The Republican Party unveiled a sleek red elephant in preparation for the 2020 Republican Convention that seemed a strange recuperation of the circus origins of the once-sturdy quadruped. The rejuvenation of the vitality of the old elephant staged a rebirth of the party at a time when its ties to the nation had been increasingly tenuous, and seemed to mask the deep fragmentation that the politics of divisive opposition had been stoked by the shock jock tactics of a President over his first term. The classic abstracted pachyderm was no longer an iconic mascot of the past–it had not been the weighty icon of the past, laden with memories for years–but the division of the party was threatening, as was the division of the nation, by the time the Republican Party had assembled and decided not to adopt any platform in 2020, but to accept disruption and assurances of law and order as an identity the old red-white-and-blue mascot would no longer do to express.
As the nation-wide movement promoting the sovereign secession of red states advanced, and been embraced by the party as a basis for generating turnout and votes, Republicans were assured of an unreal landslide that was approaching in November 2020 as something like destiny. To be sure, the party had been internally wrestling with groups promoting the idea that red states might gain an independent sovereign status, ignoring that the the economic productivity of “blue states” have provided fiscal stability of social services across their territory, Republicans were desperate to create a sense of coherence in a party that had been animated mostly by its fear of Trump’s twitterfeed over four years, and hoped to find a possible reconciliation in which the party might emerge as embodied by Trump. There was a logical difficulty in the hopes for a pure red state republic that some in the party must have been aware: red states, for all practical purposes, had long depended on federal transfer payments or support for food stamps, temporary assistance for needy families, subsidized insurance, and Medicaid, as they were poorer states, and depended on federal pay for army troops, the funding of infrastructural projects and disaster relief, many of which were increasing due to accelerated climate change, sea-level change, and increased dangers of aridity and drought. But the proximity of the party to The Donald meant that the elephant had to be redesigned to buoy the party’s hopes.
The representation of red states as a base demanded an image of Republican identity demanded a redesign of its logo identified with the interests of red states with grandeur, that might meld the strongly separatist rhetoric in which the image of a Sovereign States of America might exist–without echoing the Confederate secession, even if the image of a Confederate States of America was dear symbolism to Trump’s base.
And in an era in which we have a President able to channel his inner P.T. Barnum more openly than his predecessors, he sought to unite the party in his increasingly capacious body, by mining a rich tradition of political iconography speaking before a redesigned symbol of the party.
If this was the “second coming” of Trump, in a newly Trumpified party, what new beast was slouching toward Washington, D.C. was hard to determine by the red- trunked elephant Ising above the speaker’s podium as if leaping into space. If cartoonists had recently cast the old guard of the Party as in fear of the new rogue Republican President, the 2020 Republican Convention seemed to remake a platform-free party proudly in an elephant of his own mold, in what would be perhaps his last hurrah before the Convention Committee in late August, as the nation was reverberating with the potent echoes of George Floyd’s killing by overzealous racist police.
The preening insatiability of the red elephant communicated a sense of the eagerness of Republicans to map their candidate onto the body politic, a lumbering but advancing red behemoth, testifying to the electoral majority that the party would assemble in semaphore, in ways that the earlier tricolor icons of pachydermal stolidity had refused to capture as incarnations of a body politic.
The rearing elephant shopped around in committee and reviewed by experts for a Convention was to be the center of planned as a live event, and may have provided a far more powerful logo. The planning of convention spots was hurriedly improvised in the unexpected shift to television, as the President reached out to two close assistants of Mark Burnett, the former paratrooper who had hit it big as producer of Celebrity Apprentice, who had already once resurrected Donald Trump’s career. Burnett after he made his mark in America by marketing “Survivor,” a cross between “The Swiss Family Robinson” and “Lord of the Flies,” often criticized as “fascist television” by critics, and wanted to transpose the tempo of a show whose contestants were systematically eliminated to an urban setting–that led the producer to contact Donald Trump as its fourth season was closing, as he planned a new show about Trump’s persona that was to the The Apprentice. Burnett associates were brought onboard by the GOP for an uptempo convention at Trump’s personal insistence arrived to oversee its video production in concert with White House staff for the four nights of the convention from August 24-28 in Charlotte, North Carolina, to create an architecture of a vision of the nation.
While the management of the convention may have marginalized the ascendant elephant, its invigorated form was hoped, P.T. Barnum-style, to distract television audiences from unease at police violence, racial profiling, and failure to manage the advance of COVID-19 across the nation. The party’s appeal threatened to fall flat. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez implored progressives to retake the mascot as “elephants deserve so much better” and adopt the political iconography that Republicans had remade at their convention as an avatar of Trump’s party, nothing rightfully the dissonance of a mascot deserving better “bc they are compassionate, empathetic creatures w nuanced social structures,” the herd mentality was on hand in ways that seemed to erase any notion of political memory, as the Convention agreed to adopt the same platform as in 2016, leading her to suggest that an animal that showed no regard for others–and a stubborn obstinacy and lumbering lack of care made the honey badger a far more fitting avatar and meme. Ocasio-Cortez brilliantly skewered the inappropriate ways the party at pains to create the appearance of compassion that ran against its own–and Trump’s!–character, the elephant must have appealed as a single-minded bleating animal–hardly the stoic conservative emblem of a party familiar from earlier years, but had been the result of some introspection at how to “modernize” the icon of the party that had tried to rebrand itself as “Grand New Party” and not GOP, into a decidedly modern form that recuperated the winking circus performer of the past.
The attempt to invigorate the elephant never really got off the ground as it tried to reinvent itself in the Trump era–toying with the notion of insisting its initials were “Government of the People”–Lincoln’s phrase–but trying to call itself a Party of the Future, or simply “Our Party,” to instill an over-exaggeratedly forward-looking quality of truly cartoonish qualities, long absent from the four-legged beast, suggesting its considerate eagerness and insatiability, balancing any sense of its blue bloodedness squarely on four red legs.
The new design of the Party of Trump, however, that the red elephant was an invitation to the 2020 Convention of even more circus-like qualities, robustly announcing its identity as the product of red states.
Nurturing a mythical past of “sovereign states” that has been fueled by states’ rights activists, seeking grounds to retain separateness from federal oversight in everything from voting-rights, health care, gun control, to public health mandates, in a crisis of managing relations of national jurisprudence to increasingly tenuous conceptions of states rights. The election of a states’ rights President committed to defend the protection of regional practices had created a crisis of jurisprudence that culminated in the balance of the nation’s highest court, and encouraged the concept of secession–in ways counterbalanced by the elevation of an elephant.
The prancing elephant had attempted the magic trick of concealing the deep fractures in the nation. The threat was perhaps no better incarnated for Republicans eager to redefine the party not in the social justice protests but in the social media groups, now banned by Facebook and Twitter but once nourished in the silos both provided in virtual space, that glorified secession as the logical consequence of earlier electoral maps–by using crude GIS software to trace new outlines of a new nation recuperating the continuity of red states. In the movement that nourished and nurtured a possibility of secession that led to the Siege of the Capitol to stay the certification of the. 2020 Presidential election, as crowds at the “Save America March” moved from the Ellipse to storm the Capitol Building and enter the Rotunda, the imagery of a Republic bounded by alternate sovereign borders tried to affirm their ties to the seat of American government to deny the transfer of power.
Groups often carrying Gadsden Flags to dignify their aggression as defiance in a symbol of secession that echoed the defense of liberties elided with the confederacy, but that embodied on social media as a secessionist movement that legitimized “rights” for owning guns and often identified with white resentment–an association heightened by its accompaniment by Confederate flags, also born by protesters who stormed state capitols in Pennsylvania, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, and California in a momentary flash of a fantasy of a red state sovereignty: the snake, a symbol of the resilience that Benjamin Franklin adopted as a rallying call to join the revolutionary arm, before Christopher Gadsden refashioned it as a flag, electrified audiences as a defense of local rights in danger of eclipse.
Extending the logic of a divide between “red” and “blue” states to a new level by suggesting a “red state” that might emerge, fully born, out of the former United States, as its own sovereign entity, a rhetoric of defending liberties had been bent to new ends in the declaration of The promotion of a “sovereignty” as able to be mapped by a Border Wall had provided the basis for defining a new sense of states as sovereign entities, in a tortured logic of many, free from the yoke of federal control, where the talons of the imperial eagle adopted by the early republic might be holding AK47’s as laurels. The image of Sovereign States iconography was perhaps rooted in Texas, but the Gadsden flag belief in the right of unilaterally abolishing the existing governmental form and instituting a new government–fundamental in the Siege of the Capitol of January 6, 2021, incited at the conclusion of the Save America March, that was hatched online for weeks before on websites offering travel routes to Washington, DC–bent to its own end the once optimistic assertions that affirmed sovereign agency to redefine the nature of sovereign rule outside the political language of monarchy.
Online forums had bolstered a sense of sovereign separation, if not secession, in championing the precedent of “sovereign states” that, while not clearly mapping onto red states, suggested a streak of independence that had shrugged off centralized federal power, in the improbably constellation of states from federal oversight–as gun ammunition websites championed the alternative history of “a rich history of sovereign states outside the control of the federal government”–celebrating a false genealogy of sovereign states in American history that glorified the independence of states’ rights as a secret map to American sovereignty that disaggregated the federal government as a cartographic rebuttal to federal oversight of voting rights and gun control laws via the “obscure history” of how ten independent states joined the union.
Would the notion of such disaggregated federal control provide a precedent for the protests that spread against the orderly transition of power on January 6, 2021? It certainly elevated the idea that only Donald Trump could unite the union in ways able to preserve and respect states’ rights. The birth of a legend of declaring sovereignty articulated on the virtual space social media to reify electoral divides created a sovereign divide that spilled over into real life in the storming of institutions of public government in the Siege of Capitol, or Storming of Capitol Hill, as social media groups mobilized on Gab and Parler, as much as Facebook and Twitter, marched to the seat of government, in an ecstasy of the dying throes of celebrating their ties to the final days of the Trump regime. A crowd enflamed by Trump’s tweet his Vice “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done” opened chants of “Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump!” Don, Jr. vented with frustration that gave voice to his father’s tortured logic when he exhorted the “Save America” crowd that “This is Donald Trump’s Republican party!” The attempt to assert the personal affective ties of leader to Party were more familiar from totalitarian pasts, but seemed to fit Trump, even if the insatiability of the elephant could not even encompass the insatiable concentration of power in the executive Trump desired, ever the insatiable beast which Kipling famously attributed its acquisition of a trunk to ‘satiable curiosity.
The personal bonds of leader to party had been hoped to be incarnated in an elephant that however improbably seemed able to defy gravity and rise into the air, ascendant in the empyrean. Even in late August, 2020, Donald Trump realized the high stakes of bondign to the nation. Pubic messaging faltered in the coronavirus pandemic even as it struggled to remain smooth. Hope that the stars would align to create a red-state electoral map again stretching from Arizona to Maine, down to Florida, seemed subliminally encoded in the imaginary constellation of five stars embedded in the bright red elephant designed for the 2020 Republican Convention to celebrate the rebrand the GOP as a Party of Trump. But the deeply racist origins of the party symbol, long purged by the mainstreaming of the pachyderm as a partisan icon, seem to reveal its racist lineage in a strategy based on rebranding the Republican Party as a red elephant in the heart of the Old South: newly star-studded to reflect the energy of the party, and its motivation in extending the Trump era, and almost recalling a double-“V” of victory as an astrological variant on national destiny, the design that Rona McDaniel promoted as a reflection of the vitality of the “traditions of the Republican Party” all but concealed the lack of interest in a convention whose triumphalism concealed that Trump faced no serious challenge.
There was no move to foreground a change in the party’s political platform, but the inauguration of a new symbol of the party, as if to prepare for the inauguration of a President with life-long ambitions, was short on the associations of elephants and memory than a new image of triumphalism, or a compelling bread-and-circuses forum to promote the inevitability of Trump’s candidacy as a vibrant occasion as the body politic suffered. The red elephant newly resurgent was something of a new vision of a “red body politic,” incarnating the will of red states as much as traditions of a party increasingly associated with White Supremacy, alt right blowhards, vitriolic racism, and capitalist mega-corporations, but now star-studded as if in an attempt to prevent the elephant fleeing the convention from running, as Stampy the elephant, past cheering Republicans celebrating they were “just plain evil,” back in 1994 episode, before being sent to a game reserve: if the 2020 actual convention might as well admit, twenty-six years later, to being “just plain evil,” the iconic elephant that was displayed onstage and television screens soared above the more pedestrian issues of the day.
Unlike Stampy, the red elephant seemed able to levitate above the grey experience of dark days of America in its incarnation of an American political party, if with selective amnesia about the past of an elephant whose first design as an icon of the party, as the extension of equal rights to black men were rolled back, the “White Elephant” was celebrated as an icon of purity, and a noble blanching of the African elephants popular in American circuses, and for Thomas Nast as an alternate icon to the Democratic donkey–of nobility and moral high grounds Republican traditions of whiteness were not on show in a red elephant rousing red states for Republican transcendence of a riven body politic, where official speeches, and endorsers responded to Democrats’ commitment to racial equity and equality, foregrounded claims that “America is not a racist country,” as Niki Haley put it, raising the specter of a decline into anarchy a democratic victory would bring, and the boisterousness of a red pachyderm. When one of the first speakers at the convention, the fear of the potential raging of African Americans or the violent destruction of property that many at the convention invoked in reference to social justice protests, was paired with the bizarre reference to enslavement as the status quo of the Democratic Party in 2020, by asserting that “The Democratic Party does not want Black people to leave their mental plantation.” Among personal assurances “Donald Trump is not a racist” but benevolently took a quarterback and kids to Disneyland, as he tried to rebrand Donald Trump. It was striking that the party was being rebranded at the same time, as if to foreground its purity of walking in lockstep.
And the very ancient neo-imperial emblem of the elephant seemed to be prematurely announcing the victory of the Republican Party, the elephant seemed especially oblivious of the freighted associations of what was long a quite openly racist icon of the Grand Old Party since it was adopted in 1884, at the height of Reconstruction after the U.S. Civil War.
The roots of the party mascot as a circus elephant was proverbially linked to the political circus, but tapped again for a forum o political entertainment in Charlotte, NC when it was introduced, as a spectacle that would distract from the rising toll on Americans of COVID-19. The coronavirus pandemic remained the proverbial “elephant in the room” during the convention, not addressing a topic of potential controversy for a President dependent on staging rallies around the nation.
It remained almost ever-present at the 2020 Convention, as if the pachyderm presented a forward-facing emblem that confirmed the party’s identity. Its presence masked the recognition of the transformation of the iconic tricolor elephant to a party to red hue, anticipating the ‘red’ nation that the party’s victory would represent: a red monolith, showing signs of vitality, distanced from any actual elephant, but staging the elephant as a made-for-TV image, unlike, say, the “Victory Elephant” at Cleveland in 2016, which seemed indeed a different political animal of red, white and blue.
The monocular elephant expressed the promotion of “red state” interests at the convention, in place of a party platform, and appeared onstage above the American flag, not resembling an actual elephant, but iconic symbol of onward advancement, in a hybrid between its circus origins and military charge, behind each speaker from Donald J. Trump to Don Jr, to Charlie Kirk, to select prime-time speakers to appeal to his constituency, not anticipating an acceptance speech to represent the party, but absorb adulation for his idea of the party as defending rights to gun ownership, a narrative of American progress, unlike the “darkest and angriest convention in American history” in a form that seemed to accept his destiny as the “bodyguard of American civilization.” Was the elephant not reborn as a totem for the strong sort of leadership Kirk assured Trump would provide, willing to fight and to advance toward combat with the other party.
The elephant was far from the associations of the elephant with a pacific beast, but an icon that communicated the personal strength of the nominee, rather than a collective party policy, and newly glistening nature of the icon was oddly absent from this most stage-managed of conventions. Trump had hired associates of Mark Burnett to coordinate with White House staff to make the Convention 2020 the sort of “gripping TV show” they had created for fifteen seasons of The Apprentice, through artful combination of pre-taped and live speeches featuring mostly non-political figures–and although Burnett denied speculation that he was involved. Burnett’s associates were heavily compensated for ensuring the seamlessness of the scale-backed convention for as broad an audience as possible. Burnett himself had distanced himself from Trump recently, but Trump revered him for his ability to “impose retrospective logic on the chaos” of the boardroom sections of Trump’s successful TV Show, as James Poniewozik wrote–shaping the format of The Apprentice from 2011. Was his presence felt in what was billed as “the people’s convention,” in a Reality TV air, through the new sort of convention that his associates helped stage?
The prominent product placement of the revised Republican mascot of an elephant was less widely remarked, but provided a subliminal message of the sort that had no doubt been honed and debated before it was unveiled. The updated symbol for the convention was on prominent display on the Convention marquis in a mascot redesigned to serve the Party of Trump. While the new emblem seemed a break from the past, however, the history of the elephant as a strongly radicalized creature that as P.T. Barnum had expanded transatlantic importation of range of new elephants from Africa and Burma as a popular entertainment, seemed channeled in ways more apt than Trump’s stage managers may have realized in the leaping elephant that reached its red trunk to the heavens, bedecked by stars.
It was, perhaps, no surprise that cartoonists like Graeme Mackay picked up on the Thomas Nast famously branded a pachyderm with the letters “GOP” in 1874 at a time when newsprint was the prime vehicle of public opinion. In a political world dominated by Democrats, many of whom were suspected corrupt, Nast intended an emblem of significant dignity; but the exultant elephant unveiled before Charlotte’s crown seemed close to tap an outdated symbol of royalty and to address an audience by a middle-brow entertainment more than assume public gravitas: the newly nominated candidate speaking before the new RNC emblem partisan animal emblazoned with five stars in a “W”as if a premature declaration of victory insisted the “best is yet to come,” as he accepted the nomination, “proud of the incredible progress we have made over the last four years, brimming with confidence about the bright future we will built for America over the next four years” in the face of the expanding cases of COVID-19, animated by the brisk step of the elephant that subliminally affirmed the party’s future progress. It seemed a surprise to many that Cancel Culture, violent crime, and gun rights seemed had a far greater place in the Convention than anything related to COVID-19.
The puzzling new identity of the elephant seemed a landshift in the party’s coherence as a collective, and the triumphal procession of an elephant was, for McKay, a change in the spirit of the dour, conservative animal to an animated beast with the head of the sitting President–a different political animal to be sure.
The animating of the old pachyderm unveiled for the Charlotte convention was an exulting circus animal. The convention’s length was cut short short by COVID-19, but the new icon of the party so proudly unveiled in anticipation of its reinvigorating function was presented by Ronna McDaniel and Marcia Lee Kelley, robed in red, emblazoned with five stars.
What better way than the redesign of a red logo to make the point that the commitment of the party to red-state values, replaced the capaciousness of the party and the place of values and dignity that Thomas Nast, an ardent Republican and the father of American cartooning, saw the beast incarnating values able to transcend intra-party dispute, than for a former television star to tweak the Republican logo for a convention that replaced a platform with the scripting of a television event by the directors of Donald Trump’s Reality TV show, that placed him as central to the party’s identity, rather than values, and asserted red state values of a party as proof of ideological purity? The new elephant suggests the transformation of the Presidency to a Reality-TV show not rooted in governing or dignity but preening, and self-promotion.
Were cartoonist like MacKay sensitive to the cartooning legacy to which the icon of the party adopted in Reconstruction. Unlike the Democratic donkey, a braying jackass poking fun of its vocal cries and low status, its dissonance less dignified than the eagle, and more vocal: while the animal logo was not devised by the party, pictorial warfare seemed stacked in favor of the dignified pachyderm. The reborn rearing elephant of pure red makes us recall how much epidermal pigmentation was central to the elephant adopted by 1877 in the Presidential election, and overdetermined as an image of partisan strength, when the whiteness of the beast signified the purity of the party somewhat jarringly–as the circus animals that had begun to arrive on ships from overseas were, most commonly, African. By hearkening back to the pictorial caricature of a white elephant–an oddity that P.T. Barnum had himself marketed as an innovation in Reconstruction America–the unveiling of a startlingly monochrome elephant of entirely red skin, all but leaping off the ground, raising its sleek trunk as if in celebration or benediction, marked the arrival on the scene of a new political animal, but also hearkened back to the pointedly racialized symbolism that the “White Elephant” Thomas Nast imagined as a symbol of the party’s dignity announced, unlike its cousin, the African Grey.
The new streamlining of the old mascot mirrored the role Trump adopted in sanctioning the party’s collective identity by the illusion of advancing forward in space with dignity as the champion of “red states”: a rearing elephant served as a surrogate for replicating the electoral alliance of 2016, now rearing above Trump’s head, and the the eagle on the podium with a Presidential seal, as his left arm’s expansive gesture mirrored the pachyderm’s raised trunk, as if to recall the continuity of red states that had born Trump into office in 2016, and allowed him to ride into Washington, DC, with the imagined spectacularity of Hannibal crossing the Alps.
Indeed, the fear, long before the summer was over, of mapping a “Road to 270” that appeared on all American TV screens, in competition with the riots, seemed to try to weave a sense of consensus in the nation that sorely lacked it, if we didn’t need to be reminded. The elephant might be assembled, and saunter forth again across the land its trunk in Florida, perhaps, rearing a roar that would reverberate across the nation to pronounce its strong borders. After all, as Trump had reminded us so many times, “If we don’t have a wall system, we’re not going to have a country.”–disdaining the inadequacy of the current “lousy wall” whose flimsiness only “stops 90, 95 percent” of those seeking asylum in our nation, and promised “when we put up the real wall, we’re going to stop 99 percent. Maybe more than that!”
The intensity of MAGA rallies that celebrated the survival of the red nation would be tracked on the nightly news through late October suggested a sprint of accumulating votes akin to vote harvesting, as alternative outcomes were painted on electoral maps, in a heady drama, that raised one’s fight or flight instinct in ways that played havoc with teh Central Nervous Systems of everyone’s body, more than offer clarity on the body politic. The big red elephant seemed to fragment or erode as numbers of states “went” light pink, from Texas to Florida to Georgia to North Carolina–Trump territories of the past that the GOP could not afford to concede.
Perhaps white-haired Joe Biden, and white-haired Anderson Cooper, would both be the losers of the contest, we were asked to imagine in weird exercises of visualization of “most likely paths to victory,” and an elephant skin of bright red would again smother the United States.Continue reading