Tag Archives: American Politics

A Socially Distanced Franchise?

While I was phone banking in Texas, Nevada, and other states in months before the 2020 election, I fielded a surprising number of questions of access to absentee ballots and mail-in voting, as well as being assured by many voters that they had refrained from mailing in ballots, and were planning to drop their ballots off directly in polling stations, or brave the lines, to ensure their votes counted. I’d like to think they did. (The woman I reached in Texas who had moved from Nevada and was awaiting an absentee ballot to arrive two days before the election, past the deadline of registering in Texas, may have not.) Even as we advance through “Trump’s final days of rage and denial,” and charges of fraudulence and the robbery of red states from the Grand Old Party’s self-appointed King haunt public White House pronouncements and social media posts, the electoral map that provide the formal reduction of how votes were tallied is cast as a contested ground, questioned on the basis of voting machines, absentee ballots, and socially distanced voting practices, as if these inherently distance the franchise and undermine democratic practice. Donald Trump invites the nation to squint at the map, examine its mediated nature and instability, querying the resolution of any election as, shockingly, only a handful of congressional Republicans admit he lost a month after voters cast seven million votes for his opponent, whose victory 88% of Republicans in Congress refuse to acknowledge.

Unlike other elections, for a month after Election Day–November 3, 2020–the nation waited in eery limbo, uncertain about the legitimacy of the election so that even by December 2, CNN was projecting victors in several “swing” states. Although the New York Times and AP projected the conclusion of the election on paper, announcing late-arriving news of electoral victory almost a full week after Election Day, seeking to invest a sense of conclusion in a protracted debates–if oddly channeling “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

New York Times, November 8, 2020

The inset map still indicated three states still “not called.” But the new President Elect appeared boosted by the classic alliance of Democratic voters that Donald Trump saw as unlikely, and had failed to align in 2016.

Months after Election Day, CNN was still “projecting” Biden’s surpassing the electoral vote threshold of 270, shifting two midwestern and one southern state to the Democratic column, with Arizona: the delay of verification in a range of legal gambits still being followed by the Trump campaign, which raised over $170 million to press its case for recounts, investigations into allegations voter fraud through the Save America PAC, disorientingly stubbornly refusing to admit the validity of the electoral map, and even repeating, into December, hopes that  an opening for a Trump victory materialize if one state select electors, to reassemble the swath of red that flooded the national map back in 2015 as if playing a puzzle: “If we win Georgia, everything falls in place!” The electoral map was something of an idol of the Republican Party, as Donald Trump’s hopes for electoral victory faded, but refused to recede into mid-December.

CNN, December 2 2020

Weeks after Election Day, we entered into a weirdly protracted attempt to game the electoral map, long after the initial tallying of votes had ceased. A range of recounts, hand-counts, investigations of absentee ballots and even querying of the legitimacy of voting machines have been launched to challenge the representational validity of the electoral map in ways that should give us pause for how it aimed to undermine the representational value of the voting practices. In querying the functions of the map as representation–by querying the tabulation of votes that comprise the electoral map–Trump has stoked tensions in representational democracy. With unsettling abandon, Trump stoked national tensions by refusing to acknowledge he did not win the election, as if determined to break with Presidential decorum for a final time, as if seeking to leave a legacy of disruption in his wake.

To be sure, gaming the electoral college has emerged as a recognized campaign strategy in 2020, increasingly distancing the franchise of the nation, as campaigns focussed with assiduity on the prospect not of “swing state” voters as in the past, but in flipping or holding a slate of states, that left the electoral map rendered as a sort of jigsaw puzzle that would add up to 270 votes from the electoral college, as the Wall Street Journal reminded us by mapping the Republican “game plan” that Donald Trump long knew he faced for holding onto tot the states where often slim majorities put him in office, as Democrats aimed to flip states to their column: the rhetoric of “gaming” the map to create the victorious outcome was echoed in the news cycle,–and not only in the Journal–in ways that seemed to have dedicated the distribution of public rallies that Donald Trump held long before announcing his candidacy officially, almost as soon as he entered office, in an attempt to solidify the bonds of the red expanse he celebrated as America’s heartland with his political charisma.

If Trump may have wished he didn’t take the southern states so much for granted, he had targeted Pennsylvania, Florida, and Montana–as well as Arizona and Nevada–by staging rallies, in those pre-COVID years, as if to shore up his support as if investing in the electoral votes of 2020.

https://www.npr.org/2019/06/18/733505037/trump-set-to-officially-launch-reelection-but-hasnt-he-been-running-all-along

If that map from National Public Radio, based Cook’s Political Report and the White House, only takes us through 2019, the campaign stops of Biden and Trump show a density to Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, and North Carolina that suggest the depths of commitment to the gaming of the electoral map, and a deep battle in Arizona between the population centers in Phoenix and its suburbs and more rural regions.

The metaphor of “gaming” the map was hard to stop, and its logic seems to have inevitably led to the endless endgame that may result in clogging the nation’s courts with suits about the circumstances of mail-in voting in multiple states. Trump’s insistence in claiming the election not “over,” as if unfamiliar with someone else setting the parameters for television attention, speechless at the unfolding of a narrative shattering conviction of his inability to lose–that “in the end, I always win“–is not only a deepest reluctance to admit losing.

The logic of the gaming of the electoral map clearly has him and his campaign in its sway. The deeply personal sense of the election as a referendum on him and his family may have been rooted in a sense o the legal difficulties that his loss might pose: among the many emails that were sent to his base, pleading for campaign donations to the “Save America” PAC, which seemed the last line of defense to Make America Great Again,” supporters were begged to do their part in “DEFENDING THE ELECTION” and hope they hadn’t “ignored Team Trump, Eric, Lara, Don, the Vice President AND you’ve even ignored the President of the United States” given how much was on the line. The sense of impending alarm reminds us of the confidence that Trump lodged in preserving the red electoral map of 2016, a confidence that seemed almost born from his ability tot game the electoral map yet again, and overcome the polls even after they pollsters had tried to recalibrate their predictive strategies and demographic parsing of the body politic.

1. The very close margins voting margins suggest we narrowly escaped an alternative history of a second Trump term, and can explain the tenacious grip that Trump seems to have had on an alternative outcome, an outcome that he has tried to game in multiple ways and strategies that eerily echoes with the strategies of gaming the electoral map that seems to have occurred through the orchestration of telling postal delays, delayed returns of absentee ballots, and the strategic gaming of the distribution of a distanced franchise. It forces us to contemplate the counterfactual history of the far darker reality of a scenario where his expectations came true. Indeed, it should make us consider the closeness of overturning democracy. In was as if the reporting of the timestamped electoral map of Saturday, November 7 that was an inset of the Times only encouraged resistance to admitting the failure of Trump to preserve the “red swath” of 2016 across what coastal elites long bracketed as “flyover country,” where the effects of economic recession had never stopped.

New York Times, November 8 2020, “Results as of Saturday at 10:30 Eastern/ Map Shows Maine and Nebraska statewide vote

It had almost happened. In Trump’s White House, a boisterous watch party was underway, crowded with FOX anchors, watching the big screen that FOX results showed to the audience, anticipating the reality of a second Trump term. But all of a sudden, Trump was so incredulous he refused to admit seeing Arizona called at 11:20 as a Biden victory, shouting to no one in particular, “Get that result changed!” Hoping to calm her triggered boss, who must have been catapulted into alternate scenarios of having to leave the White House where he had expected to encamp, former FOX employee Hope Hicks fretted about the newsfeed.

Could the map be changed? Trump was frustrated at his in ability to manipulate the news, and already apprehensive at what endgame was in store. At this point, it seems, Trump’s every-ready servile son-in-law, Jared Kushner, hurriedly placed a direct call to Rupert Murdoch to rectify the call, assuring better data would arrive from Arizona’s COVID-denying governor, Doug Ducey (R), to restore the state’s redness on the electoral map, in desperate hopes of jerry-rigging his electoral fortunes. Back in 2016, Trump had indeed only won Arizona by the narrowest of margins–by about half of the margin by which Romney won in 2012–and only third-party candidates’ popularity concealed that Democrats boosted margins of victory in precincts beyond Republicans, flipping seventy precincts to their column–perhaps as Maricopa County featured a PAC that attracted millions of dollars to defeating Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s bid to consolidate an anti-immigrant agenda.

Trump quickly recognized the danger a flipped state posed to hopes for another red swath, as the contestation over the state that he had hoped to pry from the Democratic map was a poor omen of the election, and needed to be stayed.

In 2017, Trump was so enamored of the expanse of his electoral victory to given paper copies to White House visitors–until he framed a version for the West Wing, five months after the election. And if the state is visibly fragmented in an identical mosaic in the map that Trump framed in the White House, the brilliant red of nearby Nevada and bright red diagonal suggest the state was more firmly in Republican hands than we might remember. After hoping that The Washington Post might celebrate his hundredth day in office by featuring the “impressive” the electoral map on its front page, his pride in the map led it framed the map in the West Wing, a reporter from One America News Network obligingly showed.

This alternate world of electoral victory created what must have been a prominent counter-factual map that had dominated the Trump team’s plans for victory in 2020. The White House watch party must have been haunted by the very same map of which Trump was so proud.

Trey Yingst (ONN), May 11, 2017/Twitter
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Filed under 2020 election, data visualization, Donald Trump, electoral maps, Presidential Elections

To Levitate an Elephant

Rarely has a political convention focussed so strongly on distracting attention from current actualities and reconstituting a disparate party as the 2020 Republican Convention that met to nominate Donald J. Trump. 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. If the racially coded origins of the pachyderm were quite obscured by the red hued elephant rearing its trunk, the introduction of the emblem was an uncanny recuperation of the original radicalized intent of the circus elephant. Indeed the new version of the anthropomorphic emblem in 2020 seemed to distract attention by hearkening back to the circus elephant that first inspired the logo of the Republican party.

The origins of the party elephant are often linked to the anthropomorphic partisan emblem cartoonist Thomas Nast, even if they were openly adapted from the advertisements and publicity that circus impresario Phineas T. Barnum. The American circus entrepreneur, the first to feature a menagerie that was focussed on the elephant, and to do so by making increasingly clear references to race and the geographic origins of the first Bush Elephant he displayed, Jumbo, captured in Sudan by a game hunter in 1860 before being imported for Barnum’s circus by 1882 to such sizable crowds that a week at Madison Square Garden recouped costs of overseas transport and the beast. Now displayed to audiences as the “Towering Monarch of his Mighty Race“–openly invoking racial ideals as an attraction–at the center of his menagerie, the elephant promoted as the largest elephant held in captivity became a focus of mass communication, years before Jumbo was replaced by “sacred white elephant” of Burma, as a new centerpiece for currying racial fascination that was to become the mascot and icon of the Republican party after it was promoted by the pen of the cartoonist Thomas Nast, in the November, 1874 political cartoon that cast the Republican vote as a group of voters scared by the prospects of a Democratic President of dictatorial pretenses remaining in office.

Barnum’s eager hocking of a hoax–a trickster “hocus pocus” redirecting his audience’s attention to concerns that were latent in the display of the menagerie, of detecting racial difference, were converted into showmanship in the circus he promoted, in ways that might be profitably compared to the disguise of racial anxieties and feelings of persecution or economic compromises within the identification of “hoaxes” that Trump pointed out to the electorate in his candidacy. Trump’s career as a real estate promoter–a promoter more than an actual expert in construction–led him to promote a number of hoaxes happily that generated new attention and eager involvement in his candidacy. And the introduction of a new symbol for the Republican party, a “red elephant” rearing with five stars featured on his body, seemed to embody the tradition of hoaxes and promotions that the use of the elephant as an icon for the Republican party had long enjoyed, since it was introduced by cartoonist Thomas Nast in the era of Reconstruction. But the white elephant–who Nast introduced in the press as a new symbol of partisan purity in 1884 as proudly possessing the dignity of purpose unlike the beast fleeing from a President overstepping his office, cast the corruption-free party as a sacred beast with open reference to Barnum’s circus attraction, now using his pen to promote the pure skin color in a “Sacred Elephant” akin to a circus promoter but as a new partisan brand.

The bush elephant Jumbo had moved across borders: trafficked across the Mediterranean by a network of animal traders, first to German collectors as the traveling Menagerie Kreuzberg, Paris’ Jardin des Plantes, and London Zoo before Barnum featured “Jumbo” to impress audiences with his enormity. Barnum had renamed the elephant he bought for public display from the term of endearment,”Mumbo Jumbo” Londoners used to indicate its African origins, referencing to the masked male west African dancer, in Mandinka “Maamajomboo”, to promote its exoticism as a pagan idol, a fallen idol of sorts who become a popular attraction for London children to exercise imperialist imaginations before he succumbed to increasing fits of rage. The showman Barnum did not follow curry religions hokum, but displayed the elephant to bolster claims of being the Greatest Show on Earth; its iconic image gained center stage on promotional posters plastered in the towns where he toured, years before the elephant was adopted as the emblem of the GOP, Barnum strikingly made the elephant into a curiosity of openly racial intent.

The arrival of the “white” albino elephant during the era of American reconstruction after Jumbo’s death, Toung Taloung, was promoted as a gentler and more civilized version of the African Bush, and indeed of a different race, to delight popular circus-going audiences with the notion of an elephant from a different corner of the world by clear analogy to the debates of blood-purity and skin color that were dominating America, as has been argued: the white elephant was not only an exotic beast, but Barnum’s celebration of its “white” constitution could be understood by white circus-goers as a response to the tensions around racial tensions in Reconstruction America. While the introduction of a red elephant as a revised emblem of a partisan icon was by no means referring to race as explicitly as had P.T. Barnum in displaying African or Burmese pachyderms, the partisan icon of a red elephant–invoking the size of the red states in the electoral map, channeled connotations of race for American audiences. Is it a coincidence that the red elephant was trotted out in 2020 as a purified elephant–now entirely red!–to meet the tastes of the Party of Trump? The large size of the elephant seemed capacious enough to contain the many hoaxes that Trump had promoted from before announcing his Presidency, in order to create a political movement rooted in promotion and promoting the sense of rugged stalwart isolation before the dangers of a rigged world.

The 65 days that led to chaos at the Capitol - BBC News

The introduction of the red elephant as a party emblem boasted the chromic homogeneity of the GOP in ways that almost seemed to revive the long forgotten fascination in elephants as a nativist symbol. If the cartoonist Thomas Nast famously assigned the dignity, probity, and size of the popular central figure of the circus menagerie as an aspiration of how claims to dignity that might allow his party to win the White House once again, Trump consciously chose the beast of a uniformity of color to express aspirations of recreating the red map in the 2020 Presidential election, in selecting it as the new emblem of a party that had grown increasingly identified with his person, casting the new red elephant as a bold statement of partisan aspirations that may have bracketed race–but channeled the deeply racialized character of the white elephant of Reconstruction. While the story of Nast’s invention of the anthropomorphic icon has been often recited, the use of an elephant to incarnated the current capaciousness of a desired electoral victory echoed the rhetoric of securing the presidency by replicating the same margin of victory in red states alone, in the victorious image of a rearing, martial elephant, as if auguring a rise of red states in 2020 as staging a cartographic reconfiguration of the electoral map.

The elephant was an emblem of the go-it-alone spirit of the party, repurposing the animal affirm the capaciousness of a secessionist nation that echoed a Manichaean gloss of “sovereignty” RedStateSecession.org had extended across all of North America by 2019. The image of a “peaceful red state secession” was by no means mainstream in the political party, or a part of its platform, that no platform was ever devised for Trump’s renomination courted the broad worries of the dilution of a white majority nation filled with “illegal aliens” and foreigners Republicans had often mapped onto blue states–and echoed the strength that a “country formed from red states” might provide, in substitution for the internationalist commitments of a non-white majority nation that the actual United States held–promising the rebirth of a “country formed from Red States” alone, in a 2018 Facebook meme might generate a form of national renewal adhering to the U.S. Constitution. The pseudo-map, which circulated on social media and the internet, rather than in printed form, was itself a hoax–to use the terms Barnum claimed–using the smoke and mirrors of data visualization to crop the counties of an electoral map as if they would provide the new borders of a “new country formed from Red States” as if it was more faithful to the spirit of America–while leaving little question in the mind of viewers that the verb “follow” meant adhering to the politics of national renewal that were tied to a closure of national borders, embrace of white-majority culture, and refusal of “socialist” health care.

Red-State Secession - YouTube
RedStateSecession.org, 2018

The pseudo-map existed only as a derivative copied form of the distribution of Republican voters in recent elections, but it was powerful and strong as an image of common like-minded ideological preferences and political cultures, a sort of resegregation of the nation that might reveal the enlargement of the old south, not suggesting only white-majority areas, but areas where conservative voters had won since 2018. While the bizarre image of the “Sovereign States of America” took the logic of rewriting sovereignty of clear borders to an extreme, in its explicit adoption of an electoral map, omitting Broward and Miami-Dad counties in Florida, omitting much of the Northeast, Illinois–home of Barack Obama–and Southern Wisconsin, as well as California and most all of Arizona, the monochrome icon seemed to willfully dispense with California, New York, and Washington out of hand, with a vitriol that only grew in the year of social justice movements of 2020.

The emblem of the big red elephant referenced a notion of a nation created from a congeries of conservative-dominant counties, disdaining “blue states” as compromises not worthy of inclusion, lest they sacrificed ideals of America’s purity in light of the danger of immigration by creating new borders for the nation as a nation. The elevation of the monochrome pachyderm became a floating signifier of the ideals of red purity on which the party would base itself in a new image of sovereignty, often asserting economic independence by the addition of oil- and gas-rich provinces within a “Sovereign States of America” of the like-minded social media bubbles, echoed in the attacks directed to “globalists” on Canada-based alt right networks like Rebel Media, that proposed a repurposing of nation as a concept and conceit, and would be mapped onto the new sacred collectivity of a purely red beast that threw earlier Republican’s red, white, and blue elephants out as relics of RINO’s–those “Republican in Name Only,” and to map a scrappy new collectivity which hewed to one geopolitical agenda and moral script. Did the “fantasy map” not only push the logic of extreme federalism to its ends, but in juxtapose the “Sovereign States of America” with a far-fetched notion of energy independence, dismissing the allegedly “internationalist” regions of the US-Mexico border, the northeast, and Pacific rim as an internationalist “Bluetopia”–by remapping the Keystone XL and other crude pipelines as in line with American economic interests located entirely on sovereign soil.

Tale of Two Countries, 2019

To be clear, the map was a bit of a “hoax,” or the logic of the hoax–a term deriving from “hocus pocus,” the claim of a magician or juggler, and itself the sham-Latin perversion of the sacramental claim that the host present the body of Jesus Christ–an etymological origin for “hoax” that was oddly appropriate to the re-presentation of the nation as another beast, and the rewriting of sovereign allegiance to an underlying fabric of America in red states alone, a blood and soil doctrine that mapped energy extraction to allegiance to the political party representing the nation.

The red elephant rising echoed the glee of remapping of national sovereignty as if sovereignty were lines of affect–ties to the true interest of the nation, evident in the preservation of racial hierarchies, preserved, in the circus, by the in If Trumpism depended on a new “red nation,” RedStateSecession.org materialized a cartographic rewriting of the nation and national sovereignty, often privileging energy independence and clear borders, and imposing those borders on a map, but affirming the elephant as an image of its capacious quality–adding the petroleum reserves of Alaska and shale deposits across Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba as if to make up for the absence of the wealth of California, the northwest, and the northeast from a “sovereign” map that would end culture wars. Revising the “Jesusland” map of 2004 to include shale deposits in the north integrated a network of petroleum pipelines from like-minded “red states” north of the border, imagining a “United States of America” of radically redrawn borders embracing Calgary, Regina, Edmonton and Saskatoon as its own endless reserve of energy and national wealth–a new fantasy of national “belonging” that denied the actually lopsided nature of the America’s population and wealth.

Mark Joseph, February 2020

The fear of globalism was a steeped in internationalist rhetoric of “open borders,” disguising a disdain for national culture and America First, in its promotion of open borders, was deemed a dismantling of the nation as we know it. The map of “red America” was a rewriting of NAFTA, and a rewriting of the secessionist Civil War, imagining the Mason-Dixon line elevated to embrace all Pennsylvania, imagining the survey that defined the border disputes between Maryland, West Virginia and Delaware as a basis to expand the division between two “United States,” one blue and one red, a spectacle of sorts that engaged observers in the image of a remapped red United States, as if imagining the old northern border of the confederacy to be hiked to include the swing state of Pennsylvania, even above the “West Line” Charles Mason surveyed between Pennsylvania and Maryland in 1768, to create a mythic country of 2020 that expanded upon Trump’s surprising 2016 electoral victory, as if re-imagining the boundary line that became a division of slave states and free states as a division between Americans and internationalists. Indeed the determination of the new “boundary” able to preserve American integrity was cast as natural, but included the area along which the Keystone XL was planned to transport crude and Canadian shale reserves as well within the United States of America–arriving at an economic integrity that the Confederate States of America had lacked.

“A Plan of the West Line or Parallel of Latitude,” Charles Mason 1768 (detail)

Such a realization of economic imperatives transcended the use of lines of latitude as a dividing line; the inclusion of the land where the Keystone ran within the “new nation” gave it an integrity often lacking in the division of the nation by political afliations or voting patterns–

How to split the USA into two countries: Red and Blue
Dicken Shrader, 2018

–but sought to prevent the fluid Geography_of_Gilead, in which “where the edges are we aren’t sure . . . they vary, according to the attacks and counter-attacks,” but try to preserve an image of American integrity as if it were “natural,” by incorporating the petroleum pipelines and the shale reserves from which they carry crude sludge to realize the adoption in the 2016 Republican Party platform of promoting the Keystone XL within a vision of “North American energy independence” as if the Bluetopian environmentalists of the previous Democratic administration had strayed from such ideals. The map realized an actual division that seemed economically viable, if it would indeed “Support #CALEXIT!” as the “Tale of Two Countries” meme suggested.

If the electoral map has become. a spectacle of repeated glossing, fetishizing, and analysis since 2008, often wrestling with an imagined discrepancy between the appearance of greater sovereign acreage of a party with fewer votes, essentializing “redness” lay in the eye of the observer, and the old partisan mascot served to embody the identity of a party that trumped reality, as if the continuity of red counties might gain sovereign status of its own.

Unreported Stats - FactCheck.org

There was something almost Barnum-esque, as much as Alt Right, in the prominence with which Trump raised th hoax of globalism toexpose as a conspiracy of “globalist elites” as a threat to the nation in almost existential terms. P. T. Barnum had hewed the cultivation of hoaxes as a means to attract his audiences in the first age of mass-printing, viewing the “hoax” Barnum viewed as a part of the spectacle and business plan for the circus that he pioneered: from the display of mermaids to human freaks, Barnum promoted illusions to attract the complicity of spectators in “hoaxes” in ways surprisingly akin to the centrality of “hoaxes” as hooks able to attract and to consolidate support for Trump’s Presidency and presidential campaign. If some hoaxes served to distract attention of collusion of the Trump campaign and Russian government, Trump had long reserved ire for the allegedly internationalist “hoax” of global warming and climate change he had disdained revealed in 2015, before announcing his candidacy, through casting the coronavirus pandemic as “their new hoax” in the final year of his Presidency, from February to March of 2020, adopting the term “hoax news” later dropped to the damning “fake news” to suggest the extent of an information society that was rigged. Trump’s labeling of “hoaxes” is not only an echo of QANON, but used the identification of hoaxes engaged in a “plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty” to attracted many supporters by seeing economic integration, internationalism, much as Barnum promoted hoaxes (if he didn’t call them that in announcements) as a way to attract audiences. For Trump, hoaxes served to stoke popular anger by unmasking how his opponents disrespected the nation’s integrity: Trump attacked “global warming hoaxsters” of scheming to raise higher taxes in January 2014, and labeling a “hoax provided a powerful way to rally his base before a new sense of the nation, freed from the allegedly pernicious logic of “open borders,” globalist elites, digital media and internationalism–the very same specters he decried on January 6, 2021.

If “hoax” was not at first among the preferred words of rage to use in his social media accounts, it grew as a way of voicing collective rage. A text analysis of Trump’s tweets charts how he grew aligned with political discourse as a way to vent his anger and direct the rage of his constituents, as his use of social media morphed from personal attacks promoting the bogus “birther” theory about Barack Obama’s birthplace–a primal hoax–to the calling out of hoaxes more quickly than they might be mapped, processed, or charted, as he alternated schoolyard insults to channel a paranoid persecution of describing hoaxes with greater traction as he ridiculed investigation into the Russian ties of his campaign and cabinet. The twittersphere encouraged Trump to act as a border guard, identifying “hoaxes” with illusory clarity on a medium that encouraged the retweeting falsehoods; as Trump attacked Fake News, his public statements included an increased number of falsehoods, according to Factba.se’s tracing, rising with his social media presence, calling out hoaxes became a broader truth game that extending to questioning the accuracy of voting machines of the 2020 Presidential election, allegedly both owned and operated from overseas. And as claims of a stolen election seem set to be relaunched in debates about voting integrity, the fierce urgency of identifying a hoax may loose momentum as they are increasingly evidently about race. The candidates’s visibly vertiginous delight in discerning of globalist hoaxes only came back to bite him only as he persisted casting the spread of COVID-19 not as a pandemic, but just another liberal hoax–stretching credibility in the face of cognitive dissonance of rising mortality rates of coronavirus and Trump claiming people’s surprise . . .

Claims of hoaxes–or fake news–had mutated into claims that the candidate alone understood or got global politics. The red elephant introduced in the 2020 Convention afforded a new image of the nation that was the inverse of the hoax. It was a statement of the credulity of the party and the party line, as well as an identity for partisan unity–channeling a mental imaginary rooted not in continuity or federalism, but a uniformity of consensus in Trump’s own words. Trump’s attachment to “hoaxes” as compelling fighting words defined much of his presidency, as much as his social media presence. But the identification of hoaxes as objects of scorn, and insults to the nation, found a counterpart in the newly triumphant icon of decorous anger Ronna McDaniel unveiled in 2019, in hopes to consolidate or conjure a new alliance of red states to promote the Republican hopes for victory in 2020.

Charlote, NC/August 2, 2019

One could detect a sense of the circus when political strategist Ronna McDaniel took it on herself to channel Vanna White and middle America, revealing a reinvigorated elephant as a new logo for the Grand Old Party for 2020, her flowing red dress underscoring to the new monochrome of icon. Having been named to lead the RNC by Donald Trump after she had served as a delegate from Michigan who supported Trump in 2016, as the vacancy opened, with Rience Priebus becoming Chief of Staff, with the only precondition dropping her maiden name to erase any hint she had supported her uncle Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, McDaniel was elevated to be the chair of the Party, ensured that she could be counted on for her allegiance to Trump’s agenda and to promote his brand–demonstrating allegiance by imitating Trumps’s own warnings of voter fraud before the 2020 election and warning widespread fraud had led to the electoral loss of the man she trumpeted as as a “moral leader” while using her zealous defense of Trump as a cover to steer RNC funds to companies run by family members or as a quid pro quo for donations.

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

Could not one say that the use of the red elephant by Trump, a man widely known to delight in manipulating details of his public image, and indeed his brand, channeled P.T. Barnum in re-presenting the red elephant as a party emblem to the 2020 Republican Convention in Charlotte, NC? The elephant that was displayed in the political convention that was located proudly in a southern state without explanation by RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel in 2019, as an icon of partisan purity by 2020. Was the red elephant not a recuperation of the spectacle of the elephant as a refraction of America’s still fraught racial politics? Barnum was a master of public relations, and used the magnificence of the elephant as a centerpiece for his show, and an elephant seemed to incarnate hopes for an augur of victory in the next Presidential election, in the memes and media circus of unveiling of an icon of partisan identity. The symbol of the 2020 Republican Convention was unveiled to bridge novelty and tradition within the Republican party, but invoked performative rituals of circus-going as a spectacle about race, whiteness, privilege, and spectatorship–as much as a new mascot. Its political symbolism might be placed in a volume of Circus Studies or political symbolism, a regal pachyderm that recalled the Monarch of Illusions by invoking the partisan remapping of American politics as a swath of red states. The energetic red elephant proposed as a new symbol of partisan identity seemed an attempt to reenergize the party headed and embodied by the circus-master Donald J. Trump.

Was not Barnum, a showman who had perfected the arts of mass communication in the Gilded Age, gliding from popular entertainments to mass spectacles with unprecedented ease, able to transform the circus into an economic machine and public spectacle in ways eerily akin to how Trump has changed the political process of the United States? As much as changing Free Speech, Trump has exploited anxieties by offering what audiences “wanted to see” in a new regime of politics and political performance, continuing a Barnum tradition of combining minstrelsy, freak shows, entertainers, collections of menageries, and clowns in a “big tent” of the profitable economy of the circus show. Barnum was not only an orchestrater who expanded the circus as an institution of modern life and mass culture, converting spectacles into profits by promising to transport audiences into the fantastic, but was a promoter who insistently promised “good faith” to his audiences even as this strained credibility.

Barnum was the great American creator of ‘hoaxes’ central to capturing public attention and framing public opinion. Although the “Sacred Elephant” he later displayed to extend anxieties of the determination of racial difference to the animal kingdom was not white, promotion of the elephant that was appropriated by Thomas Nast as an icon of the Republican party prominently triggered fears of the identity of racial characteristics by universalizing them to the ostensibly pleasurable arena of the circus. Hoaxes were there from the very start of Barnum’s career as a promoter of the fantastic and curious wonder for audience’s pleasure: Barnum’s career began with his purchase of a slave he exhibited as George Washington’s own Mammy–a figure able to cross racial lines, peddling racial stereotypes in a spectacle of servility. Barnum promoted the woman, Joice Heth, as a sideshow curiosity, importing the plantation economy into vaudeville, as the allegedly hundred and sixty one year old Mammy of the first president entertained white audiences with barely credible stories of how she had nursed George Washington, that promoted the social dynamic of a plantation as the American narrative, as he deployed race and racial anxieties in a human museum, in the American Museum in downtown New York from 1842: as improbably as the White Elephant he imported from Burma gained crowds as an alleged education on racial difference, Barnum began from exploiting desires, fears and boundaries of normalcy; mass advertising in printed flyers attracted audiences’ interest to freak shows, promising “prices reduced to suit all classes” and boasting of his own populism, offering audiences primarily “instruction and happiness” while pursuing financial gain. The show begged complicity with the master-showman–Barnum boasted at combining “smoke and mirrors” with “a little ‘clap-trap’ occasionally, in the way of transparencies, flags, exaggerated pictures, and puffing advertisements” in “the wildness of wonderfully instructive and amusing realities,” that set their own criteria of truthfulness.

P.T. Barnum’s 1835 Handbill Advertising Joice Heth as “Natural & National Curiosity”

Was prominent billing of a long-lived manny as a “natural and national curiosity” a template for inviting audiences to witness the contrast the “sacred” elephant to darker African elephants, shipped to America at Barnum’s expense?

Mr. Barnum’s White Burmese Elephant, ‘Toung Taloung”

P.T. Barnum had arrived at the use of the elephant as a focus on entertainment and moral instruction followed how his American Museum suggested a welcome traffic with and blurring of knowledge and science in the name of compelling illusions and pleasure. And after the Museum burned down in 1865, rather than being the end of his career, he promoted “P.T. Barnum’s Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus” as a road show, publicizing its contents for audiences across the nation. He returned to New York by 1877, promising to cater to all audiences’ pleasures by featuring the new addition of “$500,000 worth of Foreign Features” with assurance of “prices reduced to suit all classes,” emphasizing his egalitarianism. If Barnum boasted “the largest, finest, and best menagerie and circus in the world” he cast himself not as a promoter but as acting “to my countrymen and countrywomen as a minister of instruction and happiness, while pursuing my primary purpose of making money.” The arrival of a Bush Elephant purchased in 1882 from London Zoo as the central exhibit in the menagerie displayed in Madison Square Garden, promoted widely as “the largest elephant in captivity,” whose prominent billing and attracted such massive crowds to recoup costs of transport and purchase in just four days; Jumbo’s later 1885 death in a train accident led the elephant to be replaced him with the commanding attraction of a Burmese albino elephant, shipped to New York, to replace the bush elephant’s central billing in his menagerie. Barnum long exploited print advertising, and promoted the “sacred” Burmese, Toung Taloung, imported from the Near East, as a “white elephant” whose different stock than elephants of African origin was morally instructive, Barnum, as if its white skin denoted a different race, courting popular fascination with miscegenation and shades of skin color in Reconstruction America.

The hoax, as so often in recent years, was part of the point. Even if the display of the white elephant was more about race than exoticism, the shift from the size of the elephant Barnum promoted fit the times of Reconstruction, but tapped into the display of race and racial difference within Barnum’s promotion of a carefully curated image of Americana. Barnum featured exploitation of race in his showmanship in 1835 by exhibiting former slave Joice Heth to paying audiences, as the mammy of George Washington as a national curiosity in New York’s Niblo’s Garden. The hoax who delighted audiences by promising storeis of raising “little George” for the Washington family, Barnum exploited the place of enslavement held in the national fabric of America led directly to his subsequent exploitation of an elephant in the racial politics of reconstruction America by 1884, when he had promoted the purity and probity of an albino “white elephant” before it arrived in New York by ship from London as an animal possessing greater distinct characteristics from the African Grey he had featured in his menagerie and traveling show–a probity featured as Nast used the pachyderm as an anthropomorphic icon of the Republican party that very year.

Who else but a zealot and convert to the cause of a candidate obsessed with political promotion and image would realize the critical importance of rebranding of the party in anticipation for the 2020 election, to take time to promote and announce the roll-out of a new political iconography of the elephant–a red elephant–with purity of purpose? While Trump’s commitment to steer the party to victory in 2018 midterms had failed to translate unprecedented advantages in fundraising McDaniel had ensured to a margin of victory, the largest elephant in the room of animating the electorate for the Presidential election. Was it surprising Trump felt the party needed rebranding? The elephant would be a potent signifier of the purity of red states to those who wanted it, inviting images of a domestication of wildness, a channeling of white anger, and a sense of bucking tradition and loosening of decorum, all rolled into a rearing beast.

President Trump Addressing 2018 Republican National Committee Winter Meeting

The redesigned “red elephant” was perhaps a white elephant of political iconography, but a new regime of truth for the political party. For in abandoning the red, white and blue to promote a uniformity of purpose and single mindedness that echoed the “sacred elephant” cartoonist Thomas Nast had adopted to represent the Republican party’s nobility by anthropomorphizing Barnum’s new exotic addition to his famed menagerie–a “white elephant,” nobler and more kind and docile than its African cousin–in ways that would consciously play to the consciousness of race among circus-goers in post-Reconstruction America. Was the new red elephant, distinctive in its chromatic design, a color that might not only signal rage, or anger at the declining moral standards and protection of liberties, but a conformity around an image, in ways that Trump, a master of the image, must have found appealing as a new branding of the political party under his own imprint?

GOP Square.svg

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. Having spent party funds on covering all legal fees related to defending the sitting President from charges of Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential campaign, McDaniel seemed to seek to make a fresh start for Trump’s campaign for reelection, adopting a logo of chromatic conformity for a campaign that would not adopt or issue a party platform, but that revolved around the new leader of the party.

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 internet map originated from a political fringe, the fantasy of a monochrome elephant foretold a red coalition’s coming victory, as in inviting 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.

Red State Secession/August, 2019

Redesigning the very republic as if in DIY drawing of electoral districts, in an inelegant from of gerrymandering that dropped sections of Florida, Wisconsin, Michicagn, Ohio, Arizona, Colorado and Virginia and a strip of Nevada that echoe the demand to “do your own research” to recognize your allies. The oppositional politics of the map of almost Manichean design was best met by a uniformly red elephant as its emblem. Perhaps the deep fantasy of cartographic excision was less based on the secession of the Civil War, than 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 by cutting Broward, Palm Beach, and Miami-Dade counties from the Union, in a hardly convincing map of states that “follow the Constitution”–derived from electoral maps. The almost comic cohesion of a red elephant might enjoy suggests a regime of stagecraft and suggestion, that openly showed little but gestured to a rich history of political iconography far deeper than its crude cartography suggests.

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 as an image of the nation and the purity of its leadership. The recuperation of what Nast saw as an image of nobility and purity of purpose in Barnum’s new addition to a menagerie boasting moral instruction was also in ways a return of the repressed, tapping into the racial anxieties that were projected onto the African elephant as an emblem of the domestication of the savage beast.

For elimination of all tricolor in the new brand of the President’s party recycled the very racial insensitivity and unsavoriness that the exhibition of circus elephants had long signalled. When circus entrepreneur P.T. Barnum extolled the purity of the exhibited albino “white” elephant he purchased to introduce to American audiences as a nobler alternative to African Greys, he desired to please circus-going audiences in Reconstruction America. Unlike the darker “cousin” Jumbo, who after being captured in Abyssinia in 1861, was sold by animal traders to the Jardin des Plantes as the largest elephant in captivity, and who Barnum had brought to America by boat from London as a centerpiece for his traveling show, Barnum promoted the albino elephant as a gentler, nobler, and more docile breed. The creature, described as of different cast and moral status than other elephants who had toured the nation, became a media sensation whose claims to purity Nast had channeled. While the cartoonist hoped to communicate the new moral character of the Republican party, in the very costume Barnum outfitted and exhibited the Burmese beast, the racial anxieties he tapped were eerily akin to those Trump stoked at the 2020 Convention. Barnum had promoted a beast not captured from Africa, but from Burma’s court, where it was regularly serenaded and invested with sacred character, suggested the subject removed from “blackness” and slavery, a different stock and perhaps race of elephant, in ways that the audiences of Barnum’s circus could not fail to appreciate and discern. Was the mild eugenics of Barnum’s beast not implicit in the “white elephant” by which Nast embodied his own political party? The Red elephant not only was a new embodiment of the party, but mapped it onto red states.

Thomas Nast, “The Sacred Beast” (1884)

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 GOP 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.

Donald Trump’s party may not have 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. The 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, no longer the American flag that the GOP had once pretended to incarnate for its members, but far more akin to the image of capaciousness and stolidity of tradition, known sufficiently embodied only by red states. 

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Filed under American Politics, Donald J. Trump, political iconography, popular entertainment, 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 Republican Party’s nomination as presidential candidate in 2020, he noted that the seat of executive power “has been the home of larger-than-life figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson, who rallied Americans to bold visions of a bigger and brighter future,” in ways that reveal his own aspirations to monumentality, and their proximity to his decision to enter political life. As Trump had once confided that Trump Tower was but a “prop” to create the show that was Donald Trump to sold-out performances, in 1990, the border wall had afforded a prop of Presidential authority. The readiness with which Trump used Mt Rushmore as a prop to speak to the nation on Independence Day, 2020, or the White House to address the Republican Convention, revealed an interest in the preservation of statues as loci of authority–and his enmity of identifying as Cancel Culture the criticism of monuments of Confederates, or of Columbus, John Wayne, or of the Confederate Commander Robert E. Lee.

Donald Trump’s cultivation of the monumental may have led to a readiness as a candidate for President to seek out the Border Wall. If it is almost a chicken-and-egg question whether the demand for the wall drove his candidacy or he conjured the spatial imaginary of the wall, the proposal was seized on during the dark years of the Trump presidency as a prop to reveal his commitment to national security far beyond tariffs, trade conventions, and trade wars and revive his presidency or lagging candidacy in what seemed a six year campaign. If the border wall became a marquis event of the Trump Presidency until it occasioned the final public trip of the Trump Presidency, now recast as a site to burnish his legacy and his commitment to ideals, it was by no means the sole prominent he tried to insert in the landscape. Although the addition of a statue of Columbus to the Manhattan skyline was focussed on the microcosm of Manhattan, the first theater of Trump’s public fortunes, the case of the towering bronze statue to an imperious Christopher Columbus, that one-time icon of Italian-American identity, already attacked from the early 1990s, when Trump first floated the possibility of its erection on his properties as a gift from the Russian Federation in 1997. The statue that Boris Yeltsin had proposed Bill Clinton accept as a gift for the Columbian quincentennial was seized upon by Trump in the years that he sought to revive his flagging fortunes in Manhattan as a monument to place his stamp on the urban skyline he identified, regularly drawing on cocktail napkins, with a sharpie, as if he was coveting its gleaming buildings as a young realtor from Queens.

Donald Trump, 2008

The addition of the planned statue of the Genoese navigator had been routinely rejected as a part of the American imaginary by many groups as early as 1997–the year Honduran indigenous destroyed a statue of Columbus to condemn the project of Spanish colonization, five hundred and five years after the fact, beheading the monument, painting it red to recognize the blood it bore, and throwing it into the ocean, in what had become a ritual desecration of monuments to Columbus since the quincentenary of 1992. The fabrication of the statue in Moscow may have predated the protest movements to remove statues in Britain of Topple the Racists, but reached for a discredited iconography of supremacy at the moment Columbus had been widely questioned as a figure of American identity–but when Trump felt that he might make a deal for the acceptance of a monument that would appeal to the recently elected Italian American mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani. The monument he offered to plant on his properties he was developing on the Hudson River estuary, above Upper New York Bay, near midtown, Harbor, above the Statue of Liberty that rises in the Upper Bay from Beddoes’ Island, would hardly have been precedented for a private residence. But Trump’s sense of combining territoriality of the lands of the old train yards on the expanded west side of Manhattan with a demand for glitz seems to have led him to agree to the deal for erecting a statue, some fifteen feet taller would have provided an improbably gigantic statuary, even if the landfill of his new housing development could probably not sustain its massive weight–yet the image of the massive statue promoting a performative icon of global rule, not long before the first time Roger Stone openly fashoned Donald Trump’s candidacy for President.

Roger Stone holding a Trump 2000 campaign poster

The ill-fated story of the attempted transatlantic voyage of this perversion of a Modern Colossus, a triumphant image of the fifteenth century navigator’s imperious gaze, glorified the imperious form of the navigator without a map or compass, but shows him atop a small caravel, behind three massive billowing flags bearing crosses that concretize his claims to have brought Christianity to the New World, glorifying the man who began the slave trade from the Americas, desperate to turn a profit on his second voyage–who never set foot on the continental United States, let alone approached New York harbor. The imperious view of this statue’s grim visage, an assemblage of sorts, first designed to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ expedition made out of 2,500 pieces of bronze and steel manufactured in Russia, cast in 3 different foundries, was assembled in 2016, just after Trump’s election, some 25 years after its first conception, but at a towering two hundred and sixty-eight feet would tower over the sixty meter iron column on which Columbus stood in Barcelona, erected for the 1888 University Exposition, shortly after the Statue of Liberty arrived in New York Harbor in 1885, or the seventy-six foot column on which Columbus stands in midtown Manhattan, adorned with bronze miniatures of the three ships of the Genoese navigator’s first voyage, the Nino Pinto and Santa Maria, planned in 1890 and unveiled in 1892. Unlike the image of the Genoese navigator holding nautical charts and pointing to the Atlantic in Barcelona, or the image of Columbus with a compass or globe, in period costume, this Columbus stares over the land, saluting imagined inhabitants akin to a Caesar. More than encountering natives, as the bas-relief in Manhattan or Barcelona, Columbus in “Birth of the New World” evokes a figure with aspirations to global dominance, removed from time or space, a thoroughly post-modern figure of the discoverer who lacks maps, as if he followed inborn GPS.

His gaze is imperious, but does not scan the seas, or shore, but seems to ahve arrived with a new sense of entitlement, inflected by three royal crosses behind him, and in the relative immobility of his posture and weight, facts that Trump must have noticed or seen in a mock-up when it was suggested as a gift to the realtor who was negotiating the placement of Trump Tower in Moscow, and saw fit to place on the lot of the planned luxury apartments he had been promoting in Manhattan, as another second act to Trump Tower, when his fortunes and global capital were in decline, having just declared a loss in 1995 of $916 billion desperate to relieve some of his debt devised a deal forgiving half of the $110 million he owed, per Wall Street Journal, escaping his creditors in ways Fortune called truly “Houdini-like” and was eager to create a needed simulacrum of monumentality for the Trump brand that would magnify his own personal wealth in Manhattan and on the global playing field, as he aimed to $916 million loss he posted for 1995, or the millions he had been hemorrhaging of the value of Trump International that was rolled out in 1997, in an attempt to eclipse the filing for bankruptcy of Trump Taj Mahal in 1991, by securing a new monument of global conquest.

‘Birth of a New World’ by Zurab Tsereteli/ Arecibo, Puerto Rico -John Alex Maguire/REX/Shutterstock

This giant statue was the first time in the final months of his Presidency, Donald Trump seemed to bond again with the symbolic status of statues as patriotic memorial, so that by May, 2020, during the social justice riots after George Floyd’s killing, he felt oddly impelled to affirm, almost repeatedly, the litany of statues, memorials, commemorations, or neoclassical monuments. From May of that year, he linked the eulogizing of statuary was paired with the end of the “downsizing of America’s identity” to the national wealth “soaring” an additional twelve trillion, concealed in increasing wealth inequality, describing funds “pouring into neglected neighborhoods,” presenting the Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh, and “reaffirming our heritage” by in the State of the Union, lionizing the heroism of Americans as if a casting call for the Garden of National Heroes he suggested on July 4, 2020: Generals–Pershing, Patton, and MacArthur–and noble frontier figures like Wyatt Earp, Davy Crockett, and other heroes of the Alamo, or the Pilgrims from Plymouth Rock, largely white men, lamenting the lack of heroic statues, rather than affirming a commitment to living humans, and expressing shock and dismay at the attacks on neoclassical statues. Trump had returned as soon as he was elected President to reassert the place the Genoese navigator occupied in a proclamation celebrating Columbus Day the second Monday of October, praising his “commitment to continuing . . . quest to discover . . . the wonders of our Nation,” and, in fact, the “wonders of our nation, world, and beyond,” as if the navigator was indeed a basis for the proclamation of the future vision of the nation, as if replacing the vision of the nation in that other Modern Colossus of the Statue of Liberty, modernizing Manifest Destiny by praising the navigator for having “tamed a continent,” if he had barely arrived at one.

The planned monument was never built. But it evoked a mythos of manifest destiny many found a surprising embrace as a way to “reaffirm our values and affirm our manifest destiny” in the early days of the Trump Presidency. But Trump seemed to affirm his mysterious attachment to global transit of profits in the allegedly cost-free transport of a massive piece of statuary to be built on the Hudson River’s shores as a new way to claim public prominence for his lagging fortunes, jsut years before he first put his hat into a Presidential primary and declared his interest and possible intention to be United States President, as if to familiarize the nation with an idea that was striking by its improbability. The Hudson River, Donald Trump announced to the American press, was in fact the very site where “The mayor of Moscow . . . would like to make a gift to the American people,” a site to erect the massive statuary entitled “Birth of the New World.” He eagerly let it leak to the press after his return from Russia in 1997 that he would be instrumental in the arrival of a new monument for the city’s skyline, based on his negotiations with Russian oligarchs, and that the project hard to imagine as an extension of his own interests to immediately raise eyebrows of a tie: “It would be my honor if we could work it out with the City of New York!” While Trump International was a chain of luxury residences, the elevation of the statue as an image that confirmed his luxury residences as a global attraction were no doubt far closer in his mind than the consensus the new public statuary would imply. Did he realize that the gift was already rejected by two sitting presidents, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, who were approached by what was an ostensible gift of friendship for the quincentenary of Columbus? His image of a new logo for Trump International to show its global ambitions, unveiled in 1997, at Columbus Circle, has an eery parallel to the interest in adopting Columbus as a mascot for his new luxury housing chain, oblivious to the impropriety of placing a triumphant statuary of Christopher Columbus at his own other midtown properties, as if to personalize the contested icon of what had become a disputed and quite loaded figure of global triumphalism–a figure that was almost literally from another time.

4118-NYC-Columbus Circle.JPG

Trump bemoaned desecration of the monumental on the eve of leaving office addressing in his final rally, on January 6, 2021, bemoaning what he saw as rage against monuments, not a re-questioning of their significance, and cultivating an eery silence on escalating police violence. The danger of disturbance of monuments was only stopped by a law and order affirmation, lest, he taunted, “they’ll knock out Lincoln too,” necessitating the sentences for desecrating statues–“You hurt our monuments, you hurt our heroes, you go to jail“–to restrain the beheading, toppling, or besmirching with red paint of public monuments of confederates, slave holders, and colonizers in all fifty states, including the 1,749 statues of confederates that the Southern Poverty Law Center estimate were standing in the United States in 2019, 1,500 supported by the US government grounds; a sixth of monuments to confederates erected mostly in the Jim Crow era lie in black-majority counties, totems of a past white supremacist culture President Trump had found much support. As the call for the removal of statues that natauralize if not celebrate racism as part of the American social fabric, the reconsideration of confederate statues long prominent in many cities seems to have provoked Trump’s outspoken support for the very same statues as a sign of patriotism.

The statue of the instigator of the slave trade, Christopher Columbus, had claimed a special place in the political emergence of Donald Trump, and in the revaluation of public monuments, form the the civic fraying of debate about the status of Columbus that dates from the early 1991, when indigenous protests against the commemoration of Columbus began, and the proclamation in some cities by 1992 of Indigenous People’s Day. Trump’s attachment to the monumental an an emergence that seemed deeply tied to his desire for the monumental placement of an icon that might command statement was long tied to an aspiration for recognition: Trump claims to have long dreamed he might appear on Mt. Rushmore, perhaps explaining the ubiquity of his name on his buildings, and the satisfaction he drew from that. But the escalation of his drive for the monumental–and, indeed, his hopes for a border wall that might bear his name– may have began, not with his inauguration, but just after Trump Tower, in 1990, when Trump was flailing around for attention and for ways to escape his debtors, and negotiated the arrival from Russia of a monumental statue he imagined would stand in New York harbor–which Trump probably argued was the apt location for “Birth of the New World,” a monument two past Presidents of the United States had turned down, but Donald Trump, eager to please Russians, promised he would erect.

While Columbus was Genoese, and long a confirmation of Italian American pride, the image of a monumental figure of male Christian government that the Tsereteli statue, removed from time and space, staked an over the top monument of an image of the white, male figure of state we might long associate with Trump, a figure numerous American cities would rebuff in the 1990s, before it was relocated to Puerto Rico. The proposed statue marked Trump’s first flirtation with a statement of political monumentalism, inspired by ties to Russian oligarchs who patronized the deeply orthodox Georgian sculptor who had designed the towering neoclassical figure of a heroic navigator for “Birth of the New World.”

The monumental size of the statue of the navigator long deemed an icon of national genius was to upstage the monumental Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, at the end of the estuary, celebrating in monumental form the heroism of the navigator, more a symbol of rapaciousness and plunder but recast in bronze in monumental size as a liberator and conquistador of new lands that, before Trump appeared on Reality TV, would broadcast his achievement and Trump’s munificence on the skyline of New York to all its residents. Columbus would be cast in a new level of monumentality, and even aspire to the new language and logic of monumentality to which Donald Trump had aspired. While it is not clear why the monument did not advance, one suspects that Trump’s eagerness to accept the monumental statue of the Genoese navigator forged in Moscow’s oldest smelting furnaces, founded by Catherine the Great, and designed by the Georgian Zurab Tseretelli, would have been placed on landfill in a Trump project in the landfill of the trainyards in the Hudson estuary, unable to support the ponderous bronze assemblage weighing 660 tons–the ballpark figure Trump cited that oddly hovered near the number of the beast.

Sheet of 1916 map of New York City Freight Yard Trump Desired to Situate Gifted Monument, “Birth of the New World”

Did the negotiation of a figure of rapaciousness as a symbol of the nation find its way to the sponsorship of Donald Trump only by chance? The image of a white conqueror that Russian elites offered to Donald Trump at the same time as he pursued ways to export his brand to the post-Soviet oligarchs in a gambit for greater monumentality was a moment when Trump’s language of monumentality–the expansion of Trump Properties to Trump International and the expansion of Trump Tower in Manhattan to a possible chain of Trump Towers in global capitals–suggested a stagecraft of hotel promoting that was met by a triumphalism of staking his foray into national politics by rehabilitating the figure of Columbus as a hero of globalism and economic conquest that would dwarf the figure of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, as if to cement the gift of Russian oligarchs beyond the French Republicans.

The timing of such an encomia to the rapaciousness of the Genoese navigator as an emblem of global economic ties was perfect. At the very time that Columbus’ celebration as a national hero was being questioned, that the post-Soviet government of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin had once offered a sitting American president–and attempted to offer to a second–that Trump, during a visit to Moscow ostensibly to plan a new residential tower on Red Square, acceded to being amenable to erect on shorefront properties he was developing. But perhaps the biggest irony of Donald Trump’s attempt to promote this monumental statue was that it was a way of selling his own success to an American public, at a time when he was in fact surrounded by mounting debt, having trafficked in debts for most of the 1980s, and in need of an illustration of triumphalism to promote his own pet project of a new West Side development, that would be the site where he proposed the statue of the navigator who had claimed to “discover the New World” was planned to be erected.

If Trump had argued that Trump Tower demanded recognition as “the eight wonder of the world,” the statue of Columbus that he sought to importing to the banks of the Hudson River, or the landfill of the former railway yards where he projected an exclusive new luxury complex, provided a possible basis to erect the monumental bronze statue of Christopher Columbus, designed by Soviet sculptor Zurab Tseretelli, a Georgian member of the Orthodox church, far larger than the statue of Columbus in the act of sighting land from atop a column in Barcelona, in 1997, before two sails billowing with wind, each decorated with a cross, in the act of bearing Christianity to the New Wold as an agent of the Royal Majesties, Ferdinand and Isabella. This invocation of the myth of transatlantic travel–Columbus had never visited New York, sailed in the Hudson, or on North America, save Caribbean islands, had grown in 1892 as part of an American decision to stake claim to the theater of Central American islands as a province of hegemony. As the monarchs were storing all maps of routes to the New World as tools of global power, the throwback image of a Columbus offered a basis for Trump to set his sites on global markets, by 1997, far outside New York, and provided one of the strongest ties between Trump and Russia, as Donald was hoping to build an outpost for a newly branded Trump International, by an actual monument that would have been the tallest statue in the western hemisphere to affirm the global scale of his enterprise.

But the image of this immense statue of a robed Columbus who would be saluting Mnhatttan Island, would be a theatrical addition to the six luxury towers he was planning on the West Side, at a time when Trump was all but crumbling under debt. Would the image of Columbus, shown saluting Manhattan Island and perhaps hailing the towers of Trump and the foreign capital that had funded their construction, as the Russian-made statue that Trump brokered was billed as arriving in New York fully paid for, with oligarchs covering the cost of its transport and construction, aside from the installation of the behemoth on the landfill where Trump planned to build. How the monumental statue would appear on the New York skyline, or be integrated with Trump residences, was never apparently discussed let alone described, so much did Trump trust the sense of theatricality that the erection of the statue would immediately add to his image in the city, which was in need of considerable rehabilitation.

The statue met Trump’s insatiable taste for monumentality, even if the image of Columbus as an elitist mariner and royal emissary was about as out o step with the histroical image of Columbus or his place in a democratic tradition. Columbus stood as if arriving and claiming possession over a nation, echoed a belief in manifest destiny that was more than out of step with the times. It idealized a sense of conquest and of rapaciousness as American, if the recalibration of the legacy of Columbus as a national hero had been percolating across the nation for some years, as many questioned whether the navigator who had been heroized by Italian immigrants as an icon of their ties to the nation of America and an image of their own whiteness, was now reclaimed as a logic of the capitalism of plunder, materialism, and enrichment, rather than the social and civic order that the image of Lady Liberty, standing atop the chains of enslavement, was intended to communicate.

Unlike the stoic monuments of Columbus as a world traveller, the statue of the emissary who arrived in classical robes was an odd appeal to a type of classical statuary, togaed and raising his right hand in a gesture of imperial salute, to exchange for the entry of Trump Properties to Moscow, Is this triumphal image of Columbus not an image of enrichment, as much as Christianization, and image of neoclassical monumentality who masks the violence of disenfranchisement and conquest! In raising one hand worthy of Mussolini more than Augustus, the sttue all but invoked a “Doctrine of Discovery” to lay claims to the New World, unlike Liberty,. For the figure of Columbus lays claim to the ownership of the land and its rulership by a sort of Christian militarism, without a book of laws or declaration, or respect for laws, viewing the nation from atop a small symbolic caravel. It did not make a difference that this figure was so dramatically ahistorical, with his hand on an anachronistic rotary wheel, without a compass, sighting device, or indeed a map.to navigate or to conquer and stake his claim.

The monument did not have need of either–if all are the tools included in Columbus statuary, for it was actively rewriting history and memory alike. In the service of a banal monumentality, closely recalling the cartoonish monuments that Zurab Tseretelli had helped erect across Moscow, and send to different posts in the world including Paris and New York, the oddly cartoonish navigator is ostensibly a new map of the nation, as well as a new image of global power that had been offered to American Presidents as a gift of the post-Soviet, but that Presidents Bush and Clinton had alike demurred, perhaps seeing something unsavory in selecting a gift form a Russian President as an image of the American nation. This image famously appealed to Donald Trump, who savored its monumentality, the reputation of the lauded Russian Georgian sculptor Zurab Konstantinovitch Tsereteli, and his reputation for controversial monumental art. Trump had a high tolerance for what might be called kitsch of opaque monumentalism. The frozen figure of Columbus removed from time and place is an assertion in empty air, a floating signifier that only seemed to float, standing on a ship in triumph, a made-in-Moscow massive icon of unheard of magnitude, that would be destined to the largest in the western hemisphere. This project to re-monumentalize the image of Columbus in the act of magisterially surveying a continent on which he had barely set foot, as if to justify claiming the conversion of the New World’s inhabitants, offered a claim for Trump’s own arrival on a global stage, funded by underwater financial currents, laundered funds, and foreign backers–many of whom seem to have continued to support his candidacy in a bid to be US President in 2016 and 2020, often through the same contact that Trump wanted Russian oligarchs to talk about the statue’s arrival, then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Donald Trump was more familiar with identifying himself with a monument–witness how he became identified with the “prop” of Trump Tower that maps that became a primary residence, a site of his corporation, and a studio set for his Reality TV shows, Trump wanted a monument that would announce his status on a global stage, allowed him to rehabilitate him as he emerged from a mountain of debt, and solidify the claims for a new monument in Moscow, a new Trump Tower a decade later, for which the agreement was to be greased in transactional fashion by the acceptance of an odd statue of Columbus that would effectively remap the nation for Trump’s personal gain. The first second act after Trump Tower, first announced in 1980 as a triumph of the urban skyline, would be erection of an image of Columbus that would similarly dominate the urban skyline, sacrificing debate about an icon of the nation and indeed national identity to meet an undying thirst for monumentalism.

And if Trump repeatedly staked his later Presidential candidacy on his ability to provide the nation with a new monument, a monument to inspire renewed faith in the “sacred bonds of state and its citizens,” as he promised when he unveiled a plan to cut e legal immigration by half soon after his election in 2017, he announced he would run for U.S. President from the atrium of Trump Tower, the nerve center of Trump International, by staking his bonds to television viewers across. the nation by the promise “I would build a great wall,” as a concrete barrier along the United States’ southern border, winking acknowledging “nobody builds walls better than me, believe me” as if referring to the monumental atrium where he spoke. If Trump repeated the claim “I know how to build” and “I am a builder” in an upbeat optimism of the nation, as if the talismanic power of Trump Tower established the legitimacy of his ability to deliver on global wealth to deliver fantastic power, if not a personal fantasy, as he consciously deployed the Tower as an image of power, making good on the promise to deliver a building of unprecedented desirability to Americans and height to the New York skyline as he navigated its construction from 1979 to 1983, the potential addition of a statue of Columbus, the colonizer converted to a heroic figure and White Christian Man, int he 1990s provided perhaps more than a road not taken.

The entrance of this monumental Columbus, proposed for the estuary of the Hudson River, where Henry Hudson, himself in fact once an agent, as it happened, for the Muscovy Company, arrived in New York Harbor in 1609, but Columbus never approached or sailed, would be the first great international showpiece Trump would have promoted as his realty company was pivoting global, by rebranding and expanding as Trump International, on a global stage, as a showman seeking the least modest image of grandiosity able to be imagined. If Robert Musil, the Austrian novelist and critic, had in 1925 imagined that one often passes urban monuments “without [having] the slightest notion of whom they are supposed to represent, except maybe knowing they are men or women,” as you walk around the pedestals of statues that in their remove from the urban environment almost repel attention, leading our glance to roll off, and repelling the very thing they are meant to attract as water drops off an oilcloth, the showpiece that Trump was aspiring to bring to his Hudson River properties would cast Donald Trump as presenting a new image of the nation. The fantasy that Moscow fed Donald Trump to Americans was modeled, like the Statue of Liberty, after the Wonder of the World of the Colossus of Rhodes, was difficult to deny for a man who had declared Trump Tower a Wonder of the World, and attempted to replicate a second global wonder in Atlantic City in Trump Taj Mahal, recently built for $1.2 billion as “the eighth wonder of the world,” but the 360-foot bronze statue of Columbus Russian oligarchs had promised to deliver was. a monument he seems to have siezed on to promote his own public prominence in Manhattan.

Trump’s promise of the size of the statue and its ostensible value–$40 million!–would be a sort of windfall that would serve as a small downpayment on the $916 million loss he posted for 1995, or the millions he had been hemorrhaging of the value of Trump International as Trump Taj Mahal filed for bankruptcy in 1991, or the deals he had cut with banks that unloaded his personal debt for about $55 million–half of what he owed, in what Fortune had marveled was a  “Houdini-like escape” from his creditors, having walked away from personal debts to relaunch his hopes for a real estate empire without the encumbrance of any federal tax claims at all. The monument to Columbus would relaunch his brand, Its size concealing that Trump’s increased search attracted illicit flows of Russian money in hard times to puff up his grandeur and indulge his vanity, in the guise of promoting patriotism, even if the image of Columbus it would advance. At the same time as Giuliani proclaimed Trump’s “genius” during his later Presidential run was revealed in his ability to financially rebound from the devastating indebtedness of 1995, the statue of Columbus would be a similar dissimulation. The massive statue–taller than the Statue of Liberty!–would be an illustration of his ability to create a “comeback,” and to reburnish his public citizenship. The statue transposed from a register of patriotism to promoting a residence would have been the fulfillment of Trump’s past plans to create on the same site the very tallest building in the world of seventy-six stories– complimented by a statue the tallest in the western hemisphere, whose maquette Trump had already presented publicly with paternal pride. The spire of the newly planned central tower would dance in dialogue with a statue of the discoverer, a sort of grotesque dialogue of monumentality commanding global attention, demanding that the world recognize Trump’s return to the top of his game and reclaiming his status as a global real estate developer.

Trump with Murphy/Jahn Model for Television City, 1985/1988

Hopes for marking the complex to be named Riverside South on the banks of the Hudson River in New York City of a monumental bronze statue of the fifteenth-century navigator Christopher Columbus cast in Russia–“Look on my works, ye might, and despair!“–adopted colossal statuary of a figure Trump has affirmed as central to the nation–and preparing for its settlement by Europeans as President as a promotional illustration of his latest property’s value and its status as a global destination. in a new language of architectural monumentality, unsurpassed world wide, a showpiece that would be a credible second act for Trump Tower that would supersede the tower Trump had planted in the New York skyline with an even more monumental eyesore that no one in Manhattan could ignore.

Trump declared himself considering a Presidential run in 1988 to Oprah, offhand, and was perhaps destined to intersect with the boondoggle of a statue offered to President Clinton and President Bush in 1990 and 1994, respectively, who seem to have demurred or declined the grotesque statue that they saw mostly in models, one of which was brought to the White House by Boris Yeltsin in 1990. If the prototype was sent to the Knights of Columbus in Maryland, destined for the harbor, the small model that was on offer at an auction house in Florida suggests the circulation that the proposal for this statue of a man on a boat, the very incarnation of individual agency in relation to the New World, removed from any networks of power or of funding, was intended to make: the odd figurine foregrounding the navigator’s agency unsurprisingly fell on deaf ears, but the token of globalism appealed to Trump, so delusionally sure of his own genius as a realtor to win a statue to take home to New York.

The megalomaniac sculptor Tsereteli fashions himself as a builder for new global emperors, and invested Columbus in a roman toga, as he would Peter the Great, in the colossal monument that finally appeared in Puerto Rico near San Juan off the shore in Arecibo, far closer to the Genoese navigator’s actual itinerary, after the megalomaniac sculptor had shopped it around the globe, hoping the ridiculous sculpture would be realized.

Trump, laden with debt at this point in his life, would have seen in the statue the opportunity for global symbolism, able to restore his public reputation and image of public citizenship in New York, and balance the exclusivity of dwellings destined to be removed from the city and for the superrich with a front of civic generosity and showmanship. While the maquette of Tseretelli’s statue was probably glimpsed while he was in Moscow, Trump was quick to adopt the monument of Columbus as something of a pet project that he might advance his hopes for a Moscow hotel and tower to Moscow’s corrupt mayor and other post-Soviet oligarchs, promoting a gigantic statue of the Genoese navigator in 1997 he imagined might benefit from an assist from then newly-elected mayor Rudy Giuliani, who Trump must have imagined would comply with the role of past mayors in acceding to the bending of local regulations and zoning requirements to arrange sites for his Manhattan buildings. Trump was for his part happy to promote the arrival of the monumental statue as if it was imminently impending, as a true showman, telling Michael Gordon of the New York Times with satisfaction that “[the deal]’s already been made,” while not mentioning the Russian offer had been rejected by two American presidents, allowing “it would be my honor if we could work it out [that the statue be erected] with the City of New York,” on a stretch of landfill he promoted for his properties, as if he had brokered a deal on behalf of the city, only requiring the Mayor to sign off. The Master of the Art of the Deal boasted a done deal, anticipating approval of Giuliani to erect the 660 tons of bronze that he claimed valued at $40 million, on the development site where Tseretelli ostensibly desired it be located, in anticipation of the completion of the stalled construction project that he hoped would be a display of super-wealth for residential towers to be built, in hopes that they would find their counterpart in a monumental prop of global kitsch.

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Sculptor Zurab Tsereteli Showing Possible Situation of Columbus Monument in 1999

It is apt the monument was relocated to Puerto Rico, on whose shores the historical Columbus actually set foot, and renamed from anisland known by Taíno inhabitants as Borikén (Spanish Boriquen), “land of the brave lord,” to a city named after Saint John the Baptist. The commemoration of Columbus in San Juan occurred only in 1893, to be mirrored in the new centennial by the 2016 outsized statue largely visible to luxury liners arriving at or departing San Juan.





Although the “Birth of the New World” was never built near New York, the promise of the arrival of the statue, first planned to coincide with the quincentenary of the Columbian voyage, but long languishing in storage lockers on both sides of the Atlantic, demands exploration as a moment to examine the trust Trump placed on a monument albeit a second-hand one forged in Moscow, for staging his own triumphant return to a global stage. No one had ever seen so large a statue of Columbus–the figurine that survives which the sculptor seems to have made to shop around the discarded project–but the idea of redeeming an image of pompous grandiosity from the dustbin of history on the properties he sought to developed on the West Side in the mid-1990s, when he was clawing himself back to a place on the global stage, was a new fantasy project that Trump had hoped to sell the the nation. The plans to erect the monumental statue, double the height of the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio De Janeiro, preceded his project to run as a candidate for President with the Reform Party, a fledgling renegade party begun by former Television Star and World Wrestler Jesse Ventura, later placed in Puerto Rico in all its 6,500 tons of bronze, on the port city of Arecibo, shortly before Trump was elected U.S. President, was a fantasy project that

Birth of a New World’ byZurab Tsereteli in Arecibo, Puerto Rico/ John Alex Maguire/REX/Shutterstock (5736251i)

1. The triumphalism of the statue of Columbus he boasted to bring to his properties on the Hudson had been proposed to three earlier U.S. Presidents as a gift for the Columban centenary that would cement the post-Soviet friendship between the United States and Russia, but the odd arrangement that emerged from protracted real estate negotiations in Moscow had Trump promising the deliverable of a site for the statue of Columbus on his Hudson river properties. Trump’s boasting of Trump Tower as a wonder recalls the huge attention he assigned recreating a modernized version of an actual global wonder–the ancient Colossus of Rhodes–in a bronze statue of Christopher Columbus, taller even than the Statue of Liberty that dominates New York Harbor, gifted to the American government as a “Modern Colossus” that claimed to celebrate freedom of the same height as the ancient wonder of the world, all but intended to be situated on the Hudson to contrast with the slightly smaller Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. The “white monument”–proclaiming the truth in a Dead White Man History–aligned Trump not with conservatism but a transactional story of glitz, grandiosity and power that provided both a telling warning, touchstone, and recapitulation for Trump’s entrance into a political career, which while never built provided a deeply comic and incredible image of Trump’s tie to the figure of the navigator, “Behind [whom] the Gates of Hercules;/Before him not the ghost of shores,/Before him only shoreless seas.”

The monument would have been impossible to not entertain as a prop of global power, as much as of his own sense of import, and offers a model of the sort of monument he sought–and the deeply transactional nature of Trump’s notion of global power that is important to recall. As Donald Trump had ridden the monument of the border wall to the office of the Presidency in 2015, as a sign of his ability to contest the political status quo, he indulged himself in imagining the monument that symbolized the scale of efforts to curtail immigration Trump would pursue as President by Executive Orders and diktat, days after inauguration, the border wall perhaps demands to be seen as a “prop”–as Trump the realtor admitted he considered Trump Tower a prop for his promotion of real estate worldwide with Trump Properties during the 1990 interview, as if the hundred room triplex he kept for himself in the building were secondary to the public status the building afforded him. To be sure, the penthouse he shared with then-wife Ivana were sites of almost regal lifestyle, importing a version of Versailles to Fifth Avenue, but as “props” created a lifestyle and a global status–he confessed Playboy with some facetiousness, be as happy in a one bedroom apartment–but valued the “gaudy excess” of the building to “create an aura that seems to work.”

The projected tower attracted Trump to a new language of monumentality of truly hubristic size, but he believed he could pull it off. The lines of Joaquin Miller of the navigator who both “gained a world; [and] gave that world/Its grandest lesson–“On! sail on!“–parallels Trump’s own approach to political power, and suggests the deep ties to Russians that led to the homes to entertain the Presidency as an occasion to create a monument to himself. Trump’s hubris in claiming Trump Tower as global wonder lay in promoting his real estate of returns that must have seemed to Trump akin to a Midas’ touch. Yet if the “Modern Colossus” was, as the monumental statue at Rhodes that spanned the city’s harbor with a stride of unprecedented size, was a celebration of freedom, as the Liberty statue, but upstaging it, standing the same height from toe to head as the modern colossus, not to extend freedoms to all races or subjects, but to stand as a symbol of glorification, which Trump imagined he might accept in place of the United States Presidents who had demurred on accepting the monumental cast statue of the Genoese sailor. Trump promoted the arrival of the odd monument to the Genoese navigator as a servant of the Spanish crown as an agent of colonization and conversion for unknown Russian oligarchs as a present to New York, as much as to the nation, but used his ties to Mayor Rudy Giuliani to promote a statue of a figure who was in 1990 emblematic of disenfranchisement and a figure emphasizing the unity of European racial descent by rehabilitated the place of the navigator in the mythology of the nation.

The figure of Columbus wold have been a monument to racial hierarchy, echoing Trump’s championing of statues of confederate generals as part of America’s common history as President of the United States. The appeal to these larger than life figures create a new discourse on monumentality across the nation, as if hoped to bridge national and partisan divides, that seemed an attempt to elevate the loss of statues with the dismantling of many icons of the Civil War, posing a threat to the increased nationalization of white supremacy during the Trump Era. Even as images of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis were removed–with statues of Christopher Columbus–to question their speaking for America, the need for a new monumentality was felt acutely by Donald Trump, as if in search for his won monument.

To celebrate the Fourth of July a month previous, President Trump had emphasized the place of honoring statues of racists before Mount Rushmore, which proclaimed plans to create his own statuary garden, a “National Garden of American Heroes” in a campaign stunt that sought to paint his defense of “standards” and non-threatening images of authority to many members of his base. Before the massive statuary of past Presidents of European descent, he called for the need for a Garden that featured more monuments of the “greatest Americans who ever lived”–as if to compensate for the loss of Columbus monuments in many cities over the previous years. Such a Garden would prominently feature not only Christopher Columbus and Junipero Serra, as honorary Americans, blurring church and state, but stake out a divisive vision of the past, that echoed Trump’s forgotten plans, shortly before he first hinted at a Presidential run, proclaimed plans to erect a statue of the very same fifteenth century navigator whose place in the nation’s memory is increasingly queried, providing a vision of his second term by announcing the National Garden would open in 2024. Calling for heroic monuments in an era divided by racial tensions used the faces of four white Presidents to call for honoring authority, promoting new monument of the national identity, as the nation’s identity was being questioned, contested, and faced pressure to be defined.

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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The Revenge of the Infographic?

Long before Barack Obama was a candidate for President of the United States, he took time to chastise the nation about the tyranny of the infographic that divided the nation.  Obama used the occasion of his endorsement of John Kerry’s nomination at the Democratic convention in Chicago to remind the nation of the danger of presuming the divide red states from blue states by the clear chromatic fashion that already increasingly increasingly filtered electoral maps of the United States, and has since come to haunt us in the Trump victory of 2016.  And if we were energized by the notion of “swing states” that might be shifted to the Democratic column back in 2012 and 2008 that increased the involvement and political participation of many in the electoral grid, the resurgent immobility of the electoral map divided between what seem to be continuous regions parsed into “red states” and “blue states”–

 

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–as if it were permanent divide as well as a fluid choropleth that refracted the spectrum of the American flag.  Indeed, the stability of the fractured electoral divide invest a sense of permanence as an electoral landscape, as the two-color infographic seems to have crept into our unconscious:  while it may be a proxy for an urban-rural distinction that has been championed both by the Trump campaign and as a dominant gloss of the infographic, has the divide invaded our consciousness in ways we are able to gain little distance?

America was, after all, once collectively energized at the prospect of tilting against the inevitability of a red-blue divide in the nation.  If Barack Obama sought to chasten readers of infographics in order to breath life into Kerry’s 2004 nomination as Democratic candidate for the United States presidency, his words were not only energizing, but prophetic of his own candidacy.  For they articulated the possibility of transcending electoral divides as a touchstone of his campaign strategy, foreshadowing Obama’s later electoral success.  And when we hear Donald Trump’s celebration of the “heartland” as the ‘Real America’ as if it might be searched for and found on the map, somewhere far away from “coastal elites” or intellectuals, it serves to conceal Trump’s truly narrow electoral victory by articulating a “real America” with which we on the coasts lost touch.  The spate of much-publicized post-election pilgrimages into the “heartland” by Mark Zuckerberg as self-defined coastal elites sought to find”normal america” needs to be rethought:  it seems to project a creation of the very infographics we’ve long consumed to understand democracy, or as a surrogate for democratic elections, more than a real place.  For where we find “the real America” alleged in so many maps in the contiguous sea of red–

 

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–we have recently found that the red is both far more fractured, and even often echoes the very sort of “news deserts” that are associated with the dominance of local news in media markets dominated by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, whose dissemination of a right-wing agenda to the televisions of 40% of Americans seems to have increased polarization in the last election.  The decline of local press–and the absence of paper newspapers–seem in another reminder of how the end of the local reporting poses deep dangers to our democracy–and invites unpredicted sorts of vulnerabilities.

 

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Vox, using dSinclair Broadcasting Group data cross-checked with Nielsen; darker areas denote where Sinclair runs more than one station

 

The divide between red and blue masks the dominant place of far more determining sites of constituencies that are more up for grabs–and my determine the election as extra-urban areas that are demographically distinct, and difficult to cast as blue or red.  The refusal to divide the nation into red and blue states, an increasingly meaningless unit, opened the possibility for change that the dominance of infographics in mediating and reframing our democracy has militated against.

Back when Obama energized the convention by reassuring the nation as well as delegates who had assembled in Chicago that, despite the evidence of infographics, the fissures of a fractured body politic that many maps continued to project were not destined to divide the nation:  “We’re not red states and blue states; we’re all Americans,” Obama urged, “standing up together for the red, white and blue,” even if we were powerfully represented as contentious factions on electoral maps.  The reservations that Obama expressed was compelling as an alternative vision of national unity; it in a sense under-wrote the mantra of “Hope” for a new way of seeing the nation, although this division seemed to return with a vengeance in 2016, as if it haunts the nation.

 

348px-ElectoralCollege2016.svg

 

The divide was, perversely, as powerful back in 2004, back when Obama first chastised the nation so firmly for having adopted the divide as inevitable.  So rhetorically powerful was the visual image of national unity as a rebuke to the fracturing of the map to announce Obama’s oratorical eloquence to the nation.  It seemed a healing balm for a riven republic, even as the 2004 election, despite its clarity of divisions by state, trumpeted in a powerful infographic that suggested isolated bodies of blue set apart form an apparently alienated flyover country that blared bright red indignantly–

 

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USA Today/BeldarBlog

–in ways that were echoed if not accentuated in the county-by-county breakdown that USA Today issued the day after, and the way Bush dominated what have been called the “battle-ground” states–then Arkansas, Florida, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania–as he did nationwide, even if the distribution didn’t break down at all so smoothly along state “lines”–

 

Mark Newman Red:Blue ma2004countymap-final2.png

 

–to muster the bulk of electoral votes out of the hands of California, Illinois and New York and served to create a solid electoral alliance all the better able to isolate Texas.

The “real America” might well lie in the edges of the blue and red, or the “purple” counties where political debate needs to be foster and occur.  Indeed, the image of divisiveness haunted the political imaginary of the nation so much the nation may have yearned for imagining a new collectivity by 2008.  Despite the fragmenting of the electoral map that occurred in 2004, where states seemed to vote red in their entirety, it might be noted that the same map could be resolved, in a district-by-district image of magnitudes, in a far more complex picture of the deeper red areas perhaps aligning more clearly with states than the more selective distribution of the strongest Democratic voters concentrated in regions voting Democratic–the “blue”–

 

The_2004_Presidential_Election_in_the_United_States,_Results_by_Congressional_District

 

–that is echoed in the far more complex county-by-county picture of 2016, whose shadings are much more telling of political truths:  despite the image of a “heartland” or a true America that is red, many of the areas that seem deep red on the electoral map are indeed light pink or shaded, and suggest that these areas–the less polarized–might be the “real” America much more than the deep red areas, which seem in fact the most remote.

 

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The fracturing of the electoral map by manipulating media was not new to such outlets as Sinclair Broadcasting Group:  Trump turned to the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, noted Media Matters, for interviews to reach a broader demographic, using a group notorious for revealing their boosterism for conservative causes, from ordering stations in 2004 to run anti-John Kerry segments over normal programming over the country–

 

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–using 173 television stations in 81 markets along “180 program streams” in 51 markets:

image.pngGray Television Group Station Map

–as Trump sought to eat into Hillary Clinton’s midsummer lead in national polls, by speaking to voting markets in newly “purple” regions as Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Colorado, and West Virginia, to circumnavigate traditional media outlets.  We would do well to remember that, in ways that raised raised eyebrows for some, that by November 8, 2016, areas like Iowa, Ohio, North Dakota and Arizona were suddenly shifting pink–as would Florida and North Carolina, suddenly an increasingly light blue.

 

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1. There was a time when the red state/blue state divide was not so powerful in our minds.  The power of such an image of electoral unity was already so ingrained in 2004 that its rejection provided more than a powerful rhetorical image for the man who would be elected President in 2008.  The image of a nation that departed from a fractured infographic became central, in many ways, to Obama’s campaign, and a powerful image of a new political future.  Obama recalled the problematic nature of the chromatic division in his own campaigns several times, most famously, perhaps, to rebuke the danger of returning to a chromatic divide in 2012.  In the heat of the Presidential campaign for his second term, President Obama redeployed the refrain in a tweet simply asserting that “There are no red states and blue states, just the United States,” as if to dispatch or denaturalize the splintered red state-blue geography that haunted our diet of infographics in Presidential campaigns.   When Obama penned the figure of speech in 2004, before addressing the Democratic Convention in Chicago, John Kerry so quickly recognized its rhetorical power that he asked to adopt the image in delivering his acceptance of the 2004 nomination, although we’ll always remember it as Obama’s.

State Senator Obama warned somewhat prophetically of the difficulties implicit in any national mapping that ran against national interests; the junior Senator from Illinois took pundits to task for presenting a picture of the nation that served only “to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states–red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats.”  Obama called out the two-color maps as perpetuating a harmful vision, apt to diminish voters’ sense of their ability to effect political change, and diminishing voters’ agency, by inscribing the voting patterns in a static map that fractured the nation into blocks of like-mindedness as if to portray electoral results as predetermined and not contingent.  (The notion of “swing-states” would only emerge as a way to challenge the authority of this two-color map, of course, during Obama’s own 2008 candidacy.)

But the divides that we have come to perpetuate again in the 2016 Presidential election may suggest that the divides were less starkly drawn between red and blue district than Daily Kos Elections calculations suggest, which shows the dissonance between the map of congressional districts were poor vehicles to mediate the popular vote:  for a map of districts distorts geography; the increased crowding of the population in districts that vote “blue.”  Yet can the divide in the nation in fact be best understood by continuing to contemplate this fracturing, and not attending to the sites of smaller electoral margins–where the decision occurs, or at least which create a sense of tipping points, where the truly consequential electoral decisions seem to be increasingly made?  Obama’s caution not to be seduced by slicing and dicing the country seems particularly perceptive, and suggests the danger of trusting a chromatic divide of the country.

 

districts 2014.png

Xenocrypt

 

2.  Obama’s phrase has gained a quite surprising second life in the recent unpacking of how the electoral outcome of the election was sought to be strategically manipulated through the manufacture of a clearer red-blue divide through the voting patterns of purple states.  What were words of caution have gained a new concrete sense after the indictments released by Robert S. Mueller III have revealed outside interest in sharpening contrasts in the electoral map in the 2016 Presidential race, that suggests that the infographic has indeed gained an upper hand in the electoral process in even more dangerous ways than Obama had described.

It’s indeed pretty hard to see the United States divided into “red” and “blue” states, isolated from the world, in the same way again, as if each state shaded pink, light blue or strong red and dark blue in complete autonomy, showing their political temperatures in isolation of from the outside world.  Indeed, although the 2014 House of Representative race was striking for its salmon pinkness–and the deep red of the US-Mexico border, as well as Iowa, such colors are increasingly difficult to be seen as self-contained or removed from the larger world.

 

 

2014 House of Representatives Mid-Term Election 

 

Back when Senator Barack Obama so eloquently endorsed John Kerry as a presidential candidate, his admonition–or quite gentle–scolding struck such a chord not only as an effective image of patriotic identity, and not a reality check.  But the powerful phrasing became a theme of his campaign, and it was unsurprising when Obama returned to it in his 2008 victory speech in Grant Park, and welcomed the good news of what seemed a remapping of the United States, and he took the time to congratulate American voters for having “sent a message to the world that we have never been just . . .  a collection of red states and blue states” and which confirmed that, appearances to the contrary, we “are, and will always be, the United States of America.”  The words had reverberated in many ears with a sense of freshness, from when they were first uttered, as if seeking to disabuse television audiences of the image that had haunted the nation from before the 2000 election, but which had stuck uncomfortably in the background of the nation’s cerebral cortex, creating an image of sharp divisions,–even if those divisions were far less clear on the ground even in 2004, as Obama had suggested–but full of chromatic variations, even when they appeared entrenched, with some eighteen to twenty states mapped in varied shades of purple.  The blurred nature of this dive into voting habits as much as patterns suggests a point-value to political preferences that is misleading, but as a snapshot of the body politic, it suggests diagnostic tool that was valued in altering electoral outcomes as much as the image of individual agency that Bascom Guffin worked to create, using the concept that political scientist Robert Vanderbei had in fact developed for the 2004 Presidential race.  For the map suggested the actuality of the more complicated chromatic divides that Obama had then recently described.

 

purple_nationBascom Guffin, “Purple Nation”

 

Yet the dynamic of the purple regions seems to have been increasingly changed by the emergence in many places of “news deserts”–sites of no or only one local newspaper–in a phenomenon that is increasingly internet-driven, and reinforced by the growing number of news deserts across the nation.  As mapped in interactive form on Carto to reveal the spaces afflicted by the least local news sources–counties with no or one local newspaper, zero suggested by the lightest pink or one by salmon–

 

News Deserts--light pink = zero newpapers; salmon = 1.pngColumbia Journalism review/C. Chisolm

 

–the holes within the information network of much of the nation can be observed that intersect with once purple areas in striking ways, and the hollowing out of a news community in both rural and some urban areas.  The growth of “media deserts” up to 2014 mirror the end of Obama’s second term, and the growth of an alt right movement that has gained an increasingly dominant voice in the American political landscape, where the diminution of local news sources has altered the nature of public opinion have left increasing swaths of the nation dependent on online news sources, altering the information economy in decisive ways that helped allow red/blue cleavages to grow, and polarizing news agencies to reach a larger and more decisive constituency.

 

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Even more compellingly, it suggests the end of an economy of local news over much of the nation.  huge gaping holes have widened to leave the nation like a hunk of swiss cheese, in the southwest, modest, and northwest, as the outbreak of three wobbly but hovering blobs over the nation–including the southwestern border, whose hollowing has left them increasingly susceptible and open to both greater malleability and less reporting of the local consequences of issues of national debate.  In this setting, it is no surprise, perhaps, that internet-driven concerns about immigration, crime, and terrorist threats have been stoked and enflamed with greater ease–and populations most easily subject to outside interference because they lacked the resilience of local news.  In what almost seems a free speech violation, and a difficulty of generating public debate, the growing holes of such news deserts–which, much as it would deprive epidemiologists of needed tools to measure local rates of the growth of infectious disease or influenza–create barriers to assess the local impact of issues exclusively cast in national terms?  Is a decline of local reporting indicative of a qualitative change in the nature of communities, now more likely to adopt oppositional agendas rather than articulate their own?  Or is the rise of “news deserts” congruent with the increase in broadcast news that casts both global policy and national politics in increasingly oppositional terms?

 

Public-health-and-local-media-1024x576.pngDom Smith/Stat News

 

The expansion of such “news deserts” where no or only one source of news exists, according to the American Alliance for Audited Media.  AAUM measured the number of papers that reached at least 1% of each county, and haven’t converted to an exclusively digital form, as a proxy for the decline of news publications, and the increasing reliance on non-local media; while a focus on newspapers is questionable in an era of the dominance of television and on-line news, the hope to measure and map the reduction of local media within issues about issues of national consequence suggested the distinct shift in public debate.  Indeed, shuttering many smaller news publications, both urban and suburban, deprive communities of a local voice in events that seem to spin far beyond the local in increasingly challenging ways, and place global issues–undocumented immigrants; terrorist threats; refugees–in relation to local concerns in ways both challenging and difficult to grasp.

 

one to two souresColumbia Journalism Review–light pink without local news sources; salmon with one

 

Considered another ways, the near-absnence of non-profit news sources outside of metro areas, and few sources of information were available in small towns, and indeed outside the coasts–understanding the “news desert” as an absence of non-profit news, a dearth felt nationwide save in several cities as Denver, Austin, New Orleans, Madison, and Minneapolis–and to consider the different information markets that exist in much of the nation where Trump performed so stunningly.

 

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Each graphic invites us to examine the category and meaning of the ‘news desert,’ a term by no means clearly defined in an era of online news.  Is the fear that a common concern of news media that may itself loose analytic force?   Thomas Jefferson insisted that “The cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate,” but the expansion of areas without local news venues or voices, or meaningful political endorsements, suggests not only a dangerous remove from national issues, but a vulnerability to external threats in an age where most get their news online and through Facebook feeds–and the expansion of online news threatens to make it impossible for all to feel themselves able to stay informed.

 

news deserts.pngDom Smith/Stat News

 

The gaping holes in the above GIF suggests a growing eating out of public opinion.  The hugely successful appeal of Trump’s candidacy in areas of relatively low news presence is not a surprise.  Trump was himself quite acutely aware “I doubt I would be here if it weren’t for social media, to be honest with you,” as he told FOX Business Network as the election approached.  Trump’s avoidance of the mainstream media was notorious, although the success with which this became a strategy blindsided many.  But the sectarian–if not almost Manichean–divisions between red states and blue have been fostered and promoted by a decline in non-partisan or non-profit news sources.  And in a new range of articles on the increasingly partisan news offices at FOX or Sinclair Broadcasting, which reaches 39 percent of households in the country before its pending merger with Tribune Media.  Sinclair’s strategy of integrating national messages with local news suggests particularly dangerous ways of masquerading as local news–and driving fear in increasingly oppositional ways, accentuating the blue/red infographic in ways that were not even on Obama’s radar, although he perceptively sensed the divide emanated from screens more than it existed on the ground.

 

3.  The increasingly oppositional divisions are not evident in a stark division of political preference and allegiance within the current national map, and enabled a targeting of the parsing of populations and festering of divides.  Indeed, the success of the Trump team may lie in the address of the purplest populations of the nation, in which the success of the Trump vote can be mapped in what seems an inverse relation to printed news subscriptions:  ‘news deserts’ provided a crucial core constituency for Trump’s success, or at least correlate strongly, if one takes the shaky database of newspaper subscriptions that has been provided by the Alliance for Audited Media–an admittedly incomplete dataset whose questionable focus on subscriptions to local newspapers–not really adequate as a proxy for “news deserts” in an age of television and national news, but perhaps suggestive of the power of the local editorial endorsement–even if the description of “traditional news outlets” remains a questionable metric for access to news information.

 

Politico Deserts.pngLimited Subscriptions to Local Newspapers in America 

 

The growth of online news seems to have removed regions of the south and northwest from the figure of the local newspaper reporter.  Such a divide echoes the rural/urban divide, and may indicate the remove of much of the polity from public opinion, and a deep-set resistance to opinions broadcast from both coasts during the election seems rooted in the erosion of news communities in ways that demand to be mapped.  The growth of venues such as Sinclair Broadcasting provided ways of growing this divide–or fissure–through a virtual stranglehold on news sources in many sites.

 

4.  Obama successfully downplayed deep differences between red states and blue states by more than powerful and affecting rhetorical device.  His bridging of a chromatic divide was not only stirring not only to those in cities, but comforting in small towns.  By 2008, Obama’s audience were happy to accept as an invitation as his own coinage, and take it as an invitation to put aside animosity across electoral divides.  But the very notion of such a blue state-red state divide–and the prominence in such a divide of the purple–has recently gained new meaning and relevance in Robert S. Mueller III’s recent indictment charging thirteen Russians of waging information wars during the election.  For the Russians who were identified as arriving from 2014 aimed to splinter existing political divides by fostering increased dissensus and distrust in the political system in the “purple” states as those where the election of 2016 could be most effectively swung.  Indeed, the very vulnerability of the political imaginary that foregrounded a red state-blue state divide for the global image of American politics made something of an unforeseen return, when it was announced that the Russian operatives who had toured several states to conduct something of a political ethnography of the abilities to create greater political divisions and distrust in the political system focussed on the sensitivity of “purple states” as sites to increase and exploit existing political divides, and create increased political tensions in the United States through the results of its elections.

Taking the occasion of the 2016 Presidential election as an occasion to increase political distrust, and for slicing and dicing the nation For the targeting of what were described as “purple states,” in an unforessen appropriation of maps of a less polarized “Purple America” made after the divisive presidential election of 2000, by political scientist Robert J. Vanderbei .  The new visualization was widely adopted by the news media as a dynamic form of infographic, using colors exclusively to communicate the political temperature of Americans.  Yet the image gained a new second life as it provided a ground-plan for planting social media interventions, Special Counsel Mueller’s indictment reveals that the figure of speech, as well as a concrete metaphor, served to target disrupting political consensus from 2014.   Indeed, “purple America” provided not only a target for winning over the electorate for both political parties, but a target for disrupting consensus evident as much from outside of the United States as from within.

If purple can come to seem a sign of vulnerability, this is in large part because of the possibilities of warping through the electoral college produces clear divides, but which indeed offers a sense of stability–affirming a sense of continuities all too easily disrupted by the dogmatic prism of a red state/blue state electoral map, with a brightest red–actually pink–in the Texas panhandle and Dakotas, but the nation is decisively mottled; even in the divisive 2004 electoral map, “red” only dominated Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho, and redness was evident in blue states, as bluenesses in reds.  Drilling down so far is not, in many cases, an adequate picture of the political process, but offers a counter-map to the electoral map, that reflects a sense of cartographical insufficiency.

 

PurpleStates.jpgEmmie Mears, “These Purples States of America”

 

Emmie Mears’ deeper dive into the data is a striking photoshop map and suggests an even greater expanse of purple.  The contiguity of purple shades that run the vast extent of the nation pointedly challenged the polarities shared by pundits, and reveals, even in the 2016 Presidential race, a widespread admixture of voting tendencies.  Although Obama’s stirring image of overcoming political divides is often retrospectively cast as pandering to patriotism, it increasingly seems an accurate prognosis of a problem waiting to happen.  While Mears’ visualization was intended to affirm the plurality of political opinions, to undo the tension of oppositional confrontation that was generated already in the nightly news, the danger of adopting such a syntax of a census–familiar from the Dustin Cable’s Racial Dot map or the American Community Survey, which show both diversity and stark lines of ethnicity, education, and income, the danger of the vesting of political preference as a question of character–and not a selection in a given time and place–of course dilutes the representational institutions, and poses the problem of whether a two-party system can ever be able to refract our political diversity.

But it also suggests the broad openings for undermining that consensus, as the recent indictment of thirteen Russians who conducted preparatory ethnography as they planned a long-term project of disrupting American political consensus that would intersect in unforeseen ways with the candidacy of Donald Trump–a long-time fringe candidate, whose ascendancy to the oval office had been represented as an unsavory alternate future in Doonesbury, but whose own deep hunger for approval, recognition, and adulation seems to have created a tenacity to court  audiences without much attention to the public good.  Whether or not Trump shared the vision of the electoral map as ripe for exploitation, although his own deep attachment to the two-color outcome of the electoral map hints at how overjoyed he was with the results, the echo chamber of social media certainly helped dilute the deep purpleness of America that political scientists had mapped.

 

5.  If it’s the case that Trump proudly selected a framed map of the distorted division of electoral votes in the White House as one of the first images to be displayed to visitors, he certainly took deep satisfaction at the outcome  which was in part the result of targeting public opinion in divisive ways, even if many of the most powerful and divisive images that announced his campaign promises to the public seem to have derived from suspiciously identified social media sources.  The gap in population density between flatland of the regions of “red America” is thrown into a relief in a prism map that offers a county-results in a tiltable 3-D electoral map between counties voting Trump from those voting Clinton, a gap evident in economic integration, education, and lifestyle, that reminds us of the gap in media coverage increasingly centered in cities; but if it corrects the distorted flatland of an electoral map,  it surely exaggerates that yawning gap, as its blue/red dichotomy erased the purple nature of so many counties where social media news feeds helped worked to fill that gap, allowing Facebook feeds to play an increased role in forming a surrogate public opinion that could effectively intensify existing political divides, so that they appear even more extreme that in previous elections with the sort of “political intensity” that indicted Russians planned to foment.  Did the extension of first amendment Free Speech laws to cover data-driven bots and platforms designed to work by keeping viewers engaged help  expand the blue/red divisions that we’ve come to accept in the electoral map?

 

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County-level Margins of Victory legend.pngBlueshift

 

Indeed, the current rash of twitterbots that issued viral memes from #ReleasetheMemo to #Guncontrolnow and #Parklandshooting that hail from Russia–if not St. Petersburg–need to be held to different standards than First amendment rights, but under if seen as speech acts, protected First amendment, although originating in foreign lands, they are able to gain a pressing reality in our politics for their consumers and followers.  The shape of such activity seems especially prominent in creating an apparent groundswell of the alt Right in the last election.  When Mueller’s indictment forced social media giant Twitter was forced to purge thousands of newly suspected automated bots posting from overseas that Twitter’s legal division had seen as protected by Free Speech, deleting 50,000 accounts linked to Russian bots created such sudden drops in the numbers of the followers of figures like white nationalist Richard Spencer or long-time Trump promoter Bill Mitchell that they were suspected as victims of a purge of followers of the alt right.  If the move provoked cries of censorship, we were reminded how much twitter shaped the election in the valleys of areas colored red, where a third of pro-Trump tweets among over a million tweets issued by automated bots, and pro-Trump rallies belying his lower standings in most polls save on Facebook, as millions of bots nudged the geography of the map from behind the scenes through an unforseen barrage of propagandistic images and texts that directed the mental attention of a Durkheimian collective.

Many images displayed by accounts suspected of originating overseas, as of the platform ‘Secured Borders,’ create a quite viscerally striking image of the very geopolitical imaginary that the Trump campaign openly promoted.  But if they echo Trump’s rhetoric, the deeply offensive images identifying migrants as vermin, as if to deny them of legal rights, derive from a right-wing imaginary already current in central Europe, as other images used in Trump’s political commercials, showing hoards of immigrants racing across border, and  betray historical roots in Nazi visual propaganda.  These images created a geographical imaginary rooted in fear, indeed, and promote a geopolitical imaginary–a divide made visibly clear in cartoonish ways in the contrast between the barren lands to one side of the wall and the green lands across it, where the suited Father Figure Donald Trump stands wearing his red tie and flag pin, in a new and creepy image of the defender of the nation–as if to protect the greenness of its grass.  (The creepy smile and richly solid comb over look so little like our supposed President, it is quite oddly designed, if replete with visual triggers, and its hortatory text lacking a comma, its limited punctuation seeming poorly proofread.)

 

 

Secured Borders: immigrant as vermin?

 

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6.  Such a reality seems to heighten not only the “political intensity” but heighten divides along what we map in red/blue terms, despite the limited explanatory power of an electoral flatland’s gaps between blue peaks of populated centers and the far redder expanses. Even after refining the flat electoral map, by adopting opacities to render margins of victory, retaining a contrast designed to foreground sharp differences fails to register the range of purple regions that turned red, driven toward an intensity of political involvement or disaffection by memes of social media still protected as “free” speech.

The issue is not only, moreover, the troll accounts that were tied to a Russian “troll factory” outside of St. Petersburg, Russia.  For the so-called ‘factories’ that mined images designed to provoke visceral responses that would trump reflection released a steady feed of fake news, based on innuendo and insinuation as well as outright slander and attack, that polluted the global media, as they were actively retweeted by the Washington Post, Jack Dorsey, CNN’s Jake Tapper, to fed an information ecosystem that was waiting to be poisoned, as some 3,000 global news outlets inadvertently included tweets originating from confirmed Kremlin-linked troll accounts in upwards of 11,000 “news” articles as the 2016 Presidential election approached, based on an analysis of over 2,700 Twitter handles confirmed to be linked by Twitter to the Internet Research Agency, a group tied to Russian intelligence–including David Duke (@DrDavidDuke), Sen. John Coryn (@JohnCornyn), Kellyanne Conway (@KellyannePolls), FOX News host Sean Hannity (@seanhannity), Brad Parscale (@parscale), Anthony Scaramucci (@Scaramucci), former White House press secretary Sean Spicer (@seanspicer), and Sen. Ted Cruz (@tedcruz)–in ways that transformed Twitter into a tool of information war.  By targeting audiences by zip-code, education, and wealth, raising the specter of those who “come to our country to change our traditions,” and increasing the fear and specter of unwanted refugees.

 

Meltwater

 

Tweets on new issues of 2016, from illegal immigration to voter fraud, circulated from Russian plants–in cringe-inducing claims such as “If Hillary wins, she will amnesty 30+ million illegal aliens and Republicans will never win an election again”, or “#VoterFraud by counting tens of thousands ineligible mail-ins for Hillary votes being reported in Broward County FL”–mirrored the fears of a “rigged” system and election that Trump had repeatedly conjured, and created a new meme in American political discourse that increased skepticism about the political process.

The overlap between many purple regions and regions with distinct patterns of consuming news in print or online media would have only magnified the divides where social media platforms spread disinformation–that infamous “fake news”–to gain a purchase as real in our political system.  Even if the possibility of infection by viral posts can’t yet be traced or measured with certainty as a map, the disinformation moved by bots or “troll factories” created a pitched battle of electoral intensity, that was staged around electoral votes or at least along fomenting clearly defined geographic/regional divides that Russians charged with visiting states in the United States to gain a sense of their ability to exploit a divided political landscape didn’t even need to travel to America to apprehend, as infographics clearly served as a readily available primer on how best to foment increased divisions.  Indeed, even by creating a distracting static whose constant beat eroded dialogue or trust, from internet accusations of the murder of Justice Antonin Scalia, deep distrust of naming a successor, and a year-long vacancy of his seat, as Mitch McConnell forced the sort of divisive deadlock only able to intensify political opposition.  (While the diffusion of the demand among Republicans began from McConnell’s quick tweet incited a sort of collective resistance, issued hours after Scalia expired in Texas, and lent broad currency to the numerous questions about conspiracies of the nature of his death that circulated online.  The  false populism in many ways echoed Trumpism, issued an hour after Scalia was confirmed as dead, and generated disruptive memes on social media–“OMG They killed Scalia” “I hope an autopsy is done to make sure Obama didn’t have him killed”– which supported an unprecedented, as Glenn Thrush and Burgess Everett reminded us, “rebuke of President Obama’s authority” and “categorical rejection of anyone Obama chose to nominate,” irrespective of their merits, to disrupted trust in political consensus during the Republican and Democratic primaries.  (Was it a surprise that McConnell, the senior senator from deep red Kentucky, playing the part of a disruptor, in late August single-handedly blocked bipartisan decisions to alert the American public to FBI reports of Russia’s unwanted involvement in the presidential election, from staging cyberattacks to ties to the campaign of Donald J. Trump?)

The entrance of this gambit within the context of the political election indeed led all Republican nominees to adopt the issue that drove a wedge between red and blue states and their respective media outlets, in what was cast as a rebuke to President Obama’s lack of respect for the institution of Congress to pursue “his personal agenda.”  A yawning gap between red and blue counties reveals the disconnect in our social fabric but of the consumption of news, and sources of opinion, about which the “troll factory” charged with launching disruptive messages into America’s Presidential election from St. Petersburg were able to play a disproportionately outsized role.  The divide was plain in this 2013 map of print news consumption, where yellow shows the swath of land getting news principally from USA Today, a year later by online outlets Huffington Post and TMZ, where the investment in social media may have had particularly pronounced leverage.  And in a period of increased attachment to divisive news sources that intensified an absence of dialogue between political parties, the expansion of divisive posts on social media platforms helped to undermine civic discourse.

 

7.  When Jared Kushner openly boasted that his father-in-law Donald was able to secure a deal with one of the largest media broadcasters in the United States–the Sinclair Broadcasting Group to ensure superior media coverage, and presumably promote attack ads, he suggested that the Trump team was on board in broadcasting their message to purple states within the political map–targeting a similar audience than that reflected in the yellow expanse below of states that were the most apt to share news stories in 2013–areas that already ran pretty red.

 

print-news-consumption-2013Media Map Showing Most Shared News in Each State (2013)

 

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The metaphorical trolling of the country that foreground the imminent threat terrorists pose to the nation, raise suspicions about Barack Obama’s or Hilary Clinton’s motivations for being President and ties to suspicious organizations, by the same Sinclair Broadcasting Group.  In ways that recall the media attack ads manufactured abroad, news segments ran on the dangers that immigration poses across the nation’s southern border from anchors of chains of local news stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, a media conglomerate which regularly issues “must-run” segments of news to its 173 affiliates, whose involvement in local news markets is now posed to enter urban areas–and making the news corporation the largest in the nation, with 233 stations.  Did the news group offer a disinformation of its own, now seemingly only poised to grow into an urban market with its acquisition of Tribune media?

Would this expand the map’s red?

 

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The splitting of news constituencies reached by the Sinclair Group along an urban/rural divide that reflects the Trump’s “heartland” has been noted, and since 2013 offered a basis for “managing” a constellation of stations that worked around FCC regulations on media consolidation that are intended to promote local news diversity.  The lack of diversity in the 38% of households that they reached–now posed to reach 72%–already offered a powerful megaphone for addressing residents in “purple” states–in the Midwest, West, and Southwest–and mirror the “gaping holes” of news deserts, where local news sources are increasingly absent.

 

sinclair1Technical.ly

 

It is not surprising to see Trump’s FCC to take steps that actively aided the expansion of Sinclair media into American households by merging with Tribune Media, by adopting a loophole that once pertains to UHF broadcasting–and is long technologically obsolete–to allow low-budget stations to grow, thereby allowing it to grow beyond the ceiling of 39% of a national audience to diffuse a fairly reactionary message if one maps its media footprint in ways that would allow it to address more than 39% of its existing market.

 

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Politico mapped existing Sinclair stations against their media footprint

 

8.  Although it was habitual to take what seems Obama’s fondness for the phrase as a sense of its particular rhetorical effectiveness, a more charitable interpretation of his attachment to the phrase might be intimations of the deeply corrosive nature of the metaphorical divide of the nation.  The image of an electoral divide perpetuated by pollsters and pundits was shown to haunt the nation not only in the 2016 Presidential election but, as we have heard in the recent expansive indictment that Mueller issued accusing Russian operatives who travelled the United States seeking strategies to sew discord “in the U.S. political system” from 2014.  Traveling in Colorado, New Mexico, Michigan, Illinois, Texas, they defined their mission as  oriented along that very divide.  Defendants Mssrs. Krylova, Bogacheva, and Bovda were charged with conspiracy for not disclosing the motivations of their travels in the United States posing as tourists, developed the idea of targeting “purple states” as sites to foment the greatest divisions–seeking to “create ‘political intensity through supporting radical groups” and transform fictitious personas into “leaders of ‘public opinion’ in the United States” by hundreds of social media account.  While traveling in America a “real U.S. person” advised that they

 

should focus their
activities on "purple states" like Colorado, Virginia & Florida.

 

–and the principle of “targeting ‘purple states'” returned in later months as a ground-plan to disrupt the election, and sew a deeper sense of distrust within our democracy.  Even if the term “purple states” that emerged as sites of targeting may not have been seen as sites where social media platforms could have substantially increased authority, the success of increasing divisiveness readily responded to stark divisions on the map.

The parlance learned in the United States was shaped in the media sphere to enlarge factional divides, if the notion of “Purple America” had been born to give complexity to a blue state versus red state divide.  Avatars on fictitious social media accounts used the categories of political scientists to amplify existing prejudices from troll factories in St. Petersburg, often pedaling prejudices that gained greater reality in what seemed public opinion as the election approached.  The “information warfare” waged on social media that was an odd spin on globalization, that kicked into gear with racial prejudice channeled by Russian hipsters working round the clock in twelve-hour shifts from a designated “Facebook department” in Taylorist fashion within a “troll factory”:  the surprising success of targeting voters in the United States was based on extensive mapping of political divisions, and a design to exploit them through social media.  Were the addictive apparatus of a medium that seeks to command the attention of observers part of the plan?

Such images, texts, comments, and posts designed to stoke divisions were based on ventriloquizing Americans, but pushing the envelope on the standards of address:   in a scene straight of Adam Smith’s pin-making factories, the web of disinformation that was spun from Americans’ social media fabric extended not only what seemed to the Russian who created them incredibly “believed [to be] written by their own people,” and even worked directly with the Trump campaign to coordinate rallies in purple states like Florida.  If Trump didn’t detect that the divisiveness Russian trolls devised on Facebook feeds incriminated his campaign, because Mueller did not reveal direct ties between the desire of the Internet Research Agency to sew disinformation and division was distant from his own campaign–“Obama was President up do, and beyond, the 2016 election.  So why didn’t he do something about Russian meddling?”–what Trump confidently imagined to be a wellspring of popular support for his candidacy may well only have intersect with the more successful than anticipated adoption of the Russian trolls’ stories in Facebook platforms that created the intense emotional involvement which drove an under-the-radar aspect to the campaign, from images linking Hillary Clinton to Satanism to targeted voter suppression to diffusing enthusiasm by openly promoting third-party candidates as effective protest votes.

Indeed, Facebook and Twitter did the heavy lifting of ensuring that trolling from St. Petersburg were sent out across America, and to effectively mask the diffusion of messages along various social networking platforms to create something like an inadequate surrogate for public opinion–even as Facebook was foreign to Russian social networking when the Internet Research Agency was begun in 2014.

 

world-map-social-networks-dec-2014

 

The Internet Research Agency, perhaps an acronymic pun on the Irish Republican Army, worked to foment what seemed a similar faith-based war by manipulating styled prejudices to “spread distrust” to online communities they had infiltrated, warning of misleading “hype and hatred . . . forcing Blacks to vote for Killary” to “Woke Blacks” Instagram accounts in October 2016–weeks before the election–and adding “we would surely be better off without voting AT ALL” than cast a vote for the Democratic candidate.  As well as  unleashing an unprecedented epidemic of trolling, the St. Petersburg “troll factory” staffed by 900 employees posted over thousand times each week at the height of the election from over one hundred Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, in ways that magnified the rifts in the isolated filter bubbles had previously existed in order to turn them against one another.  When Eli Pariser in 2011 coined the phrase to describe the dangers of isolating information ecosystems in selective news feeds forming virtual echo chambers of false comfort in an insulated information bubble,

 

atomization.png

 

the tools of social media sites enabled the splintering to actual communities in an almost mechanical fashion of cause and effect, as if sending ripples able to create the sort of electoral disruption in strategic ways.  In doing so, they mirror the very danger of which President Obama in his final public speech cautioned against “retreat into our own social media feeds” as rendering Americans uncritical information consumers [who] start accepting information, whether its true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on evidence that is out there.”  The warning delivered after the election of Donald Trump and delivered in Chicago saw Obama trying to move out of the bubble, and was delivered near to where his 2008 victory speech celebrating an America able to transcend its image as a nation divided between red states and blue states.  But the bubbles in which selective calls to not go to the polls or demonize the Democratic candidate were launched as narratives may have made them difficult to detect or counteract.

The sort of fragmentation that troll factories Mueller has charged were orchestrated from abroad are described as being planned after reconnaissance in the United States.  The same divides, it is important to remember, could have been as easily gleaned online.  And even if trips to the United States are described as developed by operatives traveling to the United States to discover, much the same sort of prejudice pedaled in postings crafted in St. Petersburg to disrupt the Presidential election based on a fractured public politics could have been gleaned form an infographic.  The disruptiveness of disinformation created feedback loops that only mimicked oppositional racism as much as it mimicked back prejudices observed in ethnographic study of American social media Facebook groups.

Indeed, the stories of Russian hipsters working twelve-hour days on posting divisive comments on Facebook from 2014-16 in St Petersburg, posing as Americans, and required to write an essay in English on Hillary Clinton to determine whether they were suitable for the job, suggests just how invested the foreign government was in addressing social media to purple states to influence the election’s outcome, and doing their best to dissuade blacks and other minorities from supporting Hilary Clinton, despite an overall eligible voting population that was more racially and ethnically diverse than ever, according to Pew Research, but for the first time blacks declined as a share of voters since 2004.   Black voters were not only among the “three major voter suppression operations” Trump advisors worked to lower turn-out, with white liberals and young women, but one of the most successful efforts seemingly tied to Trump’s director of data digital operation in his San Antonio headquarters, Brad Parscale, whose nightly electoral simulations seemed aimed at providing a basis for to partly its data into a new news organization, mirrors techniques of turnout suppression adopted by destabilizing social media divides.  Facebook accounts such as the “Blacktivist” page that urged that voting for Jill Stein–a candidate with close ties to Russia–was “not a wasted vote,” clearly recycled historical images of African-American nationalism and solidarity, in hopes to decrease voter turn-out in Maryland.  The use of the emblem may seek to re-engineer the energy of black voters for past Democratic Presidential victories, and to scare others who might see it.  With other accounts openly urging Muslim voters to boycott the election, the goal was to dilute and splinter the very coalitions that the Clinton campaign assembled by sowing distrust–and indeed, to exploit social media by triggering a clear emotional response, more than making an argument.

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The studies of social media patterns that began from at least 2014, which were, as if by coincidence, marked by huge Republican gains in Senate and House under a banner of the most angry national midterm elections to be directed against a sitting President, was effectively amplified with the encouragement and traction that the bitterness of 2014 elections had set across the southern states and deep south, southwestern Texas along the US-Mexico border, and in formerly ‘blue’ or ‘purple’ states–creating a particularly obstructionist House of Representatives that succeeded to obstruct so any of the policies President Obama sought to pursue in his final two years.

 

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National results of the 2014 House races, showing Republican gains in bright red

 

9.  The proliferation of robo-posts seeking to foster divisiveness upped the ante far more than Sinclair Broadcasting, but the two seem to have mutually reinforced one another–if not using strikingly similar tactics.  The divisiveness continued by injecting increasingly radicalized terms of political debate, and even fundamentalist notions of apocalypticism, that seemed foreign to American political debate, depicting Hillary Clinton as increasingly satanic and promoting open borders, promoting division and distrust around bizarre social media memes.  The offensive cartoonish images promoted by the IRA-sponsored “Secured Borders” borders account, designed to appeal to Trump’s supporters and introducing an icon of his campaign, resembled the icon of the United States Border Patrol to create an image that not only recalled its official insignia–

 

 

 

–but did so to link a specific presidential candidate to patriotism in extreme ways, celebrating the at of rejecting refugees and asylum-seekers and increasing border protection as a need for national protection, creating a false equivalence if there ever was one, and straining any logical linkages.  (The conceit of “liking” advocating political isolationism is a bizarre mashup of Facebook’s prescriptive language of immediate unconsidered emotional reaction and a political position with all too dangerous political consequences.  Was the irony of using social media to raise questions of border protection not ever perceived?  or was the idea to root the image of a tough border so deeply in one’s mind, that one didn’t think that clearly about its politics, consequences or implications?)

 

 

 

Rusian FB ad for Secrured Borders.png

 

 

Indeed, an ethnographic study of Facebook groups might target alone groups living on the southern border, Christian fundamentalists, white supremacists and Black Lives Matter as potential groups to manipulate to stoke divisiveness on partisan lines, and sow disorder on the performance of a two-party system by gaming electoral geography.  There is hope in puncturing the filter-bubbles of Facebook groups, however, by the increased calling out of the need for resolve on a true issue–gun control–too regularly and dismissively side-lined by the staged political debates that were shared in posts, and which seems, if only because of the strength of its blunt actuality, to puncture social media with an urgency that can’t be denied.

 

10.  The decision to direct a social media focus on purple states as sites where divides would stand the greatest chance to disrupt or even to tweak the electoral results reveals a bizarre recycling of what was designed as a classificatory map to increase divisions, and gave a distinctly new ideological flavor and torque to the left-wing concepts of swing states that were so successfully promoted within the 2008 Obama campaign.  By recycling attention-getting image of chromatic divides developed for television audiences, purple states emerged as targets for online spooking, and Facebook aggregation gained traction around affective ideas like casting the color red was a form of patriotism.

But the notion of pressing advantages on social media in states purple, but maybe able to be nudged Republican, provided the deepest rationale for division.  Defendants, posing as members of the group “Being Patriotic,” under the guise of that patriotism offered the idea of pressing their advantage by the notion of a wedge in purple states.  The defendants offered in emails, “we’ve got an idea.  Florida is still a purple state and we need to paint it red.  If we lose Florida, we lose America.  We can’t let it happen, right?  What about organizing a YUGE pro-Trump flash mob in every Florida town?” on August 2, 2106, and offered, “We clearly understand that the elections winner will be predestined [sic] by purple states.”  While not brilliant as strategy, as a selective basis to sew distrust and disorder in one of the most over-polled elections ever, where we watched the results of multiple daily polls as if to deliver the odds on horse races, tweaking the electoral map toward a new color combination was enough.

The “purple” region gained the most striking new sense as sites of information warfare in the United States over a period of years–in ways that might be detached from the actual campaign.  The figure of speech born of data visualizations gained a newfound torque as a form of divisiveness, and the chromatic metaphor operative force, as “focusing on purple states such as Florida” became, for the fictional identity “Josh Hamilton,” a strategy proposed by a false grassroots efforts that was communicated to Trump campaign officials.  White most tracks were concealed, a few were not.  And although the Trump campaign didn’t need to be advised, necessarily, “to focus on ‘purple’ states like Colorado, Virginia, and Florida,” the targeting of areas where there didn’t seem a clear polarity promised to create a far starker one.   But Russian use of a language of infographics served to materialize, in a starkly divided map, existing fault-lines that one needed only to exploit, push apart, and throw into relief to engineer a surprising electoral result, using images that recovered more subtly shaded areas where blue met red as tools that were able to be exploited to show the world a far more bitterly divided United States, as if even raising the specter of a deep red region could sow considerable distrust in a Democratic system, or just vacate whatever appeal its constitutional rights held in Russia and Central Europe.

 

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New York Times:  2016 United States presidential election results by county 

 

The organizing of false grassroots efforts according to the Mueller indictment not only to organize rallies that would “focus on purple states,” but to create a divide in doing so that best exploited divisions in our electoral maps.  Indeed, the notion of such a divide that had been picked up by Nate Silver and across the art of political forecasting was not something that would have had to come from any sort of special informant, being in the air of 2016 and widely broadcast on the airwaves, as the “Purple America” coined right after the divisive presidential election of 2000, by Vanderbei, as a way to come to terms with starkness of the opposition between Bush v. Gore; Vanderbei recast what seemed a polarity in the context of a variety of political opinion, leading to articles after 2004 to insist that America is not divided into sub-nations, or on the brink of a second Civil War, and continued to map the mutation of purple America in future elections.

 

11.  The conceit of Purple America rescued to some extent the simplified opposition implied by a chromatic divide between red v. blue.  Articles ran entitled “Most Americans live in Purple America, not Red or Blue America” rather than in a blue or red state, created a sense of consensus and diversity, befitting a democracy, but the yawning gaps in areas of intense redness meant that purpleness provided a language of opportunity for those seeking to grow division and craft heightened political dissensus.  Vanderbei offered the original “Purple America” to help refine a clearer statistical image of the dynamics hidden between the political polarization of a body politic, and to give greater agency to a varied range of political opinions in most states.  By embodying a red flyover zone, or a blueing of the coasts, the intention was to encourage a deeper dive into the national vote, as well as to retire the tired glossing of the electoral map:  the bridging of a division that Obama would make in his speech in support of John Kerry’s Presidential candidacy fenced the hegemony of a similar symbolic divide, and cast it as at its root dangerous to democracy.

 

 

PurpleAmerica2000

Purple America (2000)

 

But it didn’t remain there.  The migration of a language designed for a broad market of TV news infographics to a language of political operatives interested in subverting the democratic process is perhaps instructive.  The map was perhaps replayed in the media as it contained sufficient dramatic tension to foreground problems of crafting political consensus, as if social policies and political opinions were identified with an area in the country, and as if every issue in the political platform was fundamentally designed to capture a divisive issue of political debate–around abortion, social security, gun control, climate change or global warming, environmental regulation, and monetary policy or fiscal restraint–whereas the options on the table were not, in fact, that divergent.

The maps however naturalized the divisions, and, paradoxically, left them open to be exploited, perhaps not so much since we were fractured into filter bubbles as because pundits wanted to create the necessary degree of dramatic tension, and to craft and foreground the dramatic arc of an election season, as if the notion of a ground-plan and an electoral strategy could be portrayed and represented as a military as much as a political one.  The guiding metaphor of divisiveness and division that was foregrounded in this map–as if blocks of population existed with one preference, despite the subtler variations in voting, despite the blue/red divide imposed by majority victory–

Mark Newman Red:Blue ma.png

–even if such a decision, a sort of hold-over from a pre-parliamentary languages of democracy, that privileged the notion of a ruling party in a quasi-monarchical way, obscured the variations once one drilled down into voting patterns–

 

votes- red v blue, by county and interest level

 

–but obscured the huge number of “ghost votes” across the less inhabited areas, where isolated communities, suspended outside of the metropoles, were magnified in an electoral college that robustly enhanced their political voice in ways bluntly reflected by the flatness of the two-color map in stubborn wasy.  But as Chris Howard, inspired by the blended voting maps created by Robert J. Vanderbei of the 2012 election that showed purple America, and the cartograms of Mark Newman, transparencies could capture the magnification of political voices of low-density in the electoral map, in ways that might have suggested the potential for electoral disruption to those seeking to do so–even if such a perverse reading of the language of infographics was hard to imagine.

 

howardmap

The graphic language, migrating from electoral processes to the nightly news, may have provided a basis for newscasters to naturalize a drama of political  contestation, more than conversation.  Whereas we are increasingly talking not of “states” that suggest the fragmentation of the union, we live in an increasing economic divide largely oriented not along pitched lines of battle, but by urban/rural divisions, if the divide is belied in the flat pasteurization of space of electoral maps.  The growth of megacities across America have raised multiple divisions electoral maps fail to capture, with its fundamental insistence on the county as a unit of voting, despite the increasing evacuation of its meaning as a unit of political representation.  But as a metaphor, or master-trope, the fracturing of states was something of an invitation to a foreign nation to seize up and try to pry apart, however, as French cartographer Luc Guillmot showed in an alternative cartogram, sized by votes in red states in the so-called heartland of the midwest, in the manner of Ben Hennig’s cartograms.

 

 

deep-blue-cities-hennig

 

But President Obama’s own words come back to haunt us.  In the electoral maps for the 2016, indeed, the masking of gradations of division produced the sense of a democratic result we were bound to accept–

 

2016_presidential_election,_results_by_congressional_district_(popular_vote_margin).svg.png

 

 

–even if it brought an intensified red that was really clinched at the margins, or in Texas, Florida, Michigan and Virginia, but whose deep red “heartland” created the sense for the victor that he was indeed recognized by the “real Americans” he so desired to court.  Trump was so taken with the electoral map to have it framed, and has been so personally obsessed with imagining the scale of his supposed victory to be present in the intensity of the square mileage of red hued states to take a truly personal offense at the idea that voters swayed by Facebook pages and Instagram groups are seen as diminishing the status of his victory, and an election he imagines a total victory he pulled off by bravado, and dismiss concern of dangerous effects of foreign disturbances of the voting process.

 

12.  Widespread exploitation of such divisions, and indeed the language of opposition, subverted the democratic process by a vision of polarization that maps reinforced.   And by exploiting that narrow margin of purple states of the nation, local consensus was ready to be flipped, and precedents of civility overturned.  By stoking an an enthusiasm that few saw as even in reach on the eve of electoral night, America seemed to fall into two camps, but with the electoral collect staying clearly in Clinton’s camp.  (The hold on the lighter blue states like Florida and North Carolina were tenuous, however, and the loss in Colorado, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania tipped the scales.)

If the blue states seem able to hug the red core to prevent it overflowing to both coasts, the glare of the divisions between blue and red states was so starkly naturalized to masquerade the extent to which flipping purple states would in fact flip much more of the nation red, and alter the outcome of the electoral count in ways that renders the flat dichotomy of a two-color prediction irrelevant.  The flipping of purple and pink states upset the predictive power of a map, but did so in ways that seem only to have reinstated the logic of the divided nation we have created in our infographics which may, in the end run, do far less to inform.

 

Cahnc of Wining.png

The fact stubbornly remains that it wouldn’t involve that much demographic science or pinpoint precision polling to know that enough pressure in the purple states could create a crisis in consensus enough to blur the outcome of the vote.  But we clearly can’t go back again to seeing the national shores as creating a red/blue divide that is taking the current temperature of public opinion in each state, in isolation from the rest of the world.

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Filed under 2016 US Presidential Election, Donald Trump, electoral maps, News Maps, Presidential Elections