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To Levitate an Elephant

The red elephant unveiled as an emblem of the Republican Party during the 2020 Republican Convention marked a new sense the party was now Trump as if Trump embodied the party. For the representation of red states that enshrined an image of Republican identity demanded a redesign of its logo identified with the interests of red states with grandeur. And in an era in which we have a President able to channel his inner P.T. Barnum more openly than his predecessors, Trump mined a rich iconographic mine in speaking before a redesigned symbol of the party. If this was the “second coming” of Trump, in a newly Trumpified party, what new beast was slouching toward Washington, D.C. was hard to determine by the red- trunked elephant Ising above the speaker’s podium as if leaping into space. If cartoonists had recently cast the old guard of the Party as in fear of the new rogue Republican President, the 2020 Republican Convention seemed to remake a platform-free party proudly in an elephant of his own mold.

The leaping elephant was no doubt shopped around in committee and reviewed by experts for a Convention whose design loosely planned as a live event, before the shift to television that led the President to reach out to a former producer of Celebrity Apprentice, former producers of his Reality TV show, hired by the GOP over $130,000 at Trump’s personal insistance to oversee video production with White House staff for the four nights of the convention from August 24-28 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Trump realized that the stakes were greater than he had previously imagined, as messaging faltered in the coronavirus pandemic even as it struggled to remain smooth. Hope stars would again align to create a red-state electoral map stretching from Arizona to Maine, reaching down to Florida, may be subliminally encoded in the imaginary constellation of five stars embedded in the bright red elephant designed for the 2020 Republican Convention to celebrate the rebrand the GOP as a Party of Trump. But the deeply racist origins of the party symbol, long purged by the mainstreaming of the pachyderm as a partisan icon, seem to reveal its racist lineage in a strategy based on rooting the red elephant of the Republican Party in the heart of the Old South.

And the very ancient Neo-imperial emblem of the elephant seemed to be prematurely announcing the victory of the Republican Party, the elephant seemed especially oblivious of the freighted associations of what was long a quite openly racist icon of the Grand Old Party since it was adopted in 1884, at the height of Reconstruction after the U.S. Civil War.

The roots of the party mascot as a circus elephant was proverbially linked to the political circus, but tapped again for a forum o political entertainment in Charlotte, NC when it was introduced, as a spectacle that would distract from the rising toll on Americans of COVID-19. The coronavirus pandemic remained the proverbial “elephant in the room” during the convention, not addressing a topic of potential controversy for a President dependent on staging rallies around the nation.

It remained almost ever-present at the 2020 Convention, as if the pachyderm presented a forward-facing emblem that confirmed the party’s identity. Its presence masked the recognition of the transformation of the iconic tricolor elephant to a party to red hue, anticipating the ‘red’ nation that the party’s victory would represent: a red monolith, showing signs of vitality, distanced from any actual elephant, but staging the elephant as a made-for-TV image, unlike, say, the “Victory Elephant” at Cleveland in 2016, which seemed indeed a different political animal of red, white and blue.

Dominick Reuter/AFP

The monocular elephant expressed the promotion of “red state” interests at the convention, in place of a party platform, and appeared onstage above the American flag, not resembling an actual elephant, but iconic symbol of onward advancement, in a hybrid between its circus origins and military charge, behind each speaker from Donald J. Trump to Don Jr, to Charlie Kirk, to select prime-time speakers to appeal to his constituency, not anticipating an acceptance speech to represent the party, but absorb adulation for his idea of the party as defending rights to gun ownership, a narrative of American progress, unlike the “darkest and angriest convention in American history” in a form that seemed to accept his destiny as the “bodyguard of American civilization.” Was the elephant not reborn as a totem for the strong sort of leadership Kirk assured Trump would provide, willing to fight and to advance toward combat with the other party.

The elephant was far from the associations of the elephant with a pacific beast, but an icon that communicated the personal strength of the nominee, rather than a collective party policy, and newly glistening nature of the icon was oddly absent from this most stage-managed of conventions. Trump had hired associates of Mark Burnett to coordinate with White House staff to make the Convention 2020 the sort of “gripping TV show” they had created for fifteen seasons of The Apprentice, through artful combination of pre-taped and live speeches featuring mostly non-political figures–and although Burnett denied speculation that he was involved. Burnett’s associates were heavily compensated for ensuring the seamlessness of the scale-backed convention for as broad an audience as possible. Burnett himself had distanced himself from Trump recently, but Trump revered him for his ability to “impose retrospective logic on the chaos” of the boardroom sections of Trump’s successful TV Show, as James Poniewozik wrote–shaping the format of The Apprentice from 2011. Was his presence felt in what was billed as “the people’s convention,” in a Reality TV air, through the new sort of convention that his associates helped stage?

The prominent product placement of the revised Republican mascot of an elephant was less widely remarked, but provided a subliminal message of the sort that had no doubt been honed and debated before it was unveiled. The updated symbol for the convention was on prominent display on the Convention marquis in a mascot redesigned to serve the Party of Trump. While the new emblem seemed a break from the past, however, the history of the elephant as a strongly radicalized creature that as P.T. Barnum had expanded transatlantic importation of range of new elephants from Africa and Burma as a popular entertainment, seemed channeled in ways more apt than Trump’s stage managers may have realized in the leaping elephant that reached its red trunk to the heavens, bedecked by stars.

It was, perhaps, no surprise that cartoonists like Graeme Mackay picked up on the Thomas Nast famously branded a pachyderm with the letters “GOP” in 1874 at a time when newsprint was the prime vehicle of public opinion. In a political world dominated by Democrats, many of whom were suspected corrupt, Nast intended an emblem of significant dignity; but the exultant elephant unveiled before Charlotte’s crown seemed close to tap an outdated symbol of royalty and to address an audience by a middle-brow entertainment more than assume public gravitas: the newly nominated candidate speaking before the new RNC emblem partisan animal emblazoned with five stars in a “W”as if a premature declaration of victory insisted the “best is yet to come,” as he accepted the nomination, “proud of the incredible progress we have made over the last four years, brimming with confidence about the bright future we will built for America over the next four years” in the face of the expanding cases of COVID-19, animated by the brisk step of the elephant that subliminally affirmed the party’s future progress. It seemed a surprise to many that Cancel Culture, violent crime, and gun rights seemed had a far greater place in the Convention than anything related to COVID-19.

The puzzling new identity of the elephant seemed a landshift in the party’s coherence as a collective, and the triumphal procession of an elephant was, for McKay, a change in the spirit of the dour, conservative animal to an animated beast with the head of the sitting President–a different political animal to be sure.

The animating of the old pachyderm unveiled for the Charlotte convention was an exulting circus animal. The convention’s length was cut short short by COVID-19, but the new icon of the party so proudly unveiled in anticipation of its reinvigorating function was presented by Ronna McDaniel and Marcia Lee Kelley, robed in red, emblazoned with five stars.

D.T. Foster/Charlotte Observer

What better way than the redesign of a red logo to make the point that the commitment of the party to red-state values, replaced the capaciousness of the party and the place of values and dignity that Thomas Nast, an ardent Republican and the father of American cartooning, saw the beast incarnating values able to transcend intra-party dispute, than for a former television star to tweak the Republican logo for a convention that replaced a platform with the scripting of a television event by the directors of Donald Trump’s Reality TV show, that placed him as central to the party’s identity, rather than values, and asserted red state values of a party as proof of ideological purity? The new elephant suggests the transformation of the Presidency to a Reality-TV show not rooted in governing or dignity but preening, and self-promotion.

Were cartoonist like MacKay sensitive to the cartooning legacy to which the icon of Unlike the Democratic donkey, a braying jackass poking fun of its vocal cries and low status, its dissonance less dignified than the eagle and pure pretension: while the animal logo was hardly adopted by the party, and the pictorial warfare seemed stacked in favor of the dignified pachyderm, the reborn elephant makes us recall how much epidermal pigmentation was central to the elephant adopted by 1877 in the Presidential election, and overdetermined as an image of partisan strength. By enlisting a startlingly monochrome elephant of entirely red skin, all but leaping off the ground, the beast raising its sleek trunk in celebration or benediction mirrored the role Trump adopted in sanctioning the party’s collective identity by the illusion of advancing forward in space with dignity as the champion of “red states”: a rearing elephant served as a surrogate for replicating the electoral alliance of 2016, now rearing above Trump’s head, and the the eagle on the podium with a Presidential seal:

President Donald Trump arrives to speak at Republican National Committee convention, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Charlotte. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Wall Street Journal

For it seemed, during the convention, that other interests were not in need of being representation than the cities of the Deep South, the fans of football player Hershel Walker, who as a surrogate to denounce Black Lives Matter ran defense for a President accused of being racist, attacking it as in fact organized by “trained Marxists,” and a subversive to the nation. The former running back ran defense as spokesperson in South Carolina and Georgia to testify to his character, mocking social justice protests as a slur on Trump’s character, using pro football metaphors and slogans of patriotism, he echoed how the pachyderm emblem erased racial divisions of the nation in many of the endorsements featured at the 2020 Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. While the convention lacked any platform–the nominal reason for meeting to nominate a President from the turn of the century, exemplified in the New Deal in 1932 or inclusion of civil rights in the Democratic Party’s platform from 1948, and the War on Poverty of 1965–the absence of a platform concealed the trust in a red map, as the Democrat Joe Biden threatened to “stretch the map” by curtailing the continuity of red states in the Presidential election–as Pennsylvania seemed desired to become the lynchpin of the Presidency.

In the hot summer of ostensible racial unrest and social justice protest and a reclaiming of public space, after police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery convulsed the nation by evidence of persistent racial disparities of race before law enforcement, the Republican Convention was determined to defer divisions by race, assembling beneath the advancing red elephant, star-studded and before a crown, a months in a sign of purity and fealty that was echoed attempts to weed out anti-Trump Republicans by grooming the convention as a weeklong infomercial featuring attestations to Donald Trump’s absence of racism oddly before a red elephant, echoing the circus animals brought on ships from Africa to perform in circuses from the eighteenth century, and later by P.T. Barnum.

RNC committee Chair Ronna McDaniel and RNC President Marcia Lee Kelley
Unveil Logo of 2020 Republican Convention/Melissa Key
David Foster III

It was ironic the the red elephant before which he had thundered about American greatness was as embedded in the determining role race played in the emergence of the elephant as an emblem of the party, long before it was cast as pure “red.” For Nast first employed an elephant as able to outlast the divisions of the party in Reconstruction, in ways that tacitly addressed the popular fascination with the stability of skin-color as a key to racial identity, and a way of questioning the continuity of black-white dichotomies as an indicator of race. The purity of the “Sacred Elephant” of white skin color that P.T. Barnum displayed in 1884 led the image of the pachyderm, already used in Nast’s prolific cartooning on occasions but with limited public embrace by a party or currency, with the purity of white elephants ostensibly more docile and civilized that circuses juxtaposed to African ones for audiences to feed fascination with race. The “white” skinned elephants not from Africa, but Burma, stood in the popular press as a dignified an icon of partisan purity distanced from political corruption, able to sustain the new electoral maps of 1880 in an image of concensus.

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

The elephant was here a sturdy party beast, able to sustain the fragile union of “our country” as it tried to heal from the divisions of slavery and Civil War. But the roots of the elephant as a popular circus performer were not far beneath the tough skin of the emblem of the party, and, by 1881, the role of the political performer in balancing on the back of the elephant seemed for Nast openly akin to a circus performance, with a national jester, as the performance of the political who mounted the party pachyderm had to balance votes of endorsements as with the growing scale of debts the he hoped would not break the party’s back.

But the circus elephant popular in the popular press was a bid to tweak party dignity against partisan corruption during the turbulence of post-Reconstruction politics. Although later purged of the racial connotations with which the beast was freighted by the postwar period, the pure red elephant whose uniform color defined a new form of belonging,–much as the President had himself–may have unconsciously recuperated the connotations of the purity of the white elephant as a the bedrock of dignified values on which Nast in 1884 insisted the party was based, when he included himself in a popular cartoon to indicate the sacred values that he believed would carry the candidate who mounted its regal chair to the White House–using the newly exhibited beast as a model incarnating the values the nominee might adopt, with the calm and upright demeanor of the newly poplar image of a “white” elephant. Nast, a promoter of the new image who showed himself as if Barnum, advertising the virtues of the party that was bound by a commitment to Civil Service and Probity, used the whiteness of the circus animal as a testament to the party’s commitment to honesty that it would do well to follow to win the coming election.

Thomas Nast, “The Sacred Elephant” (Harpers, 1884)

The signification of the skin color was muted in the Harpers cartoon, but reflected the fascination of a new elephant, unlike the African elephants shipped the United States by circus men from Africa, whose new demeanor suggested nothing less than a new race of animal–understood and so appreciated by eager circus-goers as a new animal, extending the categories of racial difference into the animal kingdom that provided odd if welcome confirmation for the purity of races as distinct species, with different patterns of sociability, different habitats, and distinct customs–

The purity of the White Elephant was by 1884, at the end of Reconstruction, an image of continuity and virtue as racial barriers of segregation rose, a reminder of the traditions of the Party and its values that tacitly addressed race as central to party. The iconic elephant endured as an icon of the party, linked to a promised prosperity of the extension of “westward empire” in America, enduring to the twentieth century in the public imagination, scarcely removed from the circus animal.

The preservation of values was recalled by tacit prominence of race for the pure-red pachyderm of 2020. Although the red skin color of the pachyderm was not natural, it may as well have masked attention to race–long submerged in the party logo–if many political positions seemed to be exhumed in the new red beast of burden, whose hue reflected the championing of President Trump as “the most pro-life President ever,” and defender of White America. The heightened redness of the elephant reflected an increasing national polarization of hot button issues across this Presidential race, which has introduced the distinction between “Republican” and “Democrat” judges, in ways that suggest an openly partisan divide of the nation and its courts. nd when the Susan B. Anthony List championed the pure-red loyalty Trump gained in the office of President, apart from his personal failings, “red” values served to galvanize support and demonize Democrats, cast as the “Party of Death” as if their platform was a disruption of values and law: t he pure-red President, in other words, gained the pure-red logo he demanded, in a new episode of the complex genealogy of political iconography.

If the unity of the Republican Party was emphasized by the purity of red, race remained close to the surface, threatening to disrupt order, if not the tacit subtext the stage-managed 2020 Convention, that seemed to subsume the very memory of racial discord among the many flags across its stage as Trump spoke and accepted the nomination, as if convinced he would ride this red elephant back to White House once more.

@MikePence/Twitter

For Trump boasted his personal reconfiguration of the Republican Party after the social justice protests that occurred across the country in the summer of 2020, which were cast as a disruptive event that ran against his calls for law and order that was promoted at the Convention by the invitation both of dark warnings about the ominous future of the nation overseen by Joe Biden, and featuring Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple charged with felonies for drawing their guns in a threatening manner against non-violent Black Lives Matters protestors who marked past their home in New Orleans. A month before the Convention, Trump championed a “Garden of Heroes” and prosecution of those who vandalized public statues: the Garden that placed nineteenth century abolitionists beside Republican Presidents, army generals, and astronauts and pioneers glorified a homogenized image of the past.

But a month later, Trump foregrounded his commitment to history as a battle for the nation’s conscience, in a racially divisive event that exploited the National Archives to stage a “White House Conference of American History” to enshrine a vision of the “most exceptional nation in the history of the world” refusing to engage in the deeply racist past that he called an assault on the “nobility of America’s character,” as if only African Americans bore what Langston Hughes called “slavery’s scar”–even thought the often omitted third stanza of the national anthem, the “Star-Spangled Banner,” celebrated how “No refuge could be save the hireling or slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave” for the former slaves fighting with the British in 1812, beneath the star-spangled banner waving o’er the land of the free and home of the brave. Trump described race as a distorting lens to view American’s freedom, calling critical race theory an “ideological poison that threatened the very civic bonds that unite us together” failing to promote America’s exceptionalism, lest students confront the the role of enslavement in the shaping the nation. If Trump famously watched the recent musical about P.T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman, in a rare White House screening, the role of Barnum’s exhibition of elephants in the emergence of the emblem of Republicans offers a perfect instance of the broad discursive role of race and racial identity in America, after Reconstruction. Did a selective amnesia not underpin the unveiling of this streamline red elephant, now died in the wool red, removed from any ideological or racial divide, and the remove of the elephant from its African origins? If Trump has quite condescendingly addressed black Americans in his 2016 campaign, asking them “What have you got to lose?” by giving him their support, the platitudes of black entertainers and athletes who endorsed Trump at the Convention or Mar a Lago who never held a political position may indeed suggest the remove at which saw race from the nation.

The unveiling of a new icon of party may have been, consciously or unconsciously, a revision of the history of the Party that erased its own fetishizing of the elephant, alternatively cast as a formidable memory or a respectable party. In replacing an elephant logo that was inclusively red-white-and-blue, the 2020 Convention offered a new icon of partisan unity for 2020 nominee, unlike the red, white and blue tricolor elephant of the GOP of years past, strikingly monochrome of a pure red hue,–

–the new icon seemed semantically indeterminate, if not quite hackneyed and stiffly generic and stripped of all sense of its history, but seemed a purified red elephant, unlike the earlier icon of once-stolid conservative values, that double as a patriotic icon of party and capacious container for states’ rights as well as a custodian of tradition.

For a pure-red elephant seemed to be demanded by candidate who identified himself with “red” states alone, rewriting the patriotic coloration of the once-stolid conservatism the quadruped had embodied–

–less tolerant or capacious but exulting in the identity of its pure red skin. If purged of any racial connotations with which it was historically freighted, this elephant promised a sense of belonging to the party responded to departure of many from a party recast as “Party of Trump” –and increasingly even branded as such to make the point, leading to the broad reinvention of the party’s symbol and its iconography with the odd choice of five white stars that seemed an astrological sign of victory.

The departure of some older Republicans, less content with this redirection, may have bode badly for the election.

Washington Post

But the rearing quadruped unveiled at the Republican 2020 Convention reanimated as an icon of national unity, even as the nation struggled against the weight of COVID-19 that was sinking the nation, and increased social inequalities made evident in economic insecurity and compromised health care. In the midst of a convention that became a political circus of all things Trump, filled with affidavits and testimonials of the President’s magnanimity more than an actual platform, it seemed important to remember that the iconography of the elephant of the Republican Party derived from the first arrival of captured African elephants that arrived in American circuses, and the theatrical amusements that they offered at a time America struggled with racial divides, and the elephant became a curiosity for a nation that was beginning to solidify segregation as a dividing line of race, in a precursor to modern racial divides.

When Trump was channeling his inner Barnum in promoting his party at the Convention, he may have not known that the adoption of an elephant as a partisan symbol was consolidated by the cartoonist Thomas Nast, soon after the heralded arrival of the first Burmese elephant, Toung Taloung, bought from a dealer by P.T. Barnum was paraded through the streets of New York in a white costume at the institution of widespread segregation, by a circus promoter who sought to attract audiences by extending a color line into the animal kingdom, among different breeds of elephants: the curiosity of the Burmese elephant P.T. Barnum successfully promoted as a “white elephant” was intended to be exhibited beside the African elephants already in Barnum’s circus, long captured from the wild to be exhibited to crowds for popular entertainment–in a global trade only banned in 2019, if the Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey circus only ended a hundred and forty-five “family tradition” of the ferrying elephants to be exhibited across the country in 2016, when the transport of the quadrupeds ceased.

The memory of the exhibition of elephants, long tokens that demonstrated the Greatest Show on Earth indeed warranted its name, often exhibiting elephants as sights of terror or fascination, if developing handling methods that were more humane, their public exhibition, older than baseball or Coca Cola, as a popular entertainment rooted firmly in an American grain.

And if the 2020 Convention was an opportunity to map Trump’s party as a unity of “red” states, and to embody it around nationalist values, the oddly undressed elephant in the chambers of the convention went unaddressed, in ways that seemed to echo how racial divides were suppressed in the original selection of the elephant as party emblem. Did the new emblem seek to demonstrate the American nature of the new Grand Old Party, as unrecognizable as it had become as the Party of Trump, striving to offer evidence of its continued American-ness, even as its ties to white supremacy and racial divides were increasingly painfully evident?

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