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Back to the Wall

The same American myths that drove frontier expansion now support closing the borders

The Trump era is a quick-cut montage of horrors, each outrage drowning out the last. It’s worth pausing, though, to consider August 12. That day, the administration announced rollbacks to the Endangered Species Act to facilitate access to oil and gas reserves on previously protected lands. Simultaneously, it placed new restrictions on poorer migrants deemed likely to use social services, an open attempt to cut immigration even by those doing it the “right way.” Drilling for more oil, disregarding extreme weather events and sea level rise globally, and then targeting those hoping to escape the effects of present and future disruption offers a nifty summation of eco-apartheid as a governing philosophy.

Clamps on the border as capital finds new frontiers: this is the latest twist on an American motif hundreds of years old. Historian Greg Grandin, in The End of the Myth (longlisted for this year’s National Book Award in nonfiction), makes the case that the politics of the border wall are the culmination of the frontier mythology that has animated the American self-conception since before the republic gained its independence, a mythology that long buoyed the United States toward global empire. Simultaneously, he writes, “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.” The frontier’s siren song allowed the nation to float, “swiftly, as if weightless” in Grandin’s quotation of Mexican poet Octavio Paz, toward the horizon, forever young.

The U.S. territorial march has stopped, but its energies live on at the militarized, brutal United States-Mexico border. Since Trump announced his candidacy by railing against Mexican immigrants, that demarcation has taken hold of the nation’s political imagination. Border patrol has engaged in cruelty-is-the-point child separation and fired teargas at migrants, at least six migrant children have died in U.S. custody since September 2018, and the gulag archipelago of detention centers along the border—already in place when Trump took office—has swelled.

Grandin writes that to understand the genesis of the border’s current brutality, “one has to understand that the border, over the long course of its history, has effectively become the negation of the frontier. The long boundary separating Mexico from the United States served 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.” Instead, that violence was just pushed outward, toward the empire’s sharp edges. The violence against Central American migrants now moving north is a new rendition of an old tune practiced on Native Americans and Mexicans during the country’s march west.

As the End of the Myth documents in damning detail, the frontier has long served American elites by offering the working class an outlet for their frustrations at the material conditions of American life. Time and again, “instead of waging class war upward—on aristocrats and owners—they waged race war outward, on the frontier,” Grandin writes, with industrial interests shaping the terms of engagement. Westward expansion through the twentieth century brought settlers into contact and conflict with Native Americans and the subjects of the former Spanish colonial empire. With U.S. retreat never a question, conflict could be solved only by pacification campaigns suppressing, isolating, and often exterminating groups along the frontier. Pacification in turn demanded further expansion, and the whole process justified more of the same—a self-powering perpetual motion machine that propelled U.S. development for centuries.

Grandin offers a rejoinder to Frederick Jackson Turner, who in 1893 advanced his seminal “frontier thesis.” “Free land,” Turner said, and “an abundance of natural resources open to a fit people, made the democratic type of society in America,” one that “came out of the American forest and it gained strength each time it touched a new frontier.” The frontier was key to the idea of America, responsible for the unique character of the nation and its people. Turner gave his talk at a time when the country believed that, with California conquered and the southwestern border set, with the interior west populated with white Americans, the frontier was closed. But “when the physical frontier was closed,” Grandin writes, “its imagery could easily be applied to other arenas of expansion, to markets, war, culture, technology, science, the psyche, and politics.” The frontier was a powerful, shape-shifting myth, easily contorting to fit the country’s evolving aims.

The frontier has long served American elites by offering the working class an outlet for their frustrations at the material conditions of American life.

Grandin writes that “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.” Earlier in the century, the chief villain of the Grandin’s narrative, Andrew Jackson, combined a fervor for Native American removal with a radical project of equality for white men. In creating a “Caucasian democracy” by reifying southern slavery and forcing out the Native populations of the modern Deep South, Jacksonians established what Grandin identifies as a racialized “freedom as freedom from restraint” that would henceforth haunt the American imagination.

Now, at the turn of the twentieth century, Turner’s myth depended on an elision of the frontier as a site of brutality for the brown populations that white Americans were encountering, although nonetheless on a world endless and infinite and for the taking. Indeed, Grandin notes that Turner canoed and hiked among the Winnebago and Menominee during his childhood in Wisconsin before watching his father stump successfully for the forced removal of these tribes westward by federal authorities. Their disappearance, though, never appeared in his scholarship.

Not long after Turner advanced his theory, the frontier would reopen, as the United States became an overseas empire with its war against the fading Spanish in 1898, acquiring the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico; American military influence expanded around the globe in the post-WWII years; “new frontiers” would later describe the flow of American capital into opening global markets secured by gunboat diplomacy. This retooled frontierism finally began to slow with defeat in Vietnam. Unable to pacify this latest native population at the empire’s edge, the United States’ problems blew back to the home front, turning what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” forcefully inward.

And now, writes Grandin, after more failed wars and after international markets proved bountiful to capital but not to U.S. workers, “the country has lived past the end of its myth.” “The poetry,” he writes, “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.”

The blowback has accelerated into, and been fed by, Trumpism. The shooting in El Paso on August 3 of this year is a case in point. Patrick Crusius, a twenty-one-year-old white man, opened fire at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, explicitly targeting Latinos and killing twenty-two people. After driving more than nine hours from Allen, Texas, to El Paso, he posted a manifesto online minutes before the shooting. Corporations, he believed, were hollowing out America, leaving too many jobless and listless without any future to speak of and despoiling the land, while immigrants were flooding across the southern border, competing for the slivers of the economic pie that remain and further stressing the environment. With its worries about automated unemployment and ecological catastrophe, the manifesto feints at critiques of capitalism’s sharpest edges in a hugely unequal society. Instead of trying to check the power of those corporations he believed were squeezing the United States dry, the shooter, like Grandin’s frontiersmen, murdered brown people.

A few decades before the western frontier closed to settlers around the turn of the twentieth century, frontierism turned southward, shaping the hemispheric migration patterns that have in turn fed the policing of the southwestern border.  As the U.S. Civil War heated up, another was being fought south of the border, with Mexican liberals battling against the church and aristocracy. The Union provided aid to the Mexican liberals, who, in the end, won. But when their war finished, their bill came due. Unable to pay, they opened their country to investment from the north.

“Investment led to a dramatic transformation of the border region,” Grandin recounts, “where, starting in about 1870, corporations and individuals dispossessed long-term inhabitants of a massive amount of property.” On the U.S. side, opportunistic businessmen were able to swindle Mexican and Native American communities out of land—land that was either collectively owned beforehand or to which people lacked documentation, a further extension of the dispossession wrought three decades prior in the Mexican-American War. This process was further abetted by the various “homestead acts” of the 1870s, which urged American settlers into Western lands inhabited at the time by Mexicans and Native Americans to reap the spoils of their conquest.

South of the border, indigenous communities were displaced by industrial agricultural operations. Tens of thousands of Yaqui, for example, were pushed from their traditional Sonoran homeland to the Yucatan and Oaxaca. According to historian Carrie Gibson, community landholdings dropped from a quarter of national land to a fiftieth during Porfirio Diaz’s reign, which lasted from 1876 to 1911 (minus an interregnum from 1880 to 1884). By that later date, U.S. investors were the owners of 70 percent of Mexico’s industrial wealth. Gibson writes, “Poor Mexico,’ Díaz is said to have remarked, ‘so far from God, so close to the United States.’”

The rest of the century would see a push-pull relationship between the two countries, with the United States reliant on Mexican labor but disdainful of those providing it.

Grandin notes an important change in American frontierism during this era: “Decades earlier, Jacksonians justified removal in the name of settler sovereignty. Now, though, it was mostly capital, and only a few settlers, advancing forward.” Industrial agricultural and concentrated landholdings turned landed Mexican peasants into un-landed workers, producing surplus labor south of the border. The Mexican Revolution of the early twentieth century resulted in land reform, but further rent the country’s social fabric, leaving millions looking for decent-paying work. In 1924, with an increasing number of immigrants arriving from Asia and Southern Europe, nativists in the United States passed a sweeping Immigration Act which placed country-based quotas on immigrant populations.

But because big business, particularly agribusiness, couldn’t survive without Mexican labor, no quota was placed on our southern neighbors. The rest of the century would see a push-pull relationship between the two countries, with the United States reliant on Mexican labor but disdainful of those providing it. The United States launched mass deportation campaigns in the 1930s; it invited in guest workers from south of the border through the Bracero program in 1942 before terminating the program, which had hosted millions of Mexican workers, two decades later; and it subjected Mexicans crossing the border at official checkpoints to increasingly humiliating treatment, from shaved heads to racial epithets to vigilante lynchings.

NAFTA would further destabilize Mexico’s peasantry. North of the border, high interest rates in the 1980s to fight stagflation left a million family farms in the United States shuttered, as subsidies were funneled to industrial agricultural operations offering an economy of scale. Meanwhile, in those years of buildup to NAFTA, Grandin writes, “Mexican elites, for their part, were happy for the chance to bargain away their peasantry in order to attract capital, technology, and industrial jobs, eliminating nearly all subsidies and tariffs and opening up the country’s market to U.S. agriculture.” The expanding manufacturing sector just south of the border, where American companies were moving their operations for cheaper labor, offered the displaced campesinos a parachute. But the one million jobs those maquiladoras created could not offset the effects of nearly five million farming families south of the border losing their land in the wake of NAFTA. “Soon,” Grandin writes, “a couple of hundred thousand Iowa farmers were growing twice as much corn as about three million Mexican peasants and selling it for half the price,” thanks to U.S. corn subsidies. Some of the NAFTA refugees moved to the city or into the drug trade. Many left: Mexican emigration northward jumped by nearly 80 percent in the six years after the trade act’s implementation.

Climate catastrophe, and the obvious ecological limits it imposes on the global energy sector, does not get much attention from Grandin but surely accentuates the dawning sense that growth is not in fact limitless. Alongside widespread poverty, gang violence, and political repression, drought across Central America is displacing agricultural communities, sending them north to American concentration camps, where they easily inhabit the roles of Mexican migrants of years past. Climate change will only add to the numbers of globally displaced, as fields go fallow and sea levels rise. In the era of the Wall, Grandin writes, the United States remains a “nation that still thinks ‘freedom’ means freedom from restraint, but no longer pretends, in a world of limits, that everyone can be free,” so our foreign policies—breezy interventionism and addiction to fossil fuel consumption combined with hardened border measures—accentuate that freedom while narrowing its beneficiaries.

Of course, there is no keeping people out. “Show me a fifty-foot wall,” said Janet Napolitano, Obama’s director of Homeland Security, “and I’ll show you a fifty-one foot ladder.” John Crewdson, writing for the New York Times in 1979, cites the reason for the border’s heavy policing not as security but because “it is the demarcation between such desperate poverty and such massive wealth.” As long as that remains the case, especially as that disparity is exacerbated by the chaos of climate change, people will continue to come.

E. Tendayi Achiume makes a postcolonial case for free movement of people from the Third World to the First based on a recognition that, as powerful countries intervene in the affairs of those poorer countries on whose labor and materials they depend, people from those poorer countries are not outsider “political strangers” to the metropole but instead de facto imperial subjects—or, in some cases, literal, historic ones. But lubricated movement of people is only part of the equation. The predation of U.S. capital on markets south with American military might at its back destabilizes local economies and creates economic nomads. Ameliorating the uptick in global displacement will depend on a foreign policy that looks less like depredation and more like solidarity. Centrally important will be the climate and environmental policies that the United States pursues.

As long as the United States eyes populations to the south with thoughts of plunder, poverty will deepen and displacement quicken.

Grandin cites hopeful moments from U.S. history as models for a more just America. The social programs enacted during the New Deal feature heavily, as does Martin Luther King’s vision for tying racial and economic justice to anti-imperialism. The Reconstruction-era efforts to get southern freedmen and poor whites back on their feet after the Civil War were undermined, tellingly, when the leader of the effort was reassigned to Indian removal on the frontier and the War Department shut the Freedman’s Bureau down. A policy based in solidarity will of course depend on a national self-conception that is neither explicitly nor implicitly white. To that point, Grandin’s narrative might have spent more time on the faltering efforts at integration between the United States and the frontier populations it swallowed, and on the paradoxes of border life that resulted: such as, say, the Border Patrol—which Grandin writes was from the outset “a frontline instrument of white supremacist power”—now being around fifty percent Latino.

Grandin inverts the old frontier narrative, in which American civilization encountered and overcame barbarism: now, the barbarism emanates from the interior. But he believes the death of the frontier myth, its heart laid bare by the current border climate, may allow this country to reckon with itself, pay its historical debts, and begin to coexist in a less barbarous way. For him, the only way forward is “socialism, or at least social democracy”—working to ensure the well being of the historically disinherited and the working class more generally by ensuring health care, education, and a decent standard of living to all. The choice is between these “social rights,” he suggests, or more of the vortex of darkness, the sublimated hostility that was once pushed away to the frontier spiraling back inward.

To achieve any unwinding of the brutal conditions at the southwest border, such a project would need to be internationalist in scope as well: as long as the United States eyes populations to the south with thoughts of plunder, poverty will deepen and displacement quicken. We need not even actively meddle at this point; simply continuing current levels of fossil fuel consumption will ensure that droughts and rising seas rip families from their homes across the Global South. Even as the United States erects the Wall, climate catastrophe threatens with no regard to borders at all, leaving no frontier across which to escape. Grandin cites a retort of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s to the Jacksonian vision of freedom. After waxing poetic about frontiersmen opening the Mississippi Valley, Roosevelt proposed an epochal pivot: “Today that life is gone. Its simplicity has vanished and we are each and all of us, whether we like it or not, parts of a social civilization which ever tends to greater complexity.” Just so.