Tag Archives: racism in America

To Levitate an Elephant

Rarely has a political convention focussed so strongly on distracting attention from current actualities and reconstituting a disparate party as the 2020 Republican Convention that met to nominate Donald J. Trump. While the country had been counting COVID mortality rates and lamenting police violence and the injustice of health inequalities across the nation, a balloon of good news was levitated, an elephant leaping to the stars. If the racially coded origins of the pachyderm were quite obscured by the red hued elephant rearing its trunk, the introduction of the emblem was an uncanny recuperation of the original radicalized intent of the circus elephant. Indeed the new version of the anthropomorphic emblem in 2020 seemed to distract attention by hearkening back to the circus elephant that first inspired the logo of the Republican party.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red-State Secession - YouTube
RedStateSecession.org, 2018

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

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

Tale of Two Countries, 2019

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

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

Mark Joseph, February 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unreported Stats - FactCheck.org

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

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

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

Charlote, NC/August 2, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

President Trump Addressing 2018 Republican National Committee Winter Meeting

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

GOP Square.svg

While the elephant was long red, white, and blue, the new monochrome elephant projected an imaginary of a unified party, no doubt composed of “red” states, purified and poised to advance into the 2020 Presidential election as a united front, long before the social justice protests of 2020 that reacted in shock to George Floyd’s brutal murder by white police, head forced to the ground in Minneapolis by local police before a crowd of onlookers, and the social reckoning these protests bought by the convention itself. Having spent party funds on covering all legal fees related to defending the sitting President from charges of Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential campaign, McDaniel seemed to seek to make a fresh start for Trump’s campaign for reelection, adopting a logo of chromatic conformity for a campaign that would not adopt or issue a party platform, but that revolved around the new leader of the party.

How the party would map onto the country was a question that was on the front plate of many separatist groups by the summer of 2019, when the question of how a non-nation rightly secedes to create a ‘country’ prompted many cartographic fantasies rooted in the appeal that “nation” was an ethno-linguistic group of common customs, and the alleged principle that all states have the right to secede from the union: “red states” did not really follow state lines, but could be carved from electoral districts and drawn by software in a loopy map of alleged unity, not without appeal to many white supremacist ideals, avoiding most coastal regions, and larger cities outside Texas and Georgia. While this internet map originated from a political fringe, the fantasy of a monochrome elephant foretold a red coalition’s coming victory, as in inviting readers to contemplate the legal justification that might exist for eastern Texas, western Louisiana, or the western panhandle of Florida to secede from the nation.

Red State Secession/August, 2019

Redesigning the very republic as if in DIY drawing of electoral districts, in an inelegant from of gerrymandering that dropped sections of Florida, Wisconsin, Michicagn, Ohio, Arizona, Colorado and Virginia and a strip of Nevada that echoe the demand to “do your own research” to recognize your allies. The oppositional politics of the map of almost Manichean design was best met by a uniformly red elephant as its emblem. Perhaps the deep fantasy of cartographic excision was less based on the secession of the Civil War, than the Looney Tunes logic of separating Florida from the United States to the Atlantic with a saw in 1949, with the cry “that does it–South America, take it away!” to redraw the nation in the Red State Secession by cutting Broward, Palm Beach, and Miami-Dade counties from the Union, in a hardly convincing map of states that “follow the Constitution”–derived from electoral maps. The almost comic cohesion of a red elephant might enjoy suggests a regime of stagecraft and suggestion, that openly showed little but gestured to a rich history of political iconography far deeper than its crude cartography suggests.

Bugs bunny cuts florida off America.

The fantasy of the monochrome elephant might be sufficient to accommodate all local interests in a buoyant beast of even larger girth was hardly new. The image of a monochrome elephant s party logo began with the introduction of the animal by Republican cartoonist Thomas Nast, who took the image of an albino elephant–the first “white elephant” of allegedly greater purity than its African cousin–at the height of reconstruction to appeal to Republican’s adherence to greater dignity in their own party’s principled platform of reform. By the time that the convention to anoint Donald J. Trump as nominee for a party without a platform got underway, as if to tell us we had been watching dangerous performances all summer long in social justice protests spread across America, the remodeled red elephant that hearkened back to Thomas Nast’s pioneering use of the bull elephant to champion the vigor and capaciousness of a party to which he belonged as an image of the nation and the purity of its leadership. The recuperation of what Nast saw as an image of nobility and purity of purpose in Barnum’s new addition to a menagerie boasting moral instruction was also in ways a return of the repressed, tapping into the racial anxieties that were projected onto the African elephant as an emblem of the domestication of the savage beast.

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

Thomas Nast, “The Sacred Beast” (1884)

The new logo keyed into a color line, in ways that may hint at the future meaning of the semiotic weight of the party logo for generations who may only know the political animal and not the living beast. To be sure, whatever future semantic properties of the pachyderm as a symbol of political party were raised in 2010–as the animal’s significance seemed remote from then-current political debates–

–found an unexpected response as the Party of Trump reclaimed the elephant in ways that reclaimed its spectacularity in a circus, as the jumbotron in Charlotte, NC, unveiled the spectacle of the pachyderm, devoting far more attention as the party leaders who planed the meeting wanted to discuss the “new logo” combining the iconic elephant and the city’s crown, describing the city they claimed to be far more concerned with business and development of the city. The logo’s unveiling followed President Trump’s disgraceful call for members of the U.S. Congress to “go back to the countries from which they came” in a city viewed as “business-first, not politics-first,” calling the first order of the day being “the unveiling”–a term often associated with commemoration than politics.

August 1, 2019

The Republican Party unveiled a sleek lines of a new red elephant in preparation for the 2020 Republican Convention recuperated the performative origins of the once-sturdy quadruped as it appeared on the jumbotron, whose very size communicated how much air the presence of Donald J. Trump had sucked out of Charlotte’s Convention Center.

What the party billed as a rejuvenation of the vitality of the old elephant staged a rebirth of the party at a time when its ties to the nation had been increasingly tenuous, and seemed to mask the deep fragmentation that the politics of divisive opposition had been stoked by the shock jock tactics of a President over his first term.

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

Democratic donkey and Republican elephant

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

Donald Trump’s party may not have known how sharp his focus on Law & Order would be in 2019. But the focus on a red-state party, which commanded consensus as much as presented a platform, used the traditional party logo as an “proud and strong symbol” of–pardon the pun–a deeply truncated party, which might have been indeed a stuffed beast, eviscerated of any vital principles, and more of a symbolic avatar of fealty to a new ideal type of red states. The Republican elephant of 2020 unveiled in Charlotte, North Carolina, attempted to invest strengthened unity for a party that had changed its identity, in ways that threatened its resilience. The proverbial four blind men who came to describe an elephant might not detect the chromatic shift, but the seismic shift in partisan identity was huge in a party whose sense of identity was being strong-armed by the sitting President. The prime political parties of American politics were defined since the late nineteenth century were symbolized by animals in ways that reveal the dominance of the popular press and editorial cartooning of Harpers magazine, where cartoonist Thomas Nast elevated the elephant to a symbol of party, embodying the collective vote in less that laudatory ways, have become potent signifiers their partisans invested with positive qualities to define their affinities, invested in tricolor mascots imbued with patriotism, the elephant associated with memory, probity, and intelligence bearing three stars, and the donkey, populist, dedicated, and stubborn in holding its ground, emblazoned with four, no longer the American flag that the GOP had once pretended to incarnate for its members, but far more akin to the image of capaciousness and stolidity of tradition, known sufficiently embodied only by red states. 

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

Colossus on the Hudson: Monuments of Global Kitsch

Effigies of stability are, at times, the closest that one can hope for the manufacture of a sense of stability in the nation. When Donald J. Trump used the White House as a backdrop from which to accept the Republican Party’s nomination as presidential candidate in 2020, he noted that the seat of executive power “has been the home of larger-than-life figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson, who rallied Americans to bold visions of a bigger and brighter future,” in ways that reveal his own aspirations to monumentality, and their proximity to his decision to enter political life. As Trump had once confided in 1990 that he regarded Trump Tower as but a “prop” to create the show that was Donald Trump to sold-out performances,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 was the marquis event of the Trump Presidency, a site to burnish his legacy and his commitment to ideals, it was by no means the sole prominent he tried to insert in the landscape.

Although the addition of a statue of Columbus to the Manhattan skyline was focussed on the microcosm of Manhattan, the first theater of Trump’s public fortunes, the case of the towering bronze statue to an imperious Christopher Columbus, that one-time icon of Italian-American identity, already attacked from the early 1990s, when Trump first floated the possibility of its erection on his properties as a gift from the Russian Federation in 1997. The statue that Boris Yeltsin had proposed Bill Clinton accept as a gift for the Columbian quincentennial was seized upon by Trump in the years that he sought to revive his flagging fortunes in Manhattan as a monument to place his stamp on the urban skyline he identified, regularly drawing on cocktail napkins, with a sharpie, as if he was coveting its gleaming buildings as a young realtor from Queens.

Donald Trump, 2008

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

Roger Stone holding a Trump 2000 campaign poster

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

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

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

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

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

4118-NYC-Columbus Circle.JPG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sculptor Zurab Tsereteli Showing Possible Situation of Columbus Monument in 1999

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

To celebrate the Fourth of July a month previous, President Trump had emphasized the place of honoring statues of racists before Mount Rushmore, which proclaimed plans to create his own statuary garden, a “National Garden of American Heroes” in a campaign stunt that sought to paint his defense of “standards” and non-threatening images of authority to many members of his base. Before the massive statuary of past Presidents of European descent, he called for the need for a Garden that featured more monuments of the “greatest Americans who ever lived”–as if to compensate for the loss of Columbus monuments in many cities over the previous years. Trump hoped that the Heroes would prominently feature not only Christopher Columbus and Junípero 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.

The Fourth of July Speech provided a vision of his second term by announcing the National Garden would open in 2024, but makes us turn back to the involvement of the realtor in the scheme to bring a monumental statue of Christopher Columbus to the Hudson River estuary where he had been long planning an exclusive real estate development. Calling for heroic monuments in an era divided by racial tensions used the faces of four white Presidents to call for honoring authority, promoting a renewed monument of the national identity, as the nation’s identity was being questioned.

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 it provided a chance to model how that might look, as infection rates of the novel coronavirus was spinning far beyond 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.

 

 

 

2016 electoin.png

 

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.

 

aia2013030701-table1

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