From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America
by Greg Grandin
Poetry was the language of the frontier, and the historian Frederick Jackson Turner was among its greatest laureates. “The United States lies like a huge page in the history of society,” he wrote in 1893. “Line by line as we read this continental page from West to East we find the record of social evolution.”1 Expansion across the continent, Turner said, made Europeans into something new, into a people both coarse and curious, self-disciplined and spontaneous, practical and inventive, filled with a “restless, nervous energy” and lifted by “that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom.” Turner’s scholarly career spanned the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, during the height of Jim Crow and the consolidation of anti-miscegenation and nativist exclusion laws, with the KKK resurgent. Mexican workers were being lynched in Texas, and the U.S. military was engaged in deadly counterinsurgencies in the Caribbean and Pacific. But what became known as Turner’s Frontier Thesis—which argued that the expansion of settlement across a frontier of “free land” created a uniquely American form of political equality, a vibrant, forward-looking individualism—placed a wager on the future.
The kind of Americanism Turner represented took all the unbounded optimism that went into the founding of the United States and bet that the country’s progress, moving forward on the frontier and into the world, would reduce racism to a remnant and leave it behind as residue. It would dilute other social problems as well, including poverty, inequality, and extremism, teaching diverse people how to live together in peace. Frank Norris, in 1902, hoped that territorial expansion would lead to a new kind of universalism, to the “brotherhood of man” when Americans would realize that “the whole world is our nation and simple humanity our countrymen.”2
Facing west meant facing the Promised Land, an Edenic utopia where the American as the new Adam could imagine himself free from nature’s limits, society’s burdens, and history’s ambiguities. No myth in American history has been more powerful, more invoked by more presidents, than that of pioneers advancing across an endless meridian. Onward, and then onward again. There were lulls, doubts, dissents, and counter-movements, notably in the 1930s and 1970s. But the expansionist imperative has remained constant, in one version or another, for centuries. As Woodrow Wilson said in the 1890s, “a frontier people always in our van, is, so far, the central and determining fact of our national history.” “There was no thought,” Wilson said, “of drawing back.”3
So far. The poetry stopped on June 16, 2015, when Donald J. Trump announced his presidential campaign by standing Frederick Jackson Turner on his head. “I will build a great wall,” Trump said.
Trump most likely had never heard of Turner, or his outsized influence on American thought. But there, in the lobby of his tower on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, he offered his own judgment on history. Referring specifically to the North American Free Trade Agreement and broadly to the country’s commitment to free trade, he said, “We have to stop, and it has to stop now.”
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All nations have borders, and many today even have walls. But only the United States has had a frontier, or at least a frontier that has served as a proxy for liberation, synonymous with the possibilities and promises of modern life itself and held out as a model for the rest of the world to emulate.4
Decades before its founders won their independence, America was thought of as a process of endless becoming and ceaseless unfurling. In 1651, Thomas Hobbes described British colonialism in America as driven by an “insatiable appetite, or Bulimia, of enlarging dominion.”5 Thomas Jefferson, in a political manifesto he wrote two years before the Declaration of Independence, identified the right “of departing from the country in which chance, not choice” had placed settlers, “of going in quest of new habitations” as an element of universal law.6
True religion moved east to west with the sun, believed early American theologians, and if man could keep pace with its light, perhaps historical time itself could be overcome and decline avoided.7 The West, said one frontier writer, was “the land of mankind’s second chance.”8 It was, said Turner, a place of “perennial rebirth.” Are there new frontiers? The historian Walter Prescott Webb, writing in the early 1950s, said that what that perennial question revealed was nothing less than a rejection of the death instinct. You might as well ask, Webb said, is there a human soul?9 Faith in the regenerative power of the frontier resided in the fact that the West did offer, for many, a chance to shake off their circumstances. More than a few even got rich. The United States was great, in ambition as well as dimension.
The concept of the frontier served as both diagnosis (to explain the power and wealth of the United States) and prescription (to recommend what policy makers should do to maintain and extend that power and wealth). And when the physical frontier was closed, its imagery could easily be applied to other arenas of expansion, to markets, war, culture, technology, science, the psyche, and politics. In the years after World War II, the “frontier” became a central metaphor to capture a vision of a new kind of world order. Past empires established their dominance in an environment where resources were thought to be finite, extending their supremacy to capture as much of the world’s wealth as possible, to the detriment of their rivals. Now, though, the United States made a credible claim to be a different sort of global power, presiding over a world economy premised on endless growth. Washington, its leaders said, didn’t so much rule as help organize and stabilize an international community understood as liberal, universal, and multilateral. The promise of a limitless frontier meant that wealth wasn’t a zero-sum proposition. It could be shared by all. Borrowing frontier language used by Andrew Jackson and his followers in the 1830s and 1840s, postwar planners said the United States would extend the world’s “area of freedom” and enlarge its “circle of free institutions.”10
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The ideal of the frontier contained within itself the terms of its own criticism, which is another reason why it serves as so powerful a national metaphor. Martin Luther King, Jr., argued that the ideal fed into multiple reinforcing pathologies: into racism, a violent masculinity, and moralism that celebrates the rich and punishes the poor. For over a year, from early 1967 until his murder in April 1968—as the United States escalated its war in Vietnam—King put forth, in a series of sermons and press conferences, a damning analysis. Military expansion abroad, he argued, quickened domestic polarization. The “flame throwers in Vietnam fan the flames in our cities,” he said; “the bombs in Vietnam explode at home.” At the same time, constant war served to deflect the worst consequences of that polarization outward.11
King’s point is as simple as it is profound: A constant fleeing forward allowed the United States to avoid a true reckoning with its social problems, such as economic inequality, racism, crime and punishment, and violence. Other critics at the time were coming to similar conclusions. Some scholars argued that imperial expansion let the United States “buy off” its domestic white skilled working class, either through social welfare or higher wages made possible by third world exploitation. Others stressed the political benefits of expansion, which allowed the reconciliation of competing interests.12 Still others emphasized more Freudian, even Jungian, motives: deep-seated violent fantasies, formed in long-ago wars against people of color on the frontier, projected outward; soldiers sublimating their “own guilty desires,” their own complicity in wartime atrocities, with ever more grotesque sadism.13
There is a lot to unpack in the argument that over the long course of U.S. history, endless expansion, either over land or through markets and militarism, deflects domestic extremism. How, for example, might historical traumas and resentments, myths and symbols, be passed down the centuries from one generation to another? Did the United States objectively need to expand in order to secure foreign resources and open markets for domestic production? Or did the country’s leaders just believe they had to expand? Whatever the answers to those questions, the United States, since its founding, pushed outward and justified that push in moral terms, as beneficial equally for the people within and beyond the frontier. The idea of expansion, the historian William Appleman Williams wrote in 1966, was “exhilarating in a psychological and philosophical sense” since it could be “projected to infinity.”14
Not, as it turns out, to infinity.
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The United States is now into the eighteenth year of a war that it will never win. Soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s are now seeing their children enlist. A retired Marine general recently said the United States will be in Afghanistan for yet another sixteen years, at least. By that point, the grandchildren of the first generation of veterans will be enlisting. Senator Lindsey Graham believes that the United States is fighting “an endless war without boundaries, no limitation on time or geography.”15 Another former officer (referring to the expansion of military operations into African countries like Niger) said the war “will never end.”16 And grandchildren down the line will be paying its bill, now estimated to approach six trillion dollars.17
While the United States is mired in an endless war, it can no longer imagine endless growth. An entire generation’s expectations have been radically foreshortened, as the 2007–2008 financial collapse has been followed by a perverse kind of recovery, marked by mediocre rates of investment, stockpiled wealth, soaring stocks, and stagnant wages.18 The roots of the current crisis reach back decades, to the economic restructuring that began in the 1980s with farm failures and deindustrialization, and continued forward with financial deregulation, crippling tax cuts, and the entrenchment of low-paying service jobs and personal debt. The nation’s political class, over the course of these decades, sold economic restructuring by ratcheting up the language of limitlessness. “Nothing is impossible,” Ronald Reagan said. “There are no limits to growth.”19 The presidents who followed—George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush—presided over an ideological bubble that proved as unrealistic as a prediction by one of Clinton’s top economists, who in 1998 said that the soon-to-be-busted dot-com boom “will run forever.”20 All four presidents steadily upped the ante, pushing global “engagement” as a moral imperative, a mission that led the United States to the Persian Gulf and to its financially exhausting and morally discrediting global war.
Gaps exist in all nationalisms between ideal and experience. But in the years following defeat in Vietnam, the revival of the myth of rugged individualism and frontier limitlessness—at a moment when deindustrialization was making daily life precarious for an increasing number of people, when more and more people were reaching their limits—has created a punishing kind of dissonance. It was used to weaken the mechanisms of social solidarity, especially government-provided welfare and labor unions, just when they were most needed. In the mythology of the West, cowboys don’t join unions.21 The gap between myth and reality has now widened into a chasm.
The United States is a nation founded on the principle that government should leave individuals free to pursue their self-interest. Corruption and greed, even as the United States moved out in the world with a sense of moral mission, have not been foreign qualities. But it’s hard to think of a period in the nation’s history when venality and disillusionment have been so sovereign, when so many of the country’s haves have nothing to offer but disdain for the have-nots.
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The 2016 election of Donald Trump as president of the United States—and all the vitriol his campaign and presidency have unleashed—has been presented by commentators as one of two opposing possibilities. Trumpism either represents a rupture, a wholly un-American movement that has captured the institutions of government; or he is the realization of a deep-rooted American form of extremism. Does Trump’s crass and cruel appeal to nativism represent a break from tradition, from a fitful but persistent commitment to tolerance and equality at home and defense of multilateralism, democracy, and open markets abroad? Or is it but the “dark side,” to use Dick Cheney’s resonant phrase, of U.S. history coming into the light? Breach or continuity?
What’s missing from most commentary is an acknowledgment of the role that expansion, along with the promise of boundlessness, played in relegating racism and extremism to the fringe. To be sure, previous cycles of dislocation have given rise to demagogues similar to Trump, such as George Wallace and Pat Buchanan. But the movements those nativists led remained marginal and were contained—geographically, institutionally, and ideologically. And the United States has had other presidents who were open racists. Before Richard Nixon put his “southern strategy” into place to win the votes of southern neo-Confederates, Woodrow Wilson cultivated what was left of actual Confederates, and their sons and grandsons, into an electoral coalition, re-segregating the federal bureaucracy and legitimating the KKK. Before Wilson, there was Andrew Jackson, who personally drove a slave coffle between Natchez and Nashville and presided over a policy of ethnic cleansing that freed up vast amounts of land for white settlers, putting the full power of the federal government to creating a “Caucasian democracy.”
What distinguishes earlier racist presidents like Jackson and Wilson from Trump, though, is that they were in office during the upswing of America’s moving out in the world, when domestic political polarization could be stanched and the country held together—even after the Civil War nearly tore it apart—by the promise of 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. Expansion, in any form, can no longer satisfy the interests, reconcile the contradictions, dilute the factions, or redirect the anger.
The “furies,” as the writer Sam Tanenhaus described the conservative fringe that gained ground during Barack Obama’s presidency, have nowhere left to go.22 They whip around the homeland. Trump tapped into various forms of American racism: trading in birtherism, embracing law-and-order extremists, and refusing to distance himself from KKK and Nazi supporters, for instance. But it was the focus on the border and all that went with it—labeling Mexicans rapists, calling migrants snakes and animals, stirring up anger at undocumented residents, proposing to end birthright citizenship, and unleashing ICE agents to raid deep into the country, to stalk schools and hospitals, to split families and spread grief—that provided Trumpism its most compelling through-line message: The world’s horizon is not limitless; not all can share in its wealth; and the nation’s policies should reflect that reality. That argument isn’t new. Over the years, there have been two versions of it. One is humane, a recognition that modern life imposes obligations, that nature’s resources aren’t infinite, and that society should be organized in a way that distributes fortune as fairly as possible. The other thinks that recognition of limits requires domination.
“To live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing,” the Canadian poet Anne Carson once said. With Trump, America finds itself at the end of its myth.
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To talk about the frontier is also to talk about capitalism, about its power and possibility and its promise of boundlessness. Donald Trump figured out that to talk about the border—and to promise a wall—was a way to acknowledge capitalism’s limits, its pain, without having to challenge capitalism’s terms. Trump ran promising to end the wars and to reverse the extreme anti-regulatory and free-market program of his party. Once in office, though, he accelerated deregulation, increased military spending, and expanded the wars.23 But he kept talking about his wall.
That wall might or might not be built. But even if it remains only in its phantasmagorical, budgetary stage, a perpetual negotiating chip between Congress and the White House, the promise of a two-thousand-mile-long, thirty-foot-high ribbon of concrete and steel running along the United States’ southern border serves its purpose. It’s America’s new myth, a monument to the final closing of the frontier. It is a symbol of a nation that used to believe that it had escaped history, or at least strode atop history, but now finds itself trapped by history, and of a people who used to think they were captains of the future, but now are prisoners of the past.
1. Turner’s essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” which is easily found on the internet, has been reproduced widely, including in a volume edited by John Mack Faragher, Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner (1994). All subsequent uncited Turner quotations are from this volume.
2. Frank Norris, “The Frontier Gone at Last,” The Responsibilities of the Novelist: And Other Essays (1903), p. 83.
3. Woodrow Wilson, The Course of American History (1895), pp. 11, 15.
4. Over the years, the Turner thesis and other conceptualizations of the “frontier” have been applied to many countries that incorporated frontier experience into their national mythologies. The United States, however, is distinct both in its long history of expansion and in taking its frontier myth as an exemplary metaphor of capitalism. For applying Turner-like arguments to Russia: Mark Bassin, “Turner, Solov’ev, and the ‘Frontier Hypothesis’: The Nationalist Signification of Open Spaces,” Journal of Modern History 65.3 (1993), pp. 473–511. For comparative settler societies: Lynette Russell, ed., Colonial Frontiers: Indigenous–European Encounters in Settler Societies (2001); Paul Maylam, in South Africa’s Racial Past (2017), p. 52, points out that attempts to apply Turner’s Frontier Thesis to South Africa render its racism explicit. For Brazil: Mary Lombardi, “The Frontier in Brazilian History,” Pacific Historical Review (November 1975), vol. 44, no. 4, pp. 437–57; For comparative South America: Gilbert J. Butland, “Frontiers of Settlement in South America,” Revista Geográfica (December 1966), vol. 66, pp. 93–108; and David Weber and Jane Rausch, eds., Where Cultures Meet; Frontiers in Latin American History (1994).
5. For Hobbes’s connection to the Virginia Company: Patricia Springborg, “Hobbes, Donne and the Virginia Company: Terra Nullius and ‘the Bulimia of Dominium,’ ” History of Political Thought (2015), vol. 36, no. 1, pp. 113–64; and Andrew Fitzmaurice, “The Civic Solution to the Crisis of English Colonization, 1609–1625,” Historical Journal (1999), vol. 42, pp. 25–51, as well as Fitzmaurice, Sovereignty, Property and Empire, 1500–2000 (2014), p. 104.
6. “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” 1774, available at: http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/print_documents/v1ch14s10.html.
7. Loren Baritz, “The Idea of the West,” American Historical Review (April 1961), vol. 66, no. 3, pp. 618–40.
8. Paul Horgan, Great River (1954), vol. 2, p. 638.
9. Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Frontier (1951), p. 126.
10. “General Jackson’s Letter,” dated February 12, 1843, and published in Niles’ National Register (March 30, 1844), p. 70.
11. Flame throwers: Rick Perlstein, Nixonland (2010), p. 243; Bombs: “The Casualties of the War in Vietnam” (February 25, 1967), http://www.aavw.org/special_features/speeches_speech_king02.html.
12. Eliot Janeway, The Economics of Crisis: War, Politics, and the Dollar (1968), p. 114; Walter LaFeber, The New Empire (1961).
13. Frances FitzGerald, Fire in the Lake (1972), p. 371. Richard Slotkin’s trilogy on the myth of the frontier in America is the fullest elaboration of such arguments.
14. William Appleman Williams, The Great Evasion (1966), p. 13.
15. Rukmini Callimachi, Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt, Alan Blinder, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “ ‘An Endless War’: Why 4 U.S. Soldiers Died in a Remote African Desert,” New York Times (February 20, 2018).
16. Wesley Morgan and Bryan Bender, “America’s Shadow War in Africa,” Politico (October 12, 2017), https://www.politico.com/story/2017/10/12/niger-shadow-war-africa-243695.
17. According to one report, spending on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan alone—not including the costs of wars in Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Libya, and sub-Saharan Africa—will top six trillion dollars. “The largest portion of that bill is yet to be paid,” the authors of the report write, referring to interest on deficit spending to finance the operations, as well as the long-term medical care and disability compensation for veterans and their families. Linda Bilmes, “The Financial Legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan: How Wartime Spending Decisions Will Constrain Future National Security Budgets,” HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP13-006 (March 2013). Neta Crawford’s “U.S. Budgetary Costs of Wars Through 2016,” Watson Institute, Brown University (September 2016), does include spending in Syria, Pakistan, and on Homeland Security: http://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2016/Costs%20of%20War%20through%202016%20FINAL%20final%20v2.pdf.
18. J. W. Mason, “What Recovery?” Roosevelt Institute (July 25, 2017), http://rooseveltinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Monetary-Policy-Report-070617-2.pdf; Larry Summers, “The Age of Secular Stagnation,” Foreign Affairs (March–April 2017); Nelson Schwartz, “The Recovery Threw the Middle-Class Dream Under a Benz,” New York Times (September 12, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/12/business/middle-class-financial-crisis.html; David Lazarus, “The Economy May Be Booming, but Nearly Half of Americans Can’t Make Ends Meet, Los Angeles Times (August 31, 2018), http://www.latimes.com/business/lazarus/la-fi-lazarus-economy-stagnant-wages-20180831-story.html.
19. “Remarks Announcing Candidacy for the Republican Presidential Nomination” (November 13, 1979), http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=76116; “Second Inaugural Address” (January 21, 1985), http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/reagan2.asp.
20. Rudiger Dornbusch, Keys to Prosperity (2002), p. 66.
21. Though in real life they did: Mark Lause, The Great Cowboy Strike: Bullets, Ballots, and Class Conflicts in the American West (2018).
22. Sam Tanenhaus, The Death of Conservatism (2010), p. 99.
23. Andy Kroll, “How Trump Learned to Love the Koch Brothers,” Mother Jones (December 1, 2017), describes the degree to which Trump, despite running against the Kochs, has fulfilled their deregulation agenda. As of this writing, though, Trump’s proposal to impose tariffs on imports has strained his relationship with free-trade Republicans.
Copyright © 2019 by Greg Grandin