The idea of the frontier in US history has been one of endless promise, but the reality has involved violence, even genocide. As this powerful study argues, its latest incarnation is Trump’s wall.
The following is a review of Greg Grandin’s book, ‘America can no longer run from its past’ ,published in The Guardian.( JM)
It is hard, as an American, to take much pleasure in the irony that the past appears to be catching up with the United States. We’ve been running from history for a long while now, watering the continent with blood and imagining all along the way that we were racing forward: not fleeing in fear but charging into a bolder, freer future. Now we’re caught in the knots our ancestors tied. We seem doomed to fight the same battles, replay the same massacres, weep again beneath the same old lynching tree. What else but ghosts could make children shoot each other in such extraordinary numbers each year?
And somehow, despite the country’s increasingly florid pathologies – the school shootings, endless war, massive homeless encampments in some of the richest cities on the planet, the largest prison system the world has ever known – the president is obsessively focused on an imaginary line, the one separating the US from Mexico. He wants to make it real, to turn a political boundary into an actual, physical barrier. In December, Donald Trump shut down the federal government because Congress would not fund his wall. His “beautiful wall” means more to him – and to the third of the populace that adores him regardless of all outrages – than all other functions of the state.
More than two years into Trump’s administration, much of the US commentariat is still confused, blind-sided by the furies fuelling Trumpism. Is it all just a glitch, as centrist pundits would have it, an inexplicable freak-out in our grand but uneven evolution towards an ever more perfect democracy? Or is it a foreseeable extension of centuries of racist violence, Malcolm X’s chickens finally knocking at the roost?
Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth leans towards the latter explanation, but he provides a more complicated answer than those two simple options allow. The myth to which his title refers is that of the frontier. Other countries have borders, Grandin writes, but “only the United States has had a frontier”, always shifting, and making itself – and its people – anew. For most of American history it was an ever-expanding boundary, a terrain less geographic than metaphorical and messianic. It referred at first to the landmass west of the Allegheny Mountains, then to lands west of the Mississippi River, then west of the Rocky Mountains. The frontier would cover most of the planet before it took an abstract turn and came to mean endless economic growth, the cosmos conceived as an ever-expanding market – overseen, of course, by US banks and a few fleets of aircraft carriers.
But before it was anything else, Grandin makes clear, the frontier was a zone of genocidal violence. For the earliest settlers, America was a spiritual aspiration as much as an actual locale. The land’s apparent boundlessness offered a chance at rebirth and redemption. If people lived there already, they would have to go elsewhere, or be exterminated. And so they were, from the Massachusetts Bay Colony to, eventually, the Pacific. For the men who would later be mythologised as the “Founding Fathers”, conquest – the right of white settlers to seize whatever land they wanted – was from the start inseparable from liberty. Freedom, in the American sense of the word, was unimaginable without the frontier, limitless land for the taking just beyond the boundaries of the known.
This proved convenient in many ways. Social contradictions – between the rich and the landless, between those who believed human beings could be owned and those who disagreed – did not have to be addressed when they could be pushed ever outwards, to the west. If the young nation began to feel too crowded or tense, it could always, in the words of James Madison, “expand the sphere”. Class conflict, again and again, would be evaded by deflecting violence outward to the frontier, and by projecting class resentments on to race.
So it was that in 1848, when workers were taking to the barricades in the cities of Europe, the US suffered no unrest. Instead, it annexed half of Mexico. (The more sparsely populated northern half, as politicians of the day feared that incorporating too many non-Caucasians into the union would be, in the words of one senator, “a thing fatal to our institutions”.) The Mexicans thus absorbed found themselves, Grandin writes, in a nation that was already “becoming inured to its brutality and accustomed to a unique prerogative: its ability to organise politics around the constant promise of constant, endless expansion”.
By the century’s end, this would become the self-conscious ideology of an ascendant world power. In 1893, when the historian Frederick Jackson Turner enunciated what would become known as the “frontier thesis”, the actual, physical frontier had reached its natural limit at the Pacific. The last scraps of native resistance had only recently been “pacified” – the massacre at Wounded Knee occurred just three years earlier – but Turner didn’t dwell on the bloody bits. Transforming centuries of dispossession and slaughter into a font of democratic virtue, he would argue, in Grandin’s paraphrasing, that the frontier’s openness had “created the conditions for an unprecedented expansion of the ideal of political equality”. The wildness of the land and the harsh conditions of its conquest had cultivated individualism, self-reliance and a roughhewn love of freedom – the qualities necessary for democracy to thrive.
Progressive politicians such as Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were henceforth armed with an ideology suitable for empire. The frontier was not closed but would move ever outward across the oceans. “Turner’s soothing processional became the official public anthem of a nation moving out into the world, not as a conquering race,” Grandin writes, “but in the name of humanity.” These were years of what Grandin calls “relentless race terror” at home – widespread lynchings of African Americans throughout the south, and of Mexicans and Mexican Americans along the southern border – matched by extraordinary and exterminatory violence abroad. Hundreds of thousands died in US occupations of Cuba, Haiti, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. For most white Americans, this would cause no dissonance.
Somewhere along the way, the US border with Mexico became, Grandin contends, “the negation of the frontier”. It became the place where Turner’s transformative magic didn’t work, “the repository of the racism and brutality that the frontier was said … to leave behind”. This would at times be startlingly literal: the first real fence along the border was erected in 1945 with posts and wire repurposed from a wartime internment camp for Japanese Americans. Stretches of the border wall that went up in the 1990s were constructed with Vietnam-era helicopter landing pads that the military no longer needed. With nowhere else to go, the violence keeps on spiralling, swirling back in new but always uncannily familiar shapes.
The frontier, Grandin argues, is finally closed. These days only arms manufacturers and the most deluded members of the populace – who find easy employment in thinktanks – see any result of US military adventurism other than endless and ever-expanding war. Few who are not economists or billionaires have faith in limitless growth. The country is no longer able to push “extremism to the fringe”. Instead, it backs up and turns inward, “all-consuming and self-devouring”.
The End of the Myth is a powerful and painful book, clear-sighted, meticulous and damning. Grandin writes with learned, punchy elegance, as attentive to the broad sweep of his narrative as he is to the fine details of each era. He excels at revealing the hidden ancestry, usually un-pretty, of contemporary rightwing tropes. (Libertarian calls for limited government, for instance, echo Andrew Jackson’s vision of a federal government that restricted itself to protecting property rights, “including the right to own human beings as property”.)
Grandin forges a cogent and convincing etiology for the strange disease afflicting the US. If the current outbreak appeared to come on fast, it’s only thanks to the waning power of the myth that Grandin so ably deconstructs, which prevented many of us from seeing that we’ve been ill for all this time. With Trump, he writes, “America finds itself at the end of its myth”. That is a dangerous place to be. The US, no longer able to kick its conflicts into the beyond, seems poised to fight them out.