The red elephant unveiled as an emblem of the Republican Party during the 2020 Republican Convention marked a new sense the party was now Trump as if Trump embodied the party. For the representation of red states that enshrined an image of Republican identity demanded a redesign of its logo identified with the interests of red states with grandeur. And in an era in which we have a President able to channel his inner P.T. Barnum more openly than his predecessors, Trump mined a rich iconographic mine in speaking before a redesigned symbol of the party. The leaping elephant was no doubt shopped around in committee and reviewed by experts for a Convention whose design loosely planned as a live event, before the shift to television that led the President to reach out to a former producer of Celebrity Apprentice, his old Reality TV show, who at Trump’s personal insistance to oversaw the Convention’s video production as he realized that the stakes were greater than he imagined.
What of the leaping elephant that reached to the heavens, bedecked by stars, behind his podium? Thomas Nast famously branded a pachyderm with the letters “GOP” in 1874 at a time when newsprint was the prime vehicle of public opinion. In a political world dominated by Democrats, many of whom were suspected corrupt, Nast intended an emblem of significant dignity; but the exultant elephant unveiled before Charlotte’s crown seemed close to tap an outdated symbol of royalty and to address an audience by a middle-brow entertainment more than assume public gravitas: the newly nominated candidate speaking before the new RNC emblem partisan animal emblazoned with five stars in a “W”as if a premature declaration of victory insisted the “best is yet to come,” as he accepted the nomination, “proud of the incredible progress we have made over the last four years, brimming with confidence about the bright future we will built for America over the next four years” in the face of the expansion of national cases of COVID-19, animated by the brisk step of the elephant behind him that suggested the party’s lively progress.
When the newly animated pachyderm was unveiled as the symbol of the Charlotte-based convention, whose length was only cut short short by COVID-19, the new icon of the convention was proudly unveiled in anticipation of its reinvigorating function by an ebullient Ronna McDaniel and Marcia Lee Kelley, dressed in red, emblazoned with five curious stars.
What better way than the redesign of a red logo to make the point that the commitment of the party to red-state values, replaced the capaciousness of the party and the place of values and dignity that Thomas Nast, an ardent Republican and the father of American cartooning, saw the beast incarnating values able to transcend intra-party dispute, than for a former television star to tweak the Republican logo for a convention that replaced a platform with the scripting of a television event by the directors of Donald Trump’s Reality TV show, that placed him as central to the party’s identity, rather than values, and asserted red state values of a party as proof of ideological purity?
Unlike the Democratic donkey, a braying jackass poking fun of its vocal cries and low status, its dissonance less dignified than the eagle and pure pretension: while the animal logo was hardly adopted by the party, and the pictorial warfare seemed stacked in favor of the dignified pachyderm, the reborn elephant makes us recall how much epidermal pigmentation was central to the elephant adopted by 1877 in the Presidential election, and overdetermined as an image of partisan strength. By enlisting a startlingly monochrome elephant of entirely red skin, all but leaping off the ground, the beast raising its sleek trunk in celebration or benediction mirrored the role Trump adopted in sanctioning the party’s collective identity by the illusion of advancing forward in space with dignity as the champion of “red states”: a rearing elephant served as a surrogate for replicating the electoral alliance of 2016, now rearing above Trump’s head, and the the eagle on the podium with a Presidential seal:
For it seemed, during the convention, that other interests were not in need of being representation than the cities of the Deep South, the fans of football player Hershel Walker, who as a surrogate to denounce Black Lives Matter ran defense for a President accused of being racist, attacking it as in fact organized by “trained Marxists,” and a subversive to the nation. The former running back ran defense as spokesperson in South Carolina and Georgia to testify to his character, mocking social justice protests as a slur on Trump’s character, using pro football metaphors and slogans of patriotism, he echoed how the pachyderm emblem erased racial divisions of the nation in many of the endorsements featured at the 20202 Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
In months after the hot summer of ostensible racial unrest and social justice protest and a reclaiming of public space, after police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery revealed persistent disparities of race and convulsed the nation by foregrounding the different status of black Americans before law enforcement, the Republican Party seemed to defer any image of divisions by assembling beneath the advancing red elephant that was promoted onstage, star-studded and with a crown, after months in which Trump’s campaign has worked to weed out anti-Trump Republicans by grooming the convention as a weeklong infomercial.
It was ironic the the red elephant before which he had thundered about American greatness was as embedded in the determining role race played in the emergence of the elephant as an emblem of the party, long before it was cast as pure “red.” For Nast first employed an elephant as able to outlast the divisions of the party in Reconstruction, in ways that tacitly addressed the popular fascination with the stability of skin-color as a key to racial identity, and a way of questioning the continuity of black-white dichotomies as an indicator of race. The purity of the “Sacred Elephant” of white skin color that P.T. Barnum displayed in 1884 led the image of the pachyderm, already used in Nast’s prolific cartooning on occasions but with limited public embrace by a party or currency, with the purity of elephants of an ostensibly more docile and civilized character exhibited by circuses who claimed to meet the fascination with accounts of “white” skinned elephants not from Africa, but Burma, in what stood in the popular press as an icon of partisan purity and dignity distanced from political corruption.
Nast used the circus elephants as a bid to assert party dignity against partisan corruption during the turbulence of post-Reconstruction politics. Although later purged of the racial connotations with which the beast was freighted by the postwar period, the pure red elephant whose uniform color defined a new form of belonging,–much as the President had himself–may have unconsciously recuperated the connotations of the purity of the white elephant as a the bedrock of dignified values on which Nast in 1884 insisted the party was based, when he included himself in a popular cartoon to indicate the sacred values that he believed would carry the candidate who mounted its regal chair to the White House–using the newly exhibited beast as a model incarnating the values the nominee might adopt, with the calm and upright demeanor of the newly poplar image of a “white” elephant.
The signification of the skin color was muted in the Harpers cartoon, but reflected the fascination of a new elephant, unlike the African elephants shipped the United States by circus men from Africa, whose new demeanor suggested nothing less than a new race of animal–understood and so appreciated by eager circus-goers as a new animal, extending the categories of racial difference into the animal kingdom that provided odd if welcome confirmation for the purity of races as distinct species, with different patterns of sociability, different habitats, and distinct customs.