Reviewed By KAY MATTHEWS
First I got caught up in the internecine wars between progressives: should the populist left consult and work together on positions they have in common with the populist right, like staying out of foreign wars; or is the populist right so nefarious—with its white nationalism and oppressive stances on minority and women’s rights and essentially just a sham movement anyway—that a working relationship is impossible.
Then there was the “letter” in Harper’s signed by “public intellectuals” and writers and editors and such defending the right of free speech from what they see as a “cancel culture” movement of shaming, firing, and censoring those who don’t adhere to an ideological PC. This implies a left-wing mob, not a right-wing mob, which is quite better at censoring and shaming in our academic institutions, mainstream media, and political institutions, but the letter also points out that, ironically, due process is often abandoned in the rush to overcome many years of bigotry and oppression.
We’re constantly asking ourselves, how did we get to this place of toxic contentiousness and polarity not only between the right and left but also within the right and left? Greg Grandin, in his book The End of Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, argues that while this is nothing new in an America built upon the labor of slaves and the inequality of capitalism, the current uptick of conflict and polarization is the result of the end of the myth of American exceptionalism smack dab at the U.S./Mexican border wall.
This myth of exceptionalism can be partially traced to the fact that this country was unique in its founding on the idea of an endless frontier that fostered both individualism and a sense of equality—those looking to escape the crowded east coast settlements and fend for themselves. Grandin takes a close look at the proponent most people associate with this idea of the frontier, Frederick Jackson Turner, who made a distinction between a frontier that represents a national border or military front and his notion of a frontier of American democracy that was “a form of society rather than an area,” a “field of opportunity,” and a check on wealth distribution.
This, of course, was not the frontier of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States. Jackson was a racist whose frontier embodied a settler colonial lust for land for the superior Anglo Saxon, which meant exterminating the Native American tribes that stood in the way and expanding the institution of slavery beyond the Mississippi. This lust for land didn’t stop at the western border, however, as it evolved into a full scale assault on Mexico (the annexation of Texas as a slave state, the Mexican/American War of 1846), then in 1898 the acquisition of Hawaii, war with Spain over Puerto Rico, Guam, and Manila, and numerous invasions in Central America and the Caribbean. Jackson’s presentation of the frontier that promised endless growth, is, unfortunately, what prevented this country from “reckoning with its social problems,” or, as Martin Luther King, Jr., described it, our pathologies: racism, violent masculinity, and a moralism that celebrates the rich and punishes the poor.
Grandin guides the reader through the development of this national myth from the American Revolution to the election of Donald Trump. While he doesn’t neglect the many people and movements that worked for racial equality and the redistribution of wealth, the overwhelming trajectory is an oppressive one. Jackson’s reign of terror against Native Americans and blacks also expanded capitalism and celebrated limited government, concepts that would be further incorporated into the American ideal. The Civil War’s profound break of Jacksonian politics with the passage of the 13th Amendment ending slavery, and the establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau, in which the federal government assumed responsibility for the reconstruction of the South, was subsumed after Lincoln’s assassination when President Andrew Johnson eviscerated the Freedmen’s Bureau and set in motion the failure of Reconstruction and the inception of Jim Crow.
As the 20th century begins, Frederick Jackson Turner’s conception of the Frontier as an “infinite free land” that “created a unique, vibrant political equality,” was inverted to equate individualism with the hindrance of socialized democracy, dwarfing the common spirit. Franklin Delano Roosevelt took a class with Jackson at Harvard and read his essays, and with the advance of industrialization conceived of a new relationship between the individual and government: a democratic government that had historically done very little regulation had to give way to a government that regulated a good deal. In the face of the Great Depression he used this Frontier Thesis to marry the ecological crisis with the economic crisis across the frontier where unsustainable farming practices had caused enormous soil erosion and the Homestead Act distributed land to the powerful, including lumber barons who stripped the land. According to Grandin, “the New Deal’s socialization of the Frontier Thesis allowed reformers to rebut racism and white supremacy” but to his “everlasting discredit” ordered the interment of Japanese Americans during WWII and cut African Americans out of many New Deal reforms in obeisance to southern Democrats.
The post Roosevelt American version of the frontier became the globalized frontier under U.S. leadership that ultimately spread its economic hegemony while fostering militarism, masculine violence, and xenophobia instead of social democracy at home. McCarthyism during the 50s segued into Vietnam in the 60s, racial conflict and urban riots, assassinations, and Watergate. In an interesting section on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s opposition to the Vietnam War, Grandin compares his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech to John Quincy Adam’s 1836 denunciation of his Jacksonian colleagues (Jackson beat Adams in the 1828 presidential race, limiting him to one term): “Who would pay for America’s frontier wars? Adams asked. The poor, King said. Would war, asked Adams, provide the social glue to bind together the ‘motley compound’ that made up the U.S. population? Yes, said King, ‘in brutal solidarity,’ but only so long as the killing continued. ‘Is there not yet hatred enough?’ Adams asked. ‘Have you not Indians enough’ to exterminate? The United States, King said, was the world’s ‘greatest purveyor of violence . . . . This business of burning human beings with napalm’ was a ‘symptom of a far deeper malady,’ a sickness at the heart of the republic.”
Grandin’s chapter on Ronald Reagan is titled “More, More, More,” essentially the idea of Americans’ limitless right to freedom via unleashed neoliberalism and the New Right rejection of federal regulation and the power of the government to achieve racial, gender, and sexual equality. Internationally there were increased covert actions and anti-communist insurgencies in Nicaragua and Afghanistan. In terms of immigration, Reagan initially cultivated the Hispano vote but then conservatives began demanding immigration restrictions and a border wall, and radicalized veterans organized vigilante white supremacist organizations that targeted the very people fleeing his Central American wars. As Grandin puts it, “It was, to say the least, a highly volatile game Reagan and his ‘cowboys’ were playing, one that could only continue as long as the frontier remained open.”
“Clinton was Reagan’s greatest achievement” is how Grandin begins the chapter on Bill Clinton’s presidency: “He carried forward the Republican agenda by combining a postindustrial fatalism—regulation wasn’t possible, austerity was unavoidable, budgets had to be balanced, crime was a condition of culture, not economic policy . . .” and the promulgation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that allowed investment and commodities to cross the Mexican border but not people. “The border patrol, for its part, continued what it had been since its founding: a frontline instrument of white supremacist power.”
Then, under George W. Bush, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, invading Afghanistan and Iraq was the “moral equivalent” of extending the “frontiers of freedom.” Unlike Reagan’s success in focusing domestic militancy outward, the abject failure of Bush’s wars turned this racist militancy back towards the border (ICE formed after 9/11). Under Obama, our first black president, the Republican Party birthed the Tea Party as the nativist right “continued to coalesce.” Obama deported millions of Central American and Mexican immigrants and spent more money on border and immigration enforcement than on all other federal law-enforcement agencies combined. And so we get to Donald Trump: immigrant children taken away from their parents; people in cages; refugees sent back to the Guatemalan border to wait for their hearings; an unleashed border patrol attacking immigrants and American citizens. “American’s exceptionalism was born on a frontier thought to be endless. Now the only thing endless is history’s endless return, as veterans travel to the borderlands to rehearse how lost wars could have been won.” The inversion of Turner’s “infinite free land” is now manifest in the nativism for which Trump is the standard bearer.