Category Archives: Donald J. Trump

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

Colossus on the Hudson: Monuments of Global Kitsch

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 Reupublican 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 he had ridden the monument of the border wall to the office of the Presidency in 2015, imagining the monument that symbolized the scale of efforts to curtail immigration that Trump would pursue as President by Executive Orders and diktat, days after inauguration, the border wall perhaps demands to be seen as a “prop”–akin to how Donald Trump the realtor described Trump Tower as a prop for his promotion of real estate worldwide in a famous 1990 interview, where the site that housed the one hundred room triplex he shared with then-wife Ivana were discussed as but “props” that he might, at any moment, sell, that created a lifestyle and a global status–he would, he told Playboy with some facetiousness, be as happy in a one bedroom apartment. Yet the Tower, he admitted, if argued to be “gaudy excess” in fact works to “create an aura that seems to work,” and is a monument that is well worth its cost as it provided him with “the eight wonder of the world.” Trump’s boasting of the complex’s wonder recalls the huge attention he gave in the same time to the recreation of 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.

The 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 that sought to claim, standing the same height from toe to head as the modern colossus, was not an extension of freedoms to all races or subjects, the Genoese sailor who served the Spanish crown as an agent of colonization who Trump had sought to arrange unknown Russian oligarchs to present to New York, through his ties to Mayor Rudy Giuliani, was in 1990 emblematic of disenfranchisement and a figure emphasizing the unity of European racial descent.

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.

Donald Trump on Juily 3, 2020, near Keystone, S.D. (Alex Brandon/AP)

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.

Mt. Rushmore Memorial in fieri
Borglum’s Model for Mt. Rushmore Memorial: Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln

–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.

President Trump on July 4, 2020/Anna Moneymaker, New York Times

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–

North Dakota COVID-19 Count, September 1, 2020

–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.

Mt. Rushmore Memorial
President Trump’s Visit on July 4, 2020/Anna Moneymaker, New York Times

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.

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Filed under Christopher Columbus, commemoration, Donald J. Trump, globalization, monuments

The Cognitive Clouding of Global Warming: Paris and Pittsburgh; Creditors and Debtors

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.

But the large future on trade imbalances–which he treated as the bottom line–he staged a spectacle of being aggrieved that seemed to take on the problems of the nation, with little sense of what was at stake.  Trump’s televised live speech was preeminently designed only to distract from the data on which the Accords had been based.  And even as Trump sought to pound his chest by describing the Accord as a “bad deal for Americans,” that in truth “to the exclusive benefit of other countries.”  By turning attention to an America First perspective on global warming, Trump sought to replace the international scope of the challenge–and intent of the much-negotiated Climate Accords–by suggesting that it obscured American interests, even if it only took America’s good will for granted.  As if explaining to his televised audience that the agreement only “disadvantages the United States in relation to other countries,” with the result of “leaving American workers–who [sic] I love–. . . to absorb the cost in terms of lost jobs [and] lower wages,” he concealed the actual economics of withdrawing from the Accords were buried beneath boasts to have secured “350 billion of military and economic development for the US” and to help American businesses, workers, taxpayers, and citizens.  

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.

global warming
Increased Likelihood of Temperature Surpassing Previous Records by 2050 and 2080

oceanic-warming
Sea Surface Temperatures against a Historical Baseline of a Century Ago/Climate Central

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.

Exiting the Green.png  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–

sub-buzz-27555-1496436714-1

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.

Broad hands.png
Cheriss May/Spia via AP

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.

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Filed under data visualization, data visualizations, Donald J. Trump, Global Warming, statistics