pressing, if the dandy Davies seemed to barely orient himself by lifting his monocle to assess the scale of union munitions suggested that the elephant was an icon that was worth noticing.

The elephant long attracted circus-goers in America, but the entrance of elephants in political discourse and iconography demand being placed on a global map. If Lincoln adopted the elephant was a powerful symbol of union, and an announcement of the route of southern armies, which became a mascot of the Republican party, the impressive image of inclusion and monumentality was less evident in the new red elephant, lifting its trunks as if to smell the air, unveiled at the Republican Convention of 2020, when the wonder of the elephants that Siam’s King Mongkut hoped to introduce into “the forests of America” in 1861 had receded into history. The attributes of the animal mascot had over the years become fluid, long before the new elephant’s sleek form recaptured its circus origins, reclaiming its status as a circus animal, far from the upright animal who held his sword as a dignified cane. Lincoln judiciously had turned down the offer of a pair of elephants from his royal stock to propagate in American forests, but despite his respectful demurral that “our political jurisdiction . . . does not reach a latitude so low as to favour the multiplication of the elephant,” he readily adopted the iconography of the elephant as an emblem of the union by 1864: in the campaign, he used the slogan “the Elephant is Coming!” to promise the benefits of union as a partisan symbol.

The divide between a munitioned north that held the constitution in its pocket was drafted after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a wartime measure toward the abolishing of enslavement, defending the field of stars and stripes before the propertied southern landowners symbolized by the Kentucky planter and slave-holder who was President of the Confederate States of America, an office and entity the United States never recognized–here mocked as a foolish gentleman leading farmers into battle. By 2020, the Grand Old Party had been internally wrestling with groups promoting the idea that red states might gain an independent sovereign status. While the notion of such a secession was an intellectual siloing, ignoring that the the economic productivity of “blue states” allowed fiscal solvency and social services across many poorer regions of the nation, the 2020 Convention in Charlotte, SC was an attempt to create a sense of coherence in a party that had been animated mostly by its fear of Trump’s twitterfeed over four years, and hoped to find a possible reconciliation in which the party might in fact be best embodied by Donald Trump, even if a large part of his appeal as a Presidential candidate was his status as a political outsider. Was Trump now to be celebrated as an elephant limned by a border of gold, but also reclaiming its popular origins?

1. The new mascot was unveiled for the GOP, sleeker and redder, recalling the imperial grandeur; the party would be energized as if to disguise its new status as Party of Trump, by a new mascot rearing its trunk. And although the President boasted of his abilities to correctly identify the image of a pachyderm in the routine Montreal Cognitive Assessment Test in late July, the elephant even became a sign of Trump’s own mental acuity and recall, after he was administered a test for Parkinson’s or dementia he boasted he’d actually “aced.”

Was it a coincidence that, about a month before the 2020 Republican convention, Donald Trump measured his success at a routinely administered test to FOX’s Chris Wallace, by describing having “aced” the Montreal Cognitive Assessment by his adeptness identifying an elephant? Wallace almost scoffed spontaneously he’d undergone the test himself, and knew it well–“”It’s not the hardest test–they have a picture and it says, ‘What’s that?” and it’s an elephant‘” Trump claimed identifying the pachyderm was a sense of extraordinary acuity, as he took the opportunity to taunt his opponent, Joe Biden, who he challenged to take the cognitive test as well.

Montreal Cognitive Assessment Test Administered at Walter Reed

This was not a great moment in American politics. Was it not a delicious irony that the test focussed on the elephant, that image of Republican unity that featured in MoCA test his physicians administered had indeed been revised, for 2020, as a rightward facing red beast, raising its trunk as if to rear, in an attempt to promote party unity?

Perhaps it was karma that the httMoCA test that the VA was administering to test the President’s cognitive condition included the emblem of the republican party where he ha emerged as candidate of choice, and the koanic haiku “man-woman-person-camera-tv” was included, as well, per POTUS, as the memory words–a selection that was not on most versions of the test itself, but seem a softball question for Walter Reed physicians to pitch to the former TV personality, whereas standard fare word lists are non-associative and without clear reference or oppositions–“hand, nylon, park, carrot, yellow”; “face-velvet-church-daisy-red.”

Facing the VOX crew, and wishing that he was being interviewed by a woman, “man-woman-person-camera-TV” suggested Trump was riffing on his actual setting, in real time, more than describing the Walter Reed test. But the centrality of the elephant to this test of President Trump’s personal memory received less attention than the fanciful word chain that became a knowing meme: the place of the emblem of the party in the MoCA Test at Walter Reed may have been randomly selected, but was a bit of a reflection on the transformed nature of the Republican party that had emerged with Trump at the helm, and the unveiling by August 1, 2020 of a star-studded (or encrusted) pachyderm before a blue crown as the new “convention logo reflects both the energy of this vibrant city and traditions of the Republican Party,” as well as the one-ring circus direction that the party was headed by the very nominee once worried to tarnish the Party’s reputation permanently.

The one-week infomercial of a convention was entering full gear in its planning stages when Mike Wallace was interviewing Trump in the Rose Garden; President Trump was probably taking a break from reviewing its program and imagining how his improbable leadership of the party whose leaders had only recently feared the deep damage The Donald might inflict on the party’s image, urging him at length to “tone down” his pleasure to bait his base by anti-immigrant rhetoric, as Trump dismissed apologies–“I have nothing to apologize for”–and assured “I’ll win the Latino vote”–and pooh-poohed that he was a novelty candidate, even if he was clearly a different political animal. When he advanced to being the standard-bearer for the GOP, as assurances his candidacy would implode melted, his anti-immigrant comments were repressed, elided, or rolled into the media sensation Trump knew he was.

At PGA meeting at Trump International Golf Course at Rancho Palos Verde, CA, July 6, 2020/Nick Ut/AP

The collective memory of the party was at stake in the new convention–where the basis for forming a party of red states alone seemed to be being tested, the resistance to even pretend to frame a platform in at the Charlotte NC convention suggested, in programming that seemed to foreground both that Donald Trump was not a racist and that he would keep America save from Black Lives Matter social justice protests, that the very logo of the party–a white elephant that dated from Reconstruction–had preserved quite racially encoded memories of its own, that might haunt the party Trump had reshaped, long identified since Thomas Nast bequeathed two anthropomorphic beasts to both parties, in the years after the U.S. Civil War.

There was a logical difficulty in hoping a pure red state republic that some of the planners of the 2020 Republican Convention must have been aware: if the Trump base could be counted upon, red states remained dependent on federal transfer payments or support for food stamps, temporary assistance for needy families, subsidized insurance, and Medicaid, and were far poorer states, reliant on effective subsidies to pay troops, the fund infrastructural projects and disaster relief, many of which were increasing due to human-caused climate change. The party was dependent on a good showing in more than red states, and the polls,, as much as they were discredited and discounted by the sitting President, looked bad. But the proximity of the party to The Donald meant that the elephant had to be redesigned to buoy the party’s hopes–putting on the front burner the problem of how to assimilate Donald Trump to a party of long term memory.

Christopher Weyant, Boston Globe

The representation of red states as a base demanded an image of Republican identity demanded a redesign of its logo identified with the interests of red states with grandeur, that might meld the strongly separatist rhetoric in which the image of a Sovereign States of America might exist–without echoing the Confederate secession, even if the image of a Confederate States of America was dear symbolism to Trump’s base. The new elegant if streamline elephant, now emblazoned with five stars that seemed to forecast the “W” of victory, seemed to embrace a “big tent” politics in its size, but was for the first time incarnated in red alone.

And in an era in which we have a President able to channel his inner P.T. Barnum more openly than his predecessors, he sought to unite the party in his increasingly capacious body, by mining a rich tradition of political iconography speaking before a redesigned symbol of the party that perhaps tapped Nast’s icon in recalling a circus–and in recalling the curiosity “white elephant’ that Barnum had imported from Burma, where it was revered as a symbol of purity and power, and whose display to circus audiences implicitly promoted it as a purer version than its African cousin who was a popular component of American circuses, whose appearance was often the culmination and final act of the spectacular form of popular entertainment.

2. If the circus elephants Barnum displaced were such Americanized images as popular behemoths and visual attractions that cartoonists in the Civil War had already adopted the elephant as a sing of the Union, and of the Republican party that defended the union. If Lincoln was said to adore the elephant as an image of the Union’s robustness, the currency of the elephant as a trick in the trade of circus exhibitions may have appropriated the curiosity of the mammoth-sized beast because of its size and to show the marvel of its domestication: if elephants had been taught to dance in the Jardin des Plants, in costume, exhibition of a stuffed elephant at London’s 1851 Crystal Palace by the East India Company bearing a royal carriage that increased its exotic dignity and elevated its ceremonial role as transit vehicle, if the taxidermied skin was a source more of fascination than vivacity, prefigured Barnum’s spectacular display of elephants to popular crowds: the popularity of the museified pachyderm prefigured exhibition of a giant African Grey at London’s Zoological Gardens, and Barnum eagerly bought what was then the largest elephant in captivity to hawk to American audiences in his traveling show, over public objection and anger of London zoogoers who felt they were swindled to lose the locally treasured beast that was a source of cultural fascination and pride:

Walter Goodall, Crystal Palace, 1855 (London)

If the stuffed elephant at the Crystal Palace exhibited in “native” costume as an elegant conveyance, anidst the Pavilion the East India Company populated with material goods, jeweled costumes, and elephant saddles, was far from the way Barnum later displayed elephants in his traveling company with fewer costumes than later adopted for circus elephants as forms of kitsch–Barnum promised contact with the vivacity of enormous beasts’ feats as a popular entertainment, in a tradition of American circus men, probably independently from Lincoln’s near fetishization of the tusked animal to emblematize the unity of the Union he promised in his Presidential campaign. But the connotations of elephant and party that paralleled the popular display of elephants Barnum dramatically pioneered grew as the costumed resumed for the Burmese White Barnum had added to his menagerie by 1884, amidst heated racial politics of Reconstruction, adopting the Burmese beast to provoke debates on the purity of racial descent and skin pigmentation in post-Civil War America, as they were confronted, processed and intensely debated outside southern states, rather decisively increased the adoption and attention to the elephant as a mascot of the Republican Party, as the “white elephant” Toung Taloung arrived in New York City as a fascinating new feature of Barnum’s public display.

The prized white elephant Barnum exhibited was a revered beast, whose purity of stock, evident in the pigmentation of its skin, he argued was more civilized and considerate elephant than the African greys standard in American circuses; the spectacle in Reconstruction was a symbol of racial purity, and the calculation of percentages of racial descent among Americans in the census. Nast adopted the white elephant to suggest the probity the Republican party would do well to adopt in 1880, to regain the White House–the “sacred elephant,” as the Burmese “white elephant” he had purchased was known, not a resident of forests, but a member of the royal court, serenaded and costumed with eastern luxuries. If the venerated white elephant, here shown in the sort of costume he wore in Barnum’s circus, offered a model of comportment Nast argued might lead back to the White House in 1880, the unconscious echo of the circus elephant in the new logo of 2020 seemed to suggest a pure red party would retain power. Is it any surprise that this circus animal was siezed on again and rehabilitated, in the three-ring circus of the Trump Presidency?

Thomas Nast, “the Sacred Elephant,” 1884

The new logo of an elephant rearing his trunk, and advancing, marked the “second coming” of Trump, and destined advance of a newly Trumpified party, although what new beast was slouching toward Washington, D.C. was hard to determine by the red- trunked elephant. Rising above the speaker’s podium as if leaping into space, sporting five stars that seemed to summon a sense of astrological destiny, the proud adoption of a new elephant seemed to suggest an abandon to the race-baiting oratory Trump reintroduced in American politics.

Rather than evoking probity, the elephant suggested the reborn party that rose from a geography of red states where it was now rooted. Cartoonists had recently cast the old guard of the Party as in fear of the President, but the 2020 Republican Convention seemed to remake a platform-free party proudly in an elephant of his own mold, in what would be perhaps his last hurrah before the Convention Committee in late August, as the nation was reverberating with the potent echoes of George Floyd’s killing by overzealous racist police. Trump, newly affirmed by his cognitive assessment, and energized by the demonization of Black Lives Matter, staged a complex affirmation of a unified party, largely rooted in an appeal to a party overwhelmingly white: few would have remembered how George Orwell as a Burmese policeman associated with conscription into the “dirty work of Empire” when, as an assistant superintendent of Imperial police, 1922-27, he felt conscripted into service of empire when tasked with shooting the venerated elephant with a shotgun. George Orwell struggled with wearing a “mask” of imperialist as he claimed to perpetrate the murder of the unruly disruptive elephant, sensing that where the “white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom he destroys.” But the image of tyranny and domination was one that was almost embraced in the Republican party in the prominence of white faces and speakers that it featured and the ideal of restoring order they proclaimed.

If George Orwell lamented being the target of local hatred to empire and his own disquiet with his role as imperial enforcer, Trump cultivated the image of an enforcer at the Republican Convention, accepting the endorsement of the national association of Police Organization for the “most pro-law enforcement president we ever had” as he affirmed that the “violence and bloodshed we are seeing” in the summer of 2020 was only “the direct result of refusing to allow law enforcement to protect our communities.” Trump had exploited support of the Customs and Border Patrol in 2016 to promise a 2,000 mile border wall, and he promoted an endorsement from the national police organization–a collection of 1,000 unions–by promising to hire more police before cries to curb police violence, and “give law enforcement, our police, back their power.” The endorsement responded to Trump’s promised to “actively prosecute” all who attacked law enforcement amidst racial tensions, thundering “I will ALWAYS back the men and women in blue, and never let you down. LAW AND ORDER WILL PREVAIL!”

The power with which he spoke, raising his right hand to make his point, echoed the upwardly raised trunk of the invigorated partisan symbol of Republicans, lifting its trunk as if to communicate its power.

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

Was anyone aware of the racial connotations of purity by which the emblem of the elephant was claimed by Republicans in Reconstruction America? The preening insatiability of the red elephant communicated a sense of the eagerness of Republicans to map their candidate onto the body politic, a lumbering but advancing red behemoth, testifying to the electoral majority that the party would assemble in semaphore, in ways that the earlier tricolor icons of pachydermal stolidity had refused to capture as incarnations of a body politic. If the party’s stolidity seemed to convey a sense of order and conservatism in its earlier iterations, adding far more sobriety to an animal once figured by American cartoonists as a circus animal, from the time of the venerable Thomas Nast, master cartoonist of the late nineteenth century, the transmission of this partisan logo seemed to be less and less of a mascot of the party, than a symbol of purity. And if the elephant had become almost a glyph, robbed of semantic value–

–the unveiling of the rearing all-red elephant for a convention that was in a sense the kick-off of Trump 2020, a campaign that team Trump had been planning since 2017, seemed to recast the body politic as a unity of red states alone, without even pandering to the rest of the nation.

3. It is hard not to read the adoption of a new red elephant as party mascot as a unification not of the union–as Lincoln had intended and his party seems to have eagerly accepted–than the sufficiency of the unity of red states in the Trump Presidency, or Republican Party that was now stage-managed as Trump. The “red elephant” that was the descendent proclaimed and adopted descended from the “white elephant” of the 1880 campaign, but as the product of miscegenation of the new tribal currency of the “red states” as not only a base of the Republican Party, but a new identity as a “true” America which defined itself by its patriotic intensity, and their opposition to the representatives of “blue states,” and indeed the purity of Republican identity as a creed and dogma: if the prominence of anti-miscegenation laws in may states in the South long after the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation extended voting rights officially to African Americans–and were only removed long after the war’s end in Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, South Carolina and Alabama–the very construction of “racial purity” and its fetishization increased the popular attraction of a “white elephant,” and expectation a “white elephant” might adhere to a different metric of civility than its African grey counterpart, and be treated and exhibited in the circus as, by analogy, distinct by its “race.” Red states were invested in the Trump era as a different beast than the states defined as “blue,” to the extent that preposterous claims of electoral fraudulence were entertained in the red states not only as a way of retaining political power, but as Michigan, Georgia, and Arizona–perhaps especially that state that lay in proximity to the border and border wall–were seen as “Republican” territory and recognized as red.

As soon as the new logo was unveiled, it was difficult not to see the attention to this pure-red beast as a reminder of the sufficiency to hold together the unity of the “sea of red” or of red states that Trump had long gloated over as a confirmation of a long over-exaggerated scale of his political victory in 2016 as a “landslide” and a confirmation of the intensity of his relation to the nation that he argued he would protect. It was hard not to remember the intensity with the the Trump family had baited the news media and their base by images of a map of a “sea of red” emblazoned with the taunting challenge “Try to impeach this” as a rather vainglorious boast on the even of the first impeachment of President Donald Trump, and which had only intensified in the 2020 Campaign that was increasingly fought and waged in openly oppositional if not Manichaean terms of political dualism, and later cast as combat tot he death that might itself prefigure Civil War if Trump did not emerge as the victor. Never mind that the map distorted population distribution or that “blue” voters who had supported the Democratic candidate had, indeed, outnumbered those who voted “red” for Donald Trump. This retweeted graphic where Trump received the majority of votes was an emblem of collective unity for candidate Trump in 2020, that led to the use of collective nouns with abundance that seemed to shrink the distance between him and his followers, and elevate the nature of one color in openly tribal terms of political contestation, rather than government, and understood that redmap as a direct tie to the President Trump, rather than to a party or an ideology debated or articulated as a political platform. Indeed, Representatives and Senators in the Republican party were increasingly seen as beholden not to their constituents, or the rule of law, or Constitution but to the appeal Trump exercised over their constituents.

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County-by-County Presidential Vote, 2016

The fetishization of the electoral divide became a mantra and promise for the Trump’s candidacy, as what he saw as an electoral acclamation–even if by concealing his loss of the popular vote–became an affirmation of his political inevitability and identity, and preaching to the “base” that was identified by red states came to conceal the lack of anything like a political platform by 2020: the continuity of red made the political terrain seem something like a mirror–a direct presentation of the nation of which it was the imposing incarnation.

2016 Electoral Map, by County
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Filed under American Politics, Donald J. Trump, political geography, political iconography, Republican Convention

Mega-Projects without Maps

President Donald Trump made the mega-project of a border wall the basis of his candidacy. The proposed innovation of a “wall” — a “great, great” border wall blocking the specter of cross-border transit–has offered a powerful image by which to pole-vault into Presidential politics whose power has left the nation arrested in shock. To promote the “wall” as a mega-project the nation, Trump has regularly invoked the notion of an invasion from the southwestern border, conjuring the image of a nation in dire need of protection–using this talking point not only to enter the 2016 Presidential election and on the campaign trail, but to hold his first news conference from the Oval office, and as grounds for a thirty-five day government shutdown to gain a $5 billion in public funding for the project. The ratcheting of collective attention to the imperative of the border wall has peaked as it became grounds to declare a National Emergency.

The inflation of the border wall at the cost of all other projects of infrastructure increasingly reveal both a personal fixation and public obstruction to national growth. From something like a virus, meme generator, and a battle cry, the wall that provides the latest punchy slogan for the 2020 re-election campaign–the oddly motivating cry, “Complete the Wall,” as if such a wall has been begun to be built–

–has given currency to the fiction of a “Trump wall” as a project whose urgency only masquerades its deep illegality. The absence of the wall may lead it to be fetishized as “beautiful” and “being designed right now,” Trump assures, as if to involve the nation in a fantasy, but is never mapped.

The fetishizing of such a misguided promise masks that the project, perhaps funded by stolen funds, including civil forfeiture conducted by Customs and Border Patrol at the border that offer $600 million, would mandate reprogramming billions, but fails to address the problem of massive migration and displacement. But in dignifying the border plans by discussing a border “wall,” the image helps magnify the mega-project Trump has recently elevated to the status of a National Emergency to secure funding of $3.6 billion, even its cost estimates haven’t been defined, but lie at least $15-25 billion without costs for land acquisition and future maintenance. And as if to avoid the misery of migrants who arrive in the Caravan from Central America, the wall is elevated as a mythical, beautiful construction, and played against violent scenes of sex trafficking, threats of the violence of criminal migrants, or stories of the cruelty of cross-border transit. The mega-project of the border “wall” deflects all of these, and seems a solution to the tide of migration that haunts a globalized world.

The state of state-funded mega-projects is a battleground for defining the future of the nation in both metaphorical and real terms, and it was bound to be opposed to projects of actually investing in national infrastructure. Trump has long attacked the mega-project of building High Speed Rail along California’s central valley. The project that symbolizes many of the visions of responsibility he has disavowed, and indeed the vision of building “new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways all across our land” by destabilizing the role of public funding in infrastructural improvements, but using local and state funds with private capital. While the High Speed Rail was based on promises of lowering emissions and government funding of infrastructural projects that were the fruit of public stimulus projects, it has come to symbolize public investment he seeks to shun, and a vision of the future that seemed destined to collide with the alternative mega-project of guarding the nation against the danger of outsiders outside its borders. Indeed, longtime anti-HSR Representative Kevin McCarthy introduced a ‘Build the Wall, Enforce the Law” Act to ensure the project–slated at $23.4 billion–as reflecting the popular desire “the American people want” to fulfill an alleged governmental responsibility of “maintaining strong borders” that “For too long, America has failed.” Yet despite the geographic fiction of this imperative, it lacks any map.

The project claimed to bring economic benefits and jobs become a target of Trump’s anger, leading him to announce on social media “We want that money now!” in a clear attempt to shift its past and future funding to his own designs on completing a massive border wall between US and Mexico, long promised as the guiding project of the Trump Presidency–even if the wall has not, in fact, begun to be built, “Complete the Wall” the likely slogan for Trump’s re-election bid in 2020. The disdain that California Governor Gavin Newsom showed in dismissing the so-called “border ’emergency'” as manufactured political theater, in which California’s National Guard wouldn’t participate only rose the

Trump is particularly eager to allocate further funds for the construction of the long-promised border “wall” that will be insurmountable by refugees or criminals. To achieve its building, he declared an actual national emergency, in hopes to free funds for its construction that the US Congress denied. He almost acted as if the funds were ready to be reassigned, and the funds to be returned diverted to his own mega-project of border construction–and to glorify the actually uncertain technology of such a “wall,” in contrast to the “boondoggle” of a state-of the art infrastructural project of High Speed Rail, long supported by his predecessor, but which has become something of an avatar of the Green New Deal, as an opportunity to promote his construction of a border “wall.”

In a few days, Trump tweeted out a counter-image of time-accelerated wall construction from his social media megaphone, accompanied by a triumphal score as form of alternate news. High speed video of the replacement of twenty miles of bollard fencing were scored as a triumphal achievement, as if a ready-to-assemble pieces on cleared terrain was only IKEA-style assembly–showing a picture of segments that replaced existing fencing as a project completed “ahead of schedule” unlike the damning time delays and overruns on the High-Speed Rail Project that stands uncompleted.

“We have just built this powerful Wall in New Mexico. Completed on January 30, 2019 – 47 days ahead of schedule! Many miles more now under construction!” (February 20, 2019)

The two mega-projects are quite distinct in functional and in the futures they promise to create. But both suggest the degree to which political problems are both increasingly interconnected with considerable complexity–weaving problems of globalization, from climate change to immigration to economic inequality–responded to by a “simple” solution of a truly monumental solution. The GIF of workmen posed on the side of the new border fencing promoted the momentum to a mega-project of utmost national need. The project is one marked by a stunning lack of national vision, but its simplicity has proved sufficient to substitute for one. Whereas the project of High-Speed Rail or a “Bullet Train” promised to create needed pathways for economic mobility, the super-project of connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles–essentially an urban plan, moving across the Central Valley, and promising to reduce carbon emissions in coming years–was both a target embodying all that Trump denied and degraded (needed emissions reductions; public transit; global warming) but a source for needed funds.

The difficulty of these mega-projects–which oddly unintentionally echo the fascist projects of the past, while claiming different visions of modernization–both turn on the use of public investments. The allocation of huge sums to infrastructural improvement are promised to assuage the political sense of insecurity that plague the world, and the promised resolution of global specters that they promise to allieve and the futures that they promise to secure. If the High-Speed Rail Project connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles provide a broad link within the state from the hub of a new Transit Center in downtown San Francisco to the world, from Sacramento to Los Angeles, the border “wall” is a barrier to protect America’s place in the world. The claims that the rail project was indeed “dead” that were made by Republican Kevin McCarthy–a long supporter of the President–to interpret Gov. Gavin Newsom’s very first State of the State speech in Sacramento incorrectly as a declaration of death of a project that he has long opposed. The notorious pro-MAGA Congressman from Bakersfield who has long enjoyed aggressively contentious sparring on social media–“We cannot allow Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg to BUY this election! Get out and vote Republican November 6th. #MAGA”–and to make the securing of $25b for the US-Mexico “border wall” a national priority to burnish his pro-Trump credentials. His claims as “GOP Leader”–he refuses to be a Minority Leader–on the fundamental place of “a protected border” to a nation led him to promote bills funding the “wall” and support the National Emergency, delighted in tweeting gleefully the “Train to nowhere is finally stopped”–as if the plans for completion had been postponed.

McCarthy seemed to pounce on Newsom’s address with misplaced glee as he relished the prospect of ending a project to which he’s long been opposed, and is the model of public investment in economic infrastructure that Trump on which Trump seeks to shut the book, by privileging public-private partnerships and streamlining with less accountability or review, and the promise of revenue-making public works–while funds earmarked for disaster relief and stimulus seem redirected to a costly “border wall” claimed to be prioritized as a response to current national security crisis. The antipathy that McCarthy–long tied to oil money in Bakersfield, just outside Los Angeles, through whose district the rail would run–has framed his oppotiion to the high-speed rail project led him to try to frame it as a matter of national politics, as he styled himself as a “Republic Leader”–rather than “Minority Leader,” pronounced the Bullet Train “dead” with a finality that he must have trusted Trump would notice.

The collision between the needs for funds for the border wall–an apparatus of state that is needed, Trump insists, to preserve the policy he enacted of “zero-tolerance” immigration policy on the border, but that would serve to protect the nation from proliferating specters that haunt the nation. Collision with the projected High-Speed Rail Project first planned in 2016 by voter referendum, back in 2008, in the days of the arrival of promised Stimulus Package, seem almost the exact mirror image of mega-plan, designed to bundle inter-related problems (air pollution; congested freeways; climate change; petroleum dependence; economic inequality) at a single stroke, if from an almost diametric position. But as the right accuses the “far-left government” of California, suspiciously as if it were a Socialist state in Latin America, of pushing the rail project, and President Donald Trump grips to the conceit of a border wall, the individual faces of men and women recede to the background of each.

While touching on a range of political issues, the project that declared itself free of ideology became something of a political target to Trump as he machinated to find new resources for the “wall” that the U.S. Congress denied funds. The slightest hint that California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, Jerry Brown’s successor, would scale back or re-dimension Brown’s own pet project because it “would cost too much” prompted Trump to reclaim federal funds as “California has been forced to cancel the massive bullet train project”–code for an unneeded public expenditure–even as Trump tried to remap the southwestern border by a barrier constituents could rally around, as if designing a new aesthetics of our national space to bracketed a record 68.5 million of globally displaced people driven from their homes, according to UNHCR, at a rate of almost 45 million a day, including 25.4 million refugees.

AnCalifornia’s Attorney General–with those of fifteen other states–quickly sued Trump for declaring a National Emergency to secure needed funds for the “Border Wall.” Not missing a beat, Trump attacked the state for the right to do so after “the state . . . has wasted billions of dollars on their out of control Fast Train, with no hope of completion,” and whose “cost overruns are becoming world record setting.” Trump’s gleeful tweets about a “Failed Fast Train Project” may conceal what is really at stake–

–but the needed funds were surely in the front of Trump’s mind.

For as Trump seems to be “weighing every possible option” to build the wall’s so junk technology at the border, so that the “wall” has become an icon of “illegal immigration” and the danger of “entry” into the United States’ “open borders,” as if the President is able to exercise complete executive authority by closing the border at any time, the state audit revealing that construction delays and billions of dollars of cost overruns were due to budgetary mismanagement has been blamed on being a project of personal investment for ex-Gov. Jerry Brown, who spent public funds on an unbuilt system long promised to link San Francisco and Anaheim, and failing to link the state in the sort of mega-network Brown had proposed, and a true break of public trust. (If Ponytail suggested that a solution would be to build a “wall” in detachable sections that, post-Trump, might be submerged in the Atlantic and Pacific sea floor to offer anchor sites or artificial reefs for marine life to flourish where it doesn’t exist, the potential proliferation of mega-projects and maxi-projects as border walls world wide–

AFP/2015

–have created a terrifying normalization of the border wall in a shockingly brief time, as a mega-project promising security at a time when global security is hard to come by, as if they were tools of normal governance.)

Can the projects and their costs even be compared? If the costs of the High Speed Rail project have ballooned–as the costs of the “Wall” seem constantly underestimated and bound to rise in cost overruns we have not even begun to predict–the notion that these are comparable construction projects, or analogous infrastructural improvements. Both mega-projects–however dissimilar in nature–don’t address political problems, but constellations of issues, from infrastructural needs, climate change, and fuel consumption to immigration, criminality, and drugs, promoting projects of mass appeal in different ways, that suggest targeted projects addressing constituencies, promising to address deep infrastuctural problems to very limited degrees–their purported boldness hindered by limited funds, and facing limited support to be enacted on the scale that their promoters celebrate.

While it’s uncertain that either could ever be completed in a realistic schedule that has been announced, the projects from opposite sides of the political spectrum seem something like mirror-images, ostensibly designed as investments but suggesting almost opposed ideas of government or the idea of investing in the public good. Bound to collide with one another, both advance promised changes in landscapes, projecting solutions to mega-problems they cannot fully address, and invite fantasies of the further promises they might meet. The rise of such mega-projects seem a sign both of the increased complexity of pressing problems of powerfully political origin, but their bundling of networks of pressing political problems in a single project claiming to resolve complex problems at a single stroke, is combined in quite toxic ways with oversimplification–by both promoters and their critics who attack them–in ways that threaten to remove them from the very complex networks of problems they attempted to address. The changed status of “mega-projects” in our political discourse make them a sort of pandering rooted in slogans and ultimatums, and removed from complex problems we deserve better to map.

Hot on the heels of Trump’s fuming at Congress that “with the wall, they want to be stingy,” matched by the veiled threat that “we have options that most people don’t really understand,” Trump found the time ripe to chasten California’s governor for “wasting billions of dollars”–and charge that the state in fact “owed” the federal government $3.5 billion. The handy figure could increase the $1.375 billion allocated in budget negotiations for fencing on the Rio Grande, and in a budgetary shuffle increase desired funding for Trump’s mega-project, to reach the robust sum of $4.875 billion–almost close to that original demand for $5b, a magic number of sorts, that could be itself arrived at by allocating emergency funds from the Department of Defense–or the declaration of a national emergency as if this were an actual crisis. (The addition of $3.6 billion from other military construction projects among the $6.1 billion from the Defense Department budget that he argued wasn’t going to be used for anything “too important”–and was officially discretionary, if earmarked for construction, repairs, and counter-narcotics programs–rationalized as the mega-project would block “illegal” drugs.) The result would double allocated funds–and create a mega-project worthy of the name, for which no clear map exists, although many have been offered. But a mega-project of this size perhaps, paradoxically, itself resists mapping . . .

Racing to ensure the possibility of declaring the national emergency to get his way on Thursday, the suggestion on television that Gov. Gavin Newsom could curtail a project of high speed rail in the state just the day previous came with a search to secure more than the $1.375b in border fencing as a victory, or exit the terms of the bill he had to sign to avoid extending a government shutdown, as he met contractors to discuss the design of the wall, and sums of money able to be tapped after he declared a national emergency, and use it as a basis to claim he remained an outsider, still not bound by Congress, still not polluted by deals cut in Washington, even after he’d occupied the Oval Office for over two years–even if he didn’t really have a believable map of how to build it? Or did the Commander-in-Chief, feeling cornered by Congress, see Newsom’s seeming concession as the chance to secure billions by budgetary re-allocation? The high-speed rail system was given the fearsome price-tag of $10b; repossessing $3.5 billion of funds from a cancelled project raised dizzying possibility of an under-the-table reallocation of federal funds no one knew were there.

Trump delights in playing fast and free with numbers that seem designed to disorient his audience. In truth, the costs of a border “wall”–whatever it might look like–remain far higher than we can calculate or imagine. Trump boasts he can build the “wall” for but $12b, yet that is a figure at which most scoff. Internal reports from the Office of Homeland Security place the figure at more like over $21.6 billion over three years, The most recent plan to secure another $6.5b by some sort of emergency funding seemed less of a reaction to stinginess than a charade of creative accounting,–a dizzying juggling of vast amounts of money that become meaningless before his own hyperbolic claims of “an invasion of our country,”–the new mantra used to justify its construction–“with drugs, with human traffickers, with all types of criminals and gangs.”

In the process of pulling out all the stops in his request for emergency funding and indulging his worst impulses, the moneys slated for California’s train suddenly seemed an attractive target for federal re-appropriation. High-speed rail seemed a project whose funds were easy to hijack and redirect to the border barrier Trump was scrambling with budget analysts and contractors to fund. And when California’s governor appeared to diminish the size of his project, Trump not only pounced, but to terminate the funds of just under a billion for the rail project–a $929 million federal grant–and to demand the return of $2.5b in past stimulus matching grants, arguing they were neither properly used or matched by the state, by “actively exploring every legal option” to take the funds, no doubt in order to add them to the President’s discretionary funds during the declared National Emergency, which seems more and more a pretext for building a wall for which the land has not been secured, let alone panels designed.

Staging a “state of emergency” is a classic form of justification advance by political theorist Karl Schmitt, a promoter of executive power and extra-legal articulation of a state’s power. The demand for the funds would not necessarily allow the completion of a “Border Wall,” but would compromise a project that is important to the state’s economy. The crisis he has manufactured has led Dan Richard, chairman of the High Speed Rail project or “bullet train” to resign, as a damning letter arrived from the very transportation agency which sent grants for the High-Speed Rail Project in 2009 and 2010 called California state out of compliance with the grant agreement and promised date of completion by 2022. As chairman, Richard, former PG&E executive and pioneer in extending public transit the BART transit in San Francisco, was an unpaid member but was involved in the project’s operational planning and oversaw the extension of almost one hundred and twenty miles. But his work came under heavy criticism after the state audit for having assigned contracts in haste that precipitated lawsuits–mostly from the improvident failure of securing land for building track. (Perhaps Newsom suggested a reduction of the scope of the project–“Let’s be real”–to bring the state in line with a Central Valley Project from Merced to Bakersfield, and a cornerstone for a future route from San Francisco to Los Angeles.) But the call “let’s level” about the elevated platforms built for the current project whose platforms are already built across much of the Central Valley–

–was heard by opponents as a cry of concession, consequent to the finding that an L.A.-San Francisco line could cost over $13 billion estimates that were expected.

But was the comparison between such mega-projects creating a false sense of similarity in the role of the state to redesign the future of the nation at a single stroke, impressing an executive desire on the landscape? The false geographies that each project create demand themselves to be better mapped. The aspirations for the High-Speed Rail Project were considerably easier to map, similar questions of a lack of state-owned lands on which to build and lack of agreement on the projects form created obstacles that a single executive not deeply familiar with the site or its inhabitants couldn’t have hoped to resolve.

The rail project was savagely satirized in the juxtaposition of newsmaps claiming to reveal hidden interests for property owners–as if to suggest its hidden agenda–by linking High-Speed Rail to the raging California wildfires, as if such a small-scale map could reveal the foolhardiness of the rail project. The manipulation of news maps as information was a teased that the fires would prompt landowners who wouldn’t sell land to the state to do so–

–but was presented as an excuse not to dig deeper into the project’s benefits. For real problems of congestion, a lack of public transit, and a need to create better infrastructure for jobs are all replaced by evils specters of other hidden interests, all rendered opaque by likening the geography of fires’ spread to the state’s problem in securing necessary lands on which to build the tracks, and raise the specter of special interests driving High-Speed Rail, in ways that might deeply damage the state as we know it.

1. Both mega-projects have been sold as worth their cost, and both–though one falsely–as “paying for themselves.” The border “wall” is so massive it has no clear price–conservatively, $70b (and an extra $150 million a year to maintain it), or anywhere from $27b to $40b, while Trump asserts only $12b. Where the funds will come from is anyone’s guess, as the promise is something of a conceit, and as Trump never produced a clear schema of costs, the whole question has been maddeningly and dizzyingly opaque. The train may cost as much–although the benefits are more tangible–though a possible $100 billion price-tag has raised many eyebrows. But the high-speed rail was long billed as a basis for modernization, which the border wall can hardly be claimed to be. Price-tags provide a poor basis for understanding the benefits and goals of both mega-projects–$21.6 billion for a wall and $10 billion are sums which we can barely imagine for organizations that symbolize ultimatums–protection and safety or economic modernization–that reduce the complexity of inter-related problems to a monumental solution, all too often removed from or reduced to a map.

The funding for High-Speed Rail was planned to be funded largely by the cap-and-trade program designed to lower California’s carbon emissions. Cap-and- trade was written off, at first, but has caught on as a practice of resistance in the Trump era–although it is rejected by the White House. The High Speed Rail project would stands as an alternative infrastructure to fight climate change. This made it all the easier to the seen as a sacrifice of federal funds, at a time when any budgetary expenditures were being scrutinized for potential pillaging. The vertiginous bombast that Trump summoned to seek to justify the declaration of a national emergency–the image of an invasion is pretty powerful, and for some hard to resist, and the threshold of evidence has been substantially lowered–allowed for the by now all too familiar juxtaposition of scale, numbers, and proportions that seemed guaranteed to confuse his audiences so that they got behind his argument. The very breadth of the high-speed rail project seemed a perfect target–its many maps suggesting a future that gave Trump special pleasure to deflate, no doubt, in ways that one can’t see as tied to a perverse pleasure in seeing infrastructural projects seem to crumble into thin air, felled by executive fiat.

Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times

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Filed under American Politics, border policy, border wall, infrastructure, US Politics

Global Giuliani

Rudy Giuliani, more than anyone else, evokes the national trauma of September 11, 2001. If the trauma 9/11 has been a poster for increased federal powers, an excuse for violating civil rights, and a remaking of the New World Order, it is striking how much recent resurgent if hoary myths of the national values of 9/11 contributed significant spin to the careers of members of the Trump administration. Indeed, the trauma of 9/11 has been recycled in ways that have affirmed nationalist credentials and pride.

It is especially striking how the former New York mayor, and and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, was able to successfully pivot from being a figure of local fame and prestige–indeed, a defender of the hope of returning New York to a lost time he seemed to embody as the locally schooled tough-talking upright son of a family composed of cops and firefighters, who seemed to tap a tradition of legal-minded public service of which he posed as champion. But 9/11 provided the optic by which Giuliani acquired a resonance and career that became wierdly global–and hardly local–as if by the alchemy of the global need for security. The miracle of the alchemical transformation of Giuliani from a local figure–imbued in a sense of neighborhood that was incarnated in the tavern his father ran in Brooklyn–became not a guarantor of a local past, which may not have ever existed, but was transmuted into a global career of posing as a strongman.

In many ways, the position that Giuliani occupied after 9/11 allowed him to claim the almost fantasy position of a warrior for good on a global stage. The transformation of the former public attorney and lawman who seemed to stand as a stalwart defendant of local values as a global figure was not quick, but endured over decades, in ways that have not been fully traced, as Giuliani converted his prestige in the global media after 9/11, as he seemed to carry the nation through trauma, into a global mercenary of something like the New World Order. For after the terrifying punctuating event of 9/11, and after he left office, the former New York Mayor rode the surface of the global media to promote his brand as a means of guaranteeing security, desalination projects, police reform, judicial reform, and even unrelated areas as investment banking.

Giuliani toured the world with an expense account, speaking for broad Neo-nationalist audiences across the world that manufactured greater credibility for a ridiculously globally broadened sense of his license, capacities, and legal expertise, in ways that his actual career as mayor or attorney would hardly have predicted or confirmed. After years of being rooted in the defense of a local moral economy, and tough-guy persona rooted in Brooklyn as well as New York City, and the NYPD, the vey mediatization of 9/11 improbably shot Giuliani to the global in ways that we are still coming to terms with in our national trajectory: emboldening Giuliani to hoc his newfound fame on a global marketplace in truly mercenary fashion, coasting on the publicity that global media platforms had generated, and surrounding Giuliani with more wealth than he had ever enjoyed–its dark backdrop catapulting the mayor to the global stage as a “tower of strength” that replaced the global status the Twin Towers had once occupied. Over the devastated New York skyline, Giuliani towered, proclaimed a true “tower of Strength” no longer a Mayor, but an advocate for global calm before menacing darkened nocturnal skies.

The New York poet Michael Brownstein–no relation!–conjured a vision of a gypsy that the very hijackers who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, men who had famously fashioned themselves as martyrs, accompanied the souls of many men, women, and children who died as a result of their actions into the afterlife, somehow acting as agents of peace as much as visiting a traumatic vision of mortality. The diabolical vision Brownstein described in the years after 9/11 must have shocked his readers, but presented what he wanted to be a healing poetic image of devastation. The Angel of Death himself must have accompanied Giuliani, a former altar boy himself who had recast himself in global media as selected to fulfill his role as a defender of the city, expanding his narcissism as he promoted himself as a symbol of security on a global stage, able to advise on crime rates, manage security, and maintain peace on a global stage that had not ever existed before with any comparable concreteness.

The searing image of a redemption after the destruction visited on New York became a means for Giuliani to be turned to as a figure of trust, a center of stability, that the world seemed to need–but on which his own. Rudy Giluiani’s huge sense of himself saw magnified on a global stage, and able to cast in global terms, a a spokesperson, lobbyist, agitator, instigator and legitimizer who could hector, yell, and barge his way onto any global stage, and command total attention for any agenda that would pay his way. Did the unweildly narcissism that Giuliani promoted in America and on such a global stage prepare the way for Trump?

When we ponder how Giuliani emerged–indeed remade himself–as an unregistered agent of other governments, allied with a law office (Greenberg Traurig, most recently, or a partner at Bracewell & Harrison, in Houston, then transformed to capitalize on his name as Bracewell & Giuliani), he skirted the law while capitalizing on his image as a hardened lawman; the contradictions were not contradictions for a man whose media image was so impressive and had gained such global currency to be hard to question. The bonds of trust that seemed forge in the years after 9/11, and the sense of cathecting with Giuliani as “America’s Mayor” truly seemed exploited, as his own historical narcissism led to a thirst for further attention, and to remove all limits from his own propriety. He extended this credibility in a failed bid for the Presidency in 2008 and after it folded sought to keep alive his image of himself as a global fix-it man.

In this post, I want to sketch the map of the bizarre global travels of Giuliani as a man who promised to accommodate any interest, promote a vision of global security who parlayed his status to a talking head on any media. He should have been far less assuring than we were willing to accord: but Giuliani’s skill at exploiting an endless reserve of symbolic capital seemed endless, allowing him to stake Presidential campaigns, and earn massive retaining fees, without much attention to what credibility the ex-Mayor ever merited. The very transnationality of the commemoration of 9/11 transformed it into a global event, and not a local one, offered a means for Rudy to travel through the looking glass, and for Giuliani to gain a global credibility that was eerily universal. We didn’t pay much attention. We discounted Giuliani’s neediness for attention as self-generated, and not itself of global impact, but it increasingly exercised influence that mirrored the very trans-nationality of the commemoration of 9/11. Their trans-nationality Rudy a truly unprecedented global carte blanche of unprecedented character.

This credibitliy was a carte blanche appealing to foreign strongmen, to be sure, who sought to fashion themselves as comparable “good guys” in a global stage demanding a way to map security in the face of terrorists, and seek a figure of calm in the swirling fears of insecurity, even if that very figure would continue to do his best to provoke our deepest fears.

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Filed under 9/11, American Politics, global terror, globalization, September 11, World Trade Center

Mapping Trump

As news anchors stared directly at the camera on Election Day 2016, they might gesture mutely to the apparent dominance of Donald Trump’s presidential victory, shown the blanket of bright red polygons that took the viewer’s breath away by their sheer continuity affirmed that the people had spoken definitively.  The map was a bit of a total surprise, evidence of the disproportionate appeal of Trump across most states other than the coasts.  And it is an icon with which Trump has taken to celebrate in an almost proprietorial way as the result of his labors and his own hard work that he tried to celebrate in addressing the Boy Scouts’ annual jamboree this year.  Casting a now-forgotten moment of compact between himself as Presidential candidate and the nation, incarnated in a map, and presenting it as a personal triumph, he recalled the electoral map as a definitive rebuttal of a “dishonest” press and media, urging we all “remember that incredible night with the maps and the Republicans are red and the Democrats are blue; that map was so red, it was unbelievable,” and rhapsodizing how the map struck so many dumb with disbelief so that “they didn’t know what to say?”  The electoral map, for Trump, provided the ultimate confirmation for a “dishonest press” and “dishonest media,” but just how honest was that map, anyway?

 

Trump at Jamboree.png

 

The map seemed to show a dramatically lopsided margin of victory, but it of course concealed just as much.  It seemed to celebrate red nation, indeed, until one considered the concentration of population, and drilled deeper down into population distributions than an electoral map can reveal.  The map however remained so cognitively powerful that the geodemographics of the 2016 Presidential election seems to mark the return of a landscape of blue vs. red states, and a sense of the self-evident nature of a newly redivided republic.  The promise of national maps to parse the division of the popular vote–a conceit fundamental to the electoral college–however creates a false sense of the breadth of support or the links between an individual candidate and the land–distilling the distribution of the vote into a false if compelling continuity of a sea of bright red.  And it is not a surprise that the map has become a favorite demonstration of the extent of Trump’s popularity, and the myth of a landslide victory not seen in earlier years.  Even if its geodemographic illusion demands to be unpacked, the scale immediately gave rise to the magnification of a margin of victory that is entirely to be expected from Trump.

But for a national figure who has convinced what seem continuous swaths of the nation’s so-called heartland he could speak for their interests, it is striking that despite some considerable variations among voting patterns, the intensity of that red block so clearly endured.  The distribution illustrated the intensity of the affective relation to the candidate, or rather the failure of achieving any deep to Clinton as a candidate–but became a symbolic icon of Trump’s claim to represent the nation’s ‘heartland.’

reference-mapBen Hennig, from results of 2016 US Presidential Election

The geodemographic conceit was not much evidence that he actually did.  Despite the strength of such affective ties, Trump has only slim familiarity with that heartland–and rarely showed much tie to it.  Despite the compelling nature of the geodemographics that suggest Trump’s close tie to the nation’s center, the region Candidate Trump convinced was ignored by the media and press alike was largely avoided by Candidate Trump.  And few of its interests can be said to have been sustained by the President we now have, whose electoral success in the upper midwest will be hard to measure with a feared decline in health care subsidies, should the Affordable Care Act be repealed and Medicare gutted, leaving older working class voters in the cold, as a new tax code does little comfort.

But was Trump ever so tied to the band of red running vertically down the country?  For the region that voted for him is increasingly becoming disaffected, as he qualifies his opposition to NAFTA and his assurances about the need to construct a border wall, in ways that raise questions about his strong showing across middle-America and his identification with the people’s will.  Yet the iconic map itself may have provided for Trump himself a bit of a mirror illusion–as if to trigger a sense of recognition of his identification with the entire nation in ways that came as something as a surprise, it also effectively validated his long-time aspirations to the presidency, not only for the media, but for himself.  To be sure, the notion of a “heartland victory” reflected the growth of a tendency to shift Republican on a county-by-county level, which reflected a targeting of the midwestern states that seem to have been conducted below the eyes of team Clinton in the 2016 US Presidential election; Trump’s vote share substantially grew in Ohio, West Virginia, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Missouri.

 

Republican Blush.png

 

By normalizing the same choropleth of Trump votes, or using a color ramp that will foreground the percentages of voting intensity, a recommendation for all future voting maps Kenneth Field rightly suggests, the deep intensity of reds are brought out better, focussed almost in targeted sites in ways that might merit more retrospective scrutiny.

 

Trump votes normalized choropleth.png

Kenneth Field

But the deep reds of the electoral map were the most compelling to The Donald, and continue to lead him to retreat into rhapsodies, some eight months after the election, in Cedar Rapids IA, about how “Those electoral maps, they were all red, beautiful red.” As much as Trump has seemed to be processing the legitimacy of his victory well past the first hundred days of his term, a framed version of the electoral map infographic is rumored to have been hung, framed, as an icon in the Trump White House for visitors, to which he can point only to ask, as if in desperation,  ‘Aren’t you impressed by this map?’”  The map has become something of a calling card to which Trump seems both boastful and still gleefully processing, perhaps precisely because it was so often broadcast on TV.  The image transformed to a wall-map seems a needed confirmation of the areas that sent him to the White House, and has become a distributed visual for news interviews, as if its presence reminds interviewers that they are engaging with the representative of the real country.

 

C_kshitVoAE0vfh.jpg

 

 

Why post the map on the wall?  The infographic presumably captures those areas of the US where Trump must continue to address outside Washington–and of the disempowerment of the mainstream media–as if to remind him of his ongoing sources of strength.   Trump cannot conceal his pleasure to continue to crow, reveling in his unexpected ability to cathect with voters across so much of the northern midwest if not the silent majority of the national interior, and the map confirms a moment of joy:   the map of a “sea of deep crimson” offered credible needed visual confirmation of the legitimacy his newfound power that responds to continued crises, and a sort of symbolic consolation:  Trump, as if planning a billboard to the nation, requested no one less than the Washington Post run the image on his hundredth day in office, perhaps in hopes to brainwash the nation by the repetition of that apparent sea of deep, deep red.  It reveals, moreover, the very silent majority that Trump had long evoked:  Trump’s skill at resuscitating the Nixonian conceit of a “silent majority” supporting the Vietnam war and rejection counter-culture became a bulwark of sorts against the press; it  was particularly pleasurable as it re-appeared within the very news maps that the media produced which were broadcast on television screens, in ways Trump himself wants to continue to broadcast.  Trump not only holds TV in famously high regard–even if he did not mostly watch television for all of election night–it is almost credible that the iconic electoral map was framed for the White House walls, if distorting , offered a recollection of the magnitude of his margin of victory that must be comforting to show guests.

The considerable shock of the electoral results led many readers to recognize the reduction of support for the Democratic candidate, so well-qualified, to isolated regions near the more diverse and reliably Democratic coasts.  The visualization of disembodied counties for Clinton registers an immediate anxiety in projecting the angst of isolation from the same heartland, as if to show what seem only pockets of Clinton supporters in a very tenuous archipelago with outposts hewing predominantly to the nation’s coasts, as the outliers of the vision of America that Trump was able to propose.  As much as showing the lack of contact of Clinton’s messaging to so many counties in the in-between “forgotten heartland” that the Trump vote seemed so successfully to invest coherence in, the image shows a heartland that is almost abandoned by Clinton voters who seem not to have migrated from the country, but seem exiled from an increasingly fractured nation, in their own filter-bubbles, in which their own place has been rendered up for grabs.

 

clinton_v2-Artboard_6.pngTim Wallace/New York Times

The geodemographic illusion of such fracturing however belies the sharp dissonance that a deeply provincial figure long resident in one of the nation’s largest metropoles felt to much of the country and the nation that he so convincingly claimed he was able to represent.  Trump’s ability to have convinced much of the country he could guarantee their continued safety lies in contrast with the limited presence Trump ever remained in many of the regions that the force of his Presidential campaign so solidly and deeply colored red.  The clear divisions in the country that emerged in the 2016 Presidential election revealed a clearly widening set of divides between islands of populated blue and regions that trusted different news sources, more suggestive of a divide driven by eduction than wealth, using available census data on education from the Data Observatory in a CARTO visualization of the lower forty-eight, to create a more finely-grained record of the distribution of votes that allows the chromatic vacation to pop–

Carto Trump.pngMichelle Ho‘s Carto Blog

While the “split” between “heartland” and “blue islands” pops out better in the above courtesy the Carto dashboard, the surface of a flat map can conceal the extent to which the vote broke among more and less populated counties, as the following sizing of counties by votes received by Clinton (blue) or Trump (red).

Coutnies.png Carto

The thin distribution of red dots calls into question the existence of “heartland” in the nation, and how much the notion of a coherent heartland is the creation of a map, suggests the extreme oddity of an election where votes so clearly broke with electoral votes.   Notwithstanding the visualization of Alexis Egoshin being picked up on right-wing sites as a basis to argue for the need to continue the electoral college to represent the mass of land, pictured as a plateau, with which Trump won decisively, and could be called “TrumpLand” as it was so solidly voting in his favor–

trumpland-1.png

–the thinly stretched archipelago of Tim Wallace might defy geographical explanation, and be rooted as much in media bubbles, fractured politics, anti-immigrant sentiment as it can be said to be geographically determined, and perhaps the tendency that we have to believe that there could be a geographic explanation at the root of the Trump victory, or a definable “Trump” community or constituency might be more tied to the contingency of information economies than anything as easily mappable in purely objective terms.

1.  Trump’s own overly inflated claims to represent the red expanse of the rust belt was, for one, most strikingly undermined, however, by his regular return flights on his Boeing jet to his New York penthouse while on the campaign trail.  For as he campaigned, Trump maintained a remove from much of the country, even as he evoked the “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation,” and excoriated the policies that he claimed created them, urging voters to “take our country back again.”

While we are still trying to understand what he meant by “American carnage” save as a way to conjure fear, and a landscape beset by violence and “drugs pouring into our country and poisoning our youth,” within an “environment of lawless chaos,” the exaggerations of specters of social threats that proliferate from Trump’s mouth seem to be as emotionally figurative as they reflect actuality, and more a reflection of the America on television news than statistics.  The call to “shake off the rust” appealed, however, by binding themselves to the possibilities of “wistful time travel” that Donald Trump’s candidacy seemed to promise voters, as Zadie Smith has keenly observed.  Who better, in fact, to convince most of the country that he could bring it out of the shadow of threats of terrorist attacks that 9/11 has continued to cast across much of the nation, as if creating a bond of reassurance that stood in for any other tool of manufacturing consent.

And the tie was reified in maps.  A land map magnifying the extent of Trump’s 2016 US election results in the electoral tally was widely trumpeted by right-wing news sites, as well as the nightly news, to proclaim Trump’s was a landslide victory–even though the differences in popular voting was not only decisive, but Trump’s own relation to the nation he now leads is poorly understood.

Trump can be claimed to have converted more far more Republicans to his candidacy than recent Presidential candidates, but Trump was long an outsider.  And Trump’s imaginary tie to nation seems just that, despite some considerable crowing over Trump’s close relation to the American heartland that he claims as deeply tied to and to be the territory that he best represents–

electoral-trump

–although these stark divisions in the distribution of voting patterns disappear in the district-by-district electoral votes map posted by Mark E. J. Newman in clearly contrasting stretches of red and isolated islands of blue with only the occasional all-blue state.

county-map-2016University of Michigan/M.E.J. Newman

But the map of the distribution of electoral votes is only the start of the attenuated relation Trump has to the country.  Trump’s insistence on an alleged “mandate” or a “massive landslide” seems designed to provoke collective amnesia by its repetition–Trump’s own convictions seem born from the illusion of democracy displayed in broadcast electoral maps on TV news.  For the vagaries of the current electoral system meant that a shift of four counties from one state to a neighboring state, data scientist Kevin Hayes Wilson pointed out, would have redrawn the map of the election, and our picture of the nation to a more comforting baby blue–although this tantalizing alternate reality is not to have been, but is in fact not so far away at all:

imrs-1.php.pngKevin Hayes Wilson/Redraw the States

Yet the victory of a continuous stretch of red is so iconic that the mapping of votes by counties is taken as an affirmation of regions of deep scarlet, as if the county is a meaningful unit for displaying voting tendencies:

United_States_presidential_election_results_by_county,_2016.svg

The image of “red” states or counties is so potent, however, that the image is taken as evidence of the appeal of Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again”–as if the slogan spoke to the heartland–that converting the map of counties to a cartogram which sized counties by population and voter size seems to be a weaponized warping of the nation for polemical intent, in which the center of the heartland has been stretched into a skein of thing red strands that slighted the region by stripping it of its political voice, as if created by a leftist cartographer who polemically diminished the heartland by rendering it as so much connective tissue in contrast to the prominence of blue cities.

Stretched thing

vote share.pngBenjamin Hennig (detail of Hennig’s cartogram of 2016 US Presidential election)

The rendering of the heartland as a stretched skein of what seem ruts in the American landscape seems the polemic of a leftist cartographer from a metropole, to many, ready to slight the heartland in favor of the magnified cities whose names appear on the map.

hennig skein

To be sure, the tea leaves of county voting patterns do parse voter populations:  to be sure, Trump did almost twice as well as Clinton in those counties that were at least 85% white, rural (fewer than 20,000 inhabitants), and won huge preponderance of the votes–70%–where less than 20 percent of the population has a college degree.  But the continutiy that one can translate into spatial terms is much less clear, and the county is not the clearest organization or translation of a voting bloc, despite the clearly greater diversity of the cities, and the dominance that Trump exercised in counties that were predominantly–85%–white, in ways that may have single-handedly overturned the electoral map, and were the audiences to whom the visions of prosperity Trump promised most appealed, and where the Democratic candidate’s losses in comparison to Barack Obama were big–and where Trump won almost twice as much of the counties.

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Bloomberg, “The Voters Who Gave Us Trump” (Nov. 9, 2016)

But, by and large, the rhetoric of the red intensity of maps perhaps have originated as pollsters talking among themselves, and against each others’ expectations, as much as the distribution of a close connection to the candidate; the intensity of the red appeared in a contrast of the predictions of the popular vote distribution against the actuality, even if it seemed within a margin of error, as the final actual distribution–

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–broke ever so slighty, but so definitively and so strikingly, from their expectations:

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2.  Trump’s claims for a personal relation to the nation is far less apparent.  It demands to be scrutinized, as it only seems demonstrated in electoral maps.  Even though seven out of ten Republicans voiced expressed a preference for America of the 1950s rather than that of today, and Trump’s candidacy both entertained and invited such acts of willed nostalgia, it’s hard to believe Trump’s own proximity to the nation’s heartland is based on “lived” experience.  The surprising story of Trump’s campaign may be the alchemy by which he cemented a bond among evangelicals, with the help of his only nominally Catholic running mate, Mike Pence, paired with the poorly thought-out strategy of Hillary Clinton to focus on cities, rather than rural areas or the economically depressed areas that reject the effects of globalization, which could have spread those blues out along the map with far greater surety–a need that the map of Hayes Wilson reveals by the washed out areas of even the states whose delegates she won.

For while growing the share of Republican voters across several states presumed to vote Democratic, including many in the so-called “rust belt”–here colored dark red–

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–President Donald Trump seems himself to be quite alienated from the very folks whose economic interests he persuaded he would strongly defend, and less than ready to spend time there, save in his Florida estate, the new Winter Palace, Mar-a-Lago, ensconced as if forever a foreigner to much of the nation.

3.  The familiarity that Trump created with the nation seems rooted in an imaginary, built on the lifestyle of the Trump brand–even though his election leaves us with a shrinking horizon of expectations.  To say Trump ever knew much of the country is not only an exaggeration, but an outright deception that was willfully perpetrated if not orchestrated by his campaign.  Despite the broad appeal of a Trump lifestyle, Trump seems to have little connection for the man in the street or his job.  But his keen sense of playing the salesman for his brand, which promises to be a central part of his Presidency, led him to have so much practice at delivering people’s fantasies and recasting the art of promising anything but the greatest product ever to “innocent . . . exaggeration.”

For his policies betray little familiarity with the nation, beyond empty sloganeering, evident the belief that a repeal of the ACA would help the nation–when it would most likely, as Paul Krugman noted, “send the numbers right back up—[after] 18 million newly uninsured in just the first year.”  And the imposition of punitive measures against American companies who chose to locate their production overseas or in Mexico, and even more punitive tariffs against foreign competitors demand to be called out as instances of economic bullying, rather than anything like a realistic economic policy or plan.  And the notion of a 20% import tax would be passed on not to the Mexican government, but to heartland consumers who would pay for it in their purchases.  And ending the American Care Act would put almost a half a million aging folks off of health care, in ways we cannot yet fully map, but will have deep consequences for the very deep red “heartland” that Trump champions.  And as Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical Islamic American-born al-Qaeda preacher, foretold that the “West will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens,” Trump has successfully made his prophecy an actuality.  (“You were a nation of ease,” al-Awlaki had addressed the United States ominously, inviting a similar sort of time, but “imperial hubris is leading America to its fate.”)

Although Trump claimed to speak for the country, he was most famous for retreating to the confines of Trump Tower:  he was, confessed long-time political operative Roger Stone, something of a homebody.  His attachment to owning properties in Manhattan and his estate in Mar-a-Lago were so great to start rumors Trump declined to make the White House his regular residence as President.  And when Trump regularly returned to New York City or Mar a Lago, he always kept most of New York at a remove while sequestered in Trump Tower.   While totaling some 276,000 miles in the air by late September since announcing his candidacy for the U.S. Presidency  on June 16, 2015, Trump traveled over half of the days since announcing his candidacy, even while visiting far fewer places than other Republican candidates and fewer than his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.  And if one is to judge his familiarity with the country in terms of the cities where he chose to build and promote hotels as evidence for the sites he earlier visited, it is striking that the sites of Trump’s North American properties are located on its coasts, or outside of the very areas where his campaign was so wildly and only perhaps improbably successful.

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For on the campaign trail, Trump buzzed about the country to create the sense of direct contact with constituents even without spending that much time in a single place, but regularly returned to New York, he may have visited places like Brooklyn, where Clinton’s campaign was based, far less frequently–and spending a considerable amount of time on the campaign trail sleeping in Trump Tower, if not resting in the large bed stationed in his 757; tweets from sites on the campaign trail conveyed his endless motion, but many began “just returned from . . .” in multiple tweets during the early days of the primary.

Were the steady accusations of his opponents’ tiredness but projections of his own somnolence or power naps?

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Trump was regularly cast by ABC news as Palm Beach’s Most High-Profile Homebody by the year’s end.  Trump was no doubt tired out by the extensive campaign where he projected his exhaustion first onto Jeb Bush and then, more dramatically, Hillary Clinton:  for two weeks in December, rather than assemble his incoming cabinet, the PEOTUS remained in the sumptuous Mar-a-Lago, rarely leaving the estate for golf and dinner at the Trump International Golf Club, or Christmas Eve mass, and meeting with his transition team just “a stone’s throw from the croquet garden,” before returning to Trump Tower in January to assemble the rest of his incoming cabinet in the nineteen days before his inauguration–and expressed reluctance in leaving his aerie in Manhattan for periods of a week after assuming the Presidency, proposing frequent returns to his three-story penthouse on the 58th floor of Trump Tower for family time during his Presidency.

4.  Even if he has warmed to the White House’ decor and furniture soon after moving in, Trump is a man who has stayed put in his lavish multi-floor apartment for much of the last three decades, and it has provided the perspective from which he looked at the United States–and may offer a perspective from which the strong opinions of his policies were formed.  For a candidate who saw the sumptuous quarters designed in Louis XIV style as a tribute to his creation of his own self-image, was his creation of a time-frame also particularly revealing?  Did his identification with an apartment decorated in 24-karat gold and marble and furniture and tapestries  in Louis XIV style with a Tiepolo ceiling put him in ideal place as a candidate to promise a project of time travel to Americans seduced by his timeless lifestyle–

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so effectively isolated as he was from the changes in the external world over the past twenty to thirty years?  (And doesn’t being called a “homebody” mean quite a different thing for such a home?)  For a man who grown up in a house with four white columns that were adorned with a confected crest and coat of arms and white columns, as a palace set apart from Queens, N.Y., with twenty-five rooms and nine bathrooms, the palatial abodes that he has continued to created for himself and his family similarly stepped outside of time.

The series of luxury hotels with which Trump’s name has been synonymous promote lifestyle packages promote pastiches of European luxury that are, after all, the tricks of the trade of a master hotelier–whose expertise is to offer an escape to a new comfort zone.  Since winning an election for United States President seems to provide only an extension of the art of escapism he has already refined in the political sphere that can translate to the trade of the hotelier, it seems no surprise that recent publicity even integrated the image of the White House facade to a promise of escapism at Trump International located in Washington, DC–even if this reveals something of a conflict of interest or confusion of jobs, or rather imagines the sort of “Suite Escape” in which Trump Hotels specialize the possibility of looking at the photoshopped blanched federal Environmental Protection Agency  through drape-graced windows in utmost Trump luxury, even if it does, as Philip Bump noted keenly, capture the “mess of conflicts of interest” that Trump is now likely to himself face far beyond that hotel.

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5.  For it seems that a large part of the promise of Trump Hotels is to offer to assemble for their eager visitors pastiches of the “finer things of life,” such as the guesthouse in the Blue Ridge foothills, combining a Georgian-style mansion with old-world elegance from Waterford crystal chandeliers, oil paintings, and statuary in surroundings recalling the Tuscan countryside; every one of his Trump International hotels or Trump Hotels is prized for its own thematic program of interior decoration that offer to their visitors.  This is distilled in the utterly escapist residence Trump loves in Trump Tower, whose time-shifting decor to transport one to an idyllic past, free from social consequences or concerns, that might be the emblem of the escape he offers the country.

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The notion of Trump sequestered, as a self-made Rip van Winkle, is somewhat appealing.  Donald Trump rarely travels, and seems something of a homebody, flying home regularly while he was on the campaign trail on his private jet–and asking the Secret Service to follow him home, on an air company he owns.  To the tune of $1.6 million, agents accompanied him on regular return flights on TAG Air, on which he logged some $6 million personally, boasting “I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it,” as he walked to the bank, even outfitting his own ostentatious Boeing 757 jet at a cost of $1 million that situated his own name prominently in red, white, and blue. Trump often made late night trips back to New York during the Presidential campaign, to sleep in his own living quarters, according to the New York Times.  (The cost of outfitting his plane in suitable luxury may have given Trump grounds to criticize current government contracts with Boeing for the real Air Force One of $4 billion–“Cancel the order!“–although the mechanics of what was entailed in that plane were probably not in his grasp.)

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All those daily flights home on “Trump Force One” to sleep in Trump Tower during the Iowa Caucuses were at first feared to cost him some votes across the midwest.  Trump had regularly returned to his morning view of Central Park and his lavish home quarters, however, and seemed to relish returning with regularity during the campaign.  He didn’t allow any press members to accompany him on these flights, though the staff grew.  But he didn’t hesitate to outfit the luxury jet which was a frequent backdrop for news conferences and televised appearances, at a cost of an extra cost within the 3.8 million taxpayers payed to Tag Air, Inc., to operate the jet which approximated his personal quarters in Trump Tower, from a master bedroom approximated with silk wall coverings, mohair couch that converts to a bed, 57-inch television, home theater, shower and gold-plated toilet on this fuel-inefficient plane–all the while insisting on returning to his penthouse in Trump Tower almost each and every night.  (Trump claimed his flights were funded by checks he wrote to his own campaign, and the sale of MAGA hats and souvenirs at rallies, but the $27,000-$36,000 increase in daily operating costs of such regular flights home–the result of a deep resistance to overnighting outside his home long noted on the campaign trail–left the Secret Service sending a tidy check of $1.6 million for much of 2016 to Trump’s own airplane company.)

6.  The web of financial ties to Trump are far-flung in their nodes, and their ties to members of the incoming Trump cabinet–including Betsy “Ah, Betsy; Education, Right?” DeVos–and seem to stretch to areas only begging to be fully mapped, but which extend far, far beyond the properties of the Trump Organization.

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–in a virtual web of business connections, many concealed within his tax statements.  The ties to much of the nation and newfound legitimacy and recognition of the Trump brand seems undeniable–even if Donald Trump, Jr. dismissed the idea that Donald, now that “he’s got real stuff he’s got to deal with” and “real people’s lives,” is anything but occupied with his governmental duties or realizes the extent to which hid new platform of recognition might encourage the expansion of a luxury hotel chain to new regions of the country.   While scoffing at the “notion that [President Trump] is still running the business from the White House is just insane,” however, the network of hotel chains he has administered provide something like the template for Trump’s notion of his relation to space, as the deals he brokered with construction firms, cities, and property taxes have provided him with the basic tools by which he seems destined to project Presidential authority.  Even as Trump sons Eric and Donald, Jr., the surrogates of his hotel empire, claim “There are lines that we would never cross, and that’s mixing business with anything government,” the inescapable confusion is one from which they will benefit.

Indeed, the range of hotel properties Trump owns are wide-ranging, although notably removed form the African continent or Australia, not to mention an almost entire absence in Asia, restricting interest in South America to the tourist destination of Rio and a planned residential development in Uruguay; and with no properties in continental Europe outside Istanbul–and an avoidance of Mexico which, for the owner of a chain of luxury hotels and hotelier, seems almost to be rooted in something like a deep personal dislike–

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The selective seats of Trump International perhaps befits an entity long styled as “real estate super-brand” and linked to the lifestyle it marketed.   But the absence of Trump’s ability to market the Trump lifestyle and brand of hotel destinations in Europe, save the recent and requisite golf courses in Scotland Ireland, may reveal a long ambivalent attitude to Europe and NATO countries, given the absence of Trump interests outside golf courses in Aberdeen, Tunberry and Doonbeg.  (Indeed, Trump took no time after assuming the Presidency to rail against the EU based on his own experiences from “another world” of business–based on the firm refusal  of the EU to resist a proposed seawall on the dunes of Trump International Golf Links and Hotel in Doonbeg, Ireland, on the grounds of the environmental protection for endangered animals.  Trump was forced to curtail his planned seawall, the basis for the objection–an endangered snail–post-dates his aversion to expanding Trump International in Europe.

But is emblematic of the disproportionate scale with which Trump seems to view the world.  While mocking local disturbances faced by his building projects as annoying disturbances, he promotes his vision of a single way of life cobbled together from historical periods, providing residents a view from Mumbai at the Park at a remove from the poverty of homeless families who sleep on cardboard on Mumbai’s streets–in an image long suspected to be photoshopped.

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The withdrawal of Trump Tower is the opposite of global engagement, but is the site to which Trump seems to invite us all to retreat in an age of global refugees.  Is it any coincidence that the self-confessed germaphobe so fearful of contamination from crowds is most inclined to adopt metaphors as floods, swarms, or infectious to describe the experience of refugees as threats to the social body, metaphorically re-framing their plight at a remove from social, politics or economics–and insisting on our need for better self-protection?  The distorted view from Trump Towers elides the experience of many through the distorting lens of real estate.

7.  Indeed, Trump’s gift for getting his name put on every empty surface known to man–including Trump-themed fiction–seems to have been taken as an excuse for his interest in political representation, which it is not.  But it is no secret that business interactions have most importantly shaped and helped formed Trump’s world view.  And the somewhat striking absence of Trump hotels in much of Eurasia–save residential developments in Seoul, and some under construction in Mumbai, Pune and the Philippines–raises questions not only of the appeal of the version of Trump glitz that they offer, but also of the place of these actual locations in Trump’s current mental map; the distance of the Trump brand entirely from the neighboring state of Mexico is more than clear, and may derive from personal distaste.

The presence of properties under construction in Uruguay, India, and Makati may indicate constraints of the Trump lifestyle, whose limited truck in Europe is not destined to grow in the future.  The relative absence of Trump’s presence in Asia–save Baku–suggests not only a compromised notion of geography for Trump, but an untimely withdrawal from international markets that analyses of the previous administration suggested place millions of jobs at risk.  How can we collectively trust a man with so compromised a notion of geography to can the Trans-Pacific Partnership?  The punitive measures proposed to be taken against companies making products overseas suggest a deeply skewed notion of the place of the American workplace in the global economy, and punitive measures against foreign competitors, suggest a limited and deeply narcissistic notion of global economic transactions, distant from and out of touch with the distribution of global populations.

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The remove of a spatial imaginary of real estate was long prominent in Trump’s mind.  The sharply concentrated and geographically small circuit of properties Trump owns in New York suggests not only a limited knowledge of the huge diversity of New York City but define the notion of the Trump lifestyle he has sold to America as an outer borough boy.  It betrays his narrow range of interest in coveted properties around Midtown and Trump Tower, revealing Trump’s longstanding interest in focussing his sights on Manhattan, despite his father Fred’s disinterest in the far fancier borough–and his open discouragement to Donald for chasing such properties from a firm that had roots from the Verrazano Bridge to the Long Island border, and offered middle-class housing, for hubris in reaching beyond his Brooklyn roots.  Is the focussed expansion of Trump Properties into Midtown, by now long naturalized by its epicenter at Trump Tower, a form of inter-borough envy with roots in the class conflicts of New York City’s urban geography?

Such inter-borough rivalry seem to have guided not only the expansion of Trump properties as it expanded to the area around the future Trump Tower, site of the tony area of Tiffany’s, the Plaza Hotel and Central Park South–

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–but the position in which he sees himself in relation to the world, and the caricature of the populist millionaire that became the conceit of The Apprentice and since become a basis for Trump to sell himself and his brand to the country.

Indeed, the eagerness of Donald to move to the toniest areas Fred Trump disdained, by casting himself from the “streetwise son of Brooklyn’s largest apartment builder,” allowed him to expand his stylized image as a colossus of Manhattan, but to disdain the outer boroughs of New York City as a place to plant the gold-plated image of his name.

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In staking claims to building in such a restricted area of Manhattan, Trump may have used midtown as a sort of arena or performance space to broadcast his identity with such well-polished sheen that it served as a launching pad for Reality TV, long before declaring his Presidency.

8.  More scarily, however, is that the quite limited previous experience Trump gained with world affairs from his perch in New York seems destined to shape the judgements that he shapes on issues of global consequence:  as being in Queens and looking at Manhattan defined Donald’s appreciation and interest in power, the very tactics of aggression that worked for him to launch his brand in New York has become generalized in the trademark launching of hotel facades, and the confrontational bullying of world leaders seems to be the chosen metier of foreign policy, as cultivating allies and personal rapports; divisions between personal space and national destiny seem far closer than in the past, who seems to see foreign policy as conducted in confidence and in tête-a-tête rapports; foreign non-immigrant workers of HB-1 visas are viewed as “cut-rate” bargains, analogous to foreign construction workers; constant commentary on foreign affairs in Twitter permitted; brinksmanship is a working strategy; market negotiations as a primary means of statecraft with overseas partners and adversaries alike.

Trump’s deep need to impress world leaders takes precedence over policy or statements of national interest; tax-cuts are for corporations, whose rate is cut to 15 percent, and tax brackets collapsed from seven to three–while omitting how the US government would be able to afford the cuts.  Trump works on small-scale corporate deals with companies about aircraft, but the big picture seems to slip away.

For Trump’s apparently unremitting focus on staking claims to what he considered higher status in New York City’s real estate market, and to promote his name in doing so, developed with an intensity that led him to continue to stake claims to that status for new arenas.  This began in New York City, greedily and relentlessly, from the West Side Highway where his promise of a waterfront apartment building led the city to permanently close an exit ramp, to Soho, to Wall Street.  This apparent search seeming to chase an image of prestige in the mirror of his own gold-plated marquee, combining deep desire with disinterest in much of the external world, almost desiring only to look in the mirror of the gold reflective surfaces naming the multi-billion dollar towers to which the developer lends his name and the status they take pains to create.  Trump indeed boasted to a biographer Harry Hurt III, back in 1993, about having the best living room view in all of New York City, by virtue of being able to see from his Trump Tower apartment his own name on all sides:  beside the Hudson River in the West Side Yards; on Third Avenue, atop the thirty-nine story Trump Plaza or the fifty-five story Trump Palace.  Hurt compared it all to a child-like fantasy: mirrored in miniature on the ultimate stage of self-indulgent fantasy, as Trump’s name is branded not only on buildings but also “on a Monopoly-tyle board game branded ‘Trump'”, in a sort of ubiquity that needs its own constant affirmation, and itself engenders a desperate need for confirmation of loyalty and admiration.

For Trump seems to have lived in an extended or protracted mirror stage, where the materials of building provide themselves the foil for revealing the “I” that the builder seeks to cultivate, forged in a pre-linguistic stage but continuing as a distorting monumentalization of selfhood that desires to obscure if not obliterates the very map across which it spreads, disorienting the viewer.  The reality of the Trump presidency seems retaining the sheen on the name that seems to gain a greater aura the more that it is reproduced.

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But how long can that last?  While Trump boasted that his ability to have “added show business to the real estate business” is an apt characterization as “a positive for my properties and in my life,” is the nation able to be defined as his property, or is he able to fulfill the fantasies of his constituents through inflated promises and empty patina?

Rather than build such bold pronouncements of self without oversight in Washington, DC, Trump seems to offer the nation new ideas of the landscape of governmental authority.  For rather than seeing the role of the Presidency as representing the nation, Trump seems to have relentlessly presented the function of the Presidency as expanding own his personal enrichment at the cost of the nation–and indeed at the cost of the Presidency’s historical prestige.

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Filed under American Politics, data visualization, Donald Trump, electoral maps, real estate

Mapping the Material Surplus along the US-Mexico Border

When running for President of the United States, Donald J. Trump already betrayed a shaky knowledge of the territory. He didn’t want you to think that a wall had already been built along the southwestern boundary of the United States.  Now occupying the Oval Office, he seeks to convince the nation that it is in fact being built, and that the need for a permanent, impassible “wall” exist, despite Congress’s refusal to allocate new funds for a “border wall.”

But the massive show of force of cyclone fencing, regular patrols, and bullet-proof barriers set a precedent of border fencing since the 1990s, and something like a precedent for redrawing the nation in ways that are designed to resist changes in a globalized world. In ways that Trump has put on steroids as a racist divide between outsiders and “Americans,” and used as a vehicle for an “America First” agenda, as filling a need to remap strong divide between nations that would replace an “open border,” able to protect the nation, the “border wall” has become fetishized as a paradigm of the unilateral mapping of global space–in terms of actual sovereign bounds, and as a way to remap the nation’s involvement in the world and shuns international responsibilities. If the rhetorical role of the “border wall” has replaced its actuality, and mapped the proximity of the nation to the border in both duplicitous and quite dangerously simplified ways, only by returning to the border, and viewing the existing scars on its lived landscape and the traces of the migrants who have crossed it, can we unmapped the mental mapping of the border.

The effectiveness of the current complex of bollard fencing, barbed wire, steel fencing, cyclone fence, prison-wall like bars, and other obstacles has become one of the largest collections of military surplus in the United States, an accumulation of military materiel that appears designed to remind those who see it of their absence of rights.  As much as a defense against globalization or immigration, the border wall stands as a fiction.  Although some Americans lend credence to the idea that a barrier along the border could prevent “unlawful” entry of the country, whether such entry is in face unlawful–and what sort of balance of justice would be reinstated–is unclear.  The frontier is constructed as site for denying justice, and a denial of human rights, both embodied in the a massive build-up of military material and show of force in its regime.  

The construction of the border as a region that denies civil and legal rights–a “negative space” of sovereignty and liberty–has redefined its relation to the state.  While the project of a wall seems to mirror the lines of a map that would separate two countries, the simple division of national zones and spatial division more of a fiction in the transborder region.  The compulsion to create a map that was present on the earth–a sort of scar between two regimes–depends on defining a space outside of either state, overseen by someone who has no interest in securing rights of its inhabitants.

In this sense, Donald Trump is the perfect messenger of a circumscription of personal rights. When Trump urges the nation that no choice exists save a wall– “We really have no choice but to build a powerful wall or steel barrier”–citing that any agreement with Congress for “a fair deal” to be far off, he invokes a notion of fairness and justice that he argues it would create a sense of security–and promote a sense of national security as well as personal security–but relies on evoking the sense of fear and vulnerability that “open borders” conjure.  Without any clear statistics or evidence for its value, save the magnification of border security, the need for a border wall is only a fantasy, based on an imagined. As someone who defines himself outside the political classes, and apart from an interest in preserving civil rights–or a sense of the role of government in the preservation of the nation’s liberties–Trump is perfectly suited to define himself in terms of the border wall, which he seems to be set on developing as a property.

1. The sense of justice or security is altogether absent from the landscape of the wall, and from its already heavily militarized region.  The absence of place along the border is particularly striking as the accumulation of increasing obstacles to cross-border transit seem designed to preserve a sense of the integrity of the nation–and the safety of our own sense of place–in a world increasingly defined outside of the nation-state as a category, where “states” have decreasing presence or meaning for many American citizens, and most inhabitants of the globe.

In an era of the continuous extent of global space, where borders of nations are to a large extent rendered arbitrary in the virtual space of the meridians of the widely adopted Universal Transverse Mercator coordinate system–

–there seems an urgency that is more easily created of the need to define a boundary line, and to believe that the ideal border line of a national map can conjure the antiquated entity of the “nation”and defend it against the danger of migrating threats.  Invoking the fear of the dangers of cross-border movements  are so often epeated by the America First movement–“bad hombres,” rapists, murderers, or criminal networks, drug cartels, and multi-nationals that go beyond the current systems of state-based law enforcement, that seem designed to suggest threats that only a clear partition of territories can stop,

Migratory Routes of White Pelicans in the United States Originating from the Gulf of Mexico



Historical and Current Sites of American Black Bear in Mexico

In  ways that echo the growth of border walls world-wide–only fifteen existed in 1990; there are beyond seventy–the US-Mexican border barriers already constitute one of the most massive investments in wall-building–and the most massive project of wall-building that exists.  Rather than offer a spatial division that can serve to protect the nation, or reassure us of the possibility of law enforcement, the complex created around the militarized complex serves only to suspend individual rights, as much as to guarantee the law.  Ie exists in an atmosphere of compromised legality, if not  lawlessness, in the name of security.  

Rather than see to create a secure spatial division, the border has been transformed into a deeply hostile landscape, a site seeking to erase or obliterate any sense of individuality, however much the wall is identified with justice or national protection against the threat of criminal elements.  The rhetoric of wall-building that invokes justice indeed obscures the utter injustice of its construction.  The 2,500 mile barbed wire fence that India is building to separates itself from Bangladesh, the US-Mexico border wall would be by far the longest such wall in the globe, as if a bald rebuttal to globalization and a declaration of American self-interest:  if intended to illustrate American strength against the specter of the threat of the cross-border movement of workers, criminals, or lawlessness, it claims the ability to remove surgically the territorial United States from the dangers globalization has wrought.  

In this sense, the project of wall-building is a promise to protect the sense of “place” of the nation.  At the same time as our sense of the nation and our sense of place has dramatically altered for reasons beyond any individual nation, the wall reified the nation as an entity, even as the distinct nature of the nation is unclear.   John Berger observed grimly, but surprisingly presciently, toward the end of his life, after touring the Occupied Territories in the Middle East, that “The present period of history is one of the Wall,” shortly after 9/11, he foretold the policing of border-crossings and humanity, ” . . . concrete, bureaucratic surveillance, security, racist walls.”  The new definition of walls that are defined to separate hoary categories of race or ethnicity are increasingly evident in all too frequent attempts to create barriers of regional protection.  They are based on the sense that national survival depends urgently on such massive projects of enclosure, as if such projects could be isolated from their huge effects and psychological consequences for those who might confront them on the ground.

The current emptying of words–emergency; invasion; criminality; violence; human-trafficking–make them tags to activate the border within the political imaginary, but conceal the actuality of the borderlands where the military is already present, and the lands are already quite secure–and quite vacant of habitation.

2.  The place of the amassing of materials and military materiel along the US-Mexico border seems designed to create a new experience of the border, and to make it scarily real for those who might seek to move across it or to regard it as part of a zone of permeability.  The exquisite photographs portraits of the wall by west coast photographer Richard Misrach has worked to document  the extent to which border barriers have changed experience of the border crossing.  

The barriers progressively built on the southern border of the United States reveals a new heights of the costs of bureaucratic surveillance in the name of border security.  As if in a second episode of his classic Desert Cantos, begun in the 1970s, which, Geoff Dyer noted, “record the residue of human activity inscribed in these apparently uninhabited lands,” in an attempt to explore “the multiplicity of meanings in the idea of desertness.”  The residue of the human is even more haunting in Misrach’s new project, and the photographs that result of human traces on the border, because they are emblems of the disenfranchisement of the borderlands that hauntingly parallel their military build-up. One might even say Misrach interrogates the landscape in his work–if the word didn’t tragically resonate so closely with the state-security apparatus on the US-Mexico border. Misrach dwells on human traces that lie around the militarization of the borer regions–from the cultural detritus left by cross-border travelers, left on migrations, the security apparatus encountered at border, and the hollow loneliness of the massive redesign of its landscape capture the expanded military-defensive complex at the border.

This evacuated land is the region that Donald Trump has come to champion as a basis for defense from national emergencies. The argument that the border is understaffed erases the rewriting of the transborder landscape that has already occurred. Misrach’s contemplation of magnificent vistas, broad traces of the inscription of authority at the border, and the reduction of the human, are truly Kafkaesque in their nightmarish reduction of the individual before the inscription of authority in its landscape.

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Near Campo, CA. ©2008 Michael Dear

3.  For since the definition of the US-Mexico borderline as a line of passage monitored by the border patrol back in 1924, the expansion and militarization of increasing sections of border wall is in part a spectacle of state.  Their growth reflects increasing concern not only with the border, but the militarization of a border zone.  But increasingly, such a zone seems sealed off form much of the country, and is rarely fully comprehended or seen, but rather invoked as a specter that needs to be expanded to establish national safety and economic security, even if its expansion has already occurred in a hypertrophic fashion, long before Donald proposed to build a “beautiful wall” to prevent crossing the US-Mexican border. If the expression reveals a lack of compassion, its problematic nature is even deeper: it reveals Trump’s peculiar identification with an apparatus of border protection, and of human containment, and the removal in his eyes of that apparatus from a discourse of rights.

Trump has celebrated the wall as if it were a new hotel and building project–asserting that he has the needed expertise to build and design it.  Trump presented himself to the American press that he was perfectly suited to such a task, since building is what “I do best in life.”  “I’m a great builder,” he assured his audiences, with considerable self-satisfaction, to suggest his suitability to the position as chief executive, despite his lack of political experience; defining himself apart from other political candidates in the vision of the nation that he supported, Trump added with evident satisfaction, “Isn’t it nice to have a builder?”  

Precisely because he came from outside the political sphere, and outside the government that preserves and respects individual rights, he has been presented as a perfect fit for a region that lies and has developed as outside the securing of individual rights.  By having a “builder” of the nation and the nation’s identity, he suggested, rather than a politician, he could guarantee the increased presence of the military along the nation’s southwestern border, and indeed promised to dedicate an increased amount of the national budget to the defense of this borderland.  Precisely because Trump lacks interest in guaranteeing or preserving the rights of migrants, or rights of asylum to the nation, he is a perfect custodian and symbol of this over-militarized zone without rights.  As a man without military experience, but cowed by military authority, he has become, as President, the perfect surrogate for the stripping of rights for people who try to cross the border.

Trump’s promise is that the continuous wall, to be payed for only upon completion, would remove deep worries about border security.  Widespread national concern about cross-border movement since the 1990s have led to the investment to making the border more physically and symbolically present to potential migrants than it ever was–no doubt reflecting an inflated fear of illegal immigration and the dangers of their immigration by fortifying what was once an open area of transit and rendering it a no-man’s land.  The number of US Agents stationed along the border has almost tripled from 1992 to 2004,  according to The Atlantic, and doubled yet again by 2011, even as the number of US federal employees shrunk.  Investing in the border by allocating over $4 billion each year created a concept in our spatial imaginaries we have not fully digested or mapped, or assessed in terms of its human impact, despite increasing appeal of calls for its expansion and further consolidation–even as the further consolidation of the border zone has made migrants depend on drug smugglers and other illicit trade in hopes for guarantees of cross-border passage.  And in an era when a large portion of Americans seem to interact with government through the TSATransportation Security Administration–or NTSB–National Transportation Safety Board–the fear of external threats to the public safety seem incredibly real.  

The inspired gesture of a monumental wall to be built across our Southern Border with Mexico, if a sign of weakness far more than one of strength, obliterating hope for the promise of a future, as Berger noted, intended to overwhelm and oppress as a monument to decadence and American insularity.  Outfitted with not only walls, fences, and obstacles but checkpoints and surveillance cameras, the US-Mexican border has become a pure hypostatization of state power.  And although Trump’s promises to build a “beautiful, impenetrable wall”–“He’s going to make America great, build a wall and create jobs,” folks repeated on the campaign, as if these were causally linked to one another–the massive construction project has been revised, as the “great, great wall” promised at rallies was scaled back to a fence and confined to “certain areas”–with the odd reassurance that “I’m very good at this, it’s called construction,” while acknowledging that the wall was “more appropriate” only in “certain areas.”  

Does Trump have any sense of the massive investment of capital that already exists on the border.  The promise of dedicating as much as $26 billion–even $30 billion–to such a soaring, precast concrete monument along the border, standing as high as fifty feet, was a mental fantasy, and election promise, but filled a need for ending perceptions of its permeability grew so great that his advisers see the need to warn folks “it’s gonna take a while,” but promising the ability to do so by fiat and executive order and reallocating funds for immigration services; others demur, “it was a great campaign device.”

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Mark Potter/NBC News

At the same time as deporting hundreds of thousands of immigrants now deemed “illegal,” the Department of Homeland Security has effectively rendered the border a militarized zone, interrupting what had been as late as the 1980s was a relatively porous transit zone on which both countries’ economies had depended:  the accumulation of capital on the border has expanded what was once a simple line to create obstacles to human movement challenging for viewers to process from a distance, or to map as a lived experience.  Of course, the existence of the wall has created a blossoming of illegal trafficking, as migrants are forced to depend on smugglers to help them in their quest to cross the imposing border, augmenting the illegal activity that occurs along its path, under the eyes of the many employees that guard the expanded border zone, in a far cry from the border patrol of years past.

The accumulation of obstacles for human transit contrast sharply to the old border fences that they have long rendered obsolete. The growth of the border zone dates from 1986, when granting of “legal” status to Mexican immigrants in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) had the consequence of redefining Mexican migrants as “illegal.”  The investment in increased construction of the border over thirty years to  the “illegal” immigrants who were surveilled by the U.S. Border Patrol at the highly monitored militarized border, designed to thwart unregistered immigration.  The argument that the old border fence is now outdated, and contiains gaps–

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AP/Gregory Bull:  Border Agent Jerry Conlin looks out over Tijuana beside old border fence 

–has been demonstrated repeatedly in maps.  And since the Customs and Border Protection agency dedicated to “securing the nation’s borders” has come to expand the border between the United States and Mexico to prevent any possibility of human transit, reifying frontiers in ways that are nicely stated in one side of the pin worn by the very officials tasked to secure the border by regulating cross-border movement.  The mandate for U.S. Customs and Border Protection–“Securing America’s Border and the Global Flow of People and Goods”–is fulfilled by a range of devices of detection, surveillance and apprehension–attack dogs; choppers; drones; visual surveillance; horseback; speedboats; binoculars–that seem to expand an impression of total mastery over space in ways that are oddly ignore the human targets of the Agency.

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Badge of the Current Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (Reverse)

The division of Border Services that is dedicated to secure the US-Mexico border has attracted a level of investment that multiplied the increasingly inhumane terrifying ways, as “securing the border” has encouraged a material surplus and hypertrophic expansion of the border as militarized region that exists to obstruct human transit that is undocumented.  The border-zone assumes an increasingly prominent place within the spatial imaginary of Mexican migrants, as it has become increasingly accepted as a militarized–and naturalized as such–within the United States at considerable costs.  What are the consequences of such acceptance of the frontier as uninhabited lands?  How can one confront the consequences of its built-up construction from the perspective of the border-crosser?  How can one measure the human consequences of the expansion of this  outright militarization of a space between two countries who are not officially at war?

The separation of customs enforcement from border protection led an increased amount of resources to securing the material border, independent of the enforcement of customs, with effects that can be witnessed in the broad expansion of the border’s expansion as an uninhabited policed area needing to be secured in the abstract–independently from the human traffic that passes through it.

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Richard Misrach/Wall, Jacumba, California (2009)

It is difficult to process the expanse or scope of the expansion of the border or the imposing barriers to border transit that is intended to prevent unmonitored migration and indeed terrify migrants from crossing the border .  The experience of the surplus on the border is especially difficult to capture from an on the ground perspective, distinct from the abstract definition of the border on a map as a simple line.  For the investment in the border obstacles and barriers that have themselves created the terrifying idea of sealing a border to human transit, and protecting the entry of those newly classified as “illegal”–a category that was the consequence of the IRCA, and legislation that criminalized the presence of “undocumented” Mexicans in the United States, and the growth of apprehensions of migrants after the increase in the monitoring of the border after IRCA– and the later increase of border patrols from 1994, in response to the inhumane balancing of needs for Mexican workers with fears of an increased number of Mexican immigrants, as the number of “undocumented” migrants multiplied nation-wide to new levels.  The increased militarization of the border to monitor all and any cross-border transit has created a massive expansion of border fortification under the Homeland Security Dept.

The result has been to create a shocking dehumanization of border crossing as attempts to cross the border in search of a better life have grown.  And the response of Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo to recuperate the human experience of border crossing that is erased by most maps.  Recent explorations by Misrach has called renewed attention to the expansive construction of the border as a human experience migrants face and encounter, and the new landscape of border-crossing that has been created across a new no man’s land.  His attention to the remains humans have left along the wall–abandoned detritus and intentional markers of cross-border transit–remap the construction of the border zone so challenging to capture in a territorial map, and capture a new sense of urgency to confront the human rights abuses that have grown with the border’s senseless expansion, and the overbuilding of border barriers and borderlands as a militarized space.  

For the accumulated military surplus along border boundary is less a clear divide, than a means of creating a territory of its own within the growing border area:   Misrach’s recent photographs map intensive fieldwork of the region of the border that try to comprehend the scale of its presence for those on its other side or who traverse the border zone–an experience entirely omitted from even the most comprehensive maps of its daunting scale and expansion, which reveal the growing presence that “the border,” border area and the growing expanse of trans-border regions have already gained–a scale that can in part capture the heightened symbolic role that the debates about a border fence or barrier have gained in the 2016 United States presidential election.  The notion only a wall could fill the defensive needs of the United States must be protected from those Donald J. Trump labeled “bad hombres”–we stop the drugs, shore up the border, and get out the “bad hombres”–is laughable, but was a lynchpin to fashion himself as a strong male leader.

The grandiosity of the wall as a project of Trump’s megalomania led the architects at the  Guadalara-based Estudio 3.14 to propose a version in hot pink, stretching along the 1,954 miles of the border, based on the work of Mexican architect Luis Barragán.  The wall, including a prison to house the 11,000,000 deported, a plant to maintain its upkeep and a shopping wall, seems specially designed both to daunt migrants and offer eye-candy for Americans.

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Agustin Avalos/Estudio 3.14

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Agustin Avalos/Estudio 3.14

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 Agustin Avalos/Estudio 3.14

Indeed, such a “Prison Wall” reflects the deeply carceral function of the space of the border, whose systems of surveillance systems and technological apparatus make it less a space of transition than a site of expansive investment going far beyond the notion of border protection, both as a spectacle and expansion of territorial control.   The hot pink wall offers a good substitute surpassing the expansion of border security in recent decades.

4.  Indeed, as the transborder region has dramatically expanded with the expansion of cross-border trade since NAFTA in 2004, the expansion of the trans-border region has been widely neglected, and rarely mapped.  The attention the photographic mapping of the human experience of border crossing–evident in the abandoned detritus and remains of cross-border transit–present a ghostly counter-map to the expanded border region.  

This human map is all too often unfortunately overlooked, even with increased attention Republican presidential candidates have paid to remapping a closed border and constructing a border wall, a project that seems to erase or remove the broad area of cross-border traffic that occurs within the immense region that surrounds the physical border–whose sociological expansion is so oddly conveniently erased by any project of wall building along a region demanding to be recognized as being part of the United States.

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Barajas/Sisto/Gaytán/Cantú/Hidalgo López (2014)

Most boundaries between states are regularly rendered in maps by dotted lines, as if to recall milestones–miliaria–placed at regular intervals on perimeters of lands or counties in earlier times.  But the borer strip that is embedded in an expanded border area is a site of increasing surveillance that seems to engrave itself on the land.  To map the proposed building of a fence along the 2, 428 mile border between Mexico and the United States reveals a the expansion of the policing of the national borderspace, erasing its past status as a transit zone across which people and goods easily moved.

In an age of globalization, borders are increasingly not only policed, but managed at a distance from their crossing lines–and increasingly invoked in Presidential elections as if they have become the primary charges of governmental management.  Constructed to symbolize and symbolically represent sovereign authority, the overbuilt border seems staged a spectacle to impede human movement and to monitor and erase, individual experience, and to bolster the appropriately faceless authority of the state.  Borders once the creation of shared conventions, are colonized by an apparatus designed to impose state authority on helpless people, and constructed at massive cost as artifacts that seem to exist to violently intersect with actual lived experience, confronting the cross-border motion or migration of populations, and concretizing the need for a fixed frontier as a need of the nation.

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Getty Images

5.  The huge popularity of advocating construction on a continuous border wall within Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign to seal the frontier along Mexico’s sovereign territory reveals the degree to which borders become a means to assert failing claims to sovereignty–even as it is an attempt to reassert the authority of an individual nation-state by unilaterally asserting its own abilities to police its bounds.  How the border gained such broad purchase on the national imaginary is unclear, and may require another post–but the incommensurability of the alleged solution and the situation on the ground demands empirical evaluation.  Revisiting the spectacle of the border and the suffering it creates engages broad advocacy to the continuous wall advocated alike by such presidential candidates like Trump and Ted Cruz–and the explicit violence they serve by of subjecting social life of border-crossing to surveillance in the name of national security.

And so it is apt that, in Border Cantos, a recent collaboration between photographer Misrach and Mexican-born composer Guillermo Galindo, the amassing of capital on the US-Mexico border is so eloquently documented and revealed as the brutalizing landscape that it is.  More than any map is able, their collaboration bears witness to the expansion of the border’s imprint on the lives of migrants in incredibly moving ways, by asking viewers to evaluate the costs of the overbuilt structure of the fence, and assembling the artifacts and unintended traces that were found and collected about the border–traces accidentally left by actual migrants from backpacks to sneakers to books to children’s clothing and dolls to the spent shotgun shells that targeted migrants or the bicycles used to overcome border barriers–to reflect their social experience.   These remains are human traces that do not appear on any actual map, of course, but are the remains of the violence that is enacted on how national boundaries are mapped–and the continued violence of the experience of border crossing that intersects with the broad security apparatus on either side of the border fence.  As if to accompany Misrach’s photographs of the human geography of the borderlands–a largely empty space with few humans and only scattered human markers and material possessions–Galindo fashioned musical instruments whose playing is able to generate sounds in his own scores, specific to the surreal fraught space of the overbuilt borderlands, an eery score to accompany Misrach’s haunted landscapes, and remind us of the human presence that is so often necessarily absent from the images.

Such ephemera pale in contrast to the experience of migrants, to be sure, but offer both avenues of empathy and proofs of the brutality with which sovereign authority intersects with the mundane everyday at the border walls, in the built space that runs across the emptiness of the desert borderlands.

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March 1, 2016 · 1:06 pm