From a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a new and eye-opening interpretation of the meaning of the frontier, from early westward expansion to Trump’s border wall.
Ever since this nation’s inception, the idea of an open and ever-expanding frontier has been central to American identity. Symbolizing a future of endless promise, it was the foundation of the United States’ belief in itself as an exceptional nation—democratic, individualistic, forward-looking. Today, though, America hasa new symbol: the border wall.
In The End of the Myth, acclaimed historian Greg Grandin explores the meaning of the frontier throughout the full sweep of U.S. history—from the American Revolution to the War of 1898, the New Deal to the election of 2016. For centuries, he shows, America’s constant expansion—fighting wars and opening markets—served as a “gate of escape,” helping to deflect domestic political and economic conflicts outward. But this deflection meant that the country’s problems, from racism to inequality, were never confronted directly. And now, the combined catastrophe of the 2008 financial meltdown and our unwinnable wars in the Middle East have slammed this gate shut, bringing political passions that had long been directed elsewhere back home.
It is this new reality, Grandin says, that explains the rise of reactionary populism and racist nationalism, the extreme anger and polarization that catapulted Trump to the presidency. The border wall may or may not be built, but it will survive as a rallying point, an allegorical tombstone marking the end of American exceptionalism.
As New York University historian Grandin observes, President Trump's aim of building a wall along the American border with Mexico breaks the nation's tradition of "fleeing forward" to a supposedly ever-expanding frontier, in the hope of "avoid a true reckoning with its social problems." He recounts that, in the 1760s, the British Crown's refusal to allow white settlers to move across the Appalachian Mountains became one of the many grievances that sparked the American Revolution. As the U.S. became ever more industrial and capitalist, the supposedly empty lands to the west promised prosperity and freedom for poor white men and expansionary opportunities for the sons of Southern planters, as well as new uses for surplus slaves. In the wake of the Civil War, white Americans could look westward to rejuvenate the nation, and some African-Americans created new lives in all-black farming communities isolated from the threat of racism. To Grandin, Trump's rhetoric about physically closing the southern border symbolizes the end of centuries of belief that ongoing geographical or trade-based expansion will ensure resources are plentiful enough that "everyone can be free"; without that mind-set, he argues, there's nowhere in the U.S. for Americans to go to escape the country's internal problems. This is a deeply polemical work, and should be read as such, but it offers a provocative historical exploration of a contentious current issue.