Frontiers for Fears

The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America BY Greg Grandin. Metropolitan Books. Hardcover, 384 pages. $30.

If you’d asked me, fifteen years ago, to picture a group of activists up in arms about illegal immigration, I might’ve imagined a small gathering of eccentrics at some suburban restaurant, passing around xeroxed pamphlets. At least in Texas, where I live, immigration was a marginal concern. Conservative activists here considered gays and lesbians more of a threat than laborers from Mexico. There were two main channels of Republican politics, pro-business and Christian-right, and to be a hard-core nativist was to subscribe to a fusty extremism not really embraced within either one.

So what happened? In 2016 I was caught off guard by the popularity of candidate Trump’s build-the-wall rhetoric, and even after the panic over the southern border intensified, even after it manifested last year as a policy of terrorizing children, I still wanted to think of it as a flare-up of a chronic illness that lurks within our culture, a severe inflammation that would eventually calm back down. But Greg Grandin, in his new book The End of the Myth, offers a more historically sophisticated interpretation: Our southern border, he says, has become the antipode of the frontier, the negation of an idea of unlimited expansion that used to sustain American optimism but can’t any longer. In this view Americans are susceptible to border panic not just because of financial stresses or cyclical xenophobia but because the frontier itself has hit a wall.

My eleventh-grade American Studies teacher loved intellectual history, and as I remember it we devoted more class time to Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis—a theory of how the idea of the American West informed our national character—than to the entire Civil War. Grandin has written a book after my old teacher’s heart, with Turner’s idea as its point of departure. Turner was an obscure assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin when, in 1893, he presented a paper called “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” to a scant and seemingly indifferent audience. Challenging the old guard’s idea that America had imported what was best about its culture and political ethos from Europe, Turner argued that the spirit of democracy was homegrown, generated by settlers on the frontier, and that the idea of expansion was essential to the national psyche. Even those who never left the East Coast came to rely, in their notions of American freedom, on a vision of the frontier as the land of second chances. Because of the way the frontier made room for everyone, the European character was retooled into something more raw and energetic, individualistic and egalitarian.

The word “frontier” once meant roughly the same thing as “border.” The broader and less precise concept that we now attach to “frontier” originated in the US in the nineteenth century and was amplified by Turner, whose ideas eventually caught on widely. “Frontier,” writes Grandin, “came to suggest a cultural zone or a civilizational struggle, a way of life.” This was, of course, an incomplete and even false picture of American expansion, and it was a long time before historians would pay much attention to the militarism and brutality that enabled white settlers’ emigrations. Turner himself largely ignored the bloodshed, even though he grew up with it. In his hometown of Portage, Wisconsin, his father had been a vociferous advocate of destroying the nearby Winnebago and Menominee villages, a wish realized when soldiers rounded up the inhabitants and exiled them to Nebraska.

From the outset, though, the American frontier stood for two kinds of freedom: There was the liberty afforded by its wide-open spaces, a sense of limitlessness, and then there was a suspension of the rules, a permission to enslave and torture and kill in order to lay claim to those wide-open spaces. An early standard-bearer for the latter, violent kind of freedom was Andrew Jackson, who before he became president was a Tennessee legislator, lawyer, businessman, and planter, profiting off both slavery and taking land from indigenous Americans. A critic of federal treaties that protected indigenous territory, he led a Tennessee militia directed by the state legislature to “exterminate the Creek Nation.” Jackson challenged his men to become “engines of destruction,” burning down villages, killing warriors, and enslaving women and children. He kept the skulls of Indians he’d killed, and his men fashioned bridle reins from strips of their victims’ skin.

More polished statesmen like Madison and Monroe and Jefferson distrusted Jackson yet depended on him too, as he went on to fight the British in New Orleans, the Seminoles in Florida, and the Chickasaw in Tennessee and Alabama. The frontier was a battlefield, and serial wars became a kind of safety valve for releasing the pent-up social pressures of urbanized America: Instead of class war at home, there were race wars out west. The actual frontier gave white men a place to unleash their rage, while the imaginary frontier sublimated the violence and informed a myth of the rugged, trailblazing individualist, a myth that informed a whole liberal-universalist vision of what it meant to be a free person.

While the romance of the western frontier tended to suppress its violent underpinnings, the southern border became known for bloodshed. Zachary Taylor, following in Jackson’s footsteps, led troops in the Mexican-American War who committed such horrible atrocities that the commander of US forces, General Winfield Scott, protested that the crimes perpetrated along the Rio Grande would “make Heaven weep, & every American, of Christian morals blush for his country.” Over the years, the US-Mexico line came to serve, Grandin writes, “as the repository of the racism and the brutality that the frontier was said, by its theorists, to leave behind through forward motion into the future.” White supremacists found a home on the US Border Patrol, established in 1924, and beat up on migrants with impunity.

Well into the twentieth century, Laredo, Texas, would’ve seemed light-years removed from Washington, DC, but Grandin offers a telling illustration of how border-bred extremism leached into the rest of the country. Harlon Carter, the son of a Border Patrol agent, was raised in Laredo, and at seventeen he shot and killed a fifteen-year-old Mexican American teenager. (He claimed self-defense and spent two years in prison; the conviction was later overturned.) He himself joined the Border Patrol a few years later, in 1936, and in time he became the director of the agency, where his mission, according to a newspaper account, was “all-out war to hurl tens of thousands” of Mexicans “back into Mexico.” After he retired from government service in 1970, he turned his attention to guns: A longtime member of the National Rifle Association, he became its executive vice president and led a faction that pushed the NRA to shift its focus from promoting marksmanship and shooting sports to opposing gun-control legislation.

While the American West was parceled off and eventually understood as finite, the idea of the frontier persisted, carried forward in the fighting of wars overseas. Starting with the Spanish-American War, Grandin argues, an unstated bargain was struck with soldiers from former Confederate states: They could prove their worth to the nation by participating in occupations and counterinsurgency campaigns, and in the bargain they’d get to commit acts of violence against darker-skinned people in places like Haiti and the Philippines. At the same time, the armed forces would offer a tandem deal to African Americans and other minorities, a route to the middle class in exchange for endorsement of America’s imperial escapades. And so the knitting-together of expansionism and racial violence continued, in new arenas.

In the twentieth century, the first real attack on the rugged-individualist myth and its destructive underpinnings came with the New Deal, as Franklin Roosevelt and his administration assessed the costs of laissez-faire individualism and tried to implement social-welfare programs. Later on, Martin Luther King Jr. voiced a full-throated denunciation of the damage wreaked by American militarism, naming the United States as the world’s “greatest purveyor of violence,” a country “glutted by our own barbarity.” King maintained that aggressive foreign policy was helping to agitate the more violent elements of American society while drawing money and attention away from programs to improve domestic welfare. Vietnam had undermined the belief in an America without constraints.

But Ronald Reagan capitalized on the very phenomenon that King condemned: He was able to win over disaffected Vietnam veterans by resurrecting the ideal of American limitlessness, and then to funnel their anger into anti-communist foreign campaigns, in Central America in particular. This created a vicious circle, since the wars sent refugees fleeing to the US, and those immigrants inflamed “the same constituencies that Reagan had mobilized to wage the wars that had turned them into refugees in the first place,” as Grandin writes. Then in the 1990s, NAFTA wiped out a lot of small-scale agriculture in Mexico, prompting more desperate rural Mexicans to migrate to this country.

The current anti-immigrant movement has roots in George W. Bush’s failed 2006 effort to implement comprehensive reform, which incited nativist blowback. Since then, the government has dedicated more and more resources to further blockading of the US-Mexico border, beefing up its “tactical infrastructure,” which includes physical barriers, electronic surveillance, and a bloated police presence. That wall will always be permeable, but in the meantime Trump has devoted himself to a dream wall, the tactical fantasy of sealing the country shut like a ziplock bag. For Grandin, the clamor around the wall represents the final collapse of the frontier ideal, which was always a mirage, he says, a promise of a limitless world where everyone could share in the bounty. The wall “is a monument to disenchantment, to a kind of brutal geopolitical realism” in which it is acknowledged that there’s not enough to go around. It is the anti-frontier.

Grandin’s book will work best for people with an appetite for sweeping intellectual history. A stickler might wonder how closely our anti-immigrant fervor can be tied to the idea of the American frontier, at a time when other wealthy countries without an equivalent frontier past are also in the grip of anti-immigrant backlashes. And as Grandin himself acknowledges, the US-Mexico border was hardly special when it came to a history of racial violence, and in that sense it’s hard to pin down the border as a particular repository for extremism and brutality, when there was so much extremism and brutality to go around.

But like the Turner thesis, Grandin’s argument is valuable as a provocative interpretation, an ambitious dash through American history with an eye to framing our current moment and its political psychology. President Trump, in Grandin’s telling, has been successful because he can still sell the idea of “freedom”—in the sense of impunity, backed up by cruelty. If the wall represents the end of an ideal of limitlessness, it also carries more than a whiff of the frontier’s violent permissiveness, the freedom to dehumanize people on the other side of an imaginary line. Even as Trump imposes more border restrictions, his agenda “cultivates an enraged refusal of limits,” Grandin writes, aptly encapsulating the president’s tantrum-style politics and topping off this book’s elegant historical sketch, which traces the long roots of the tantrum.

Karen Olsson is the author of All the Houses (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).