“This Storm is What We Call Progress:” The End of the Frontier and American Empire

Armed militia member patrols US-Mexico Border. Photo Credit: Johnny Milano, Al Jazeera America.

The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America
by Greg Grandin
Metropolitan Books, 369 pp., $30.00

How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States
by Daniel Immerwahr
Picador, 515 pp., $30.00

In his latest book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, historian Greg Grandin describes the life of Harlon Carter in one of the book’s most memorable and illuminating passages: born in 1931, the son of a US border patrol agent in Loredo, Texas, Carter shot and killed fifteen-year-old Mexican American Ramón Casiano for “talking back” to him. Following in his father’s footsteps, Carter became one of the most notorious directors of the US border patrol, overseeing Operation Wetback during the 1950’s. During the operation, Carter transformed the border patrol into an “army” committed to an “all-out war to hurl tens of thousands of Mexican wetbacks back into Mexico.” A member of the still politically nascent National Rifle Association (NRA) when he murdered Casiano, Carter remained a high-ranking NRA member throughout his career in border patrol. In 1977 Carter led, what has since been described as, an extremist coup against the moderate leadership of the NRA, transforming the organization into one of the most formidable institutions of the New Right, a safe haven for, what Grandin calls, “individual-rights absolutism.” Grandin finishes the passage with a through-line to today: in 2015, it was a border agent that invited then-candidate Donald Trump to tour the Loredo port of entry, just days after the future president announced his candidacy, famously calling Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers. 

The purpose of the passage is to illustrate how the frontier has shaped the American identity since its creation, how the ritualistic killing, domination, and enslavement of Native Americans, Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Filipinos, African Americans, and others has always been the essence of “American Exceptionalism.” This brand of American Exceptionalism holds that American freedom is, and always has been, premised on the unfreedom of people of color. In a somber, lyrical, and quotation-rich 276 pages, Grandin argues that American history is actually the history of the frontier, a place where, instead of confronting its own internal struggles and contradictions, America could hurl itself forward, unencumbered by the forces of history that it saw itself immune to. From the first European settlement of the New World to the presidency of Donald Trump, Grandin illustrates how the myth of endless space (land, markets, and new ideological frontiers) allowed the United States to continually reinvent itself, a perpetual American Revolution that espoused liberty, individualism, and, most importantly, freedom from restraint and responsibility. Grandin quotes the former editor of Life magazine, John Knox Jessup: “Where Europe’s ‘vertical man’ gets bogged down in elaborating  doctrine and reciting creeds, in arguing existentialism in Parisian cafes, the American treks across the plains and climbs the mountains unburdened by abstractions.”

The frontier, in addition to its utility in the perpetual reinvention and rejuvenation of the country’s consciousness, also served as a safety-valve for the undercurrent of extremism and white supremacy that boils not too deeply beneath the surface of that same consciousness. Using Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s metaphor, Grandin describes America’s wars as “demonic suction tubes” that have redirected violence, toxic masculinity, and destructive individualism outward onto the frontiers in the American West, Mexico, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Central America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. It is no coincidence, then, as Grandin describes, that after the defeat of the Confederacy, wherever the U.S. waged war the Confederate battle flag was hoisted up by Southern American soldiers reenacting their violent, white supremacist Lost Cause on people of color all over the world. Grandin asserts an even deeper historical through-line between America’s settler colonial past and the wars of its future. Grandin quotes Vietnam War historian Richard Drinnon: “It was as if Cowboys and Indians were the only game American invaders knew.”

Where The End of the Myth offers a unifying argument explaining the subliminal need for American expansionism, Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States sets the historical record straight with its corrective history of American empire. The two books are perfect complements of one another, demanding to be read in sequence. 

In How to Hide an Empire, Immerwahr, in a brisk, riveting, shocking, and often humorous 401 pages, sets out to correct the myth that the United States, the most powerful country the world has ever known, was never an empire. Rather than using the term in a pejorative sense, Immerwahr seeks instead to give a voice to those who are written out of most American history books: the nearly 19 million American subjects that lived in overseas possessions from the Philippines to the Panama Canal Zone from the Spanish-American War to the Second World War. If you lived in the United States at the dawn of the Second World War, Immerwahr points out, there is a one in eight chance that you did not live in the continental United States. The fact is lost on most that, during the Second World War, sixteen million Filipino American nationals fell under the rule of Imperial Japan, and that over one million were killed during its liberation by American forces. Immerwahr slams the point home by recounting the meeting of a mainland American soldier who fought to liberate the Philippines and a young, Filipino subject named Oscar Villadolid: “A GI came down his street handing out cigarettes and Hershey bars. Speaking slowly, he asked Villadolid’s name. When Villadolid replied easily in English the soldier was startled. ‘How’d ya learn to speak American?’ he asked… He thought he was invading a foreign country.”

Both Grandin and Immerwahr describe America’s continued expansion, even after the country drew its borders, relinquished most of its overseas colonial possessions, and brought Hawaii and Alaska into the Union. For Grandin, (other than a period in the 1930’s when the architects of the New Deal declared it was finally time to end American dependence on the frontier and focus its efforts on fixing social issues at home) post-war, liberal multilateralism and the Cold War offered both new economic and civilizational frontiers on which the United States could continue to hurl itself forward. For Immerwahr, he describes the post-war American empire as “pointillist”, in that it was no longer necessary for the US to maintain dominance with large swathes of territory over the world. “Rather,” Immerwahr writes, “it reshuffled its imperial portfolio, divesting itself of large colonies and investing in military bases, tiny specks of semi-sovereignty strewn around the globe.” A concept all understand and most accept, this American-underwritten system of security treaties and free trade came to be known as the post-war liberal order. What all seem to recognize today, however, is the unraveling of that American-led order. 

With the rise of Trump and his promise to build a border wall, Grandin argues that the frontier has been abruptly slammed shut. The 2008 economic crash, the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and rampant economic inequality has led America into the arms of Donald Trump. Declaring the American Dream to be dead, Trump has embodied what Grandin describes as a “race realism”, a belief that “there’s not enough to go around; the global economy will have winners and losers; not all can sit at the table; and government policies should be organized around accepting these truths.” The Wall, therefore, is a “monument to disenchantment, to a kind of brutal geopolitical realism.” Where Grandin writes that the frontier represented a perennial rebirth, the eight border wall prototypes once displayed in the Otay Mesa “loom[ed] like tombstones.” It is no coincidence, then, that while Donald Trump decries and denigrates nearly everything about the so-called liberal, post-war order, his foremost target is the border. For the border, according to Grandin, is no longer a frontier that beckons to be crossed, but a line in the desert on which a fortress must be built. Today, the border has come to attract what foreign wars used to: the white supremacist, hyper-masculine American id. Grandin, speaking about the multiple vigilante groups bent on stopping immigration into the U.S., describes the groups as:

“filled with younger, angrier men than its earlier version… intent on stopping ‘fucking
beaners,’ obsessed equally with ISIS, Central American gangs, Mexican cartels, and Black Lives Matter. Most have done multiple stints in Afghanistan and Iraq. ‘For me, it is therapeutic to come down here and join my fellow veterans,’ said one veteran… Guarding the border, he told a journalist, helps make ‘new memories.’”

Published in 2019, Grandin makes no mention of the state of the country in 2020: walloped by the preventable spread of a novel coronavirus and beset by national protests that began as a response to police brutality against African Americans, but have since morphed into a collective rage against the injustices felt by ordinary Americans. In the Trump administration’s response to these crises, however, Grandin’s prediction is uncanny: with the frontier both literally and psychologically closed (Americans, in large part, are not allowed to travel), extremism is directed inward, onto the American people. Instead of addressing protestors’ concerns, instead of reforming a broken health-care system, instead of confronting a neglected American homeland, this administration has downplayed and spread misinformation about the virus and attempted to crush protest movements with violent displays of federal force. 

Today, we are witnessing the most visceral and concentrated example of reactionary extremism turned inward on the American people. But Trumpism, while not different altogether than other forms of conservative extremism, is the first such cruelty that seems utterly nihilistic. As Grandin points out, Ronald Reagan inherited a very similar America to Donald Trump: a crushing loss in Vietnam and a dense malaise that tinged the aura of every American, the realization that the United States is not exceptional, that the forces of history catch up with everyone. Reagan, however, still had a Cold War to fight. Re-sanctifying American foreign malfeasance, Reagan harnessed the discontent of America and redirected it onto new frontiers like Afghanistan and Central and South America, finding new mountains to climb and limits to transcend in the purported name of American freedom. 

Donald Trump is not Ronald Reagan. As Grandin writes, Reagan “transformed that negativity into positive imagery, into an ideological realignment that reclaimed weightlessness, limitlessness, and deathlessness as American virtues.” Trumpism, on the other hand, doubles-down on what writer Philip Roth has dubbed, the “indigenous American berserk”, the violent id of the American consciousness, always lurking beneath the surface, demanding to be let loose.[i] As Grandin points out, Trump has created a new frontier, one that marks its boundaries not in individualism or liberalism or freedom, but cruelty. Pushing the limits has always been a hallmark of Trumpism: separating migrant families, putting children in cages, pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord and opening once protected federal land for oil drilling. Correct in recognizing a world of limits and scarcity, but rather than following the lead of the New Dealers and acting as a responsible steward in the service of, at bare, the American people, Trump has chosen to dominate what remains in an world that is increasingly Hobbesian in appearance. 

Like Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of Klee’s Angelus Novus, America finds itself in the midst of a storm, wreckage piled at its feet, arranged by the winds of history that catch up to every nation. But, as Benjamin points out, “[t]his storm is what we call progress.”[ii] Both Grandin and Immerwahr conclude that for things to change, to find ourselves on the righteous path, it’s necessary to admit a couple things: for Immerwahr, that the history of the United States is a history of empire, and until that admission is made, malicious American Exceptionalism will continue to fog our vision; for Grandin, that the fundamental ethos of America, opportunity for endless expansion, rejuvenation and reinvention on an ever-receding frontier, has blinded us to the fact that we are not exempt from the forces of history. Once we recognize these painful truths, we, as a nation, may be able to form that elusive More Perfect Union. Is that not the frontier we should be striving for?

Bibliography

[i] Philip Roth, American Pastoral (New York, NY: Literary Classics of the United States, 2011), 82.

[ii] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (London: Fontana/Colins, 1973), 255-266.

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