The End of the Myth, by Greg Grandin, was a huge read for me, snapping into focus a lot of hazy intuitions I’ve had about America. The book more or less revolves around Turner’s Frontier Thesis, which expanded the notion of border to that of frontier. Nineteenth-century historian Frederick Turner theorized that the American mentality is a frontier mentality, formed by the country’s relentless push westward. This constant movement enabled Americans to avoid both the bad — despotism, collectivism, and servility — and the good — equitable economic relations and the social rights that are expected by the citizens of most other developed nations.
America’s push westward came at a price however, paid by African Americans, Native Americans, and Mexicans. Their ruthless displacement and domination made possible an ideal of liberty based more on freedom from restraint than on freedom from tyranny. Deified as limitlessness, the freedom of the frontier became inseparable from the violence that made it all possible in the first place. Eventually, it became folded into the ideal of laissez-faire capitalism, which continues to transform “people into cheap labor, and their land into capital.” The example is given of NAFTA’s effect on farmers in Mexico.
I recently came across a photograph of Trump flanked by a painting of Andrew Jackson. After reading The End of the Myth I was better able to understand the significance of Trump choosing to pose beside the portrait of a president who famously refused to be restrained and whose ideas of expansiveness and of growing the frontier were inseparable from ethnically cleansing the frontier: Andrew Jackson was a slaver and a pitiless murderer of Native Americans. Like Trump, he was a populist president, and like Trump, he defined himself as a Caucasian in opposition to everything that was not.
Unlike Jackson, Turner was not explicitly racist. But as Grandin mentions, it’s unlikely Trump has ever read Turner. It’s no secret, on the other hand, that Trump identifies with Jackson. It makes sense. Grandin makes the point that today the frontier may be closed, but the violence and racism that were integral to it remain alive and well.
From border to frontier back to border. “Where the frontier symbolized perennial rebirth, a culture in springtime,” Grandin writes, “those eight prototypes in Otay Mesa loom like tombstones.” In contrast to the frontier’s limitlessness, Trump and his nativist base insist that there is now no longer enough to go around. “The country is full,” Trump says while continuing to indulge the Jacksonian worldview that freedom is freedom from restraint.
With nowhere to go then but in, the ugliness becomes focused on keeping others out. The wall stands for something, but unlike the shifting, expansive concept of frontier, it stands for something more reducible and base. Even in its prototypes (and this is the real significance of the wall; it doesn’t even need to be built) “it stands for a nation that . . . no longer pretends, in a world of limits, that everyone can be free — and enforces that reality through cruelty, domination, and racism.”
The End of the Myth does end on a less pessimistic note by invoking another movement that runs over, under, and around Trump’s mean-spirited project: from barbarism to “at least social democracy.” I wish Grandin might have expounded more on that, because it’s not just political polarization, as he describes it, that’s happening in America today. It’s a turn of the tide, and I doubt it’s reversible.