RNC 2020 and the symbols of history: Crowns, Hornets, and Boiler Plugs
On a June 2018 cover, Time magazine portrayed President Trump gazing into a mirror and seeing himself as a king. It was a commentary on Trump's yearning for absolutist power. In choosing its logo for its 2020 convention in Charlotte, the Republican Party has embraced the symbols and trappings of monarchy, perhaps not realizing the symbolic link to the tyranny visited on the American colonists by Britain. | Time magazine illustration by Tim O'Brien, June 2018

This August, the Republican National Convention will be held in Charlotte, North Carolina, the only city that offered to host it. After submitting their bid, the Charlotte City Council tried to retract it, but were cowed by the threat of being sued for breach of contract. So, the Republicans have somewhere to go.

Charlotte was named in 1768 to honor Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who married King George III in 1761 and became Queen of Great Britain and Ireland. One of Charlotte’s nicknames is “the Queen City,” and its logo is a crown.

Far from ignoring or disavowing this association with monarchical power, the RNC has placed it front and center. Their convention logo features a red elephant prancing in front of a blue crown.  It clearly suggests a coronation, not an electoral nomination.

Of course this is fitting. Trump sees himself as king. He thinks he should have the powers of a monarch, not a modern president, and he tries to wield power in that way. He shows no respect for the basic principles of democracy, and is constantly surprised when they get in his way. Thus it is bitterly appropriate that the crown on the logo belonged to the great enemy of the American people, the monarch the colonists called a tyrant and a despot, whose “long train of abuses and usurpations” led them to declare independence.

In fact, Charlotte’s other nickname, the Hornet’s Nest, also stems from that era. During the American Revolutionary War, British General Charles Cornwallis occupied the city, but the militant residents drove out his troops. The city was “a hornet’s nest of rebellion,” he wrote. Some of the groups who plan to protest at the RNC are using the hornet as their logo.

Connecting these two symbols with their historical roots helps draw attention to the still-unmet demands of the American people, and the continuing threat posed by elite oppressive power.

Logo of the 2020 Republican National Convention. | @GOPconvention via Twitter

Most of us know the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, with its famous assertion of self-evident truths, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” It’s a deservedly well-known line, a noble ideal that the new nation betrayed in the very act of asserting it, and continues to betray today. Following the preamble, the Declaration lists 27 specific grievances against the British government. These are still resonant, also.

The colonists were grieved that the British government kept vetoing laws passed in local assemblies, and depriving colonies of the right to elect their own judges. We see parallels today in laws that pass in the House but are killed in the Senate or vetoed by the President, who also has the power to appoint our highest judges.

The colonists objected to the King’s practice of keeping “among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies.” They saw that the standing army was meant to enforce government power and not protect the colonists. Today’s standing military absorbs a huge percentage of our tax money, using up funds badly needed for education, housing, and healthcare. The colonists also noted that the army was protected “by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States,” just like today’s police force.

Perhaps most resonant is Grievance 7. The King “has endeavored to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither….” King George III particularly wanted to discourage German immigrants, who seemed to be spreading republican ideals.

Many Trump supporters might not know that King George’s anti-immigration policy was one of the 27 reasons listed in the Declaration of Independence for fighting the American Revolution.

In general, it is obvious to anyone who reads the Declaration that the American Revolution was never really won. The noble ideals of equality and human rights remain aspirational, and the “abuses and usurpations” remain realities. The war was basically a bourgeois revolution that benefitted aspiring capitalists, many of whom owned slaves; it was fought over land and resources taken from Native peoples.

Like the contemporaneous French Revolution and the electoral reform movement in England, the American Revolution was precipitated by changes in the mode of production that demanded a political restructuring, a shift of power from the land-owning feudal aristocracy to the factory-owning bourgeoisie. It was fought in the name of ideals but in name only; the working people who died for those ideals have been just as oppressed under the new regime as they were under the old.

This fact was not overlooked by the workers, especially not in England. Queen Charlotte died in 1818. Her second son, William, was King when the Reform Act of 1832 passed under great public pressure. Initially, a Radical fight for universal manhood suffrage, the Act that passed extended the vote only to men who owned land worth at least £10. A significant victory for the bourgeoisie, the Act was rightly understood by the English proletariat as a dirty betrayal.

Adding injury to insult, the newly minted property-owning English voters immediately passed several acts very unfavorable to the working class, especially the Poor Law Amendment of 1834. To obtain any aid, the poor were now forced to enter workhouses, where families were separated. The wave of impassioned opposition to this law fueled a massive, influential workers’ rights movement called Chartism.

The Chartist movement addressed a range of issues, including wages and unemployment, but was given focus and unity by the People’s Charter. Drawn up in 1838, the Charter set out six demands. In essence, it would have extended the vote to every man aged 21 and older; required secret ballots; removed property qualifications for members of parliament and instituted payment of members, enabling working people to run; re-districted the land to equalize constituencies, so less populous constituencies would not have more weight; and made parliamentary elections annual, to check bribery and corruption.

The People’s Charter was signed by millions, but Parliament repeatedly refused to hear it. During the 1840s, the Chartists held massive outdoor meetings, which though peaceful, were met by equally massive shows of force by the police and the military. Many Chartists were arrested, some killed or transported, especially during an organized strike wave of 1842. It was the age of the steam engine, and workers removed the boiler plugs to power down the machines, resulting in the term “Plug Plot” to denote planned strikes and work stoppages.

Republicans have embraced monarchical imagery, but anti-GOP resistance movements have adopted the hornet – a symbol of the American Revolution and colonists’ refusal to be controlled by the king.

The Chartists did not win, though most of their demands were slowly enacted over the next 70 years. On this side of the Atlantic, universal adult suffrage has been an even slower achievement, and remains under siege. Today, people are disenfranchised by gerrymandering, voter purges, voter I.D. laws, laws restricting the rights of immigrants and of people with criminal records. In North Carolina, where the RNC will be held, Republicans crafted a voter I.D. law that targeted African Americans for disenfranchisement “with almost surgical precision.” But people won the fight against that law.

Trump has claimed the crown. His presidency threatens the tenuous progress toward equality and democracy that people have fought hard to achieve since the founding of this nation. We have to unite and fight like hornets against him.

But as workers, we also inherit the boiler plugs—all the plugs, levers, switches, handles, fuses, and typewriter keys that have been pulled over the past 200 years to protest inequality and abuse of power. Workers are the revolutionaries who have yet to win, the ones who can make the ideals real. We are part of a longer struggle. History is on our side.


CONTRIBUTOR

Lorri Nandrea
Lorri Nandrea

Lorri Nandrea has worked as a waitress, barista, pizza cook, English professor, tutor, car wash cashier, punch press operator, gas station attendant, used and rare book dealer, editor, and writer, among other things.

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