Rarely has a political convention focussed so strongly on distracting attention from current actualities as the meeting of Republicans to nominate Donald J. Trump as their candidate in 2020. While the country had been counting COVID mortality rates and lamenting police violence and the injustice of health inequalities across the nation, a balloon of good news was levitated, an elephant leaping to the stars, that seemed to distract attention by hearkening back to the circus elephant that first inspired the logo of the Republican party, an iconography first put into play by American cartoonist Thomas Nast, to be sure, but whose pedigree in the traveling circus spectacles pioneered by PT Barnum has perhaps never been so fully appreciated as seemed evident in the media attention that was given red elephants as if they were augurs of victory, immersed as they were in the aesthetics and performative rituals of circus-going as a spectacle about race, whiteness, privilege, and spectatorship, as much about animals at all. The episode of political symbolism might be placed in a volume of Circus Studies or political symbolism, a regal pachedyrm closely tied to the partisan remapping of American politics and its increasing performance for two separate audiences. When Ronna McDonnell channeled Vanna White in revealing the iinvigorated elephant that would be the local logo of the Grand Old Party in the convention slated for 2020, a year ahead, the flowing red dress she wore may have refered to the new monochrome of the icon of the Republican Party. While the elephant was long red, white, and blue, the new monochrome elephant projected an imaginary of a unified party, no doubt composed of “red” states, purified and poised to advance into the 2020 Presidential election as a united front, long before the social justice protests of 2020 that reacted in shock to George Floyd’s brutal murder by white police, head forced to the ground in Minneapolis by local police before a crowd of onlookers, and the social reckoning these protests bought by the convention itself.
How the party would map onto the country was a question that was on the front plate of many separatist groups by the summer of 2019, when the question of how a non-nation rightly secedes to create a ‘country’ prompted many cartographic fantasies rooted in the appeal that “nation” was an ethno-linguistic group of common customs, and the alleged principle that all states have the right to secede from the union: “red states” did not really follow state lines, but could be carved from electoral districts and drawn by software in a loopy map of alleged unity, not without appeal to many white supremacist ideals, avoiding most coastal regions, and larger cities outside Texas and Georgia. While this map was fringe, the fantasy of a monochrome elephant was a clear image of a red coalition’s coming victory, justified by websites rich with reference to precedents found on Wikipedia, asking readers to contemplate the legal justification that might exist for eastern Texas, western Louisiana, or the western panhandle of Florida to secede from the nation–as if motivated by the drive to “do your own research.” The deep fantasy of cartographic excision lead the Looney Tunes logic of separating Florida from the United States to the Atlantic with a saw in 1949, with the cry “that does it–South America, take it away!” to redraw the nation in the Red State Secession in a crude fashion, cutting Broward, Palm Beach, and Miami-Dade counties off of the Union, in a hardly convincing map of those states that truly “follow the Constitution”–that seems to be derived from a division of the electoral map.
The fantasy of the monochrome elephant might be sufficient to accommodate all local interests in a buoyant beast of even larger girth was hardly new. The image of a monochrome elephant s party logo began with the introduction of the animal by Republican cartoonist Thomas Nast, who took the image of an albino elephant–the first “white elephant” of allegedly greater purity than its African cousin–at the height of reconstruction to appeal to Republican’s adherence to greater dignity in their own party’s principled platform of reform. By the time that the convention to anoint Donald J. Trump as nominee for a party without a platform got underway, as if to tell us we had been watching dangerous performances all summer long in social justice protests spread across America, the remodeled red elephant that hearkened back to Thomas Nast’s pioneering use of the bull elephant to champion the vigor and capaciousness of a party to which he belonged seemed to bring back the racial insensitivity and unsavoriness that the exhibition of circus elephants–and the purity of the exhibited albino “white” elephant that P.T. Barnum had introduced to American audiences as a nobler alternative to the African Grey to please circus-going audiences in Reconstruction America, the new logo keyed into a color line, in ways that may hint at the future meaning of the semiotic weight of the party logo for generations who may only know the political animal and not the living beast.
To be sure, whatever future semantic properties of the pachyderm as a symbol of political party were raised in 2010–as the animal’s significance seemed remote from then-current political debates–
–found an unexpected response as the Party of Trump reclaimed the elephant in ways that reclaimed its spectacularity in a circus, as the jumbotron in Charlotte, NC, unveiled the spectacle of the pachyderm, devoting far more attention as the party leaders who planed the meeting wanted to discuss the “new logo” combining the iconic elephant and the city’s crown, describing the city they claimed to be far more concerned with business and development of the city. The logo’s unveiling followed President Trump’s disgraceful call for members of the U.S. Congress to “go back to the countries from which they came” in a city viewed as “business-first, not politics-first,” calling the first order of the day being “the unveiling”–a term often associated with commemoration than politics.
The Republican Party unveiled a sleek lines of a new red elephant in preparation for the 2020 Republican Convention recuperated the performative origins of the once-sturdy quadruped as it appeared on the jumbotron, whose very size communicated how much air the presence of Donald J. Trump had sucked out of Charlotte’s Convention Center.
What the party billed as a 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. TO be sure, the pachyderm that was unveiled was not far from the mascot that was unveiled as a “proud and strong symbol of the Republican Party, trunk pointed toward 2012” at the Tampa Bay Convention, where the three stars in the field of a flag symbolized “equality, justice and opportunity”–celebrated as “core principles of our Constitution”–but the new elephant was conspicuously drenched red, and the five stars on its rounded core suggested the five-star experience that the convention planners assured convention-goer would experience–it was an experience not to be participated in, or indeed to draft a platform of principles, but to display consent.
As nation-wide movements promoting the sovereign secession of red states advanced online, embraced by the party as a basis for generating turnout and votes, Republicans seemed assured of the destined electoral landslide Trump had almost celebrated as an electoral victory of Republican voters in red states alone. The red elephant of 2020 expunged all blue from its body. Unlike earlier logos of party, the pure red pachedyrm suggested a loyalty to party across a red expanse as projecting the fated destiny of an imagined electoral map, its identity in red states that the newly monochrome anthropomorphic icon spoke to as an aspirational emblem as a gold-limbed regal pachyderm. The purity of this party would not only be exclusive to “red states,” but in its iconography seemed to float a blue ball over the animal’s head, but encoded in not that hidden ways a doctrine of racial purity, obliged to the discourse of white supremacy that Trump had courted since 2011, talking up rumors that circulated about Barack Obama’s birthplace to launch them at the sitting president, claiming his “real doubts” and “people that actually have been studying it and they can’t believe what their finding”–seeding a discourse of aspersions and doubts parallel to his own process of considering his candidacy. The racial whistles that were keyed to white supremacists that were long part of Trump’s campaigns, from his advocacy of “birtherism” to his demonization of Mexican migrants as criminals.
Would the GOP be reborn with newfound unity and vitality and with an apparent spring in its step of an open endorsement of its racial purity? What, more to the point, would unveiling a pachedyrmal logo to much hype have to do with race, and racial inequality, even if the objectification of an elephant as a treasured icon of the party might be strikingly odd? More scary, perhaps, was how the pachedyrmal icon channeled display of the increasingly racialized divisions that were submerged in the chest of the red beast. The elephant of single hue recalled the politics of racial division and race when it was first used by the Republican sympathizer Nast in Harpers in the age of Reconstruction, during the months after P.T. Barnum had promoted the impending arrival of a celebrated “white elephant” specially purchased of Burmese origins, whose alleged nobility endowed it with distinct treatment befitting its greater civility, wisdom, and social status as a member of a royal family. The albino elephant named Toung Taloung had appeared in graphic newspapers that testified to the whiteness of its skin, even before it had arrived in New York City from London, a “Sacred Elephant” of far greater civility, wisdom, and social status than its darker African counterpart–
The cartoonist Nash selected the albino elephant as a symbol of the purity of standards of the Party itself in 1884, to argue Party might ride such a beat to the White House if they maintained similar purity of purpose in their platform and in selecting their eventual nominee to occupy the throne atop the highly decorated tusked beast.
Nast’s image recalled formally nothing so much as the image of a stuffed elephant so celebrated when it was exhibited in indigenous regalia in 1854 in London’s 1855 Crystal Palace, sponsored by the East India Company. And the image of a lively monochrome electric red elephant employed in 2020, if not decked out in as much regalia, was as embedded in silences about race, and the silences about race became true elephants in the scripts of speakers at the 2020 Convention, that opened at the height of the COVID-19 epidemic and the searing social justice protest that many of the speakers at the convention cast as motivated by Antifa squads of marauding criminals.
Donald Trump’s party had not known how sharp his focus on Law & Order would be in 2019. But the focus on a red-state party, which commanded consensus as much as presented a platform, used the traditional party logo as an “proud and strong symbol” of–pardon the pun–a deeply truncated party, which might have been indeed a stuffed beast, eviscerated of any vital principles, and more of a symbolic avatar of fealty to a new ideal type of red states.
Where did we get there from Thomas Nast’s hope of probity in the White Elephant? A good place to look would be in the circus origins of the beast that were recuperated so fully in 2020, this post argues. 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. Whereas Nast identified the braying of a 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.
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 sitting President. 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.
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.
Effigies of stability are, at times, the closest that one can hope for the manufacture of a sense of stability in the nation. When Donald J. Trump used the White House as a backdrop from which to accept the Republican Party’s nomination as presidential candidate in 2020, he noted that the seat of executive power “has been the home of larger-than-life figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson, who rallied Americans to bold visions of a bigger and brighter future,” in ways that reveal his own aspirations to monumentality, and their proximity to his decision to enter political life. As Trump had once confided that Trump Tower was but a “prop” to create the show that was Donald Trump to sold-out performances, in 1990, the border wall had afforded a prop of Presidential authority. The readiness with which Trump used Mt Rushmore as a prop to speak to the nation on Independence Day, 2020, or the White House to address the Republican Convention, revealed an interest in the preservation of statues as loci of authority–and his enmity of identifying as Cancel Culture the criticism of monuments of Confederates, or of Columbus, John Wayne, or of the Confederate Commander Robert E. Lee.
Donald Trump’s cultivation of the monumental may have led to a readiness as a candidate for President to seek out the Border Wall. If it is almost a chicken-and-egg question whether the demand for the wall drove his candidacy or he conjured the spatial imaginary of the wall, the proposal was seized on during the dark years of the Trump presidency as a prop to reveal his commitment to national security far beyond tariffs, trade conventions, and trade wars and revive his presidency or lagging candidacy in what seemed a six year campaign. If the border wall became a marquis event of the Trump Presidency until it occasioned the final public trip of the Trump Presidency, now recast as a site to burnish his legacy and his commitment to ideals, it was by no means the sole prominent he tried to insert in the landscape. Although the addition of a statue of Columbus to the Manhattan skyline was focussed on the microcosm of Manhattan, the first theater of Trump’s public fortunes, the case of the towering bronze statue to an imperious Christopher Columbus, that one-time icon of Italian-American identity, already attacked from the early 1990s, when Trump first floated the possibility of its erection on his properties as a gift from the Russian Federation in 1997. The statue that Boris Yeltsin had proposed Bill Clinton accept as a gift for the Columbian quincentennial was seized upon by Trump in the years that he sought to revive his flagging fortunes in Manhattan as a monument to place his stamp on the urban skyline he identified, regularly drawing on cocktail napkins, with a sharpie, as if he was coveting its gleaming buildings as a young realtor from Queens.
The addition of the planned statue of the Genoese navigator had been routinely rejected as a part of the American imaginary by many groups as early as 1997–the year Honduran indigenous destroyed a statue of Columbus to condemn the project of Spanish colonization, five hundred and five years after the fact, beheading the monument, painting it red to recognize the blood it bore, and throwing it into the ocean, in what had become a ritual desecration of monuments to Columbus since the quincentenary of 1992. The fabrication of the statue in Moscow may have predated the protest movements to remove statues in Britain of Topple the Racists, but reached for a discredited iconography of supremacy at the moment Columbus had been widely questioned as a figure of American identity–but when Trump felt that he might make a deal for the acceptance of a monument that would appeal to the recently elected Italian American mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani. The monument he offered to plant on his properties he was developing on the Hudson River estuary, above Upper New York Bay, near midtown, Harbor, above the Statue of Liberty that rises in the Upper Bay from Beddoes’ Island, would hardly have been precedented for a private residence. But Trump’s sense of combining territoriality of the lands of the old train yards on the expanded west side of Manhattan with a demand for glitz seems to have led him to agree to the deal for erecting a statue, some fifteen feet taller would have provided an improbably gigantic statuary, even if the landfill of his new housing development could probably not sustain its massive weight–yet the image of the massive statue promoting a performative icon of global rule, not long before the first time Roger Stone openly fashoned Donald Trump’s candidacy for President.
The ill-fated story of the attempted transatlantic voyage of this perversion of a Modern Colossus, a triumphant image of the fifteenth century navigator’s imperious gaze, glorified the imperious form of the navigator without a map or compass, but shows him atop a small caravel, behind three massive billowing flags bearing crosses that concretize his claims to have brought Christianity to the New World, glorifying the man who began the slave trade from the Americas, desperate to turn a profit on his second voyage–who never set foot on the continental United States, let alone approached New York harbor. The imperious view of this statue’s grim visage, an assemblage of sorts, first designed to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ expedition made out of 2,500 pieces of bronze and steel manufactured in Russia, cast in 3 different foundries, was assembled in 2016, just after Trump’s election, some 25 years after its first conception, but at a towering two hundred and sixty-eight feet would tower over the sixty meter iron column on which Columbus stood in Barcelona, erected for the 1888 University Exposition, shortly after the Statue of Liberty arrived in New York Harbor in 1885, or the seventy-six foot column on which Columbus stands in midtown Manhattan, adorned with bronze miniatures of the three ships of the Genoese navigator’s first voyage, the Nino Pinto and Santa Maria, planned in 1890 and unveiled in 1892. Unlike the image of the Genoese navigator holding nautical charts and pointing to the Atlantic in Barcelona, or the image of Columbus with a compass or globe, in period costume, this Columbus stares over the land, saluting imagined inhabitants akin to a Caesar. More than encountering natives, as the bas-relief in Manhattan or Barcelona, Columbus in “Birth of the New World” evokes a figure with aspirations to global dominance, removed from time or space, a thoroughly post-modern figure of the discoverer who lacks maps, as if he followed inborn GPS.
His gaze is imperious, but does not scan the seas, or shore, but seems to ahve arrived with a new sense of entitlement, inflected by three royal crosses behind him, and in the relative immobility of his posture and weight, facts that Trump must have noticed or seen in a mock-up when it was suggested as a gift to the realtor who was negotiating the placement of Trump Tower in Moscow, and saw fit to place on the lot of the planned luxury apartments he had been promoting in Manhattan, as another second act to Trump Tower, when his fortunes and global capital were in decline, having just declared a loss in 1995 of $916 billion desperate to relieve some of his debt devised a deal forgiving half of the $110 million he owed, per Wall Street Journal, escaping his creditors in ways Fortune called truly “Houdini-like” and was eager to create a needed simulacrum of monumentality for the Trump brand that would magnify his own personal wealth in Manhattan and on the global playing field, as he aimed to $916 million loss he posted for 1995, or the millions he had been hemorrhaging of the value of Trump International that was rolled out in 1997, in an attempt to eclipse the filing for bankruptcy of Trump Taj Mahal in 1991, by securing a new monument of global conquest.
This giant statue was the first time in the final months of his Presidency, Donald Trump seemed to bond again with the symbolic status of statues as patriotic memorial, so that by May, 2020, during the social justice riots after George Floyd’s killing, he felt oddly impelled to affirm, almost repeatedly, the litany of statues, memorials, commemorations, or neoclassical monuments. From May of that year, he linked the eulogizing of statuary was paired with the end of the “downsizing of America’s identity” to the national wealth “soaring” an additional twelve trillion, concealed in increasing wealth inequality, describing funds “pouring into neglected neighborhoods,” presenting the Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh, and “reaffirming our heritage” by in the State of the Union, lionizing the heroism of Americans as if a casting call for the Garden of National Heroes he suggested on July 4, 2020: Generals–Pershing, Patton, and MacArthur–and noble frontier figures like Wyatt Earp, Davy Crockett, and other heroes of the Alamo, or the Pilgrims from Plymouth Rock, largely white men, lamenting the lack of heroic statues, rather than affirming a commitment to living humans, and expressing shock and dismay at the attacks on neoclassical statues. Trump had returned as soon as he was elected President to reassert the place the Genoese navigator occupied in a proclamation celebrating Columbus Day the second Monday of October, praising his “commitment to continuing . . . quest to discover . . . the wonders of our Nation,” and, in fact, the “wonders of our nation, world, and beyond,” as if the navigator was indeed a basis for the proclamation of the future vision of the nation, as if replacing the vision of the nation in that other Modern Colossus of the Statue of Liberty, modernizing Manifest Destiny by praising the navigator for having “tamed a continent,” if he had barely arrived at one.
The planned monument was never built. But it evoked a mythos of manifest destiny many found a surprising embrace as a way to “reaffirm our values and affirm our manifest destiny” in the early days of the Trump Presidency. But Trump seemed to affirm his mysterious attachment to global transit of profits in the allegedly cost-free transport of a massive piece of statuary to be built on the Hudson River’s shores as a new way to claim public prominence for his lagging fortunes, jsut years before he first put his hat into a Presidential primary and declared his interest and possible intention to be United States President, as if to familiarize the nation with an idea that was striking by its improbability. The Hudson River, Donald Trump announced to the American press, was in fact the very site where “The mayor of Moscow . . . would like to make a gift to the American people,” a site to erect the massive statuary entitled “Birth of the New World.” He eagerly let it leak to the press after his return from Russia in 1997 that he would be instrumental in the arrival of a new monument for the city’s skyline, based on his negotiations with Russian oligarchs, and that the project hard to imagine as an extension of his own interests to immediately raise eyebrows of a tie: “It would be my honor if we could work it out with the City of New York!” While Trump International was a chain of luxury residences, the elevation of the statue as an image that confirmed his luxury residences as a global attraction were no doubt far closer in his mind than the consensus the new public statuary would imply. Did he realize that the gift was already rejected by two sitting presidents, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, who were approached by what was an ostensible gift of friendship for the quincentenary of Columbus? His image of a new logo for Trump International to show its global ambitions, unveiled in 1997, at Columbus Circle, has an eery parallel to the interest in adopting Columbus as a mascot for his new luxury housing chain, oblivious to the impropriety of placing a triumphant statuary of Christopher Columbus at his own other midtown properties, as if to personalize the contested icon of what had become a disputed and quite loaded figure of global triumphalism–a figure that was almost literally from another time.
Trump bemoaned desecration of the monumental on the eve of leaving office addressing in his final rally, on January 6, 2021, bemoaning what he saw as rage against monuments, not a re-questioning of their significance, and cultivating an eery silence on escalating police violence. The danger of disturbance of monuments was only stopped by a law and order affirmation, lest, he taunted, “they’ll knock out Lincoln too,” necessitating the sentences for desecrating statues–“You hurt our monuments, you hurt our heroes, you go to jail“–to restrain the beheading, toppling, or besmirching with red paint of public monuments of confederates, slave holders, and colonizers in all fifty states, including the 1,749 statues of confederates that the Southern Poverty Law Center estimate were standing in the United States in 2019, 1,500 supported by the US government grounds; a sixth of monuments to confederates erected mostly in the Jim Crow era lie in black-majority counties, totems of a past white supremacist culture President Trump had found much support. As the call for the removal of statues that natauralize if not celebrate racism as part of the American social fabric, the reconsideration of confederate statues long prominent in many cities seems to have provoked Trump’s outspoken support for the very same statues as a sign of patriotism.
The statue of the instigator of the slave trade, Christopher Columbus, had claimed a special place in the political emergence of Donald Trump, and in the revaluation of public monuments, form the the civic fraying of debate about the status of Columbus that dates from the early 1991, when indigenous protests against the commemoration of Columbus began, and the proclamation in some cities by 1992 of Indigenous People’s Day. Trump’s attachment to the monumental an an emergence that seemed deeply tied to his desire for the monumental placement of an icon that might command statement was long tied to an aspiration for recognition: Trump claims to have long dreamed he might appear on Mt. Rushmore, perhaps explaining the ubiquity of his name on his buildings, and the satisfaction he drew from that. But the escalation of his drive for the monumental–and, indeed, his hopes for a border wall that might bear his name– may have began, not with his inauguration, but just after Trump Tower, in 1990, when Trump was flailing around for attention and for ways to escape his debtors, and negotiated the arrival from Russia of a monumental statue he imagined would stand in New York harbor–which Trump probably argued was the apt location for “Birth of the New World,” a monument two past Presidents of the United States had turned down, but Donald Trump, eager to please Russians, promised he would erect.
While Columbus was Genoese, and long a confirmation of Italian American pride, the image of a monumental figure of male Christian government that the Tsereteli statue, removed from time and space, staked an over the top monument of an image of the white, male figure of state we might long associate with Trump, a figure numerous American cities would rebuff in the 1990s, before it was relocated to Puerto Rico. The proposed statue marked Trump’s first flirtation with a statement of political monumentalism, inspired by ties to Russian oligarchs who patronized the deeply orthodox Georgian sculptor who had designed the towering neoclassical figure of a heroic navigator for “Birth of the New World.”
The monumental size of the statue of the navigator long deemed an icon of national genius was to upstage the monumental Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, at the end of the estuary, celebrating in monumental form the heroism of the navigator, more a symbol of rapaciousness and plunder but recast in bronze in monumental size as a liberator and conquistador of new lands that, before Trump appeared on Reality TV, would broadcast his achievement and Trump’s munificence on the skyline of New York to all its residents. Columbus would be cast in a new level of monumentality, and even aspire to the new language and logic of monumentality to which Donald Trump had aspired. While it is not clear why the monument did not advance, one suspects that Trump’s eagerness to accept the monumental statue of the Genoese navigator forged in Moscow’s oldest smelting furnaces, founded by Catherine the Great, and designed by the Georgian Zurab Tseretelli, would have been placed on landfill in a Trump project in the landfill of the trainyards in the Hudson estuary, unable to support the ponderous bronze assemblage weighing 660 tons–the ballpark figure Trump cited that oddly hovered near the number of the beast.
Did the negotiation of a figure of rapaciousness as a symbol of the nation find its way to the sponsorship of Donald Trump only by chance? The image of a white conqueror that Russian elites offered to Donald Trump at the same time as he pursued ways to export his brand to the post-Soviet oligarchs in a gambit for greater monumentality was a moment when Trump’s language of monumentality–the expansion of Trump Properties to Trump International and the expansion of Trump Tower in Manhattan to a possible chain of Trump Towers in global capitals–suggested a stagecraft of hotel promoting that was met by a triumphalism of staking his foray into national politics by rehabilitating the figure of Columbus as a hero of globalism and economic conquest that would dwarf the figure of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, as if to cement the gift of Russian oligarchs beyond the French Republicans.
The timing of such an encomia to the rapaciousness of the Genoese navigator as an emblem of global economic ties was perfect. At the very time that Columbus’ celebration as a national hero was being questioned, that the post-Soviet government of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin had once offered a sitting American president–and attempted to offer to a second–that Trump, during a visit to Moscow ostensibly to plan a new residential tower on Red Square, acceded to being amenable to erect on shorefront properties he was developing. But perhaps the biggest irony of Donald Trump’s attempt to promote this monumental statue was that it was a way of selling his own success to an American public, at a time when he was in fact surrounded by mounting debt, having trafficked in debts for most of the 1980s, and in need of an illustration of triumphalism to promote his own pet project of a new West Side development, that would be the site where he proposed the statue of the navigator who had claimed to “discover the New World” was planned to be erected.
If Trump had argued that Trump Tower demanded recognition as “the eight wonder of the world,” the statue of Columbus that he sought to importing to the banks of the Hudson River, or the landfill of the former railway yards where he projected an exclusive new luxury complex, provided a possible basis to erect the monumental bronze statue of Christopher Columbus, designed by Soviet sculptor Zurab Tseretelli, a Georgian member of the Orthodox church, far larger than the statue of Columbus in the act of sighting land from atop a column in Barcelona, in 1997, before two sails billowing with wind, each decorated with a cross, in the act of bearing Christianity to the New Wold as an agent of the Royal Majesties, Ferdinand and Isabella. This invocation of the myth of transatlantic travel–Columbus had never visited New York, sailed in the Hudson, or on North America, save Caribbean islands, had grown in 1892 as part of an American decision to stake claim to the theater of Central American islands as a province of hegemony. As the monarchs were storing all maps of routes to the New World as tools of global power, the throwback image of a Columbus offered a basis for Trump to set his sites on global markets, by 1997, far outside New York, and provided one of the strongest ties between Trump and Russia, as Donald was hoping to build an outpost for a newly branded Trump International, by an actual monument that would have been the tallest statue in the western hemisphere to affirm the global scale of his enterprise.
But the image of this immense statue of a robed Columbus who would be saluting Mnhatttan Island, would be a theatrical addition to the six luxury towers he was planning on the West Side, at a time when Trump was all but crumbling under debt. Would the image of Columbus, shown saluting Manhattan Island and perhaps hailing the towers of Trump and the foreign capital that had funded their construction, as the Russian-made statue that Trump brokered was billed as arriving in New York fully paid for, with oligarchs covering the cost of its transport and construction, aside from the installation of the behemoth on the landfill where Trump planned to build. How the monumental statue would appear on the New York skyline, or be integrated with Trump residences, was never apparently discussed let alone described, so much did Trump trust the sense of theatricality that the erection of the statue would immediately add to his image in the city, which was in need of considerable rehabilitation.
The statue met Trump’s insatiable taste for monumentality, even if the image of Columbus as an elitist mariner and royal emissary was about as out o step with the histroical image of Columbus or his place in a democratic tradition. Columbus stood as if arriving and claiming possession over a nation, echoed a belief in manifest destiny that was more than out of step with the times. It idealized a sense of conquest and of rapaciousness as American, if the recalibration of the legacy of Columbus as a national hero had been percolating across the nation for some years, as many questioned whether the navigator who had been heroized by Italian immigrants as an icon of their ties to the nation of America and an image of their own whiteness, was now reclaimed as a logic of the capitalism of plunder, materialism, and enrichment, rather than the social and civic order that the image of Lady Liberty, standing atop the chains of enslavement, was intended to communicate.
Unlike the stoic monuments of Columbus as a world traveller, the statue of the emissary who arrived in classical robes was an odd appeal to a type of classical statuary, togaed and raising his right hand in a gesture of imperial salute, to exchange for the entry of Trump Properties to Moscow, Is this triumphal image of Columbus not an image of enrichment, as much as Christianization, and image of neoclassical monumentality who masks the violence of disenfranchisement and conquest! In raising one hand worthy of Mussolini more than Augustus, the sttue all but invoked a “Doctrine of Discovery” to lay claims to the New World, unlike Liberty,. For the figure of Columbus lays claim to the ownership of the land and its rulership by a sort of Christian militarism, without a book of laws or declaration, or respect for laws, viewing the nation from atop a small symbolic caravel. It did not make a difference that this figure was so dramatically ahistorical, with his hand on an anachronistic rotary wheel, without a compass, sighting device, or indeed a map.to navigate or to conquer and stake his claim.
The monument did not have need of either–if all are the tools included in Columbus statuary, for it was actively rewriting history and memory alike. In the service of a banal monumentality, closely recalling the cartoonish monuments that Zurab Tseretelli had helped erect across Moscow, and send to different posts in the world including Paris and New York, the oddly cartoonish navigator is ostensibly a new map of the nation, as well as a new image of global power that had been offered to American Presidents as a gift of the post-Soviet, but that Presidents Bush and Clinton had alike demurred, perhaps seeing something unsavory in selecting a gift form a Russian President as an image of the American nation. This image famously appealed to Donald Trump, who savored its monumentality, the reputation of the lauded Russian Georgian sculptor Zurab Konstantinovitch Tsereteli, and his reputation for controversial monumental art. Trump had a high tolerance for what might be called kitsch of opaque monumentalism. The frozen figure of Columbus removed from time and place is an assertion in empty air, a floating signifier that only seemed to float, standing on a ship in triumph, a made-in-Moscow massive icon of unheard of magnitude, that would be destined to the largest in the western hemisphere. This project to re-monumentalize the image of Columbus in the act of magisterially surveying a continent on which he had barely set foot, as if to justify claiming the conversion of the New World’s inhabitants, offered a claim for Trump’s own arrival on a global stage, funded by underwater financial currents, laundered funds, and foreign backers–many of whom seem to have continued to support his candidacy in a bid to be US President in 2016 and 2020, often through the same contact that Trump wanted Russian oligarchs to talk about the statue’s arrival, then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Donald Trump was more familiar with identifying himself with a monument–witness how he became identified with the “prop” of Trump Tower that maps that became a primary residence, a site of his corporation, and a studio set for his Reality TV shows, Trump wanted a monument that would announce his status on a global stage, allowed him to rehabilitate him as he emerged from a mountain of debt, and solidify the claims for a new monument in Moscow, a new Trump Tower a decade later, for which the agreement was to be greased in transactional fashion by the acceptance of an odd statue of Columbus that would effectively remap the nation for Trump’s personal gain. The first second act after Trump Tower, first announced in 1980 as a triumph of the urban skyline, would be erection of an image of Columbus that would similarly dominate the urban skyline, sacrificing debate about an icon of the nation and indeed national identity to meet an undying thirst for monumentalism.
And if Trump repeatedly staked his later Presidential candidacy on his ability to provide the nation with a new monument, a monument to inspire renewed faith in the “sacred bonds of state and its citizens,” as he promised when he unveiled a plan to cut e legal immigration by half soon after his election in 2017, he announced he would run for U.S. President from the atrium of Trump Tower, the nerve center of Trump International, by staking his bonds to television viewers across. the nation by the promise “I would build a great wall,” as a concrete barrier along the United States’ southern border, winking acknowledging “nobody builds walls better than me, believe me” as if referring to the monumental atrium where he spoke. If Trump repeated the claim “I know how to build” and “I am a builder” in an upbeat optimism of the nation, as if the talismanic power of Trump Tower established the legitimacy of his ability to deliver on global wealth to deliver fantastic power, if not a personal fantasy, as he consciously deployed the Tower as an image of power, making good on the promise to deliver a building of unprecedented desirability to Americans and height to the New York skyline as he navigated its construction from 1979 to 1983, the potential addition of a statue of Columbus, the colonizer converted to a heroic figure and White Christian Man, int he 1990s provided perhaps more than a road not taken.
The entrance of this monumental Columbus, proposed for the estuary of the Hudson River, where Henry Hudson, himself in fact once an agent, as it happened, for the Muscovy Company, arrived in New York Harbor in 1609, but Columbus never approached or sailed, would be the first great international showpiece Trump would have promoted as his realty company was pivoting global, by rebranding and expanding as Trump International, on a global stage, as a showman seeking the least modest image of grandiosity able to be imagined. If Robert Musil, the Austrian novelist and critic, had in 1925 imagined that one often passes urban monuments “without [having] the slightest notion of whom they are supposed to represent, except maybe knowing they are men or women,” as you walk around the pedestals of statues that in their remove from the urban environment almost repel attention, leading our glance to roll off, and repelling the very thing they are meant to attract as water drops off an oilcloth, the showpiece that Trump was aspiring to bring to his Hudson River properties would cast Donald Trump as presenting a new image of the nation. The fantasy that Moscow fed Donald Trump to Americans was modeled, like the Statue of Liberty, after the Wonder of the World of the Colossus of Rhodes, was difficult to deny for a man who had declared Trump Tower a Wonder of the World, and attempted to replicate a second global wonder in Atlantic City in Trump Taj Mahal, recently built for $1.2 billion as “the eighth wonder of the world,” but the 360-foot bronze statue of Columbus Russian oligarchs had promised to deliver was. a monument he seems to have siezed on to promote his own public prominence in Manhattan.
Trump’s promise of the size of the statue and its ostensible value–$40 million!–would be a sort of windfall that would serve as a small downpayment on the $916 million loss he posted for 1995, or the millions he had been hemorrhaging of the value of Trump International as Trump Taj Mahal filed for bankruptcy in 1991, or the deals he had cut with banks that unloaded his personal debt for about $55 million–half of what he owed, in what Fortune had marveled was a “Houdini-like escape” from his creditors, having walked away from personal debts to relaunch his hopes for a real estate empire without the encumbrance of any federal tax claims at all. The monument to Columbus would relaunch his brand, Its size concealing that Trump’s increased search attracted illicit flows of Russian money in hard times to puff up his grandeur and indulge his vanity, in the guise of promoting patriotism, even if the image of Columbus it would advance. At the same time as Giuliani proclaimed Trump’s “genius” during his later Presidential run was revealed in his ability to financially rebound from the devastating indebtedness of 1995, the statue of Columbus would be a similar dissimulation. The massive statue–taller than the Statue of Liberty!–would be an illustration of his ability to create a “comeback,” and to reburnish his public citizenship. The statue transposed from a register of patriotism to promoting a residence would have been the fulfillment of Trump’s past plans to create on the same site the very tallest building in the world of seventy-six stories– complimented by a statue the tallest in the western hemisphere, whose maquette Trump had already presented publicly with paternal pride. The spire of the newly planned central tower would dance in dialogue with a statue of the discoverer, a sort of grotesque dialogue of monumentality commanding global attention, demanding that the world recognize Trump’s return to the top of his game and reclaiming his status as a global real estate developer.
Hopes for marking the complex to be named Riverside South on the banks of the Hudson River in New York City of a monumental bronze statue of the fifteenth-century navigator Christopher Columbus cast in Russia–“Look on my works, ye might, and despair!“–adopted colossal statuary of a figure Trump has affirmed as central to the nation–and preparing for its settlement by Europeans as President as a promotional illustration of his latest property’s value and its status as a global destination. in a new language of architectural monumentality, unsurpassed world wide, a showpiece that would be a credible second act for Trump Tower that would supersede the tower Trump had planted in the New York skyline with an even more monumental eyesore that no one in Manhattan could ignore.
Trump declared himself considering a Presidential run in 1988 to Oprah, offhand, and was perhaps destined to intersect with the boondoggle of a statue offered to President Clinton and President Bush in 1990 and 1994, respectively, who seem to have demurred or declined the grotesque statue that they saw mostly in models, one of which was brought to the White House by Boris Yeltsin in 1990. If the prototype was sent to the Knights of Columbus in Maryland, destined for the harbor, the small model that was on offer at an auction house in Florida suggests the circulation that the proposal for this statue of a man on a boat, the very incarnation of individual agency in relation to the New World, removed from any networks of power or of funding, was intended to make: the odd figurine foregrounding the navigator’s agency unsurprisingly fell on deaf ears, but the token of globalism appealed to Trump, so delusionally sure of his own genius as a realtor to win a statue to take home to New York.
The megalomaniac sculptor Tsereteli fashions himself as a builder for new global emperors, and invested Columbus in a roman toga, as he would Peter the Great, in the colossal monument that finally appeared in Puerto Rico near San Juan off the shore in Arecibo, far closer to the Genoese navigator’s actual itinerary, after the megalomaniac sculptor had shopped it around the globe, hoping the ridiculous sculpture would be realized.
Trump, laden with debt at this point in his life, would have seen in the statue the opportunity for global symbolism, able to restore his public reputation and image of public citizenship in New York, and balance the exclusivity of dwellings destined to be removed from the city and for the superrich with a front of civic generosity and showmanship. While the maquette of Tseretelli’s statue was probably glimpsed while he was in Moscow, Trump was quick to adopt the monument of Columbus as something of a pet project that he might advance his hopes for a Moscow hotel and tower to Moscow’s corrupt mayor and other post-Soviet oligarchs, promoting a gigantic statue of the Genoese navigator in 1997 he imagined might benefit from an assist from then newly-elected mayor Rudy Giuliani, who Trump must have imagined would comply with the role of past mayors in acceding to the bending of local regulations and zoning requirements to arrange sites for his Manhattan buildings. Trump was for his part happy to promote the arrival of the monumental statue as if it was imminently impending, as a true showman, telling Michael Gordon of the New York Times with satisfaction that “[the deal]’s already been made,” while not mentioning the Russian offer had been rejected by two American presidents, allowing “it would be my honor if we could work it out [that the statue be erected] with the City of New York,” on a stretch of landfill he promoted for his properties, as if he had brokered a deal on behalf of the city, only requiring the Mayor to sign off. The Master of the Art of the Deal boasted a done deal, anticipating approval of Giuliani to erect the 660 tons of bronze that he claimed valued at $40 million, on the development site where Tseretelli ostensibly desired it be located, in anticipation of the completion of the stalled construction project that he hoped would be a display of super-wealth for residential towers to be built, in hopes that they would find their counterpart in a monumental prop of global kitsch.
It is apt the monument was relocated to Puerto Rico, on whose shores the historical Columbus actually set foot, and renamed from anisland known by Taíno inhabitants as Borikén (Spanish Boriquen), “land of the brave lord,” to a city named after Saint John the Baptist. The commemoration of Columbus in San Juan occurred only in 1893, to be mirrored in the new centennial by the 2016 outsized statue largely visible to luxury liners arriving at or departing San Juan.
Although the “Birth of the New World” was never built near New York, the promise of the arrival of the statue, first planned to coincide with the quincentenary of the Columbian voyage, but long languishing in storage lockers on both sides of the Atlantic, demands exploration as a moment to examine the trust Trump placed on a monument albeit a second-hand one forged in Moscow, for staging his own triumphant return to a global stage. No one had ever seen so large a statue of Columbus–the figurine that survives which the sculptor seems to have made to shop around the discarded project–but the idea of redeeming an image of pompous grandiosity from the dustbin of history on the properties he sought to developed on the West Side in the mid-1990s, when he was clawing himself back to a place on the global stage, was a new fantasy project that Trump had hoped to sell the the nation. The plans to erect the monumental statue, double the height of the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio De Janeiro, preceded his project to run as a candidate for President with the Reform Party, a fledgling renegade party begun by former Television Star and World Wrestler Jesse Ventura, later placed in Puerto Rico in all its 6,500 tons of bronze, on the port city of Arecibo, shortly before Trump was elected U.S. President, was a fantasy project that
1. The triumphalism of the statue of Columbus he boasted to bring to his properties on the Hudson had been proposed to three earlier U.S. Presidents as a gift for the Columban centenary that would cement the post-Soviet friendship between the United States and Russia, but the odd arrangement that emerged from protracted real estate negotiations in Moscow had Trump promising the deliverable of a site for the statue of Columbus on his Hudson river properties. Trump’s boasting of Trump Tower as a wonder recalls the huge attention he assigned recreating a modernized version of an actual global wonder–the ancient Colossus of Rhodes–in a bronze statue of Christopher Columbus, taller even than the Statue of Liberty that dominates New York Harbor, gifted to the American government as a “Modern Colossus” that claimed to celebrate freedom of the same height as the ancient wonder of the world, all but intended to be situated on the Hudson to contrast with the slightly smaller Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. The “white monument”–proclaiming the truth in a Dead White Man History–aligned Trump not with conservatism but a transactional story of glitz, grandiosity and power that provided both a telling warning, touchstone, and recapitulation for Trump’s entrance into a political career, which while never built provided a deeply comic and incredible image of Trump’s tie to the figure of the navigator, “Behind [whom] the Gates of Hercules;/Before him not the ghost of shores,/Before him only shoreless seas.”
The monument would have been impossible to not entertain as a prop of global power, as much as of his own sense of import, and offers a model of the sort of monument he sought–and the deeply transactional nature of Trump’s notion of global power that is important to recall. As Donald Trump had ridden the monument of the border wall to the office of the Presidency in 2015, as a sign of his ability to contest the political status quo, he indulged himself in imagining the monument that symbolized the scale of efforts to curtail immigration Trump would pursue as President by Executive Orders and diktat, days after inauguration, the border wall perhaps demands to be seen as a “prop”–as Trump the realtor admitted he considered Trump Tower a prop for his promotion of real estate worldwide with Trump Properties during the 1990 interview, as if the hundred room triplex he kept for himself in the building were secondary to the public status the building afforded him. To be sure, the penthouse he shared with then-wife Ivana were sites of almost regal lifestyle, importing a version of Versailles to Fifth Avenue, but as “props” created a lifestyle and a global status–he confessed Playboy with some facetiousness, be as happy in a one bedroom apartment–but valued the “gaudy excess” of the building to “create an aura that seems to work.”
The projected tower attracted Trump to a new language of monumentality of truly hubristic size, but he believed he could pull it off. The lines of Joaquin Miller of the navigator who both “gained a world; [and] gave that world/Its grandest lesson–“On! sail on!“–parallels Trump’s own approach to political power, and suggests the deep ties to Russians that led to the homes to entertain the Presidency as an occasion to create a monument to himself. Trump’s hubris in claiming Trump Tower as global wonder lay in promoting his real estate of returns that must have seemed to Trump akin to a Midas’ touch. Yet if the “Modern Colossus” was, as the monumental statue at Rhodes that spanned the city’s harbor with a stride of unprecedented size, was a celebration of freedom, as the Liberty statue, but upstaging it, standing the same height from toe to head as the modern colossus, not to extend freedoms to all races or subjects, but to stand as a symbol of glorification, which Trump imagined he might accept in place of the United States Presidents who had demurred on accepting the monumental cast statue of the Genoese sailor. Trump promoted the arrival of the odd monument to the Genoese navigator as a servant of the Spanish crown as an agent of colonization and conversion for unknown Russian oligarchs as a present to New York, as much as to the nation, but used his ties to Mayor Rudy Giuliani to promote a statue of a figure who was in 1990 emblematic of disenfranchisement and a figure emphasizing the unity of European racial descent by rehabilitated the place of the navigator in the mythology of the nation.
The figure of Columbus wold have been a monument to racial hierarchy, echoing Trump’s championing of statues of confederate generals as part of America’s common history as President of the United States. The appeal to these larger than life figures create a new discourse on monumentality across the nation, as if hoped to bridge national and partisan divides, that seemed an attempt to elevate the loss of statues with the dismantling of many icons of the Civil War, posing a threat to the increased nationalization of white supremacy during the Trump Era. Even as images of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis were removed–with statues of Christopher Columbus–to question their speaking for America, the need for a new monumentality was felt acutely by Donald Trump, as if in search for his won monument.
To celebrate the Fourth of July a month previous, President Trump had emphasized the place of honoring statues of racists before Mount Rushmore, which proclaimed plans to create his own statuary garden, a “National Garden of American Heroes” in a campaign stunt that sought to paint his defense of “standards” and non-threatening images of authority to many members of his base. Before the massive statuary of past Presidents of European descent, he called for the need for a Garden that featured more monuments of the “greatest Americans who ever lived”–as if to compensate for the loss of Columbus monuments in many cities over the previous years. Such a Garden would prominently feature not only Christopher Columbus and Junipero Serra, as honorary Americans, blurring church and state, but stake out a divisive vision of the past, that echoed Trump’s forgotten plans, shortly before he first hinted at a Presidential run, proclaimed plans to erect a statue of the very same fifteenth century navigator whose place in the nation’s memory is increasingly queried, providing a vision of his second term by announcing the National Garden would open in 2024. Calling for heroic monuments in an era divided by racial tensions used the faces of four white Presidents to call for honoring authority, promoting new monument of the national identity, as the nation’s identity was being questioned, contested, and faced pressure to be defined.
Mt. Rushmore–four faces that are the primary national shrine of white, male authority–became the place to do so, as if adding, beneath those impassive faces hewn into granite on Black Elk Peak whose steadfast gazes communicate timelessness, the odd compliment of his own somewhat stilted smile of brash over-confidence. Trump took delight in the speech before a site of national memory where he admitted to having long had the “dream to have my face on Mt. Rushmore”—a dream may have seen no obstacles in a lack of space in the granite outcropping in which immigrant sculptor Gurzon Borglum crammed four visages, whose friable rock could not accommodate another. Perhaps Trump measured the office of the Presidency by monumentality, and hoped shortly after being sworn in to hope for a fitting monument, ignorant of the structural problems whose sculptor had been forced to alter plans and shift Thomas Jefferson from Washington’s wing man, until finding the granite face, due to constraints of space on the rock’s face.
–Trump had long hoped, in a fantasy the South Dakota Governor, Kristi Noem, long humored, to be included, if a planned photo op might associate him, as he had long dreamed, leading her to gift a $1,100 bust in the past that included Trump among granite visages, a piece of kitsch he was hoped to keep in the Oval Office. If President Trump had already confessed to Noem a longstanding hope to have his face carved in the granite hillside, on July 4, 2020, a photo op would have to suffice to meet his unquenched thirst for monumentality.
Trump’s attraction to the monument remained so deep that the newly elected Republican governor Kristi Noem presented Trump a version, four feet tall. Noem sought to accommodate Trump in ways Rushmore could not, hoping the model fit for display the Oval Office. But the concrete embodiment of his megalomania was projected on the idea of a Garden of Heroes, as if the scenic park might eventually accommodate a figure of himself, beside his heroes General McArthur, Antonin Scalia, and Daniel Boone. While entertaining the crowd assembled July 3, 2020, profiting from the lack of social distancing policy in South Dakota Governor–who has continued to refused to depart from refusing to issue a mandate for mask-wearing as COVID cases surged in the state–early decreed that social distancing was not a need for South Dakotans during the pandemic. Trump entertained his own taste for monumentality, profiting from Noem’s lack of interest in public safety precautions to stage a public occasion to suggest a new set of patriotic statues, updating Mt Rushmore’s national heroes, and imagining his own place on a new monument that might rival itisit provided the last chance to model how that might look, as he sought signs of his sovereignty in increased visits to the southwestern border, at a time when the spread of coronavirus was spinning far out of his control.
This post focusses on the transactional basis for Trump’s hopes to erect a Columbus statuary on his property, as a new symbol of his place in global finance A sense of the malleability of local politics was evidenced in how he had in 1990 avidly promoted plans to a erect a monumental bronze Columbus near New York Harbor to New York authorities, overlooking and even boasting that it would be more impressive in height than the Statue of Liberty, eager to apply the transactional nature of local politics that he had gained in years of real estate promotion, regularly gaining permission for sweetening deals by working around city regulations or gaining exemptions for buildings’ size, in ways that must have made him learn the plastic sense of politics, by entertaining the promise to Moscow’s mayor to bring an effigy of Christopher Columbus to New York Harbor, whose placement, size, and sense of theatrics seem pregnant with Trump’s sense of showmanship and his desire for a new “WOnder of the World” that might join Trump Tower on a global stage.
The deeply transactional nature of Trump’s understanding of the Presidency, for what it is worth, is nowhere more illustrated than in planning the place in the Garden of Heroes of the figure of Antonin Scalia, whose death may have helped usher in the radical obstructionism whose logic prepared for a Trump presidency and energized his base, and whose juridical ideals he understood as the mission of his Presidency to enshrine both in the news, in the American courts, and “among the greatest Americans to ever live” in a Garden of Heroes, itself echoing the national celebration in Russia of Heroes of the Fatherland or “Heroes of the Battle of Stalingrad.” The posthumous elevation of the totemic Justice of the Supreme Court, Scalia, in such a Garden of Heroes was a reminder of the benefits of Trump Presidency to the Heritage Foundation and to the Right, as the affirmation of the he “greatest Americans who ever lived” offered a legacy to rival Mt. Rushmore, of his Presidency. Was it a coincidence that the very search for a monumentality Trump regarded as inseparable from his own Presidency–the personal project of the construction of a Border Wall, or “new Great Wall” projected in 2015–was eclipsed at the same time that statues of the heroes of the Confederate States of America, that long-lasting alternative America preserved in monuments, was also threatened? The need to affirm these monuments of the Confederacy, whose destruction he criminalized as a federal crime, and assault on national memory, would be composed of an “incredible group” of figures without Native Americans, Hispanic or Latino, or Asian-Americans, even if the figures he mentioned were but “a few of the people” considered in the group of statues of those whose “great names are going to be up there and they’re never, ever coming down.”
Trump’s fantasy memorial is not far from his own initial aspirations to engage in international discussions that placed him on an international stage and an unexpected level of political prestige at the end of the Cold War era, as money was exiting Russian Federation on which he wanted in. A new search for monumental building was indeed in the grain of Trump’s presidency and his hopes. The setting of Trump’s announcement made no mention of COVID-19. Indeed, the lack of social distancing in South Dakota, if it created a full audience on July 4, without social distancing or masks, even if the plans for such a massive celebration would, we could reasonably expect, set the stage for terrifying escalations of new cases of COVID-19, a continued tragic spiking of weekly averages of ne infections, after the eclipse of social distancing tied to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally–
–before South Dakota seemed a site to flout social distancing before the founding fathers.
The need for such a spectacle had eclipsed public safety needs or the obligation of the President to ensure national health by a “Salute for America” that used Independence Day as the occasion to promise a Garden including not civil rights figures, or legist, but Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Billy Graham, Douglas MacArthur, and Orville and Wilbur Wright, a pantheon of childhood books, perhaps, embarrassingly dated in origin. The spectacle by allowing fireworks for the July 4 address without social distancing guardrails to advance a corrupt vision of monumentalism that reminds us all that “America First” places Donald Trump First.
The plans affirmed Trump’s cognitive inability to separate politics from public persona, and indeed sacrificed the public good. Trump viewed Governor Kristi Noem was complicit in the promotion of monumentality to ingratiate herself in a Grand Old Party now a Party of Trump, in a run-through for the coronation of the 2020 Convention: Noem had bonded with Trump in presenting the President with the Mt Rushmore replica adjusted to include his face among past Presidents as he finished his speech, hoping it might be displayed in the Oval Office. Perhaps the speech was difficult to perform without expecting his own face somehow be included in its triumphal display that he saw as the correct reward for his performance of the office of Presidency, and long fantasized his visage might be placed.
Trump described the need to honor past heroes excluding indigenous, which in itself was a desecrated sacred space. Borghlum had planned the spectacular construction promoted in the early twentieth century include pioneer figures–Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea, Red Cloud, Buffalo Bill Cody and Crazy Horse–according to plans of the klansman and anti-indigenous sculptor, who sought to sculpt American Presidents in an American “skyline,” and visages that, by 1941, as emerging from the sacred rock, in a national monument that met the new articulation of patriotism and westward expansion, by effacing the sacred space of indigenous tribes with a new vision that enshrined the expropriation of national lands.
The argument of America First seems to have been extended to its logical conclusion as the apparently selected President of the United States has single-handedly subtracted the nation from a map of climate change. By denying the place of the United States in the Paris Climate Accords, President Trump seems, in the most charitable interpretation, to have acted on his own instincts for what was the benefit that accrued to the country in the very short term, and after looking at the balance books of the United States government for what might have been the first time, decided that America had no real part in the map of the future of a warming world. Rather than outright denying global warming or climate change, Trump decided that the conventions established to contain it by the world’s nations had no immediate advantage for the United States.
The result wasn’t really to subtract the United States from the ecumene, but from the phenomenon or at least the collective reaction of the world to climate change, and openly declare the supremacy of his own personal opinion–as if by executive fiat–on the matter. The personal position which he advanced was so personal, perhaps, to be presented in terms of his own clouded thinking on the matter, or at least by seizing it to create what he saw as a wedge between national consistencies, and to use wildly incommensurate forms of data to create the impression of his own expertise on the issue–and to mislead the nation. For Donald Trump took advantage of his having Presidential podium to diss the Paris Accords by a torrent of alliteration developed by a clever speechwriter as resting on a “cornucopia of dystopian, dishonest and discredited data.” Even if one wants to admire the mesmerizingly deceptive excess of alliteration, the notion of rooting an initial response to planetary climate change in the perspective of one nation–the United States of America–which produced the lion’s share of greenhouse gasses–is only designed to distort.
By pretending to unmask the Paris Accords as in fact a bum economic deal for the United States, as if it were solely designed to “handicap” one national economy, set a sad standard for the values of public office. For as Trump dismissed data on climate change as discredited with mock-rage, and vowed that the entire affair had been designed by foreign groups who had already “collectively cost America trillions of dollars through tough trade practices” and were desiring to continue to inflict similar damage.
In continuing to dismiss the data out of hand about the expanded production of greenhouse gasses, Trump seems to seek to overturn the deceptions of data visualizations that have alerted the United States and world about the consequences of unrestrained or unbridled climate change. Trump ridiculed the true target of the nearly universally approved Accords, scoffing at the abilities to reduce global temperatures; instead, he concentrated on broad figures of lost jobs in manufacturing and industries that are in fact small sectors of the national economy, and incommensurable with the dangers of ignoring global warming and climate change, or the exigencies of taking steps to counter its recent growth.
As if years of accumulated data of earth observation could be dismissed as deceptive out of hand by executive authority, independent of an accurate judgement of its measurement, Trump dismissed expert opinion with the air of a true populist whose heart lay in the defense of the American people and their well-being–as if they could be abstracted and prioritized above the world’s Trump’s largely rambling if gravely delivered comments in the Rose Garden press conference that painted himself as daily fighting for the country cemented the alliance of populism and a war on science by its odd substitution of bad economic data for good scientific data.
The switch is one in which his administration has specialized. His address certainly culminated an outright dismissal of scientific conclusions based on a distorted America First picture of the world, where a stolid declaration that “the United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords” made sense as form of national defense–despite the potential global catastrophe that rising global temperatures and sea surface temperatures threaten. Is the technique of juxtaposing statistics and muddying data an attempt to undermine evidence, or an illustration of his insecurity with giving authority to data, or to scientific authority, the mirrors his concern about concealing “his profound illiteracy,” or his insecurity about illiteracy, that linguist Geoffrey Nunberg argues not only distance his own speech from words, and discredits their currency, but an insecurity of having to rely on language and linguistic skills alone, in ways that might be well seen as analogues to his plentiful use of all caps on social media, as stepping outside of the language of public life to a medium more direct and complicit with his audience, if outside the usage standards of a written language.
The catastrophes were minimized by being argued to be based on “discredited data” in a bizarre flourish designed to dismiss scientific concensus Trump conspicuously faulted not only the “discredited” but distracting nature of data in the speech he gave in the Rose Garden on June 1, 2017 that supposedly justified his announcement of withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords in 2015 to limit heat-trapping emissions of carbon fuels that have been tied to observed climate change. Rather than foreground the international nature of the accords among agreed upon by almost 200 nations, trump advanced the need to heed local interests, perversely, but even more perversely argued that the Accords resulted from disinformation. He spoke to the world to chastise their recognition of scientific observations, in so doing destabilizing not only global alliances but undermining a long-negotiated climate policy by pulling the rug out from long accepted consensus not only of climate scientists but a role of national leadership that sought to remedy the failure of the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. Trump turned his back on the Climate Accords on how to curb greenhouse gas emissions by proclaiming their unfairness to American interests, and attacking unwanted constraints on American industry, through his own deployment of data that was even more discredited as an excuse to walk away from the prospect of a greener world.
Al Drago/New York Times
1. If Trump steered the nation away from green energy and into darkness, Vladimir Putin seemed to mock Trump’s rationale for the withdrawal when he mused, jokingly but ever so darkly, that “maybe the current [U.S.] president thinks they are not fully thought-through,” making open fun of Donald Trump’s image of global leadership by wryly noting in ways that echoed the absurdity of Trump’s defense of the local in place of the global. “We don’t feel here that the temperature is going hotter here, . . . I hear they are saying it snowed in Moscow today and its raining here, very cold,” Putin noted, as if relishing undermining long-established trends in climate data by invoking a populist championing of local knowledge as if it trumped the advantages of earth observation that satellite observation has long provided. Populism trumped expertise and Putin laughed at the possibility that the Accords might soon fail as a result.
Given the longstanding desire of Moscow to be released from constraints on exploring the billions of tons of Arctic oil on which Russia has chosen to gamble, Trump’s almost purposive blindness to a changing environmental politics of the global economy astounds for its parochialism, and its championing of place to dismiss undeniable effects of climate change that seems closely tied to carbon emissions. For with a false populism that championed the limited perspective of one place in the world–or one’s own personal experience–Trump dismissed the maps and projections of climate change, on the basis that the “deal” was simply “BAD.” And as a man who views everything as yet another deal, while he pronounced readiness to “renegotiate” an accord he sought to cast as a failure of President Obama to represent America’s interests, the rebuke fell flatly as the accord was never designed to be renegotiable.
Putin’s remarks were met by scattered laughter of recognition, and some smirks at the decision of the American president to withdraw form a long-negotiated set of accords to the collective dismay of our military and environmental allies, and its implicit endorsement of deniers of climate change. The potential “axis of mass destruction” France’s climate minister has cautioned against might indeed be one of mass distraction. For in dismissing and indeed disdaining the historical accords to limit carbon emissions, Trump sought a soundbite sufficient to stoke suspicions the climate treaty. He sought to cast it as yet another deeply rigged system of which he had taken to compulsively warning Americans. Such a metaphor of bounty was jarring to reconcile with onerous economic burdens cited as the prime motivations for deciding to reject the Paris Accords on Climate Change. The jarring cognitive coinage seemed to connote its negative by a disorienting litotes; but perhaps the most striking element of the entire news conference was that Trump offered no data that backed up his own pronouncements and appearance of steadfast or only obstinate personal resolve.
Before the coherence of the embodiment of climate change in maps, Trumps jarringly juxtaposed radically different sorts of statistic to snow the nation–and the world–by disorienting his audience, on which Trump turned to a litany of complaints and perceived offenses striking for providing no data of any sort, save several bits of false data. As much as Trump betrayed uneven command over the data on climate change, as if embedding discrete numbers in unclear fashion that supported a self-evident argument, as if they addressed one of the most carefully documented changes in the atmosphere of the world. By juxtaposing a threat that “could cost Americans as much as 2.7 million lost jobs by 2025“–a number described as extreme but decontextualized to exaggerate its effect, framed by the dismissive statement “Believe me, this is not what we need!“– with a projected small temperature decrease of two tenths of a degree Celsius–“Think of that! This much”–as if to indicate the minuscule return that the “deal” offered to the United States that would have made it worthy accepting its costs–
The gesture seemed designed to juxtapose the honesty of direct communication with the deceit of the experts. Trump’s notion of direct communication concealed the surreal enjambment of disproportionate numbers more striking by the difference of their scale than their meaning. Of a piece with his citation of partial statistics that exaggerate his points, from “95 Million not in the U.S. labor force” as if to imply they are all unsuccessfully looking for work, targeting some 8 million immigrants as “illegal aliens”ready for deportation, or how immigrants coast American taxpayers “billions of dollars a year.” Such large figures deploy discredited data difficult to process to conjure fears by overwhelming audience, distracting from specific problems with large numbers that communicate an illusion of expertise, or even overwhelm their judgment by talking points disseminated in deeply questionable media sources.
If the power of this juxtaposition of unrelated numbers gained their effectiveness because of a lack of numeracy–Trump’s claim of 100 million social media followers lumps his followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, many of whom may be the same people, and other fake persona —the numbers seem to exist for their rhetorical effect alone, as if to awe by their size and dismiss by the miniscule benefits they might provide. The point of contrasting such large and small statistics was to suggest the poor priorities of the previous administration, and dilute form the consensus reached on the modeling of climate change. To be sure, the Trump administration also barters in fake facts on Fox News Sunday. inflating the number of jobs in coal industries, that show a misleading sense of the government’s relation to the national economy, generating a range of falsehoods that disable fact-checking, obscuring the fact that the global marketplace increasingly gives preference to cleaner energy and clean energy jobs more quickly others sectors of our national economy beyond energy industries. The ties of Trump’s administration to fossil fuels–from the Secretary of State to the Secretary of Energy to the Secretary of the Interior down–employ the obsfuscating tactics of fossil fuel industries to obscure benefits of low-carbon fuels. Indeed, the inability to “renegotiate” a deal where each nation set its own levels of energy usage rendered Trump’s promise of the prospect of renegotiation meaningless and unclear, even if it was intended to create the appearance of him sounding reasonable and amiable enough on nightly television news.
Another point of the citation of false data was to evoke a sense of false populism, by asking how the Accords could ever add up. In isolating foregrounded statistics great and small, tightly juxtaposed for rhetorical effect, the intent seems consciously to bombard the audience to disorienting effect. We know Trump has disdain for expertise, and indeed the intersection between a sense of populism with disdain or rejection of science may be endemic: in formulating responses to a global question like climate change that he has had no familiarity with save in terms of margins of profits and regulations. Rather than consulting experts, the President has prepared for public statements by consulting sympathetic FOX media figures like Kimberly Guilfoyle who pander by endorsing the notion of a climate conspiracy–not experts, who use data as obscuring foils, suggesting an ecology of information originating from pro-fossil fuel industry groups.
We read more maps than ever before, and rely on maps to process and embody information that seems increasingly intangible by nature. But we define coherence in maps all too readily, without the skepticism that might be offered by an ethics of reading maps that we all to readily consult and devour. Paradoxically, the map, which long established a centering means to understand geographical information, has become regarded uncritically. As we rely on maps to organize our changing relation to space, do we need to be more conscious of how they preset information? While it is meant to be entertaining, this blog examines the construction of map as an argument, and proposition, to explore what the ethics of mapping might be. It's a labor of love; any support readers can offer is appreciated!