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Order on the Border: Prologue or Retrospective View?


Trump chose to visit the border wall for a final time in his Presidency, in a disarmingly valedictory way, to offer a summing up of his achievements as chief executive, that combined the ceremonial fanfare with which he had visited the groundbreaking of a new hotel, accompanied by city officials, but as if he was now inhabiting the role of the public official, the enabler, and the fixer all at once in the unveiling of an even more majestic and far more grandiose national monument. In a visit of the U.S. President that to some might recall the triumphal visits to sites of real estate developments, Trump announced in Alamo that the border wall had progressed from a development project as “completion of the promised four hundred and fifty miles of border wall” transformed what was but a “development project” to border wall sections in either “construction or pre-construction,” whose existence he seemed intent to observe before he left office. The visit marked an end to his attempts to remap the border in the public imaginary of Americans, and to entertain myths about the border, at the same time as to situate the southern border still more prominently in the national discussion.

But if Trump was a reactionary in returning to a national system of mapping, fending off global mapping tools that promised to erase borders in a network of global coordinates, Trump’s long campaign offered a way of remapping the nation. We dismissed as vanity the bizarre comparison of the wall as a project of national infrastructure comparable to the Eisenhower National Highway System survives as a personal legacy for national development, rather than as compromising national ideals. Before he took to signing the plaques of sections of border wall, the comparison to the earlier infrastructure project elevated the border wall to a central place of the national map. And Trump’s visit was an affirmal of the place of the wall in the nation.

Trump long imagined the border wall would be a sight of national grandeur and historical memory. He had introduced it as comparable to how Eisenhower, mesmerized by the banks and multi-lane Autobahn he had witnessed in Germany as commander of Allied Forces, had commissioned 41,000 miles of interstates Eisenhower as the largest public works project of its time. But Trump must have realized the highway system had changed not only the national topography but all Americans’ relation to space in profound ways, as he had lived through it: surfaced road mileage almost doubled after World War I, 1914-26 from almost 257,000 miles to almost 522,000, the Federal-Aid Highway Act promised to pave 41,000 miles of interstates.

Transcontinental Motor Convoy, 1919

Eisenhower developed deep convictions of the benefits of better roadways after driving in an often perilous Transcontinental Motor Convoy from Washington DC to San Francisco in 1919, leading him to prioritize resurfacing; the nation by 1991 had completed paving of 46,876 miles of interstates in one of the largest infrastructure supported by a dedicated fund. Trump’s image of the border depended not on traveling its 2,000 miles, but epic films of border fantasies–among them, John Wayne’s “The Alamo,” which cast defense of the border as a sacred mission and a border fortress as national shrine: “The Alamo” showcased defense of the mythic San Antonio garrison in the Texas Revolution as a mythic border whose defenders played a foundational role in American democracy.

“The Alamo” (196), not credited

The expansion of 5,000 miles beyond Eisenhower’s mandated 41,000 miles of interstate had long offered a major point of comparison in Trump’s life. When Donald J. Trump sought to refurbish his political identity, he not only added a middle initial–like Dwight D. Eisenhower–but modeled himself after Eisenhower in “America’s Infrastructure First,” a forgotten promise to “implement a bold, visionary plan for a cost-effective system of roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, railroads, ports and waterways, and pipelines in the proud tradition of President Dwight D Eisenhower, who championed the interstate highway system”–but his marquis project of a Border Wall System exhausted the budget and federal funds available. Eisenhower mandated the highway system be federally funded as a national defense program in 1954, linking the need for roads to imminent the fears of nuclear attack, as much as for transportation needs. Was it a coincidence that the Eisenhower Highway System had cost the United States $101 billion, far beyond the original federal bond that Congress had approved? Yet cost was now on the table: stopping construction on the border wall would save the incoming administration $2.6 billion, and free up funds for needed projects of national health.

While the cost of the most pricey piece of infrastructure in the nation are still being ironed out by the Army Corps of Engineers, Trump felt that the particularly complex Border Wall System by the Rio Grande could be a deeply personal legacy to the nation’s security that could be presented as a capstone to his basic campaign promise. After all, the notorious meander of the Rio Grande had created a deeply problematic basis for engineering a national divide: the massive geo-engineering of the flow of the river was chosen, despite the warning from 1857 by the surveyor general Major William H. Emery that if the river is chosen as the line for drawing an international boundary line, as rivers run by different meanders and in different beds, any change of course would mark a change in boundary and no mere “survey nor anything else can keep [the course of the river] from changing,” and constitutes “itself a more apparent and enduring monument of the boundary than any that can be made of art.” Despite awareness by surveyors of the difficulty of taking the historically shifting nature of the Rio Grande’s meander made the deepest point of its channel a poor proxy for an international boundary-line in surprisingly accurate early twentieth-century maps of its meander–

Relative Positions of the Rio Grande, 1852-1907 (1911)/Boston Public LIbrary, Leventhal Map Center

–Trump seems to have followed how the United States government, in search for a stable boundary, had pursued the attempt to rectify its natural meander as the International Water and Boundary Commission at the start of the century sought to remake the course of the river by the channelizing it to match the crisp lines mandated by boundary law, that continued aspirations to construct a concrete-lined cannel in 1962, despite longstanding acknowledgment the course changes with flooding and rainfall. Trump’s visit appeared to celebrate that concrete levees might grant permanence to a riverine border, as if to transcend natural change that had complexified the idea of a riverine border, so difficult to determine by fluvial geomorphology known for over a hundred years.

which sudden shifting of the riverine course of the Rio Grande rendered a less fixed boundary-line between states than the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ascertained in 1848, when it determined that the international boundary would run along the river from its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico by the deepest point of the channel until it met the southern border of New Mexico, as if the river’s course would be a proxy for the boundary, as was fixed by the first construction of a concrete-lined channel in 1962, despite the historical difficulties of drawing a boundary along a fluvial meander.

Reversion of La Burrita Banco–which the Avulsion of 1895 removed from United States Territory by the 910 International Boundary Commission Survey

Or was it only that? Something deeply personal was going on for the builder of Trump Tower who was trying to frame a political brand that transcended nature. As President, Trump acted Presidential by treating the border wall as a basis for sovereignty, almost as a form of absolutist understanding of presidential authority in a personalized manner, imagining the border wall commemorate his image of American sovereignty and adopt his name–as the Eisenhower Highway System celebrate the acknoweldgement of the nation’s interstates as a form of national defense. Trump mused “Maybe someday they’ll call it the Trump Wall,early in his candidacy in August 2015, as if appreciating the power the Presidency might bring; by December 2015 he described the “Trump Wall,” as a platform of his candidacy long before he was elected, again imagining the project would be “someday named after me” in mid-July 2016. Rather than a forward-looking, the valedictory visit was a personal salute to his legacy of border defense, the trademark promise Trump made as an American politician, a retrospective epideictic of the boast to Make America Great Again, a conceit of a mythical defense against “illegal aliens” on the southwest border, integral to his logic of Presidential authority.

In the actual South Texas Wildlife Complex, the expanded concrete levees would interrupt protected sensitive areas, and be built north of the meander of the Rio Grande, if at time abutting its waters, that seemed to privilege the rhetoric of a feared “flood” of migrants over the seasonal flooding of the river that long enriched riverside “resecas” by water bearing loamy soils, that imposition of dikes, levees, and dams for water diversion had already substantially reduced, by expanding the sheer concrete of a border wall just above its banks, in close contact with multiple wildlife refuges and preserved sensitive habitat for protected species.

Slicing a Corridor in Two: A Report from Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge  - Wildlands Network

Perhaps the visit was in fact occurring not at the border wall, but at the site of the namesake of the border town he visited–Alamo, TX–and the place of The Alamo in the historical imagination as a final line of defense of Texian revolutionaries against Mexican sovereign claims. Trump claimed he intened to curtail “illegal” migration from the start of his first candidacy, prioritizing “immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border,” five days after inauguration, as a pivot in immigration policy to “get back control of our borders.” The claim was removed from any actual map, but it seems fitting the final visit to Alamo TX celebrated a border wall in an imagined and real geography, more than on a map. If the visits to the US-Mexico border became a basis to perform his identity as a President, with little familiarity of the situation on the ground, one couldn’t help but think that in he relished the visit shortly after the Capitol Riots to return to that interface between real and imagined geographies of the border.

US President Donald Trump waves after speaking and touring a section of the border wall in Alamo, Texas on January 12, 2021. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
American President Donald Trump Touring Border Wall in Alamo, Texas on January 12, 2021/Mandel Ngan, AFP

The visit to the border was a final salutation to the very issue that had began Trump’s political career and seemed to be equated with his sense of sovereignty: there is no such thing as a state, as Trump had it, without a border, and the border had been sacralized as a claim to sovereignty in the Trump administration. If the Trump administration had expanded border wall contracts on private land in a Declaration of Taking in the Rio Grande, however, some fourteen incomplete projects of border wall construction left to a Biden administration provided an occasion to affirm a personal promise and pledge to Customs and Border Patrol as if they would be preserved against the specter of illegal population movement that he had painted as a deep danger to national security. While Texas congressman Filemon Vela of Brownsville hoped that Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi would with Senator Schumer “draw a line in the sand and oppose money for even an inch of border wall construction,” Trump rallied a different border imaginary of ‘a line the sand’ in visiting Alamo, a line which he drew with a Sharpie on the Border Plaque, rather than on the Texian sands with a sabre, symbollically affirmed his Presidential authority and identity, as he was leaving office and entering civil society, with little sense of what was ahead.

The sense that Trump lost sight of the broader context of his mismanagement and disengagement from the actually pressing threat of COVID-19 that had engulfed the country on his watch was apparent only if you pulled back, placing the crises he had manufactured at the border in the unprecedented threat of a pandemic which he had also cast as a problem of border policy.

Doug Mills, New York Times
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Filed under border policy, border politics, border wall, Donald Trump, US-Mexico Border

To Levitate an Elephant

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

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

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

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

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

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

Democratic donkey and Republican elephant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montreal Cognitive Assessment Test Administered at Walter Reed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Weyant, Boston Globe

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

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

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

Walter Goodall, Crystal Palace, 1855 (London)

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

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

Thomas Nast, “the Sacred Elephant,” 1884

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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County-by-County Presidential Vote, 2016

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

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