As indicated by its title, historian Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America is a sweeping history of the United States that aims to bring insight to bear on the present, in particular, the racist nativism of President Donald Trump.
“What distinguishes earlier racist presidents like [Woodrow] Wilson and [Andrew] Jackson from Trump,” Grandin writes, “is that they were in office during the upswing of America’s moving out into the world, when domestic political polarization could be stanched and the country held together… by endless growth. Trumpism is extremism turned inward, all-consuming and self-devouring. There is no ‘divine, messianic crusade’ that can harness and redirect passions outward.” In other words, Trump’s campaign to build a wall along the Mexican border marks a break with the ideology that the United States is ever-expanding along an evolving frontier, but continues the nation’s violent posture toward non-whites, particularly in the border territories.
Grandin recasts U.S. history as a war between two visions of the nation. We might call it the frontier vs. the social republic, if not barbarism vs. socialism. On one side are those who link individual freedom to attacking non-whites and to a limited federal government. On the other are those who call for an expanded government with responsibilities to all, including non-whites.
He begins his narrative before independence when settlers’ dreams of expanding westward and exterminating Indians were quickly constrained by British geopolitical aspirations. A similar dynamic continued after independence, as settlers felt yoked in by the federal government’s perceived responsibilities towards Indians. At this time, James Madison developed his theory that the United States could resolve internal tensions by “expanding the sphere,” spreading citizens over more territory.
The frontier ideology fully congealed with Andrew Jackson, who won the presidency in 1828 on a platform of removing Indians, waging war on Mexico and defending and extending slavery. His political rise was fueled by his confrontation with a federal agent while force-marching a group of slaves. Depending on who you believe, Jackson responded to the agent’s request to see his passport by pulling out either his gun or a copy of the Constitution and saying, “Here’s my passport.”
By the 1890s, when the frontier was declared closed, the United States was “expanding the sphere” beyond North America through war with Spain. Grandin highlights how Confederate veterans reinvented themselves as proud patriots eager to fight more wars for lofty national ideals, wars that conquered non-whites. Black soldiers who hoped their service would enhance their citizenship status were met with a much more mixed reception, as their aspirations got blurred with those of the non-white people the United States was repressing.
After World War II, the expanded sphere came to include most of the world, as the United States sought to bring “free enterprise” to every corner not already controlled by communist regimes. The Vietnam war was effectively another frontier war, as was Ronald Reagan sending Vietnam veterans and other disgruntled adventurers to fight communists in Central America.
After the Cold War ended, Bill Clinton sought to expand the sphere economically through NAFTA, with promises that this would somehow end a “ghetto pathology” among African Americans. But the U.S.-Mexico border was emerging as the site for vigilantes looking to repress non-whites, and the mass migration spurred by NAFTA’s crushing of the Mexican agricultural economy only accelerated this process. Sending troops off to fight in Iraq didn’t reverse that.
Barack Obama embodied both the expansiveness of the United States, by his connections to Hawaii and Indonesia, and the victims of white supremacy, but could not resolve the contradiction with his technocratic approach to free trade, war and immigration. He was followed by Trump, who articulated the impulses of border vigilantes with a Jacksonian fury. By now, the border is everywhere. Federal agents, Grandin notes “have extra-constitutional powers in ‘border zones,’” which are defined as anywhere within 100 miles of international boundaries — “an area that covers as many as 200 million citizens.” The people of the United States are thus trapped in a seething, involuted society, even as corporations continue their plunder worldwide.
Grandin’s narrative does not ignore countermovements. President John Adams had many reservations about expansionary wars and the dashed hope of using the sale of federal lands to fund infrastructure and social programs. The Freedmen’s Bureau posed a sharper challenge to the frontier ideology after the Civil War, seeking to help both newly-freed blacks and poor white Southerners. However, it didn’t last, and its administrator was sent off to fight Indian wars in Arizona. The Mexican Revolution of 1910–20 was also a countermovement of sorts, shutting down agrarian capitalist expansion and provoking a fierce backlash in Texas against Mexican Americans.
The New Deal constituted a revival of the social republic. New Dealers were also willing to learn from Mexico’s revolutionary experiments, defying the American-exceptionalist principle that the United States has nothing to learn from other countries. (The New Deal, however, continued to rely on expansion in some ways, most notably by boosting several export sectors.) And the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 speech opposing the Vietnam War is perhaps the most full-throated denunciation of the frontier mentality in U.S. history.
Grandin’s handling of the current countermovement is too perfunctory, however. Although he acknowledges the revival of socialism, he doesn’t discuss Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign at any length. Sanders constantly redirected public attention to a handful of domestic needs that can only be resolved through massive governmental interventions, a dramatic contrast both with Trump’s surly, racist “America first” message and Hillary Clinton’s confidence that she could run the world. Nor does Grandin look at such developments as the expulsion of the Confederate flag from the public sphere and liberals’ embrace of immigrants’ rights as a protest cause. There is considerable material to rebuild the social republic on hand for today’s socialists and others who wish to join them. Thus, Grandin’s picture of a seething, involuted society at war with itself is a little too one-dimensional and pessimistic, although we shouldn’t discount any of what he describes.
Contemporary socialists should read Grandin’s narrative closely and take it to heart. The pathological individualism we struggle against is not simply Ayn Randian greed. It is also a desire for freedom from government — to use guns to dominate non-whites and nature.
The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America
By Greg Grandin
Metropolitan Books, 2019