The frontier is central to American mythology, as anyone who’s ever seen a Western knows.
For historian Greg Grandin, the story of the frontier is more like Cormac McCarthy’s macabre anti-Western novel Blood Meridian.
He tells the history of the racist, expansionist settler colonialism that dispossessed and exterminated Native Americans, enslaved millions of Africans, and conquered half of Mexico.
Grandin shows that “the country’s founding paradox—the promise of political freedom and the reality of racial subjugation” remains.
From the 1890s onwards it was expressed in pursuing “the overseas frontier”—first establishing dominance of the Western Hemisphere, then projecting US power globally in the twentieth century.
As the US became the dominant capitalist power, the rhetoric of liberal expansionism soared.
But the actual US border with Mexico became the subject of “an obsession with fortification against what’s outside” that “is symptomatic of trouble inside”.
Grandin shows how US economic domination of Mexico has sent great numbers of migrants north of the border.
The 1924 Immigration Act clamped down migration from Europe and Asia. This “reinforced Mexico’s importance as a source of cheap labour”.
But “it created an agency—the US Border Patrol—that institutionalised a virulent form of nativism”.
Grandin argues that America’s imperial wars projected the racism outwards. But defeat, from Vietnam to Iraq, has increasingly turned the racist violence back inwards. Far right agitation and outright vigilantism concentrated on the border.
Donald Trump gave these forces what they wanted by promising the border wall. But this also marked the end of the ideology of the frontier.
Grandin concludes by invoking “the choice between barbarism and socialism”, though he somewhat spoils this by adding “or at least social democracy”.