The Frontier Closes In

The Frontier Closes In

Trump’s wall is a “monument to the final closing of the frontier.” He has abandoned the political language of boundless optimism for a darker tone.

The U.S.-Mexico border near Nogales, Arizona (Robert Bushell/Wikimedia Commons)

The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America
by Greg Grandin
Metropolitan Books, 2019, 384 pp.

About 25 million people visited Chicago in 1893 for the World’s Fair. Many of them took in performances staged by Buffalo Bill Cody, a legendary entertainer and army scout. Cody capitalized on a pervasive sense that a long era of territorial conquest and settlement was coming to an end, and he charmed audiences with a tribute to the closing of the frontier. A cast of former cavalrymen, cowboys, and Native performers reenacted “Custer’s Last Fight” at the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, where Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors repelled a U.S. battalion. The Natives’ victory appealed to spectators because it was ephemeral, and seemed to justify what followed; Cody also imagined the American frontiersman as a global leader, galloping ahead of a parade of “Rough Riders of the World.” In the words of the historian Richard Slotkin, “history, translated into myth, was re-enacted as ritual.”

History also became myth on another stage in Chicago in 1893, though fewer people were there to witness it. A group of historians had assembled during the fair to share their research, and a young professor named Frederick Jackson Turner delivered a paper entitled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Turner defined the frontier as both a place—a steadily advancing line—and a process of expansion. “Frontier individualism,” he argued, “promoted democracy” and made the United States exceptional. “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.”

Turner was not a prolific scholar, but his thesis had an outsized influence on how Americans thought about the past and the future. As he celebrated American individualism, he concealed the role the state had played in encouraging westward migration, seizing Native homelands, massacring Native people, and redistributing “free land.” By 1893, settlers were running out of space in North America, but Turner predicted that “American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise.” Five years later, the United States went to war with Spain; colonized Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines; and made Cuba a virtual protectorate. Buffalo Bill Cody continued performing for large crowds, but with one important change: he replaced “Custer’s Last Fight” with a new scene, “the Battle of San Juan Hill.” Theodore Roosevelt’s volunteer cavalrymen rode rough over Cuba in search of new outlets for “American energy.” The myth endured.

In The End of the Myth, the historian Greg Grandin argues that expansionist visions propelled the United States forward for more than 200 years, but now “the country has lived past the end of its myth.” American intellectuals and politicians from Benjamin Franklin to George W. Bush relied on the idea of the frontier to understand the nation’s virtues, increase its power, and “avoid a true reckoning with its social problems.” As thirteen colonies became a continental republic and then a superpower, the promise of “endless expansion . . . deflect[ed] domestic extremism” on the right and the left.

Grandin is a gifted storyteller and a prize-winning historian. Here, he builds on the work of several generations of scholars, especially Patricia Limerick, Richard White, and Kelly Lytle Hernández, who have struggled to overturn popular misconceptions about the U.S. West. Unsurprisingly, one of Donald Trump’s favorite presidents, Andrew Jackson, emerges as Grandin’s antihero. A slave driver, commander in brutal campaigns against the Creeks and Seminoles, and anti-establishment politician, Jackson built an enduringly racist conception of American democracy. A restrained federal government protected the individual liberty of its white citizens as they pushed the frontier west.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the frontier was no longer an identifiable place or an ongoing process, but it found new life as a metaphor, driving overseas expansion. As Woodrow Wilson wrote in 1902, “We made new frontiers for ourselves beyond the seas.” International military engagements and commercial ties laid the foundation for a new liberal consensus, attenuating both white supremacism and campaigns for social democracy. This consensus unraveled during the Vietnam War, but Ronald Reagan and the New Right managed to resurrect frontier individualism and channel domestic discontent into Cold War geopolitics. Over and over again, Americans turned to foreign relations to resolve domestic social conflicts.

As a nationalist image and figure of speech, the frontier was irresistible. Bill Clinton spoke of economic integration as “our new frontier,” George W. Bush of “frontiers of freedom” across the globe, and Barack Obama of “new frontiers” in science and technology. Then Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign by promising to build a wall, and “the poetry stopped.” According to Grandin, Trump’s wall is “America’s new myth, a monument to the final closing of the frontier.” Trump has abandoned the preferred political language of boundless optimism for a darker tone, forced Americans to look inward, and opened up more political space for extreme views.

The most original aspect of Grandin’s argument is the historical relationship he posits between the idea of the frontier and the reality of the U.S.-Mexico border. The border, he explains, emerged as “the negation of the frontier” and “the repository of the racism and the brutality that the frontier was said, by its theorists, to leave behind.” Of course, racism did not disappear from the rest of the country, but it was “literally pushed to the margins,” coalescing around the border and then filtering back into the mainstream as the frontier myth crumbled. Grandin shows how particular places and institutions in the U.S. Southwest became breeding grounds for vigilante violence and white supremacism. Border enforcement also made people across the United States more racist, as mass media and nativist politics spread negative stereotypes about “illegal aliens.”

Interethnic violence was endemic in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands throughout the nineteenth century, but U.S. officials did not take significant steps to enforce the southern boundary until the 1910s. During and after the U.S.-Mexico War of 1846–48, U.S. troops and local militia operated with little oversight; many Mexicans were raped, scalped, or lynched. Ulysses S. Grant, who fought his way to Mexico City as a junior officer, later admitted it was “one of the most unjust” wars in history. Mexico was forced to cede more than half of its previous territorial claims to the United States. In 1854, the United States purchased an additional section of land in what is now southern Arizona and New Mexico, establishing the boundary that endures to this day. Since then, people on both sides have been struggling over how to understand and enforce national space. Nineteenth-century surveyors periodically traced the boundary from the Pacific Ocean through the Sonoran Desert and along the changing course of the Rio Grande. In their wake, they left nothing but scattered piles of rock and the occasional marble monument.

The massive upheaval of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 brought unprecedented attention to the border and inspired renewed anti-Mexican sentiment in the United States. About a million people were killed over ten years of fighting, and many refugees fled to the United States. During a typhus epidemic, Mexicans crossing the boundary were forced to remove their clothes for disinfection and sprayed with kerosene. In 1918, a border skirmish motivated authorities to build a fence dividing the twin cities of Nogales. Other towns soon followed suit. In Texas, hundreds or perhaps thousands of ethnic Mexicans were murdered in the 1910s. As the historian Monica Muñoz Martinez documents in The Injustice Never Leaves You (2018), Texas Rangers and other law enforcement officers discouraged Mexican-Americans from voting, segregated public spaces, and harassed, tortured, and killed with impunity.

In the 1920s and ’30s, intensified border enforcement encouraged Americans to view Mexicans as criminal and inferior. Congress established the Border Patrol in 1924, along with a new system for regulating migration involving visas, fees, and literacy tests. The law banned most migration from Asia and restricted migration from Europe, but its quotas did not apply to the Western Hemisphere; nonetheless, Mexican farmworkers became targets. White supremacists, including former police officers and Texas Rangers, joined the Border Patrol, creating what Grandin terms “a vanguard of race vigilantism.” A 1929 law made it a crime to enter the United States outside official ports of entry, giving authorities a new reason to pursue Mexicans. According to Kelly Lytle Hernández, U.S. attorneys prosecuted more than 44,000 people for unlawful entry in the 1930s. They set a precedent for the Trump administration’s efforts to increase such prosecutions and disqualify migrants who might have legitimate claims for asylum.

Paradoxically, as border enforcement and racism increased, Mexico became an indispensable source of labor for the United States. Between 1942 and 1964, about 4.6 million contracts were signed by Mexican migrants entering the United States legally as short-term workers under the Bracero Program. U.S. and Mexican authorities cooperated to regulate migration and deport unauthorized workers. U.S. officials also put up a 5.8-mile-long chain-link fence in Calexico, California, using leftover wire from a Japanese-American internment camp. Bracero workers had few rights, and undocumented migrants even fewer. One sugar planter told a journalist, “We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them.” After the program ended and a 1965 immigration law began applying immigration quotas to the Western Hemisphere, most Mexican migrants were undocumented and increasingly vulnerable to racist violence. In the late 1970s, for example, the Ku Klux Klan organized vigilante border patrols in California and Texas.

As the U.S. government spent more money on the border in the 1980s and ’90s, it made migration more dangerous. In a practice that the political scientist Victoria Hattam terms “imperial recycling,” military aircraft landing mats from the era of the Vietnam War were repurposed to build steel barriers along the California border. Authorities stepped up enforcement in cities, forcing many border-crossers to rely on traffickers and cross in less-patrolled areas, where they risked being robbed or dying of dehydration or exposure. Some unsupervised Border Patrol agents tortured migrants, or separated children from their parents until the parents admitted to entering unlawfully. Mothers, one agent observed, “would always break.” In Undocumented Lives (2018), the historian Ana Raquel Minian argues that U.S. policies made it harder for Mexicans to come and go regularly, and unintentionally convinced many people to remain permanently in the United States.

Enforcement continued to fuel negative stereotypes about Mexicans. In 1994, California voters passed Proposition 187, a ballot initiative banning undocumented residents from using state services that was later overturned by a federal court. Governor Pete Wilson ran race-baiting TV ads featuring blurry footage supplied by the Border Patrol of Mexicans charging across the boundary. In 2005, a vigilante group known as the Minuteman Project pledged to institute “a citizens’ neighborhood watch” along the border and reportedly attracted tens of thousands of adherents; many eventually joined the Tea Party movement. Since the 2008 recession, more Mexicans have left the United States than entered. Meanwhile, surging drug-related violence in Mexico inspired new racist tropes about criminality, which were also applied to Central American migrants arriving in greater numbers.

Donald Trump’s campaign made the most of these tropes. At a major rally in Phoenix in 2015, he was introduced by the local sheriff, Joe Arpaio, who was notorious for arranging workplace raids and traffic stops to target potentially undocumented Arizonans. “We can’t be great if we don’t have a border,” Trump declared. In 2017, Arpaio was convicted of contempt for ignoring a court order to stop racial profiling, but Trump swiftly pardoned him. When news broke that the Trump administration was separating children of asylum-seekers from their families, Arpaio feigned surprise at the public’s concern: “We arrest so many people and take them away from the kids, so I don’t know why we’re concentrating so much about the border issue.”

It is tempting to write off Trump’s wall as a distraction or another pork-barrel project we may soon forget. As Janet Napolitano, then governor of Arizona, observed in 2005 during debates that led to the construction of about 700 miles of border fencing, “You show me a fifty-foot wall, and I’ll show you a fifty-one-foot ladder. . . . That’s the way the border works.” When Trump partially closed the federal government in December 2018, some commentators wondered if Democratic leaders should just let him have his wall, so that others could return to the business of governing. The problem with that line of reasoning is that, as Grandin astutely observes, “the point isn’t to actually build ‘the wall’ but to constantly announce the building of the wall.” According to former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg, the image of a wall was supposed to help the real estate magnate remember to talk about immigration on the campaign trail. It became an inexhaustible source of nativist rhetoric.

The $5.7 billion that Trump demanded during the shutdown would not have been enough to construct any kind of barrier from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Even after the administration declared a national emergency, diverted defense funds, and began awarding construction contracts, the goal was still not to build a wall. Rather, the impossibility of the task is what makes for such compelling politics. The unfinished wall threatens to become as powerful a symbol today as the vanishing frontier was for earlier generations. As Grandin points out, Trump found “a way to acknowledge capitalism’s limits, its pain, without having to challenge capitalism’s terms.” The wall, he writes, “offers its own illusions, a mystification that simultaneously recognizes and refuses limits.” Polls suggest that a majority of Americans oppose the wall, but Trump’s myth continues to empower and sanction extremism.

Frontier history helps explain how we ended up in this predicament, and also offers reasons for hope. From its founding through Turner’s era and up to the present day, the United States has always been American, in the broadest sense of the term. Like the other nations in the Western Hemisphere, the United States is a product of five centuries of conquest and cultural mixing. To be American is to reckon with this legacy, and Americans have never spoken with a single voice. One of the only heroes in Grandin’s book is Martin Luther King Jr., who “used the idea of the frontier to put forward . . . an alternative vision of American history and morality.” In a controversial speech in 1967, King proclaimed, “The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.” Militarism was impeding the war on poverty at home by “draw[ing] men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.”

King was assassinated exactly a year after that speech, but his voice rang on, albeit not loudly enough to drown out other ideas about the frontier. The United States became progressively more diverse in demographic terms, and also more polyphonic. For example, the theorist Gloria Anzaldúa wrote movingly of her identity as a bilingual, mixed-race, lesbian feminist in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987). The book had an enormous influence on Latinx artists, writers, activists, and scholars. She described la frontera (the Spanish word for both frontier and border) as a burden and a blessing, an “open wound” and the source of her unique voice. “To survive the Borderlands,” she suggested, “you must live sin fronteras / be a crossroads.”

In 1994, when NAFTA went into effect, lowering barriers for goods and capital but not people, the Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko responded with a poignant essay for The Nation about her encounters with the Border Patrol. While agents harassed U.S. citizens and federal contractors put up new barriers along the boundary, enterprising locals were tearing holes in fences and charging people to cross. Like Anzaldúa, Silko grew up on the U.S. side of the border but felt connected to the increasing numbers of indigenous people traveling from Central America and southern Mexico to the United States. “It is no use,” she concluded; “borders haven’t worked, and they won’t work, not now, as the indigenous people of the Americas reassert their kinship and solidarity with one another. . . . The Americas are Indian country, and the ‘Indian problem’ is not about to go away.”

These poetic insights have concrete political implications. Anti-immigrant rhetoric drew voters to the polls in 1994, but immigrant-rights groups in California learned from their electoral loss. Local activists helped more than a million people become citizens and register to vote, and lobbied Democratic politicians to reconsider their positions on immigration. California became more reliably blue. The historian Nicole Hemmer argues that Trump’s victory could inspire a similar phenomenon on a national scale, if the Democratic Party recognizes that “demography is not destiny,” prioritizes local organizing, pays attention to local concerns, and commits itself to “building a broader coalition.” The 2018 midterms offered some evidence that such a course might be possible. For his part, Grandin warns that “coming generations will face a stark choice . . . between barbarism and socialism, or at least social democracy.”

After the 2016 election, the Mexican artist Enrique Chiu began painting “a mural of brotherhood” along the Mexican side of existing border barriers. Chiu’s murals feature vibrant images, symbols of peace, and simple messages like “walls do not always divide; sometimes they unite friends.” Volunteers from the United States and across the world have been helping Chiu paint, endorsing his dream of a mundo sin fronteras. It looks almost like the beginning of a new American myth.

Christine Mathias teaches Latin American History at King’s College London.

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