Category Archives: political iconography

Mobs and Jobs

We had been waiting for barbarians for some time. The President had, for over six years, mapped the threat of the barbarians advancing from across borders as a security threat. And so we imagined that they would arrive from the edges of empire, the edges where the acting President had been mapping threats of their arrival for five years, imagining the crossing of caravans from south of the border with near anticipation. Vigilantes had patrolled the border for years, animated by an ethos of defense of national borders, and mobilizing within the Customs and Border Patrol to find meaning in the slogan to defend deportations of migrants that “we need strong borders,” and “we have no country if we have no border,” as if he were defending American families, and the “blood” of those families, and celebrating his defense of borders and accusing his opponents of open borders. The border of the U.S. Capitol was rendered open on the morning of January 6, 2020, as the Congress was about to confirm the electoral votes that elected Joe Biden as U.S. President, but an inside job of unknown sources seems to have invited these barbarians into the Capitol, to make their voices heard, in an imagined insurrection and a performative karioki coup.

The urgent need to securing the border was distilled into the platitude “a nation without borders is not a nation” after the 2020 election. But if the question of shoring up the border became the basis on which Trump was elected, the busload of flag-waving supporters oft he President bcame something of a revanchist id for the former President, as on the eve of his formal exit from office who broke police barriers, doors, and windows of the United States Capitol was not from outside the nation, but bussed in from multiple domestic states. Calling a reprisal of his earlier rallies to question the reported tabulation of the 2020 election, Trump encouraged his base to refuse the certification of the election, rallying the barbarians to the gates to destabilize the democratic process by fighting for him. Whereas the violation of constitutional principles had long been feared to be coming from the security state, the questioning of votes in states that were expected to vote Trump and deemed “red” led many to buy tickets to Washington, for the final paroxysm of a Trump rally, a large contingent of armed men, many in tactical gear, arriving to break the security barriers, doors, and windows of the Capitol itself to secure the election for their candidate to Keep America Great.

Donald Trump has been rumored to be convinced of his program of overturning the election’s results as he promoted the continued “audits” of votes in several states from Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia, long crucial electoral puzzle pieces for Trump’s Presidential campaigns, carefully calibrated to manufacture victory. If the focus on “audits” that were unprecedented as able to overturn the election, that have reverberated in the online forums of QAnon and other outlets of a revisiting of the outcome of Election Day. The crowd-sourcing of a final protest that overran the Capitol building, cast in insurrectionary terms as a struggle for governmental control, and rooted in the false populism social media has magnified, perhaps with the acknowledgment only declaring a state of emergency or provoking an insurrection would enable the results of the election ever to be overturned. Proliferation of pro-Trump “caravans” across the nation that headed to Washington to fight the aftermath of the election were a new register of group think, rooted in the fear of an end of a “Trump Era” posed an earthquake of political proportions rarely recognized in full, moblizing multiple caravans before and after the election, in a show of force to prevent Trump from loosing the election, and waving MAGA flags from Michigan to Florida to Oregon to North Carolina, seeking to mobilize swing states by a show of force on the road, honking horns, and sharing images of themselves on social media, often rebroadcast on the Russian funded RT television network as public shows of patriotic gore, reveling in thumbs up.

Busloads of local Trump supporters participated in D.C. protest | News |  northcentralpa.com

Did they appropriate the approaching “caravans” in response to which Donald Trump became a National Emergency in November, 2018, and prepared for the National Emergency of Februrary, 2018? Trump had presented the migrant caravan as a specter of globalist proportions as a threat to the nation, whose numbers were fleeing countries who “have not done their jobs” from Guatemala, Honduras, to El Salvador in halting cross-border immigration, nations he blamed for the crisis of refugees of global proportions, but potentially including among them “unknown Middle Easterners” tied to terrorists or affiliated with ISIS. The caravans served confuse global geography, and created an instrumental crisis of unprecedented proportions as Trump sent the troops to halt an unprecedented 1,000 Central American migrants applying for refugee status in three days. Proclaiming the need for “bringing out the military for a National Emergency” led over 5,000 active-duty troops to arrived at the border lest the “caravans” enter American territory, a specter that seemed only to reaffirm the need for $8 billion for a continuous border wall. The specter of these invading migrant caravans from afar grew as a vulnerability, as the mythic migrants of the Golden Horde known by the hue of their tents: migrant traffic triggered subsequent declarations of national emergencies in Central America, rippled through Guatemala against Hondurans, and triggered fears of compromised border security.

Trump supporters oddly appropriated the “caravan” as a term of force and extra-ordinary circumstances of crisis that called for collective action. Was the assembly of such “caravans” not communicating a sense of the impunity of moving across space, demonstrating patriotism by flags that almost celebrated separatism from a rule of law?

“Oregon for Trump 2020 Labor Day Cruise Rally” in Oregon City, ORE
Michael Arellano/AP

And when they did arrive on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, the picture was not clear: ten thousand had entered the grounds, and some had scaled the scaffolding set for the inauguration two weeks off; even if the border was fortified by a complex system of defense, informed by threats a border that without adequate defenses would leave the nation facing an existential threat, the grounds of the Capitol were breached to protest the transition of that the Presidential election had determined. Waving confederate flags, the rioters may not have only been inspired by the outlandish claims of fraud and failure of governance in Trump’s speech that morning, but of insurrection. Was the logic of the men who attacked the U.S. Capitol, live streaming the siege as a similarly mediatized event?

The crowd that assembled to hear Donald Trump at the March to Save America Rally were animate with a level of urgency to save the nation that they viewed in danger if Joseph R. Biden’s Presidential victory was certified, and the electoral college victory long announced by the Mainstream Media came to pass. Their world was about to shatter. The recourse to a siege became the only option for an audience of Trump supporters existentially uneasy at the fear of the compromise or end of an old order where Fox News would be the dominant voice reporting White House actions to its 4 million viewers. The action was extreme, but the logic of insurrection was embodied in the confederate flags so many held, trumpeting rights by evoking the logic that the South had a right to separate the union–a “sacred right of insurrection” that excused their disturbance of civil peace. The march promised to be a reiteration of earlier marches for Trump and a reunion of sorts to invade the capitol by actual “caravans” that would arrive from across the country, shunning mask mandates, and posing as Patriots, from Florida to California to Arizona. They announced their imminent arrival to one another exultantly as they made their way to protest the election in Washington, DC, boldly announcing their imminent arrival on social media to the world. “DC Hear We COME!!!!! #StoptheSteal” [sic] above emoji of American flags; when they arrived, they waved the same flags that melded their identity as “Trump supporters” and “Trump’s MAGA Army from across the nation” with defense of an imagined nation, boasting solidarity by brandishing the same flags to again reject the election’s loss.

Washington DC Rally in November 14 2020/Evy Mages, Washingtonian
The Million MAGA March on November 14, 2020. Photograph by Evy Mages.
November 14, 2020/Evy Mages, Washingtonian

This was all staged. While invoking such a “right of insurrection” was not central in the impeachment proceedings House managers presented, and not articulated in President Trump’s speech, the rights to perpetuate a distasteful drama was one that he delighted in amplifying in his final day as U.S. President–and scarcely needed a map to do. Donald Trump loves a drama, and reprised his role as dramaturge in the month long aftermath of the election. The seeds of doubts placed in the vote tally over multiple months had occurred in local audits amidst charges of rigged voting, reprising the power of “rigged” as a rallying cry in 2016, animating his base and motivating believers with the false news that there were 1.8 million dead voters, already registered, who would be casting ballots in 2016. The decisive votes of such voters were argued to have thrown the election, in terms that the largely white constituency of Trump voters were likely to better know from the odds of betting on a horse or sports game: they were not only registered but, Trump assured Sean Hannity, “some of them absolutely vote,” and the image of zombie voters helped kill the promise of representative government. Wth 2.5 million voters that were cross-registered between states, and voting twice, the uncertainty of legitimacy became a narrative of injustice, crafted to disorient and impassion.

The suspension of anything like a neat conclusion of the Presidential election was already primed for uncertainty and indeterminacy in 2016, so that it was almost in the eye of the beholder: while the numbers may be credible,–they were wielded to disorient, suggesting a desire for massive voter fraud able to be attributed to “bad actors” that seemed a scheme to sow division and uncertain outcomes, exploiting potential animosity in the electorate to defray any conclusion in the Presidential election, as if exploiting divisions among parties in an increasing tribal sense. Despite the increasingly disturbing division of the nation into the ‘red’ and ‘blue’ division of electoral votes from states, by far the greatest shares of the rioters at the U.S. Capitol came not from “red” states, at all, but Trump voters from those large urban areas where the votes swung to Biden in the end by a narrow margin indeed–they were from spaces, or counties, that had perhaps themselves felt or experienced the sense of being robbed and the very swing of pendulum in the reporting of electoral votes that Trump had himself felt so aggrieved: his narrative of a shift in voting patterns made sense to them and echoed their isolation. While rioters hailed assembled a broad extent of America, they were most ratcheted up and angered by Trump’s narrative, and most likely to coalesce on January 6.

We imagine, thanks to news photography in no small part, that the rioters were embodied by the Angry White Man, affiliated with a local separatist militia-style groups, and feeling they were fulfilling an oath with righteousness:

But the scraped metadata from mobile devices who visited the U.S. Capitol on January 6–far more dense than on previous Wednesdays–that provided a picture that was particularly illuminating of the overlap between social media devices used in the Capitol census block with those posting videos on Parler: if few were from Maine, Montana, and North Dakota, the densely isolated tagged locations from southern Michigan, Florida, North Carolina, Arizona and Atlanta correlate onto a sense of outrage and no doubt betrayal by the final reporting of vote tallies, and commitment to forestall the feared results of the election, particularly dense near the US-Mexico border in southern California.

Arcs traced from the metadata of folks who uploaded videos to Parler from that census block on January 7, 2021 traced the sourcing of the crowd for the March to Save America, the final potlatch after six years of MAGA events, protests, counter-protests and festivities that delivered the rage of the nation during the final certification of the electoral votes after the tabulation of the votes from each state: while each was presented as a threshold of deception by Trump supporters and online news sites–from the false voters who deceived the nation by voting by mail to the counting of votes without adequate oversight or by potentially shady ways to the electors’ selection in each state, this was presented as the final moment to preserve a MAGA culture and retain a news dominance and social media presence in the nation: MAGA bastions as the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers–long present in anti-government activities from the standoff at the Bundy Ranch, the Three Percenters, and other “Patriot” movements that had been founded in the aftermath of President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Seeing the end of the Trump Presidency as an era marked by widespread Black Lives Matter and Antifa protests, the anger at an end to the Trump /Presidency was presented as an end to sovereignty and a threat to sovereign defense against a deeply illegitimate Presidential election. The overlap between the local disappointment in the Presidential election’s results intersected with the narrative of an illegal gaming of the ballots that expanded fears promoted of a “rigged” election in 2016, by investing the tabulation of an actual election with deep and pervasive illegitimacy. As the 2016 contest heated, it was notable that Trump’s campaign website appealed in all caps echoing social media to “Help Me Stop Crooked Hillary From Rigging This Election!” by inviting citizen groups more akin to vigilantes monitor irregular voter behavior, he created a logic for political involvement in a coming election. The faux populist movement of the Trump Candidacy would culminate in its aggrieved calls for rectifying injustices done to The Donald into the Biden Presidency, and after the date of inauguration, with the former President issuing, in late February, 2021, Trump proclamatory statements lamenting the “Continuing Political Persecution of President Donald J. Trump” that refused to separate himself from the nation, playing with the tally of votes cast; even if he had decisively lost the election by over seven million votes, Trump let the world and his followers know, of their danger of disenfranchisement. Trump warned, as voting rights were being stripped of African Americans, of how “attacks by Democrats willing to do anything. to stop the almost 75 million people (the most votes, by far, ever gotten by a sitting president) who voted for me in the election,” not being able to remind his readers that this was an election many moreover “feel that I won.”

Was Trump referring to the attempt to stop them from staging a siege of the U.S. Capitol? As they arrived to rally behind the outgoing President who resisted admitting his electoral loss from across America, with a large share from Texas, Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and southern California, did they realize that the Capitol building where they were taking their protest had been largely constructed by enslaved laborers, rented from their ownersenslaved laborers to quarry sandstone and complete the construction, unable to attract skilled construction workers to Washington, DC, to construct a hall that the U.S. Congress would move from Philadelphia in 1800? The assertion of a right to preserve Confederate traditions of dissent, separatism, and grievance in a misguided defense of alleged liberties and rights to defend a status quo ante Trump. Archeologists speak of the “haunting” of a place by evidence of the remains of past civilizations or cities that survive underground–as a “city within the city,” erased by time–and one has to wonder at the ghosts of the enslaved who constructed the U.S. Capitol that the protestors faced with their confederate flags raised. Did they encounter the ghosts of enslaved laborers who cleared land for the building, haul sawed lumber and stone to the site ceded from two slave states, Maryland and Virginia?

Slaves of men paid for their labor had been conscripted into labor from clearing the site for building to carpentry, stonecutting, and bricklaying from 1795 to 1800–only one hundred and twenty two are known, by first names, from slaves of the White House architect, “Tom, Peter, Ben, Harry” whose owner was paid for their labor, or “Negro Dick,” whose owner received five dollars a month–and the enslaved Philip Reid, from the foundry that cast the Statue of Freedom for the dome of the U.S. Capitol in 1855, and devised a pulley and tackle system to raise the allegorical figure to its peak. When Michelle Obama described her husband’s Presidency as an overcoming of this past, was a presumption that electing a woman or a black person would be grounds for electing a U.S. President, who should be elected for their own–as if it disguised the claim of an elite that her candidate could bring he nation redemption.

Perhaps few of the protestors who invaded the U.S. Capitol knew the history of its construction in detail, even if Congress had finally recognized in 2012, ten years previous, and Michelle Obama reminded the nation in 2015, in her call to nominate Hillary Clinton as a Presidential candidate; for many, the line was a dog whistle painting a picture so stock to be evidence of their arrogance and sense of entitled self-righteousness. Were they aware of being used to stage a siege they felt reflected their own populist interests of direct democracy? When flag-wavers descended to sites of ballot counting in 2020, waiving campaign flags, American flags, “Don’t Tread on Me” flags to endorse state-wide audits of paper ballots and absentee ballots to review machine tallies with a skepticism bordering on alarmism. But the destabilizing of confidence, deployed in 2016, extended to alleged irregularities warranting voting machines demanded certification as “fraud-free” that threatened to undermine a democratic process, unleashing a river of groundless skepticism in of an alternative media universe of the filter bubble of FOX news, NewsMax and OANN.

The narrative of a stolen election was crucially deployed by Donald Trump in his speech at March to Save America to dovetail with the energy of protests that contested local ballot tallies that had grown increasingly contested as a demand to reveal a hidden or gamed truth. Such staged assemblies that proliferated at state capitols in the aftermath of the 2020 Presidential election seem almost an amping up of the populist rage that reached a crescendo in the license of crossing police barricades, the steel pipe reviewing stands recently assembled on the Capitol’s west front, to break down doors and windows in invading the U.S. Capitol, and proclaim it the “people’s house.” Breaking down the barriers, and flooding the Capitol, was almost a projection of the fears of migrants storming the nation, but this time the barbarians arrived fully armed, asserting rights–freedom of assembly; freedom to won guns; freedom to form a well-armed militia–that migrants never claimed. Back in 2016, public intellectual and linguist Geoff Nunberg observed ‘rigged’ came to be a “keyword” in the national political discourse, but extended the corruption to the mechanics of vote counting. The exposure of a “rigged” politics undermined civic participation in unprecedented skepticism: ‘rigged’ described the uneven economy, the tax system, and increasingly deferred any outcome of the election and injected the news cycle with faux populism replicated in social media to escalate that “built-in biases, so that losers may feel that the system is rigged against them,” by using a term expressing anger at unfair business practices or fraudulent investment into the arena of politics as only Trump could.

The new charge of incompetence of elected officials and claims of widespread fraudulence disrupted the resolution of any outcome. In the past, Trump feigned honesty when telling rallies “the election is going to be rigged–I’m going to be honest!” By late summer he implied to mainstream media he would not even accept a victory by Hillary Clinton in September, pushing the limits of a candidate’s sense of grievances while acting as if airing grievances as just another victim of fraud, mirroring the charge of a “rigged economy” many felt, and boosting his won support. The 2020 Presidential vote was itself “rigged,” involving dead voters, rigged voting machines, a massive scam of democratic principles discounting rights, demanding protest on the grounds of patriotism, that made the flag-waving demonstrators in the mob feel immune to charges of insurrection as they were waving American flags, many the very flags waved at stage capitol buildings months previous with similar megaphones, to assert American values that were under attack. Crowds protested as patriots in Detroit, Philadelphia, Portland, Las Vegas and Atlanta, bearing similar flags outside of arenas and capitol buildings, asserting liberties and demanding and end to improper practices of tabulating votes. At the end of a Summer of Protests, to which the Capitol Riots are oddly assimilated, the demand to Stop the Steal was cast as a petitioning of justice, designed as if to address the Supreme Court. The extension of doubt preceding the Capitol Riots fanned populist grievances as if they were infringements on constitutional rights, deferring acceptance of electoral results by extending a narrative that had no happy end. The protest rallies that sprang into action as lawsuits proliferated in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Michigan with recounts demanded in Arizona and Wisconsin to prevent states from “flipping” and electoral votes to be claimed by Joe Biden.

Protestors Contest Ballot Counting in Pennsylvania on steps of State Capitol, November 4, 2020/Gabriella Bhaskar
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Filed under American Politics, Capitol Riots, Donald Trump, political iconography, Presidential Elections

To Levitate an Elephant

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.

August 2, 2019

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.

August, 2019
Bugs bunny cuts florida off America.

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.

August 1, 2019

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–

Mr. Barnum’s White Elephant, “Toung Taloung”

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.

“The Sacred Elephant,” Harpers, 1884

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.

Walter Goode, East India Company Room in Crystal Palace, London 1855

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.

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.

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