Tag Archives: racism in America

To Levitate an Elephant

The Republican Party unveiled a sleek red elephant in preparation for the 2020 Republican Convention that seemed a strange recuperation of the circus origins of the once-sturdy quadruped. The rejuvenation of the vitality of the old elephant staged a rebirth of the party at a time when its ties to the nation had been increasingly tenuous, and seemed to mask the deep fragmentation that the politics of divisive opposition had been stoked by the shock jock tactics of a President over his first term. The classic abstracted pachyderm was no longer an iconic mascot of the past–it had not been the weighty icon of the past, laden with memories for years–but the division of the party was threatening, as was the division of the nation, by the time the Republican Party had assembled and decided not to adopt any platform in 2020, but to accept disruption and assurances of law and order as an identity the old red-white-and-blue mascot would no longer do to express.

As nation-wide movements promoting the sovereign secession of red states advanced online in virtual space of social media, embraced by the party as a basis for generating turnout and votes, Republicans seemed so assured of an approaching electoral landslide as something like destiny that the electoral map of victory became something of a mirror, finding their identity in red states alone in ways that were unveiled in the newly monochrome anthropomorphic icon of a red pachyderm as the aspirational emblem of the GOP would be reborn with newfound unity and vitality and with an apparent spring in its step.

If the first appearance of the “symbolic pachyderm” occurred in Harpers weekly as a stolid party poised at the brink of an open pit of chaos which was only slightly covered by the false support flimsy campaign platforms afforded its bulk, the image of the stolid beast of the party that was slandered in the 1874 election as newspapers accused the party of corruption, that may have led the mighty elephant to trip into the abyss of chaos. If the boastful Democratic donkey that saw itself as Caesar terrified forest beasts, and led Minerva’s owl to drop her tablet, the imposing party struggled not to fall into the abyss of chaos on platforms that could hardly sustain it from the fNew York press’s charges of corruption, let the party somehow loose the stability of Republican voters.

Thomas Nast, “Third Term Panic” (Harpers Weekly, 1874)

The newly designed Republican elephant of 2020 unveiled in Charlotte, North Carolina, attempted to invest strengthened unity for a party that had changed its identity, in ways that threatened its resilience. The proverbial four blind men who came to describe an elephant might not detect the chromatic shift, but the seismic shift in partisan identity was huge in a party whose sense of identity was being strong-armed by the . The prime political parties of American politics were defined since the late nineteenth century were symbolized by animals in ways that reveal the dominance of the popular press and editorial cartooning of Harpers magazine, where cartoonist Thomas Nast elevated the elephant to a symbol of party, embodying the collective vote in less that laudatory ways, have become potent signifiers their partisans invested with positive qualities to define their affinities, invested in tricolor mascots imbued with patriotism, the elephant associated with memory, probity, and intelligence bearing three stars, and the donkey, populist, dedicated, and stubborn in holding its ground, emblazoned with four. 

The elephant had by the 1970s and 1980s retained its stability in abstract form, but seemed an unassailable image of the party’s security, its sleek form a clear contrast to the far more fluid, and perhaps mutable, Democratic donkey–and, when the streamlined icon emerged int he late 1970s, to assert its modernity.

Democratic donkey and Republican elephant

The new “red elephant” was not only a logo unveiled at the 2020 Republican Convention, of course, but an emblem that had arisen on social media, akin to the new emblems of patriotic devotion that were first engraved by the U.S. Mint on national currency to offer evidence of the piety of the after the Civil War, when Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase received letters from ministers beseeching him to include adequate “ recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins,” and imploring him “What if our Republic were not shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation?,” leading Chase to impress upon the Director of the Philadelphia Mint the need of a device able to depict “the trust of our people in God . . . on our national coins” by a device and motto proclaiming national recognization of God, reasoning that it was evident that “no nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense.” Facebook groups Red Elephant media launched March 5, 2017 or The Red Elephant–a FB group and twitter handle, @redelephantt–founded April 9, 2018–suggested the new hue of the populist party of Donald J. Trump , an aggregator and amplifier of tweets by folks like Rep. Jim Jordan, Rep. Matt Gaetz, Gov. Ron De Santis and Marjorie Taylor Greene, a new republican Party that issued the post-inaugural proclamation to be back in other form.

The immensity of a far more animated elephant was a symbol primarily of hulking power, when it was first employed as a symbol of the Union; at the start of the U.S. Civil War, an anti-secessionist Republican party was imagined in an early lithography to render the anthropomorphic elephant an image of power and fire-arms, imagining, in an early New York lithograph, the contest between North and South in terms of a stoic beast, of little naturalism, whose dignity was backed up by fire-arms and the American flag, while a Democratic donkey seemed to squint at the imposing stature of the elephant who symbolizing order, Constitution in his pocket, and sword in his hand, wearing the patriotic stockings before his effete counterpart, “Jeff”–Jefferson Davies, who barely noticed his rural forces are far outnumbered by fire-power and canon, as he scrutinizes him warily through his eyepiece.

“Jeff Sees the Elephant,” E. B. & E. C. Kellogg/lithography by George Whiting, 1861-62
Jeff Sees the Elephant, 1861-2

The recognition scene between a patriotic elephant, donning both a patriotic hat band, stockings and slippers of red and white stripes and stars on a blue field, the American flag behind him, seems to register a divide of Civil War: the elephant armed with bursting guns coolly stares down the scrawny foppish Democrat donkey who lifts a monocle to better apprehend his foe. The future emblem mapped the cleavage between the union and confederates, where an elephant presumed to articulate the union and the donkey the intrepid resilience of the individualistic Democrat. During midterm elections of Republican Abraham Lincoln’s first term in office, when Jefferson Davies was the nominal “President” of seceded confederate states, was the precedent on which the great cartoonist Thomas Nast drew, but was designed long before the deadly violence of Civil War. The crisis of staking out political conditions out of which the animals emerged was pressing, if the dandy Davies seemed to barely orient himself by lifting his monocle to assess the scale of union munitions suggested that the elephant was an icon that was worth noticing.

The elephant long attracted circus-goers in America, but the entrance of elephants in political discourse and iconography demand being placed on a global map. If Lincoln adopted the elephant was a powerful symbol of union, and an announcement of the route of southern armies, which became a mascot of the Republican party, the impressive image of inclusion and monumentality was less evident in the new red elephant, lifting its trunks as if to smell the air, unveiled at the Republican Convention of 2020, when the wonder of the elephants that Siam’s King Mongkut hoped to introduce into “the forests of America” in 1861 had receded into history. The attributes of the animal mascot had over the years become fluid, long before the new elephant’s sleek form recaptured its circus origins, reclaiming its status as a circus animal, far from the upright animal who held his sword as a dignified cane. Lincoln judiciously had turned down the offer of a pair of elephants from his royal stock to propagate in American forests, but despite his respectful demurral that “our political jurisdiction . . . does not reach a latitude so low as to favour the multiplication of the elephant,” he readily adopted the iconography of the elephant as an emblem of the union by 1864: in the campaign, he used the slogan “the Elephant is Coming!” to promise the benefits of union as a partisan symbol.

The divide between a munitioned north that held the constitution in its pocket was drafted after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a wartime measure toward the abolishing of enslavement, defending the field of stars and stripes before the propertied southern landowners symbolized by the Kentucky planter and slave-holder who was President of the Confederate States of America, an office and entity the United States never recognized–here mocked as a foolish gentleman leading farmers into battle. By 2020, the Grand Old Party had been internally wrestling with groups promoting the idea that red states might gain an independent sovereign status. While the notion of such a secession was an intellectual siloing, ignoring that the the economic productivity of “blue states” allowed fiscal solvency and social services across many poorer regions of the nation, the 2020 Convention in Charlotte, SC was an attempt to create a sense of coherence in a party that had been animated mostly by its fear of Trump’s twitterfeed over four years, and hoped to find a possible reconciliation in which the party might in fact be best embodied by Donald Trump, even if a large part of his appeal as a Presidential candidate was his status as a political outsider. Was Trump now to be celebrated as an elephant limned by a border of gold, but also reclaiming its popular origins?

1. The new mascot was unveiled for the GOP, sleeker and redder, recalling the imperial grandeur; the party would be energized as if to disguise its new status as Party of Trump, by a new mascot rearing its trunk. And although the President boasted of his abilities to correctly identify the image of a pachyderm in the routine Montreal Cognitive Assessment Test in late July, the elephant even became a sign of Trump’s own mental acuity and recall, after he was administered a test for Parkinson’s or dementia he boasted he’d actually “aced.”

Was it a coincidence that, about a month before the 2020 Republican convention, Donald Trump measured his success at a routinely administered test to FOX’s Chris Wallace, by describing having “aced” the Montreal Cognitive Assessment by his adeptness identifying an elephant? Wallace almost scoffed spontaneously he’d undergone the test himself, and knew it well–“”It’s not the hardest test–they have a picture and it says, ‘What’s that?” and it’s an elephant‘” Trump claimed identifying the pachyderm was a sense of extraordinary acuity, as he took the opportunity to taunt his opponent, Joe Biden, who he challenged to take the cognitive test as well.

Montreal Cognitive Assessment Test Administered at Walter Reed

This was not a great moment in American politics. Was it not a delicious irony that the test focussed on the elephant, that image of Republican unity that featured in MoCA test his physicians administered had indeed been revised, for 2020, as a rightward facing red beast, raising its trunk as if to rear, in an attempt to promote party unity?

Perhaps it was karma that the httMoCA test that the VA was administering to test the President’s cognitive condition included the emblem of the republican party where he ha emerged as candidate of choice, and the koanic haiku “man-woman-person-camera-tv” was included, as well, per POTUS, as the memory words–a selection that was not on most versions of the test itself, but seem a softball question for Walter Reed physicians to pitch to the former TV personality, whereas standard fare word lists are non-associative and without clear reference or oppositions–“hand, nylon, park, carrot, yellow”; “face-velvet-church-daisy-red.”

Facing the VOX crew, and wishing that he was being interviewed by a woman, “man-woman-person-camera-TV” suggested Trump was riffing on his actual setting, in real time, more than describing the Walter Reed test. But the centrality of the elephant to this test of President Trump’s personal memory received less attention than the fanciful word chain that became a knowing meme: the place of the emblem of the party in the MoCA Test at Walter Reed may have been randomly selected, but was a bit of a reflection on the transformed nature of the Republican party that had emerged with Trump at the helm, and the unveiling by August 1, 2020 of a star-studded (or encrusted) pachyderm before a blue crown as the new “convention logo reflects both the energy of this vibrant city and traditions of the Republican Party,” as well as the one-ring circus direction that the party was headed by the very nominee once worried to tarnish the Party’s reputation permanently.

The one-week infomercial of a convention was entering full gear in its planning stages when Mike Wallace was interviewing Trump in the Rose Garden; President Trump was probably taking a break from reviewing its program and imagining how his improbable leadership of the party whose leaders had only recently feared the deep damage The Donald might inflict on the party’s image, urging him at length to “tone down” his pleasure to bait his base by anti-immigrant rhetoric, as Trump dismissed apologies–“I have nothing to apologize for”–and assured “I’ll win the Latino vote”–and pooh-poohed that he was a novelty candidate, even if he was clearly a different political animal. When he advanced to being the standard-bearer for the GOP, as assurances his candidacy would implode melted, his anti-immigrant comments were repressed, elided, or rolled into the media sensation Trump knew he was.

At PGA meeting at Trump International Golf Course at Rancho Palos Verde, CA, July 6, 2020/Nick Ut/AP

The collective memory of the party was at stake in the new convention–where the basis for forming a party of red states alone seemed to be being tested, the resistance to even pretend to frame a platform in at the Charlotte NC convention suggested, in programming that seemed to foreground both that Donald Trump was not a racist and that he would keep America save from Black Lives Matter social justice protests, that the very logo of the party–a white elephant that dated from Reconstruction–had preserved quite racially encoded memories of its own, that might haunt the party Trump had reshaped, long identified since Thomas Nast bequeathed two anthropomorphic beasts to both parties, in the years after the U.S. Civil War.

There was a logical difficulty in hoping a pure red state republic that some of the planners of the 2020 Republican Convention must have been aware: if the Trump base could be counted upon, red states remained dependent on federal transfer payments or support for food stamps, temporary assistance for needy families, subsidized insurance, and Medicaid, and were far poorer states, reliant on effective subsidies to pay troops, the fund infrastructural projects and disaster relief, many of which were increasing due to human-caused climate change. The party was dependent on a good showing in more than red states, and the polls,, as much as they were discredited and discounted by the sitting President, looked bad. But the proximity of the party to The Donald meant that the elephant had to be redesigned to buoy the party’s hopes–putting on the front burner the problem of how to assimilate Donald Trump to a party of long term memory.

Christopher Weyant, Boston Globe

The representation of red states as a base demanded an image of Republican identity demanded a redesign of its logo identified with the interests of red states with grandeur, that might meld the strongly separatist rhetoric in which the image of a Sovereign States of America might exist–without echoing the Confederate secession, even if the image of a Confederate States of America was dear symbolism to Trump’s base. The new elegant if streamline elephant, now emblazoned with five stars that seemed to forecast the “W” of victory, seemed to embrace a “big tent” politics in its size, but was for the first time incarnated in red alone.

And in an era in which we have a President able to channel his inner P.T. Barnum more openly than his predecessors, he sought to unite the party in his increasingly capacious body, by mining a rich tradition of political iconography speaking before a redesigned symbol of the party that perhaps tapped Nast’s icon in recalling a circus–and in recalling the curiosity “white elephant’ that Barnum had imported from Burma, where it was revered as a symbol of purity and power, and whose display to circus audiences implicitly promoted it as a purer version than its African cousin who was a popular component of American circuses, whose appearance was often the culmination and final act of the spectacular form of popular entertainment.

2. If the circus elephants Barnum displaced were such Americanized images as popular behemoths and visual attractions that cartoonists in the Civil War had already adopted the elephant as a sing of the Union, and of the Republican party that defended the union. If Lincoln was said to adore the elephant as an image of the Union’s robustness, the currency of the elephant as a trick in the trade of circus exhibitions may have appropriated the curiosity of the mammoth-sized beast because of its size and to show the marvel of its domestication: if elephants had been taught to dance in the Jardin des Plants, in costume, exhibition of a stuffed elephant at London’s 1851 Crystal Palace by the East India Company bearing a royal carriage that increased its exotic dignity and elevated its ceremonial role as transit vehicle, if the taxidermied skin was a source more of fascination than vivacity, prefigured Barnum’s spectacular display of elephants to popular crowds: the popularity of the museified pachyderm prefigured exhibition of a giant African Grey at London’s Zoological Gardens, and Barnum eagerly bought what was then the largest elephant in captivity to hawk to American audiences in his traveling show, over public objection and anger of London zoogoers who felt they were swindled to lose the locally treasured beast that was a source of cultural fascination and pride:

Walter Goodall, Crystal Palace, 1855 (London)

If the stuffed elephant at the Crystal Palace exhibited in “native” costume as an elegant conveyance, anidst the Pavilion the East India Company populated with material goods, jeweled costumes, and elephant saddles, was far from the way Barnum later displayed elephants in his traveling company with fewer costumes than later adopted for circus elephants as forms of kitsch–Barnum promised contact with the vivacity of enormous beasts’ feats as a popular entertainment, in a tradition of American circus men, probably independently from Lincoln’s near fetishization of the tusked animal to emblematize the unity of the Union he promised in his Presidential campaign. But the connotations of elephant and party that paralleled the popular display of elephants Barnum dramatically pioneered grew as the costumed resumed for the Burmese White Barnum had added to his menagerie by 1884, amidst heated racial politics of Reconstruction, adopting the Burmese beast to provoke debates on the purity of racial descent and skin pigmentation in post-Civil War America, as they were confronted, processed and intensely debated outside southern states, rather decisively increased the adoption and attention to the elephant as a mascot of the Republican Party, as the “white elephant” Toung Taloung arrived in New York City as a fascinating new feature of Barnum’s public display.

The prized white elephant Barnum exhibited was a revered beast, whose purity of stock, evident in the pigmentation of its skin, he argued was more civilized and considerate elephant than the African greys standard in American circuses; the spectacle in Reconstruction was a symbol of racial purity, and the calculation of percentages of racial descent among Americans in the census. Nast adopted the white elephant to suggest the probity the Republican party would do well to adopt in 1880, to regain the White House–the “sacred elephant,” as the Burmese “white elephant” he had purchased was known, not a resident of forests, but a member of the royal court, serenaded and costumed with eastern luxuries. If the venerated white elephant, here shown in the sort of costume he wore in Barnum’s circus, offered a model of comportment Nast argued might lead back to the White House in 1880, the unconscious echo of the circus elephant in the new logo of 2020 seemed to suggest a pure red party would retain power. Is it any surprise that this circus animal was siezed on again and rehabilitated, in the three-ring circus of the Trump Presidency?

Thomas Nast, “the Sacred Elephant,” 1884

The new logo of an elephant rearing his trunk, and advancing, marked the “second coming” of Trump, and destined advance of a newly Trumpified party, although what new beast was slouching toward Washington, D.C. was hard to determine by the red- trunked elephant. Rising above the speaker’s podium as if leaping into space, sporting five stars that seemed to summon a sense of astrological destiny, the proud adoption of a new elephant seemed to suggest an abandon to the race-baiting oratory Trump reintroduced in American politics.

Rather than evoking probity, the elephant suggested the reborn party that rose from a geography of red states where it was now rooted. Cartoonists had recently cast the old guard of the Party as in fear of the President, but the 2020 Republican Convention seemed to remake a platform-free party proudly in an elephant of his own mold, in what would be perhaps his last hurrah before the Convention Committee in late August, as the nation was reverberating with the potent echoes of George Floyd’s killing by overzealous racist police. Trump, newly affirmed by his cognitive assessment, and energized by the demonization of Black Lives Matter, staged a complex affirmation of a unified party, largely rooted in an appeal to a party overwhelmingly white: few would have remembered how George Orwell as a Burmese policeman associated with conscription into the “dirty work of Empire” when, as an assistant superintendent of Imperial police, 1922-27, he felt conscripted into service of empire when tasked with shooting the venerated elephant with a shotgun. George Orwell struggled with wearing a “mask” of imperialist as he claimed to perpetrate the murder of the unruly disruptive elephant, sensing that where the “white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom he destroys.” But the image of tyranny and domination was one that was almost embraced in the Republican party in the prominence of white faces and speakers that it featured and the ideal of restoring order they proclaimed.

If George Orwell lamented being the target of local hatred to empire and his own disquiet with his role as imperial enforcer, Trump cultivated the image of an enforcer at the Republican Convention, accepting the endorsement of the national association of Police Organization for the “most pro-law enforcement president we ever had” as he affirmed that the “violence and bloodshed we are seeing” in the summer of 2020 was only “the direct result of refusing to allow law enforcement to protect our communities.” Trump had exploited support of the Customs and Border Patrol in 2016 to promise a 2,000 mile border wall, and he promoted an endorsement from the national police organization–a collection of 1,000 unions–by promising to hire more police before cries to curb police violence, and “give law enforcement, our police, back their power.” The endorsement responded to Trump’s promised to “actively prosecute” all who attacked law enforcement amidst racial tensions, thundering “I will ALWAYS back the men and women in blue, and never let you down. LAW AND ORDER WILL PREVAIL!”

The power with which he spoke, raising his right hand to make his point, echoed the upwardly raised trunk of the invigorated partisan symbol of Republicans, lifting its trunk as if to communicate its power.

President Donald Trump speaks at Republican National Committee convention, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Charlotte. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Was anyone aware of the racial connotations of purity by which the emblem of the elephant was claimed by Republicans in Reconstruction America? The preening insatiability of the red elephant communicated a sense of the eagerness of Republicans to map their candidate onto the body politic, a lumbering but advancing red behemoth, testifying to the electoral majority that the party would assemble in semaphore, in ways that the earlier tricolor icons of pachydermal stolidity had refused to capture as incarnations of a body politic. If the party’s stolidity seemed to convey a sense of order and conservatism in its earlier iterations, adding far more sobriety to an animal once figured by American cartoonists as a circus animal, from the time of the venerable Thomas Nast, master cartoonist of the late nineteenth century, the transmission of this partisan logo seemed to be less and less of a mascot of the party, than a symbol of purity. And if the elephant had become almost a glyph, robbed of semantic value–

–the unveiling of the rearing all-red elephant for a convention that was in a sense the kick-off of Trump 2020, a campaign that team Trump had been planning since 2017, seemed to recast the body politic as a unity of red states alone, without even pandering to the rest of the nation.

3. It is hard not to read the adoption of a new red elephant as party mascot as a unification not of the union–as Lincoln had intended and his party seems to have eagerly accepted–than the sufficiency of the unity of red states in the Trump Presidency, or Republican Party that was now stage-managed as Trump. The “red elephant” that was the descendent proclaimed and adopted descended from the “white elephant” of the 1880 campaign, but as the product of miscegenation of the new tribal currency of the “red states” as not only a base of the Republican Party, but a new identity as a “true” America which defined itself by its patriotic intensity, and their opposition to the representatives of “blue states,” and indeed the purity of Republican identity as a creed and dogma: if the prominence of anti-miscegenation laws in may states in the South long after the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation extended voting rights officially to African Americans–and were only removed long after the war’s end in Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, South Carolina and Alabama–the very construction of “racial purity” and its fetishization increased the popular attraction of a “white elephant,” and expectation a “white elephant” might adhere to a different metric of civility than its African grey counterpart, and be treated and exhibited in the circus as, by analogy, distinct by its “race.” Red states were invested in the Trump era as a different beast than the states defined as “blue,” to the extent that preposterous claims of electoral fraudulence were entertained in the red states not only as a way of retaining political power, but as Michigan, Georgia, and Arizona–perhaps especially that state that lay in proximity to the border and border wall–were seen as “Republican” territory and recognized as red.

As soon as the new logo was unveiled, it was difficult not to see the attention to this pure-red beast as a reminder of the sufficiency to hold together the unity of the “sea of red” or of red states that Trump had long gloated over as a confirmation of a long over-exaggerated scale of his political victory in 2016 as a “landslide” and a confirmation of the intensity of his relation to the nation that he argued he would protect. It was hard not to remember the intensity with the the Trump family had baited the news media and their base by images of a map of a “sea of red” emblazoned with the taunting challenge “Try to impeach this” as a rather vainglorious boast on the even of the first impeachment of President Donald Trump, and which had only intensified in the 2020 Campaign that was increasingly fought and waged in openly oppositional if not Manichaean terms of political dualism, and later cast as combat tot he death that might itself prefigure Civil War if Trump did not emerge as the victor. Never mind that the map distorted population distribution or that “blue” voters who had supported the Democratic candidate had, indeed, outnumbered those who voted “red” for Donald Trump. This retweeted graphic where Trump received the majority of votes was an emblem of collective unity for candidate Trump in 2020, that led to the use of collective nouns with abundance that seemed to shrink the distance between him and his followers, and elevate the nature of one color in openly tribal terms of political contestation, rather than government, and understood that redmap as a direct tie to the President Trump, rather than to a party or an ideology debated or articulated as a political platform. Indeed, Representatives and Senators in the Republican party were increasingly seen as beholden not to their constituents, or the rule of law, or Constitution but to the appeal Trump exercised over their constituents.

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County-by-County Presidential Vote, 2016

The fetishization of the electoral divide became a mantra and promise for the Trump’s candidacy, as what he saw as an electoral acclamation–even if by concealing his loss of the popular vote–became an affirmation of his political inevitability and identity, and preaching to the “base” that was identified by red states came to conceal the lack of anything like a political platform by 2020: the continuity of red made the political terrain seem something like a mirror–a direct presentation of the nation of which it was the imposing incarnation.

2016 Electoral Map, by County
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Filed under American Politics, Donald J. Trump, political geography, political iconography, Republican Convention

Colossus on the Hudson: Monuments of Global Kitsch

Effigies of stability are, at times, the closest that one can hope for the manufacture of a sense of stability in the nation. When Donald J. Trump used the White House as a backdrop from which to accept the 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.

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 of2,500 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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Chief Justice Roberts Mismaps Voting Rights in America

When Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr. effectively released nine southern states from the oversight of voting procures and practices in a decision overturning the Voting Rights Act of 1965, withdrawing the federal protection of populations against whom there was past discrimination and effectively judging it to no longer warrant federal review.  The decision was to cease to continue such provisions of oversight–the “preclearance” of any changes in voting laws–that interfered unjustly in how states conducted their elections.  Roberts most strongly objected to using maps to guide such active federal oversight of voter suppression.  By rather castigating the U.S. Congress for relying continuously on historical precedent in repeated re-approval of the Voting Rights Act–or “VRA”–the five Supreme Court justices collectively complained that any continuation of policies mandating which states and local jurisdictions must “preclear” with the Justice Department when changing voting laws, suggesting that failures to “update” the “coverage formula” that was repeatedly reviewed and reinstated since 1965 no longer reflected “current conditions,” even though it had been affirmed four separate occasions by previous supreme courts.

What the nature of such “conditions” were was never specified.  For the actual objection of the Court seems to have lain in the unfair distribution of federal authority that the process of review of changing in voting policy created–and the degree to which it distinguished the relation of specific states to the federal government in ways that Roberts claimed he found issue.  The map of those states subject to review constituted undue federal interference, it must be supposed, with state practices.  Ignoring that the map mandating “preclearance” for any changes to voting laws in states had reflected the evolution of voting conditions on a county-by-county basis after having sustained a series of “incident-free” elections where no complaints were registered or found, the Roberts court seems to have treated the map as the problem in its untoward decision–viewing it not reflecting ‘current conditions’ and unfair in its isolation of said counties and states.  They were less able to see a problem as lying in long-running discriminatory histories; such histories were effectively washed from the books.  For the existence of such a policy, despite whatever its benefits might be, ran against the “equal sovereignty” of southern states as part of the union, despite whatever precedents of voter suppression one might find to support its continuation.  Indeed, despite being broadly upheld as constitutional ad as effective on no fewer than four separate occasions by previous Supreme Courts since 1965.

How timely was the 2013 decision?  In scolding the US Congress and federal government for their over-reliance on history, the court may well be accepting and instituting a blind spot in the discriminatory practices that exist in the United States, and are regularly re-inscribed in election laws–and to do so just in time for the Presidential elections of 2016.

 

 

 

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While the Court invited Congress to take time to “draft another formula” which better reflected the “current conditions” in the country, the five justices who supported the removal of protections from the Voting Rights Act, a pillar of national voting practices, seem to have ignored the problem at hand, or its depth.  For they rather petulantly subscribed to a notion of accurate mapping–the need for rendering an accurate record in a map that remained faithful to social conditions–rather than ascertain its benefits.  The argument may have rested on the belief that current cartographical skills vastly outdated those of previous generations, or the belief that history is bunk.

The dangers of the 2013 decision were that they dismissed the effective value of continuing oversight where demonstrable histories of voter discrimination existed–as well as discounted he work that went into rendering a map–or what trying to ascertain what would be the lines of the new map to reflect cases of voter suppression.  Perhaps they imagined that the new map could be drafted in less time than the verbal arguments were presented to the court, and that consensus would be able to be easily arrived at as to its parameters–or that any map would entail similar objections, prima facie.  Although FOX news commentators ridiculed the existence of any practices of disenfranchisement in the states where oversight existed–“nobody is seriously claiming today…that there is systematic efforts on the part of the government in the south to keep people of color from voting,” stated the senior Legal Affairs analyst at Fox News, Andrew Napolitano, ignoring its value in protecting voters from facing discrimination–current restrictions on eligibility for voting in multiple states seem to have multiplied across the country like mushrooms in multiple states, preventing any serious possibility to ascertain their constitutionality in any way, and encouraging the possibility that further policies curtailing voting rights be enacted.

 

vra

 

In  a sense, the decision affirmed a strong belief in states rights, but it did so for all the wrong reasons, and in a particularly wrong-headed way.  Chief Justice Robert’s longstanding reliance on constitutional written precedent encouraged him to construe the map of states requiring pre clearance in potentially quite damaging ways–and to change election laws as a stipulation that was no longer historical relevant in ways that could increase disenfranchisement and unease in electoral laws.  Roberts imagined oversight as a vestige of federal interference with states rights, in need of evacuation not only since it had lost its relevance, but since vacating its authority fails struck a blow in defense of the local jurisdiction against federal interference, but he also must have known he was driving a thorn into the side of the Obama administration.  While the repeal of the VRA was hailed by the alt-right as a victory of continued discrimination of whites, as if it was coextensive with Affirmative Action or insinuated the existence of undefined prejudices to what seemed a quarter to a third of the country, the fact that such preclearance reflected actual histories of voter suppression or mythical “voter fraud” in danger of recurring.

Justice Roberts did not only fail to recognize the deeply serious divides in race-based justice across the land, as has been made increasingly evident in the years since, from Ferguson MO to the nation-wide growth of Black Lives Matter; the verdict demeaned the value of protecting voters’ rights or individual access to the ballot.  For Roberts objected to poorly mapping the relation of the Department of Justice to individual regions of the United States–despite their demonstrable history of discriminatory disenfranchisement–on the grounds that “current conditions” did not warrant a review of  local practices of election, he effectively denied the value of such a practice, even while claiming to send the practice back to Congress:  despite notoriously exclusionary practices of the recent past, the continued review of select states’ changes in electoral law lacked “rational” grounds–despite current evidence of ongoing need to protect against discriminatory efforts to reduce the most basic right of citizenship.  Most importantly, the effective “map” of regions of oversight mis-stated the legal question of oversight, by allowing the plaintiffs to frame it as a division of the coherence of how states related to the federal government, rather than an alienation of the most important of all rights to protect to individuals on the ground–whose job the Court should most protect.

 

Coverage by Section 5

 

The replication of the map in news agencies has allowed the debate to be distanced on a map from actual circumstances of voters, orienting many to a question that seems truly unfair–“wait, the Department of Justice is only paying attention to discrimination in these states?  Huh?”–rather than to interrogate the reasons why voters might benefit from such continued protection, or that undue vigilance was demanded of the once-seceded South–and indeed constituted an undue restriction on the “equal sovereignty” of southern states.

 

vra-statesFox News

 

 

Section 2, 1982-2005, 6+ per million

 

 

The suspicion that he shared for the federal government of undue oversight in local liberties however has little to do with what other members of the Court saw as the importance of protecting the universality of the right to vote.  The division of states in the union that merited review of any potentially exclusionary processes of voting was recently accepted by the US Congress.  But Shelby County brought suit against the state of constitutionality of the review of their voting laws in 2011, and brought the case to the Supreme Court, as a case against the Attorney General, with the argument that the federal government lacked the ability to oversee state voting laws–the “extraordinary circumstance” that warranted such a distinction on account of repeated discrimination against minority voters, Roberts held, no longer exists, or had to be renegotiated, because the map used in 1965 cannot be reasonably retained, and need to be redrawn.  This seems a reasonable historicization of the map:  but it threw out any need for the assessment of longstanding historical discrimination of voting rights that had disenfranchised many and institutionalized intimidation of African American voters.  Weren’t such ugly histories of voter suppression come to terms with precisely because of their unconstitutionality?

 

lbj-mlk2Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library

 

“In 1965, the States could be divided into two groups:  those with a recent history of voting tests and low voter registration and turnout, and those without those characteristics,” the Chief Justice wrote in his verdict.  He then proceeded to strike down key clauses of the 1965 Voting Rights Act on the grounds that the law compelled specific states to seek permission from the federal Department of Justice before changing local voting laws, and in so doing unduly compromised their sovereignty.  The decision had the immediate consequence of opening the floodgates to shifting stipulations of who could vote, from the introduction of Voter ID laws to the ending of voter Registration drives, that seemed designed to –even though the actual map of oversight had been adjusted and redrawn multiple times since 1965, and the notion that an old map was being used for a question to which it was no longer relevant concealed the deep and longstanding historical survival of suspicions on the electoral voice of what were seen as minorities–and for retaining what were presented as the “local liberties” for allowing the continued suppression of the vote.  It is not surprising that the rush to adopt restrictive measures in voting were adopted in time for the Presidential election of 2016, perhaps to disenfranchise  the very populations seen as most egregious in forcing limitations on voters’ access to the ballot box, encouraging states to adopt restrictions on where turn-out could be potential hindered.

The judgement that Roberts so blindly and so forcefully made that “the Nation is no longer divided along those lines” which had been once determined by the discrepancies of “minority” registration and turnout provided grounds to classify Section 5 of the VRA as a historical constraint on states rights without merit because “today’s statistics tell a different story” seems in retrospect to have little merit:  the readiness to introduce new restrictions on voting rights compels the issue to be revisited, perhaps in time for the approaching Presidential election, in order to ensure that full access to the ballot is not only protected but encouraged.  For the occurrence of new restrictions adopted by local state legislatures suggests not only the continuing need for federal oversight–if not a strong tension between local and national policies about voting rights–but a profound misunderstanding of the lack of uniformity in how the nation will be selecting its President, not only possibly privileging the voices of citizens, but effectively diluting the national electorate in untoward ways.  Although the language of the verdict refused to treat the sovereignty of different states in different manner–evoking earlier arguments of states’ rights–the notion that all states are equal in all ways bears revisiting.

When Roberts reasoned that such review of changes in voting policies, from preregistration drives to on-site registration on Election Day, were untoward interferences in states’ rights to hold elections in the manner that they desired, did he indeed encourage the actual differences in how voters were allowed to make their voices heard?  At the very least, forestalling the introduction of new restrictions until their impact is assessed, and constitutionality is reviewed–given the spate of cases in which the constitutionality of Voter ID laws has been questioned–yet the dangers that are associated with a federal trammeling of states’ rights have provoked a broad rejection of the VRA provision for federal oversight of dangerous consequences.

 

cux3zy3ukaa5txz-jpg-large

 

Let’s compare that with the states that were facing mandated federal oversight that was dismissed as outdated and not meriting federal review of electoral policies–not the map of 1965 but a more recent one:  all but one state whose changes in voting policies were subject to oversight in Section 5 of the VRA indeed adopt changes in time for the 2016 Presidential election, but their effectiveness may impact the election.

 

Coverage by Section 5

 

It is difficult to grasp the lack of connection between the decision and the nation being mapped.  Indeed, if Denis Wood and others has argued that national maps are a performance of national identity, the amazing nature of the agreement in 1965 to turn attention to the discriminatory practices on voter registration that existed endemically in many southern states–whose legislatures were particularly resistant to and fearful of the expansion of the franchise, and sought to adopt more voter policies that the federal government could practically review–rested in a refusal to subject states to federal oversight that was blind to race-based divisions.  The decision suggests a serious blind spot about how the nation is currently being mapped.  Chief Justice Roberts’s argument rested on asserting the lack of legal grounds for continued federal oversight over local communities that is unmerited at present, since extraordinary conditions now longer exist in the southern states–many of the same which fly the Confederate Flag in their capitals. The range of counties that turned to adopt restrictive policies of registration and voting in time for the Presidential election of 2016 maps (ochre) nicely onto the regions subject to review by the Dept. of Justice of any changes in electoral laws (hatched regions) and indeed the scope of restrictive policies of voting were indeed often noticeably expanded to cover and include nearby counties were large numbers of minority voters, as if the policies of reducing the electorate grew, particularly in crucial states for Presidential voting, as Florida–where the electoral benefits to the victor can even decide a Presidential election.

 

County by county restriction v. Section 5 coverage.pngThe New Yorker/2014

 

To stamp such a “date of expiry” on the map of vigilance to laws that exclude or encourage the exclusion of voters from an election of national consequence is not only to deny the work that went into the establishment of criteria of oversight but denies the provisional value of the map as a work in progress:  the Roberts court blithely seems to seek to alter the constitution and performance of national identity, and the labor that goes into the construction of any map, while dismissing the effectiveness of that already adopted.

Chief Justice Roberts asserted that the nature of federal oversight over localities must be uniform across the nation, rather than privilege any region was effectively unduly onerous but also unfair.  Rather, he urged the primacy of rigorously respecting rights of localities. But if his opinion suggested such that current practice unfairly singled out regions as in distinct need of oversight from other fifty states, and that the criteria approved in 1965–and repeatedly renewed, with some exceptions–all of sudden no longer reflected current conditions.  The subsequent state of events have shown that the infringement of rights to vote both to exist in areas where the body politic still suffers from exclusionary practices that have survived in new guise, and sadly permits the encoding of racist practices and dogma in new language in existing voting laws.

Yet it raises questions of what sufficient conditions would be, and why there might not be broader oversight over election laws on a federal level at a time when restrictions on voting rights are actually being introduced.  The Roberts verdict oddly comes on the heals many of the criticisms Republican candidates had only recently expressed about longstanding need to eradicate voter fraud.  But rather than address the needs to reform elections or election law, Roberts argued for the compelling need to remove obstructions of self-determination that had been previously determined on a map of those states sharing past precedents of systematically curtailing universal voting.  For Roberts recognized that policies of pre-clearance had stood “for half a century [as] the most effective protection of minority voting rights“–finding that given distinctions between federal attention to local practices, federal pre-clearance of changes in local  election laws constituted unwarranted distinction among the states in the union–despite the clear grounds for concerns in southern states.

If the purported aim of the verdict was to ensure all Americans retained the same voting rights, opening the door to pending changes in electoral law was the basis by which Shelby County was eager to bring suit against the government led the court to take its eyes of the nation. For while determining that the extraordinary grounds for previously constructing a map of states in need of federal oversight unfairly distinguished how the Department of Justice related to states, as if the review were due only to an extraordinary condition now in remission, it ignored the issue at stake.  By inviting the federal government to rely on a more current map the justices seem to have accepted the ease of redrawing a new map in the age of infographics and data visualizations that are produced nightly for the news–as if that process could be accomplished in time for the next Presidential election in a way that could be given binding fource.  The justices on the Supreme Court may have lacked authority to mandate the construction of such a new map of national voting policy or the competency to do so–but in dispensing with any guidelines for oversight, they willfully opened a conundrum which they must have understood.  The particular derision with which the late Antonin Scalia publicly discussed the “Voting Rights Act”–asking who would ever want to tamper or get rid of a piece of legislation with such a nice-sounding name–reveals either a misguided failure to appreciate its benefits, or past need, or the historically embedded nature of many counties’ voting laws–as was soon revealed in the institution of a range of restrictive policies of voting apparently aimed at curtailing voting rights, if cunningly cast in protecting the rights of those who had already registered.  The refusal to retain a map that ostensibly “was biased” against whites was a stroke of genius for a group of white southerners in a minority-majority nation, and also came with clear political pay-off for the Republican party, as those dissuaded from voting would most likely not vote Republican.

 

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2008 Presidential Elections exist polls in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia

 

Why weren’t the continuation of a danger of disenfranchisement evident to all members of the Court?

The cross-generational continuity believing that provisions of literacy, English literacy, or indeed the predominance of continued violations of voting rights threaten to dissuade participation in the election, and indeed increase the feelings of distrust in members of the electorate.  The very existence of problems of restrictive policies about voting mandate the importance of keeping expanded locations of registration open, opening the ability of those who haven’t voted to vote, and renewing registration until the last minute.   And despite the introduction of  legislation to restore the VRA in the US Senate, the reluctance of Republicans to endorse such legislation reveals the bizarre transformation of the debate to guarantee the franchise along party lines–in ways that echo the terrifying vocalization by Donald Trump of charges that illegal immigrants he would not permit in the country would be accepted en masse to tilt the vote, and his attempts to undermine the legitimacy of an outcome to the election that did not affirm his victory.   Such bullying of the American electorate of course itself hinders and disrespects the electoral process.  For in dismissing the previous map for areas worthy of federal attention to undue limitations on civil rights, Roberts sided with a longstanding argument first framed during Reconstruction, but examined Southern claims to autonomy as undue interference in states’ rights.  Yet the argument that geographical restrictions of federal oversight were no longer warranted depended on an imagined equality due all states, and a willful neglect of the map of local disparities in how voters are allowed equal access to the polls.

 

1.  The map became what he tilted his sword against in the opinion that he wrote, leaving Justice Ginsburg somewhat dumbfounded at its limited reading of the law:  the VRA did not mandate a permanent division among states, but the law specified redrawing of a map over time should disenfranchisement be found to no longer occur–in which case it would expire in regions where such oversight was deemed no longer necessary.

So how could the map be effectively fetishized as grounds for legal objection to the oversight of regions where voting practices had not yet gained a respectable track record for respecting the civil rights of all voters?  In granting the petition of an Alabama county in Shelby County v. Holder, No. 12-96, the court placed the Voting Rights Act in its sights in ways that it had sought to do for some time.  Roberts argued that maps of past discrimination bear little “rational relationship” raise questions of the rational relation of a map of oversight to the law–or whether a map of legal oversight can be warranted in light of histories of racial discrimination.  The verdict raises questions of knowing when a new map should be required of regions that have demonstrated histories of disenfranchisement, when a map becomes overly dated in the eyes of the law–and, given how long Congress had labored to determine how the geographic limits specified in the Voting Rights Act could shift over time, when a new map would ever be collated and compiled.  Oddly, the decision seems to deny a clear perception of the lack of equal access in the last presidential election–and Mitt Romney’s decision attribute his defeat at the feet of the promise of Universal Health Care (“Obamacare’) held to minority voters.  In an age when a Presidential candidate can explain his failure to gain votes among minority voters on “the gifts” promised by his opponents to African-Americans and Latinos, dividing the electorate along racial lines, such distinctions clearly exist:  yet Roberts questions the limited effectiveness of mapping specific states as sites of disenfranchisement as unfairly privileging DOJ oversight of select states.

Does a map of regions requiring federal preclearance divide our national territory, in short, or is it by necessity a necessary tool for preserving equal access to the ballot across our nation?  What map would be sufficiently authoritative for Congress to draw up, for one?  Do the maps of discrimination retain validity on preventative grounds, or must they be actually demonstrated?  If the latter is the case, who is doing the counting and reporting the results?  Is it of any importance that the historical preponderance of complaints about voting laws within the United States as a whole from 1957 to 2006 closely reflect a distribution that would expand the mandate the continuation of a similar map–but include the very same regions as sites historically in need of federal oversight of election laws?

 

voting-rights-usmap

Voting Complaints Voiced at County Level in the Lower Forty-Eight, 1957-2000

 

Unsurprisingly, this map would reflect many of the same counties where the voting group was likely to be one fifth “minority” voters in 2000, where those attitudes against groups defined as “minorities”–Latinos or African American, usually–were sharpest and most likely to be excluded from voting.

 

voting1-map1

Counties with 20% Minority Residence

 

Given the Chief Justice opinion that violations of voting rights “should not be too easy to prove since they provide a basis for the most intrusive interference imaginable,” and must be rooted in the explicitly stated intent to disenfranchise, Roberts would probably question the ability to map a history of discrimination at all, of course.  Given that Roberts openly doubted “Congress can impose this disparate treatment [of states] forever” in oral arguments to a 2009 challenge of Section 5 of the VRA, he might well have recused himself from considering the case, but seems to have been eager to provide a precedent for explaining why the undue interference of the Department of Justice over local procedures and warranted a continued need to mandate states to request federal permission for changing election practices.  In arguing for the antiquated nature of mapping a division among the states in the eyes of the law, Roberts questioned criteria for selecting the procedures of voting and elections in specific states, mostly located in the South, under the supervision of the Department of Justice:  strictures on select states created undue divisions in a nation, he argued, dismissing the need for such oversight as a thing of the past–even while praising the benefits it brought their residents.  Yet maps are difficult to move to a discourse of legal reasoning, and a map of discriminatory practices is bound to be approximate and selective, rather than uniformly divide the national space:

 

Clearance Required

 

 

2.  The 1969 Voting Rights Act introduced to rectify widespread blatant discrimination against the voting rights of African Americans, common in obstructing registration, mapped those regions where clearance was required to change election laws or voting practices.  The above map continued to provide an avenue of legal recourse for minorities who faced any practice or intent of disenfranchisement.  The passage of the original Act responded to registration discrepancies in 1965, but its expansion in 1975 covered a range of other subterfuges and nefarious tactics to reach the same ends–most recently, these have expanded to include from restricted polling hours to the introduction of Voter ID’s.  The Chief Justice argued whatever the potential benefits of federal  oversight, the distinction that the VRA drew in its placement of nine states under oversight created a harmful divide in the harmony of the Union of states, independent of the realities of disenfranchisement.  He hence found lack of a compelling reason to require only nine states to obtain federal approval to alter any existing election laws.  In clothing his argument in a federalist claim to state equality, Robert’s  opinion raises the question as to whether mapping practices that obstruct voting  provide an instrument to monitor the insidious but present evil of disenfranchisement or rather serve to divide states’ rights.  For even if the metric of voter registration differences seems outdated to map distinct regions worthy of oversight, continued tactics of disenfranchisement–often achieved by redrawing maps of districting–both suggest that the drawing of lines on maps of political representation demand federal oversight.

How can one map a compelling need to supervise voting rights?  Roberts might well have asked.  By appealing to the uniformity of standards among states as a guiding rational of his decision, or couching his argument as a “division” of the nation, the Chief Justice invokes the lack of grounds to divide how space is abstracted in a map to strike down civil protections for voters, ostensibly to  maintain equality among the states, but to restore the lack of interference of  federal government in regional elections–despite the increasing hostility showed to the growing presence at polls of formerly minority groups.  Many objections to the Act question its viability as a question of “racial entitlements,” as did Justice Scalia, who described the emergence of “black districts [facilitated] by law” in the House in argument.  But the 14th amendment were less central to the decision than the rationale for renewing oversight of election laws in the fifth clause of the VRA, now on the books for over 40 years, and long a target of Chief Justice Robert’s ire because of the federal oversight it allows, and invites Congress to draw a new map of those “jurisdictions to be singled out on a basis that makes sense in the light of current conditions.”  The Roberts court oddly departs here from an argument based on precedent, to pose a federalist argument against singling out individual jurisdictions that are in need of supervision–notwithstanding documented attempts of disenfranchisement in these regions.  For Roberts, the map has “no logical relationship to the present day”:  things have changed, Chief Justice Roberts tells us now; we no longer need to supervise obstacles in voting laws in select states.  Yet do maps ever have such transparently logical relations to ideas or principles?

 

3.  Maps drawn as tools for determining effective political representation are improperly treated as if they defined entities.  And to argue that the map is simply a division of the polity into separate entities–as Roberts’ decision–obscures the extent to which the purely precautionary nature of review exists to ensure political representation.  Robert’s argument seems to make a categorical confusion between the ways that maps abstract a record of lived experience of disenfranchisement to a region and the abstract categories of rights in legal thought.

The objections of the Dept. of Justice to ‘pre-clearance’ have in fact radically declined since 1965, but this does not undermine the validity of Congressional attempts to map disenfranchisement in the US.

 

Coverage by Section 5

 

Yet the map is not a territory–or a means of conjuring an entity–so much as a tool of oversight.  The Voting Rights Act frames a legal avenue for redressing discrimination at the polls or in redistricting–and redressing a level of discrimination not effectively able to be monitored by pursuing suits of local jurisdictions.  Roberts’ opinion withdrew the existing avenue to appeal such insidious discrimination by finding it to violate the uniformity of a map in which all states–if not all voters–were to be treated as equal.  All law is based on abstractions, but his reliance on the abstract autonomy of the state is an odd substitution or sleight of hand, that preserves the autonomy of states’ jurisdictions for the rights of their inhabitants:  it appeals to the abstraction of the state to question the logic of distributing persistent inequalities , rather than the injustices to specific residents of the states.

In a decision that almost mocks the intent to seek to find distinguish discrepancies in voter registration on a map by sharp divides, Chief Justice  Roberts condemned the VRA as a flawed in its attempt to make reality correspond to a map of actual discrimination, and notes that the divisions it maps no longer reflects actual circumstance.  This denies the flexibility that the Act has long had.  The application of the law was not applied only to states, but to jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination in any form.  Yet Roberts finds that its criteria, although based on alleviating restrictions on voters, imposed unequal burdens on states’ administration of elections, as if the autonomy of states unified in the map be preserved in the face of history, and the government be protected from meddling with how the fifty states map their own representation or internal affairs–even when the outcome is in the nation’s collective interest.

Roberts’ allegation that how the VRA maps “pre-clearance” disrupts the integrity of states distracts from the actual inequality–manifested in inequality and disenfranchisement–by positing a need for equality among the fifty states.  Yet, as many observers have noted, the increased anxiety at an increased number of minority and Latino voters in central and western states might make this the most dangerous time to shrink the map of where impediments to the “any voting qualification or prerequisite to voting,  or standard, practice, or procedure . . . [deemed intended] to deny or abridge the right of any United States citizen to vote on account of race or color.”  Although these terms written in 1965 echo those in the US Constitution, the Chief Justice seems to find a basis to question the assertion by a rosy-hued map of uniform states rights, as if each state best flourishes when left to practice its own electoral practices no matter what practices or means of impeding a broad vote might be a direct result or consequence of them.

 

us in globe's surface color map

 

Roberts the strict constructionist seems to question the accuracy of a map of “covered jurisdictions” in need of judicial “preclearance” both as an impediment to states’ rights because it maps a divide he argues no longer reflects “current conditions.”  Yet isn’t a map simply a convenience to create grounds for adequate representation?  While finding the map of covered jurisdictions “out of date,” but accepting a map of all fifty states, he finds the previously sanctioned formula for “pre-clearance” “unconstitutional.”  In the name of the specious argument of “states rights,” he seems to have vitiated the compelling nature of an argument to ensure the votes of all.

 

4.  Roberts interpreted the individuation of nine states by historical attempts of disfranchisement as “dividing” the nation.  And since these states are no longer defined in a similar manner by policies of explicit segregation of registration or voting, despite clear inequalities in the history of the regional reception of voters’ inalienable rights to vote, the majority opinion took voter registration and turnout numbers as an index of voter discrimination.  Through such a metric, Roberts questioned whether such discrimination continues, or continued in such a clearly mapped manner as he grants it clearly did in 1965.   The VRA defined those states it mandated to seek federal permission prior to altering electoral laws or voting practices to identify those places with voter turnout or registration of minorities below fifty percent, and hence in need of oversight to rectify deep imbalances.  The  seven states were subsequently augmented to include those where a percentage of voting age citizens spoke only a non-English language–Texas, Arizona, Alaska–as they were judged in need of “preclearance oversight” as well since the Act’s historic passage in 1965–suggesting th flexibility with which the VRA was long employed to ensure the equality of voting rights.

Roberts found the divided national map to perpetuate antiquated divisions that “divided into two groups” a unified country.  But the flexibility of how oversight was framed in the map historically varied in response to demonstrated need, as shown in the maps of  oversight compiled in the New York Times, which traced the coverage of states by the Act, coloring those covered since 1965 in deep purple, and those added in the 1970s in violet, and subsequently judged free from such voting discrimination in tan:  the disparate nature of these regions suggests attention to areas in the country where electoral laws merited continued scrutiny by relatively current criteria.

Areas Covered by VRA-and additions
The shifting landscape negotiated evidence of voter discrimination, rather than disrupting national harmony.

Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion foregrounded data compiled for Congress’ 2006 review of the Act to call into question the relevance with which the VRA maps a uniform division of states Congress kept under coverage.  Yet in citing only one metric–discrepancies in voter registration, the original criteria used in 1965–he oddly adopts an antiquated sense of the relevance of mapping in relation to the VRA, throwing out the map on the basis of its antiquated measurement of obstructing universal suffrage, and opening the door to the introduction of further abuses by removing oversight entirely.  Even while calling for basing such oversight on more current data, he avoided looking at the data that was available–summarized in part in Justice Ginsburg’s impassioned eloquent dissent–by confusing one map with the ends of oversight.   And so a declining registration gap served as grounds to question the need for the continued federal oversight:

Voter Registration Gap 1965-2006

Several of the gaps in these six states survive, and the gap of registration among African American voters has been dramatically reduced in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Louisiana, which partly reflects the standard set by the Act, but these numbers present only a very partial or selective picture, and a map that does not conform to voting practices.

 

5.  Yet the assiduousness with which attempts to reduce voter turnout have been since developed in many states listed above in the rise of increased minority voting, and indeed with the rise of the proportion of ‘minorities’ among registered voters.  The lack of uniformity that Roberts finds in the ability of mapping disenfranchisement among those states who were mandated to submit any electoral alterations for “pre-clearance” by the Department of Justice perversely became his basis for arguing that the concept of preclearance should be jettisoned as unconstitutional in the undue constraints it imposed on nine named states–as if the question was the ability to map discrimination, or use a map to regulate voting practices, rather than its continued existence to remedy historical prejudice.  So whereas the Voting Rights Act was persuasively linked to the region placed under federal coverage–or “pre-clearance”–of any changes or modifications to electoral laws or procedure, Roberts ruled that the geographic divide in disenfranchisement that was relevant in 1965 was no longer operative or commensurate with actual historical experience or current data–although the measure he chose to highlight does not conclusively demonstrate this assertion to in fact be the case at all.

But rather than look more deeply at actual data, Chief Justice Roberts appeals to the “fundamental principles of equal sovereignty” among states and record of national unity as if it were abstractly represented on a map, rather than something that played out in lived experience and effective political representation.  The opinion seems partly in the question of trusting an earlier mapping of disenfranchisement.  It ignores the extent to which the Act aims to prevent disenfranchisement; it displaces these questions by those concerning the propriety of mapping out a division in jurisdictions, as if to implying that uniform disenfranchisement was the target of the laws more than its inherently undemocratic evil that disrupted the legal equality of the state in the eyes of federal law, before which all states should have equality.

 

Maps of the USA

 

Yet are all states equal in their entitlement to police their own voting rights?  Recent cartographical endeavors to draw maps of political representation by equally distributed units of population reveal that the boundaries of states are approximate realities, rather than the abstract entities Roberts accuses the framers of the VRA of positing.  To distribute population were equally divided to correspond to the shifts in population in the nation, Neil Freeman decided to remap the states to allow chambers of Congress to remedy the disproportionate influence of specific states and prevent gerrymandering.

 

electoral10-1100

 

Freeman’s counter-map reminds us of the political convenience of such abstract entities, and the incoherence of some of our states as entities.   It reveals the poor approximation that the existing divisions of states gives voters in the nation, effectively privileging votes of residents in the more  thinly populated prospective regions of “Salt Lake,” “Ozark,” “Shiprock” or “Ogallala.”

Can the division of federal oversight be understood as an approximate and imperfect but necessary tool analogous to that of the electoral college?  Such abstractions are imperfect tools for considering local electoral practices, but are the units that exist as units of electoral law, rather than as legal abstractions whose jurisdictions are in need of projection.  Indeed, these convenient units for political administration poorly reflect population density–in fact, the limited density of the area of federal oversight seems less densely inhabited, and more isolated from broader cultural norms.

 

Cartogram of US popation on grid

 

 

6.  The Voting Rights Act served as a preventative that decreased a marked discrepancy among the registration of whites and minorities in these states.  Yet in gutting its enforcement, Roberts found poor logic in arguments that preclearance has itself diminished potential electoral abuse, asserting it impossible to prove with rigor this as the case, and noting this lack of rationality contrasts to the undue “burdens” that the division creates.

The Chief Justice may have effectively distorted the question in an optic of states rights.  But this argument seems anything but rational or watertight, with 81 percent of the voter discrimination complaints of voting practice lay in the areas where the VRA sustained “preclearance” of changes and/or modifications in voting law or elections–the region of the states who lost or settled the largest number of cases in favor of minority voters between 1982-2005, as Judge David S. Tatel had noted in the appeals court’s decision, if one focusses on those regions that lost 6 or 7 cases per million people.

 

Section 2, 1982-2005, 6+ per million

Lost or settled cases

 

This map of the settlement of cases that violated Section 2 of the VRA might, Chief Justice Roberts could object, fail to map in identical fashion onto the boundaries that the VRA enshrined–and the second excluding both Virginia and North Carolina, and providing little rational for the validity of the existing map of areas whose election laws merit more careful observation and protection.  But this point denies the imperfect conventionality of all mapped entities–and the confusion in conflating the abstract unity of the map and experience of the jurisdictions it maps.

A map that measures at lest ten successful settlements of cases that minority voters brought of disenfranchisement in the years between 1982 and 2005 defines a similar  region as worthy of oversight:

 

Over Ten Voting Discrimination Cases settled in favor of Minority Voters

 

The question turns on what sort of maps best show current conditions of civil rights.  But a deeper problem in Robert’s argument the difficulty to select a single map  with a level of logical consistency as a record of conditions, given the selective nature of mapping:  the map is not the territory, but construes it.  To object to the divisions a map creates misunderstands its instrumentality.

Roberts found “Today the Nation is no longer divided along those lines” revealed by low registration and turnout, and finds little rational by which the division should be preserved since “today’s statistics tell a different story.”  The story Justice Ginsburg offers for “the completion of impressive gains thus far made” as a way “to combat voting discrimination where other remedies have been tried and failed” against “‘the blight of racial discrimination in voting'” to give, as Oliver Wendell Holmes argued in 1903, “relief from [that] great political wrong.”   The curbing of such a wrong perpetuated either by a state or its residents was the aim of the VRA, and the benefits were directly attributed to its reauthorization in 2006.

But Roberts seems to argue from the map that the unity of law is disrupted by the federal imposition of different norms.  This despite fears of active “redrawing of legislative districts” to dilute the rising power of minority votes,  that  effectively segregate the distribution of minority votes by lines of race, drawing distinctions designed to minimize the effects of those votes, independent of registration or attendance at the polls that actively diminish the increases of minority representation:  Congress found many “second-generation barriers” arising in different forms which demonstrated “the need for continued Federal oversight” in these specific regions, Congress determined, and included among other things the purging of voter rolls of minority voters; dual voter-registration schema; restricting of early voting practices or curbing late voting; openly expressed fears of African-American turnout increasing; and intentional redistricting designed to eliminate those districts where minorities were majorities–a practice noted in Shelby County itself as recently as 2008.  The act, Justice Ginsburg argued in her forceful eloquent dissent, might be retained “[in those] jurisdictions as to which its application does not transgress constitutional limits.”

 

7.  It is accepted that maps of oversight are in fact instrumental tools of political representation.  Abigail Thernstrom of the American Enterprise Institute has written pointedly that the primary reason for defending Section Five of the VRA is to secure African-American constituencies in “racially tailored districts” that protect minority seats; she sustains the abuse of Section 5 by a Department of Justice to block Voter ID laws that would have the effect of limiting the voting franchise.  And instead of protecting against disenfranchisement, the law’s current form has provided a basis for preventing “multiracial coalitions,” Thernstrom argues, and effectively continue to limit the focus of African-American politicians–with polarizing results.  Yet the rise of minority voting blocks has also provided regions which stubbornly tend to support Democratic candidates, making redistricting a partisan issue.  In other words, the law undermines our polity–never mind its accuracy.

The redrawing of electoral maps in response to Roberts’ ruling so that they minimize minority votes is an inevitable irony of Roberts’ failure to see any reason to map of federal oversight on specific states.  Within two hours after the public announcement of the Supreme Court decision–in a move either premeditated or revealing insider pre-knowledge of the decision to come–when Texas’ Attorney General Greg Abbott announced the return of voided voter-ID legislation designed to curb minority voting together with a new redistricting map limiting Hispanic and African American voters–both previously blocked as discriminatory, unveiling a new map of the map of Congressional districts in the state that effectively minimized the impact of a growing number of Latino votes in ways that are not revealed in the limited metric of registration.  In fact, Abbott could barely contain his glee,  tweeting to the world “Eric Holder can no longer deny #VoterID in #Texas after today’s #SCOTUS decision.”

 

Talbot Maps Texas

 

The redistricting in no small part responded to the growth of minority voters in the 2012 election, designed to restrict the effects of district demographics–it can be viewed in clickable form here–that responds to the recent dramatic rise in non-white voters in the state.

 

Texas Electoral Map

 

Both changes had been earlier blocked by the Department of Justice for targeting growing minority communities in the state of Texas, by passing the most stringent Voter ID laws in the United states.  Critics of the map–“drawn in secret by white Republican representatives, without notifying their black and latino peers,” according to Aviva Shen,” or Voter ID, argued that it would effectively diminish minority votes.  Local resident Mack Green observed ruefully, “Travis county looks like something drawn by 5 malevolent and blindfolded pre-schoolers. . . . . Gosh, can this be the rampant voter fraud Republicans are fighting to prevent?”  Unsurprisingly, a range of states are collectively moving to re-adopt previously banned Voter ID laws, in ways that promise to change the electoral map:  Attorney Generals in Alabama, Arizona, South Dakota, and South Carolina all want to institute Voter ID laws that they argued the Voting Rights Act impeded.  Is this related to the election of President Obama with huge majorities of African-American, Asian-American, and Hispanics, but less than half of white votes?  Ari Berman questioned the relation to recent controversies around past evidence of voter suppression: “There’s a particular irony to the Court killing Section 5 just months after a presidential election in which voter suppression attempts played a starring role.”

The map of voting rights will in the coming months quickly be redrawn elsewhere in response to the court’s short-sighted decision to remove preclearance across nine states.  It is ironic that Chief Justice Roberts’ argument began from the imposition of an unfair division of the map that the federal oversight had first created.  One can only hope that “dignity” will re-emerge as a standard by which to enforce a redrawn region of oversight.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential election, institutional racism, minority voters, Southern States, Voting Rights Act