NOTE: The injustices being racketed up at the southern border are egregious—but they are by no means new. They embody, as I relate in this review of Greg Grandin’s marvelous history The End of the Myth, the death of America’s founding premise—the idea of the frontier. Responsible journalism, especially when undertaken on a global scale, requires understanding the coalescence of various broader historical phenomena and how they engender suffering, human and environmental. To understand why kids are being held in cages, why American paramilitaries are emerging, we have to understand their historical precedents. We must dive into the injustices of the past to if we ever wish call out, and ultimate stop, those taking place in the present.
The video depicts a huddled mass of migrants, quiet, exhausted, several hundred in number, their eyes squinting dimly in the bright light of the camera. They squat in the creosote, heads bowed in defeat, coughing and shivering in the cold. All around them, men in green fatigues bearing AR-15s and thigh-strapped pistols saunter the group’s perimeter, examining the migrants with cold glances of suspicion and shouting the occasional command in poorly pronounced Spanish.
“How bad will we let it get,” a concerned female voice muses, “before we actually build the wall?”
Midway through the video, the crowd is ushered downhill at gunpoint to a cluster of Border Patrol vehicles. After the video cuts off, they’ll be shuttled to detention centers, locked in cages, and detained interminably before being ejected back into the cartel-dominated no-man’s-land of northern Mexico. They’ll have little protection once they’re dropped there, with no means of getting home nor knowledge of the whereabouts of their parents or children.
They’d traveled thousands of miles to escape the societies laid waste to by US militarism. They’d survived the trains and taken the buses and avoided Los Zetas and Maras. But in the end, it was a right-wing militia named the United Constitutional Patriots, not a criminal gang, that stymied their shot at the American dream.
The specter of the Wall has become a lightning rod in the American imagination. The Wall: to say those two words alone can send almost any given American into a state of agitation, regardless of whether they support its construction. But the invocation of the Border Wall and all the injustices it conjures—including border paramilitarism—is symptomatic of a rift far deeper than Trump. It’s a change that transcends the tweets, one that can be traced back not to a single era or President but into the DNA of America itself. The Border Wall, as Greg Grandin contests in his intellectual history The End of the Myth, represents nothing less than the implosion of America’s founding myth—the idea of the Frontier.
For most people, the word “Frontier” evokes a period of 19th-century expansion whose sepia-tinted imagery—cowboys advancing through warm western plains, trains chugging towards the Pacific—represents the quintessence of the American ideal. But underlying that period of expansion, and directing all American history since then, was the ideaof the Frontier: that of unlimited growth, of endlessness, and the notion that, with the United States driving that growth, the whole world could rejoice in a feast of economic infinitude.
From the beginning, that idea was farcical. The ugly reality hidden by the frontier, even in its heyday, was that geographic expansion functioned as a “safety-valve” preventing social discontent from boiling into Revolution while dispatching the ugliest strains of racist violence to the fringes.
But the power of the “Frontier Myth,” as Grandin terms it—canonized in countless songs, books, and movies—was so great that when the United States turned into a global imperial power, between 1898 and 1945, it took the frontier mindset with it. The world would become our frontier, but everyone would benefit from that.
The apogee of Donald Trump is a direct rebuttal to that myth. Much about his Presidency suggests economic exclusion and limitedness: his invocations of a Wall, his paranoid calls to fend off the immigrant “invasion.” Perhaps more than any President, Trump represents the unsavory reality traditionally hidden behind the smokescreen of frontier myth. His Presidency might not augur a radical change in American foreign policy. But the curtain he’s pulled back has been pulled back permanently—less because of what it says about him, but more what it says about us as a nation.
Expansion runs deep in American history. One might instinctively pin the seed of this expansionist impulse to the now-infamous 1845 editorial, penned by John O’Sullivan, that proclaimed the United States’ “Manifest Destiny” was to “overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us.” Yet American expansionism, in fact, had its genesis the colonial era, when land-hungry European settlers battled for the right to move westward into Indian land, to the chagrin of the British colonial administrators, who in exchange for support in wars against the French promised the natives guaranteed respect for their territorial sovereignty.
The irony would be comical if it didn’t harm so many innocents: that a country notorious for committing injustices on the basis of sealing its border was established, in part, because its founding fathers couldn’t cross a border. Among the many grievances laid forth by the colonists to justify their Revolution, one was that, under the Royal Proclamation of 1763, they were forbade by their British administrators from crossing the line they’d established along the spine of the Appalachians, demarcating the eastern border of Indian territory. The treaty, like many that succeeded it, proved flimsy. The settlers desire to occupy the forests west of the Appalachians and Alleghenies grew so deep that they became willing to kill Londoners as much as they would natives for it. Post-war accords with the Indians were also pointless. Presaging later betrayals against Native Americans, George Washington—ever the exemplar of respectable American statesmanship—wrote that he could “never look upon the that proclamation in any other light (but this I say between ourselves) than as a temporary expedient to quiet the minds of the Indians.”
Thomas Jefferson was pointed in his insistence upon people’s right to cross borders, writing it was man’s right to leave his country “in quest of new lives.”
“The ability to migrate,” Grandin writes of Jefferson’s philosophy, “wasn’t just an exercise of natural rights but the source of rights, or at least their historically necessary conditions. Liberty was made possible by the right to colonize.”
With the Treaty of Paris, the Revolution opened the floodgates for a wave of migrants whose self-anointed quest was to hack through and then civilize the wilderness. The only obstacle were the millions of Indians who happened to live there—a dilemma soon resolved, as we now know, with no small amount of blood.
Violence had always been intertwined with the frontier mythology. It’s as much a part of the American story as are cowboys and colts, locomotives and Model T’s. In American literature—unlike Canada, or any other nation for that matter—violence has been traditionally depicted as a regenerative force, one which, when wielded, can both purify us and make us reborn. The bloodline runs straight through American historical narratives, connecting the hardened cowboy who’s redeemed by killing Indians with the platoon of soldiers who resolve their differences by killing “gooks.”
The Paxton Boys came from a family of Scots-Irishmen who moved to west Pennsylvania in the early 1760s, when the Proclamation of 1763 was already inflaming murderous passions among newly-arrived white settlers. Previewing the strain of rugged individualist conservatism embodied by the Bundy Brothers two and a half centuries later—when, after denouncing Obama’s “War on Ranchers” in 2015, the Utah cowboys led an armed occupation of a federal government building in Oregon—the Paxton Boys felt that granting such concessions to the natives subsidized the indolence of dark people at the expense of hardworking whites. Why, people like the Paxton Boys asked, should settlers be held back when the Indians did nothing to civilize the frontier? Frustrated with perceived government betrayal and infuriated by the presence of the Indians, men like the Paxton Boys took up arms.
They went on an Indian-killing rampage in 1763, “murdering scores of Conestoga (natives), scalping their victims and mutilating their corpses.” Another frontiersman who engaged in similar forms of violence, Frederick Stump, gained notoriety in the same period for adopting the same guerrilla tactics of the Indians he so hunted down, a practice that earned him the moniker of “Indian Killer.”
Despite their private distaste over the wonton killings of Indians, American leaders depended on the frontiersmen. They cleaved open new resource markets and pushed the country westward. And they cleared new western lands that could be occupied by the lower classes, preventing social discontent from hitting a boiling point and providing an alternative to Revolution. The relationship between effete coastal elites and the trigger happy frontiersmen would be tenuous and ultimately temporary, overturned when the hero of the frontiersmen himself, Andrew Jackson, ascended to the presidency in 1829.
The election of Jackson was a watershed in American history. Not only were dirty practices like forced displacement of Indians elevated from unspoken strategy to official policy. The replacement of the aristocrat with the dust-caked pioneer, who once did the aristocrat’s bidding, augured the birth of a new kind of American democracy, one that dovetailed perfectly with the project of frontier expansion.
The Frontier myth of limitless expansion was rooted in the Jacksonian ideal of freedom, which saw liberty as freedom from government restraint—that is, the freedom to steal, to enslave, to murder. As Jacksonians had it, the allocation of voting rights to illiterate white men was the final necessary expansion of the federal governments power, and any further expansion of rights would disturb that equilibrium by opening government up to the tyranny of various “corrupting influences”—women, blacks, Indians, etc. Once the political representation and agency of white men was ensured, government functioned best when it did nothing, giving white men, particularly slave-owners, free reign to act as they pleased.
There’s a famous anecdote about “Old Hickory,” as Jackson was referred to, that offers a window of clarity into the future President’s sensibility.
In the winter of 1811, Jackson had been driving a coffle of slaves (the only president known to have done so) along the Natchez Trace, a trail through an Indian-territory wilderness in modern-day Mississippi, when he was stopped by a federal agent. In those days, following the official abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, agents were charged not only with hunting down runaways but ensuring that all the human fodder borne by men like Jackson were bona fide—that is, not imported illegally from Africa. When asked for his papers to prove ownership of his slaves, Jackson famously responded by withdrawing his copy of the Constitution— These are General Jackson’s papers! the legend has him saying—and insisting that his constitutional right as a white slaveholder was the ability to take his slaves anywhere he wanted, regardless of government regulations and borders. To have that right as a white man questioned, especially in front of his slaves, represented the highest form of government tyranny.
“Here on a frontier back road more than half a century before the Civil War,” Grandin writes of the encounter, “two different, racialized definitions of sovereign liberty faced off against each other. The first, represented by Jackson, imagined ‘free born’ to mean white born and ‘liberty’ to mean the ability to do whatever they wanted, including to buy and sell humans and move them, unrestrained by interior frontiers, across a road that by treaty belonged to an indigenous nation. To be asked for a passport was akin to slavery itself, and to be so asked in front of actual enslaved people signaled ‘that their owners were not the sovereigns after all.’ The second, embodied by (the federal agent), authorized federal authorities to take action to provide minimal protection to the subjugated and vanquished victims of the ‘free born.’”
It was Jackson’s violent philosophy of freedom that became ascendant after he was elected president. This philosophy of freedom—of freedom of restraint from the government, the freedom to subjugate and kill—would continue rearing its head as the idea of the frontier began snowballing into the 19thand 20thcenturies. The kind of frontier expansion revolutionized by Jackson would be previewed in early 1830, when Jackson “mandated federal troops to push Native Americans beyond the Mississippi and extinguish their titles to their land.” Asides from the Seminoles, who waged a protracted guerrilla war against the government, millions of Indians would be forced westward down the Trail of Tears, opening their now abandoned homelands to the “irresistible tide of Caucasian democracy.”
“Jacksonian settlers moved across the frontier,” he writes, “continuing to win a greater liberty by putting down people of color, and then continuing to define their liberty in opposition to the people of color they put down.”
But the biblical exodus, after all, was only the beginning of the frontier drama. The wars with the plains tribes were still decades off, and the invasion of Mexico hadn’t even started.
The frontier was a safety valve. Originally conceived as a device to prevent explosions on ships by releasing the excess air pressure accumulated in steam engines, it makes sense that the Safety Valve became the defining metaphor of the Frontier. Deflecting America’s problems westwards, preventing the disaffected masses from demanding social reform by sending them to newly cleared Indian territories, the frontier functioned as a utopian fix-it-all, a panacea which kept America suspended in a state of eternal youth, immune to the corrosions that’d brought down all other empires in history.
“The great safety-valve of our population,” was how Massachusetts congressmen Caleb Cushing described the frontier in an 1839 Fourth of July Speech, saying that it averted the dangers of “poverty, and discontent, and consequent disorders,” acting as the “only safety-valve for the whole Union.”
Congressmen from both the North and South, the majority of whom believed government interventions to defend minorities and the poor to be a form of tyranny, agreed that solving America’s racial and class tensions within the limits of its border was untenable, as doing so would involve the government-intervention to which they were so hostile. To defuse those pressures before they exploded (as the former eventually would in the Civil War) meant keeping the frontier open.
For Grandin, there were two eras when Americans tried to close the frontier “safety valve,” trying to resolve the nation’s internal contradictions instead of dismissing discontent with the promise of expansion.
One was Reconstruction, when the Freedmen’s Bureau sought to create social and political equality in the post-Civil War South by using government economic interventions to elevate poor blacks and whites (as opposed to insisting that blacks simply move westward to fix their problems). The second was the New Deal, when similar, reformist interventions under FDR sought to reign in the laissez-faire capitalism that imploded with the Great Depression, rejecting the endless prosperity that was promised, but never delivered, by the free-market’s invisible hand.
Both these eras of reform were anathema to Jacksonian notions of democracy—of individualistic white supremacism and absolute minimum government. Both eras, in turn, faced accusations that, by turning inwards, helping minorities and the poor with government social reform, rather than outwards, with the promise of expansion, they were “limiting the American dream” and capitulating to the tyrannical laziness of dark people.
In a poetic historical juxtaposition, Grandin takes us back to 1848, when there were two very different reactions to class tensions on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
For Europe, 1848 was a year of Revolutions: the disaffected masses, consigned to misery under industrial capitalism, took to the streets in open revolt, with sooty-faced workers erecting barricades and raising red flags in Vienna, Milan, Amsterdam and Prague. It was a war, Grandin writes, “of those who possessed nothing against those who possessed everything” Those revolutions failed. But they forced European countries, whose limited geography prevented them from deflecting their problems elsewhere, down a path of reform which would lead to the creation of the first welfare states and the rise of social democracy.
For America, 1848 represented not a reform of industrial capitalism, like the geographically limited European countries, but a deflection of social discontent outwards, with rage that might have been leveled against capitalism instead channeled westward into a racist invasion of Mexico. In this prescient episode, the promise of territorial and economic growth—in this case, the conquering and annexation of northern Mexico—served as a distraction that effectively neutralized potential resistance to capitalism and inequality at home.
The safety valve was already working its wonders.
“The United States too had crowded cities and hungry workers…” Grandin writes, “But instead of waging class war upward—on aristocrats and owners—they waged race war outward, on the frontier. ‘Prenticeboys didn’t head to the barricades to fight the gentry but rather joined with the gentry to go west and fight Indians and Mexicans.”
The Mexican-American War—a period of history usually forgotten except when referenced as a prelude to the Civil War—was noted for the levels of sadism and savagery it saw inflicted on Mexican civilians, especially at the hands of volunteer militiamen. The conflict—which, for some, was about the expansion of slavery, but which promised the annexation of Mexican territory for all— had begun in early 1846, when US troops crossed the Nueces River in Texas to provoke a Mexican counterattack, giving the federal government a usable pretext to authorize a large-scale invasion. (Almost all acts of aggression, as has been pointed out, are carried out in the name of “self-defense”). It was a bloody, protracted war, lasting far longer than anyone expected. But US forces made it to Mexico City by September, 1847, and by February of the next year, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo allocated nearly the entire northern half of Mexico into US control. To execute the war, the hawks directing it from Washington strategically “placed their most restless and desperate citizens upon the throat of Mexico,” citizens who would commit “depredations and atrocities on the Mexican people, motivated in large measure by bitter racism and anti-Catholicism among American troops.” One US officer wrote that the crimes committed by troops advancing south to Mexico City were so atrocious that they would “make heaven weep, and every American of Christian morals blush for his country. Murder, robbery and rape on mothers and daughters, in the presence of the tied up males of the families, have been common all along the Rio Grande.” He wrote of a scene where Arkansas militiamen, in retaliation for the killing of one of their own, herded a crowd of civilians into cave where they were promptly set on fire, incinerating them. In his memoirs, a young officer by the name of Ulysses S. Grant would later reflect that the invasion was “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”
Like Ahab and the crew of the Pequod, sailing in that prophetic tale of American heroics and hubris, Americans of all stripes united around violent quest of expansion and domination—the whale, this time, being the conquest of Mexico. But unlike the doomed crew of Moby Dick, a hundred and fifty years would still remain before the Pequod of expansion, of frontier and then empire, would eventually start taking on water.
The invasion of Mexico previewed a common denominator that would define one of the two realities hidden by frontier mythology: that outwardly deflected racism, after being sharpened on the battlefields of foreign wars, would ricochet inwards as soldiers returned home.
Domestic politics in the heartland would be injected with newfound racism as veterans returned home from faraway fronts—from the Indian Territories, from the Philippines and Central America, from Vietnam and the Middle East—fresh with memories of clashes in wars that, by and large, were waged against people of color. This repatriated alienation would lay the bedrock for the next series of wars, creating a compounding cycle by which the racism accumulated in one war would pool in the heartlands before pulsating back outwards into the next.
The perfect example of this racism-returning home, according to Grandin, can be seen in the aftermath of Vietnam.
Many (though not all) Vietnam War veterans would return from that conflict in a state of utter disillusionment, convinced that colored people beyond US borders represented little more than criminality, drugs or communism. To them, the federal government—which had given civil rights to blacks while throwing in the towel with Vietnam—would do little to protect white Americans from the dark-skinned hordes. Jackson’s ghost, it seemed, was rearing his head once more, proclaiming that the federal government had overexpanded in all the wrong ways, by expanding civil rights, while reneging on its one true responsibility—to protect the freedom of hardworking whites. In a gesture that would make frontiersmen like the Paxton Boys proud, many veterans in those post-Vietnam drawdown years would create right-wing militias to patrol the US-Mexico border, taking matters into their own hands to prevent the northbound influx of Latino immigrants. Their presence would inflect domestic politics with a newfound xenophobic rhetoric. And the radicalization of domestic politics following the return of many Vietnam veterans would lay the bedrock for Reagan’s conservative revolution, with many members of border militias even enlisting themselves as auxiliaries to the bloody anti-Communist crusades Reagan waged throughout Central America in the 1980s.
Xenophobia developed in the Vietnam War would coagulate in the US for several years, where it radicalized domestic politics with an injection of anti-immigrant rhetoric before ricocheting back out into Central American proxy wars.
“Loss in Vietnam radicalized a generation of veterans,” he writes, “pushing many into the ranks of white supremacist groups. Ronald Reagan, as the standard bearer of an ascendant New Right, effectively tapped into this radicalization, which helped lift him to victory in his 1980 presidential campaign. Once he was in office, Reagan’s re-escalation of the Cold War allowed him to contain the radicalization, preventing it from spilling over (too much) into domestic politics. Anti-communist campaigns in Central America—a region Reagan called ‘our southern frontier’—were especially helpful in focusing militancy outward. But Reagan’s Central American wars (which comprised support for the Contras in Nicaragua and death squads in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) generated millions of refugees, many, perhaps most, of whom fled to the United States. As they came over the border, they inflamed the same constituencies that Reagan had mobilized to wage the wars that had turned them into refugees in the first place. For its part, the White House continued to deflect, venting revanchism outwards (back toward Central America and other places in the third world, including Afghanistan). It was, to say the least, a highly volatile game Reagan and his ‘cowboys’ were playing, one that could only continue as long as the frontier remained open.”
Borderland violence against Latino immigrants spiked sharply in the years following Vietnam. It was especially acute in southern California, where from 1967 to 1975—the period Ronald Reagan was governor of California—vigilantes turned the desert into a shooting gallery, driving “around the backroads of the San Diego area, shooting at Mexicans from the flatbeds of their pickups,” and leaving dozens of unknown bodies scattered across the landscape.
“Anti-migrant violence,” Grandin writes, “was fueled by angry veterans returning from Vietnam, who carried out what they called ‘beaner raids’ to break up migrant camps. Snipers set took aim at Mexicans coming over the border. Led by a twenty-seven-year-old David Duke, the KKK set up a ‘border watch’ in 1977 at California’s San Ysidro point of entry, finding much support among border patrol entries…. Agents (around this time) reported finding pitfall traps, modeled on the punji traps Vietnamese would set for U.S. soldiers, in the swampy Tijuana estuary, an area of the border vigilantes began calling ‘Little ‘Nam.’”
Previewing a historical phenomenon that would begin periodically recurring throughout decades of American history yet to come, Grandin illustrates how, as a corollary to the safety-valve, the growth of expansion with empire allowed for the wielding of racism that would normally be frowned upon at home.
The confederate cause had been discredited in the decades following the South’s surrender. But following the brief experiment of Reconstruction—with Jim Crow-segregation once again reasserting white control over the South—the Spanish-American War started in 1898, inaugurating the era of American imperialism while, in the process, transforming the disgraced name of the Confederacy into the noble “Lost Cause.”
The invasion of Spanish-held Cuba, like the frontier, was perceived by many Americans to be a panacea, a national reconciliation that would mend the decades-old rift between victorious North and embittered South. Southerners would show they were real patriots by fighting along Yankees. Yankees would prove they were good sports by fighting alongside Southerners. But as a part of this reconciliation, the Spanish-American War took the mythology of the Confederacy—romanticized in an already growing oeuvreof racist literature— and incorporated it into a narrative of American global expansion.
Racism that had been frowned upon found its outlet when America converted into an imperial power, dispatching soldiers overseas to suppress nationalist uprisings that invariably entailed killing people of color.
Not only did North and South reconcile themselves amidst a symphony of gunshots in southern Cuba; the neo-Confederates would have an opportunity to wield the same racism that drove their rebel forefathers as they mowed down the brown and black populations of Haiti, Nicaragua, Mexico, Honduras, and the Philippines. The only difference now was that they were doing so in the name of the US’ civilizing, expansionist mission—the logical outgrowth of the frontier myth. By fighting to liberate Cuba and then “civilize” the tropics in the several dozen Banana Wars, discredited confederates could finally prove themselves to be worthy contributors to American foreign projects by wielding their racism on the battlefield.
“The overseas frontier—wars in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Nicaragua, and Haiti—acted as a prism,” Grandin writes, “refracting the color line abroad back home. In each military occupation and prolonged counterinsurgency they fought, southerners could replay the dissonance of the Confederacy again and again. They could within the name of the loftiest ideals—liberty, valor, self-sacrifice, camaraderie—while putting down people of color. The body count in the Caribbean and Pacific was high. U.S. troops killed about fifteen thousand Haitians in battle between 1915 and 1935; tens of thousands of Dominicans between 1916 and 1924; fifty thousand Nicaraguans between 1912 and 1933; and thousands upon thousands of Filipinos between 1898 and 1946. Many more hundreds of thousands from these countries died from disease, famine, and exposure.”
Both the safety-valve and outward deflection of racism defined the history of the frontier, both in its conception in the West and, after 1898, when the US Frontier became Global.
But things have been changing.
The system of US global dominance which emerged in 1945 and consolidated in the 1990s is shaking, with the rise of China’s economic power and the exhaustion of US money in its endless foreign wars. The rise of Donald Trump, who speaks proudly and frankly about the US’ abuses of power, has punctured the mythology of the US, which, as has been established, grew out of the frontier myth. American power, as many perceive it, is on the wane. There is nowhere left to go, no new frontiers to explore and colonize and conquer. We find ourselves living in an increasingly segregated, ecologically unsustainable world. And like many periods of US history, especially in the post-frontier imperial power, what we once sent abroad is ricocheting home.
The girl died from a swollen brain after being detained in a garage by Border Patrol—she was seven years old. The boy, who died several weeks after the girl, had been held for six days by Border Patrol before dying of influenza en route to a hospital—he was eight. The youngest of the five Central American children who’ve died in CBP custody the past six months passed away from pneumonia after his family fled, like all the others, thousands of miles from Guatemala, a country whose terrifying violence and crippling poverty is indebted to the US’ bloody geopolitical ambitions. He was two and a half.
For many, the deaths of migrant children in Border Patrol Custody represents the callous bureaucracy migrants are trapped in when apprehended en route to a better life in America. Injustices have long been carried out in the name of sealing the border—including under Obama, who surpassed all his predecessors in total number of deportations. But Trumpism, with its mass xenophobia bordering on collective sadism (“There’s some bad hombrescoming in!”), has seen an astronomic escalation of those iniquities. Migrants have been held in cages under highway overpasses, denied hygienic supplies and blankets as they wallow in overcrowded, disease-prone facilities. Families torn apart and then thrown alone into the dangers of north Mexico. Children imprisoned in chain-link cages without adequate food, water, blankets or medicine. As Trump rackets up brutality at the border, the deaths of these children—horrific and criminal as it is—adds only another bullet-point to an already massive litany of injustices.
I once walked into the Superstition Mountains in Arizona. Before nine o’clock, only half an hour into the hike and with the sun barely past the horizon, found myself hopelessly dry mouthed. It makes me wonder, then, what it must be like to traverse such a desert for days at a time, with little to no water; and not only that, but to make the trip after having fled thousands of miles from a gang-infested Central America, flirting with lethal dehydration while evading border patrol’s trucks, drones, and mounted officers, as well as—the latest addition—homemade militias. And the only thing more dangerous than the violence and callousness they face at the hands of smugglers and CBP officers is the harshness of the landscape itself: tens of thousands of people have perished in the scorched wastes of the borderlands (that is, at least those whose bodies were found).
There are two historical streams which feed into the river of brutality raging through the US-Mexico border.
The frontier violence running through American history typically has coagulated on the US Mexico border. The Border Patrol itself has historically been a bastion of racism: it was created as a compromise in the 1920s when, after refusing to ban Latino immigration amidst a wave of anti-immigrant reform—Mexican labor was too useful to American farmers, conservative as they may have been—the federal government created the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS, as it was then called) to placate the legions of white supremacists then common along border states. Copious amounts of Klansmen and proud racists flowed into the Border Patrol’s precursor agency, eager to inflict brutality on Latinos in the name of protecting their country’s borders.
“Having lost the national debate when it came to restricting Mexicans, and fearing they were losing the larger struggle in defense of Anglo-Saxonism,” Grandin writes, “white supremacists took control of the newly established US Border Patrol and Turned it into a vanguard of race vigilantism.”
The decades-long history of impunity and lack of attention towards the plight of migrants gave the Border Patrol free reign to indulge various grotesque fantasies upon their detained victims. In the early days, agents would beat, shoot, and hang migrants. (Though this offered little deviation from the anti-Mexican violence, something officers often participated during off-hours. The New York Times wrote in 1922 that “the killing of Mexicans without provocation is so common as to pass almost unnoticed”). Dozens of videos of officers torturing Mexicans were found in the 1980s; the tape of one such video would be replayed over beers as “bonding ritual” to initiate new recruits. Many officers as recently as the 2000s were discovered exchanging prepubescent girls as young as twelve for sexual favors. Many participated off-hours in the vigilante militias, which meted out far more generous helpings of violence than their legally-constricted government counterparts. To this day, many CBP officers refer to Latinos as “bonks”—the “bonk” being the thudding sound produced when a flashlight is whipped against the victim’s skull.
Unlike America’s other rogue agency, the CIA, which during the 1975 Senate Church Committee was publicly shamed for having orchestrated a labyrinth of crimes—assassinations of foreign leaders, overthrow of democratically elected governments—the Border Patrol never had a public reckoning. The Church Committee didn’t stop the CIA’s injustices. But it did draw it into the harsher light of public scrutiny, something which never happened to the Border Patrol. Without any democratic checks and balances, now encouraged by Trump’s xenophobia, the agency functions like a juggernaut, meting out brutality with even less concerns for whether even the most grotesque injustices see the light of day.
Beyond the history of brutality which has characterized the nation’s southern perimeter, the current border crisis has its roots in the feverish paranoia which has gripped Americans in the post-9/11 world.
For millions of people, the world beyond Americas’ borders—seen through the hallucinogenic distortions of right-wing cable news—represents not opportunity but a threatening entropy, brewing storms, chaos. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism and MS-13, the endless Middle Eastern wars, the tide of desperate immigrants—all of it seems to suggest that the barbarians are at the door, and that if we don’t act now we’ll most certainly regret it later. The “we” is key: like the post-Vietnam drawdown, the catastrophic failure of the US government to resolve its wars in the Muslim world has many everyday Americans convinced that it’s incapable of protecting them at home. If the government is incapable of doing so, the responsibility to hold off the dark-skinned hordes of criminals falls on their shoulders. Like any classic frontiersman, they take matters into their own hands. They take up arms. The paramilitary militias mobilizing in the scorched deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas aren’t random occurrences. They’re the logical result of a fifteen paranoid years in which manufactured racism helped convert America’s vision of itself from the world’s hero to its victim. Fearing the worst, the “invasion” and the “white genocide,” the vanguards of American racism hold terrified Central Americans at gunpoint in collusion with equally disdainful Border Patrol: the guardians of the worlds wealthiest country committing violence against the refugees from its poorest.
In the early 1940s, almost a century after John O’Sullivan pronounced that America’s Manifest Destiny was to overspread the continent, Henry Luce, founder of Life magazine, announced it was also its destiny to overspread the world. Famously (now notoriously), he heralded the arrival of what he called “the American century.” Under the system of global capitalism American rule would sustain, all could come to the table of the world’s boundless riches—including blacks, Latinos, the Asians and the poor.
Luce’s wife, Clare Boothe, had a far darker vision of what the capitalist world order had always been—and perhaps, some cynics would argue, a more honest one. Impatient with the naive idealism of men like her husband, Mrs. Luce wrote in an early 1940s letter that the world’s wealth was not endless and that the resource pie fundamentally limited. Out of this limitedness, she said, an explicitly racialized economic order should be constructed in which the Anglo-Saxon races would reap the benefits of the Earth’s few resources from the labor of poor blacks, Latinos and Asians.
“Washington,” Grandin writes of her dark vision, “should work to establish an unabashedly racially divided global order, ensuring that Anglo-Saxons had control of the world’s supply of oil, rubber, iron, tin, coal, cotton, minerals, sugar, and other resources. Luce, who later served as Eisenhower’s ambassador to Brazil and Italy, explicitly linked her realism to the closing of the frontier: the whole globe was ‘divvied up,’ she wrote in 1942, rebuking what she described as her husband’s Pollyannaish belief that all could share in the world’s unlimited bounty in peaceful cooperation. The world had limits, she said, and they had been reached and laid claim to, ‘every last jot and tittle of it, every last acre, stream, and mountain.’”
Mrs. Luce’s rejection of her husband’s “liberal multilateralism”—his vision that, with the US at the wheel, everyone can share in the joy of the world’s riches—and her own contention the world is inherently limited, demanding economic regimentation along racial lines, exemplifies the “race realism” that Grandin says differentiates Trump from almost all the economic and political elites that preceded him.
The bipartisan neoliberals who’ve dominated US politics for the past thirty years—entrenched corporate Republicans and Democrats—maintain a rosy vision of the world. Though checkered with occasional bursts of discontent, the world for them is pregnant with economic opportunity for all, just so long as the IMF can impose free market doctrines and the US can deploy the military as needed.
In that he screws poor countries at the behest of the rich, Trump is no different from his Presidential predecessors.The difference lies in his refusal to do so under any benevolent humanitarian pretense. “Shithole countries,” as he would refer to them, are only good insofar as what we can take from them.
Trump crumpled up the frontier myth—that of growth, expansion, endless opportunity—threw it unceremoniously in the trashbin of history.
“We can’t take any more,” he says, eyes narrowed and hands upraised, the crowd roaring with gleeful delight. “We’re full. We’re overflowing. We just can’t take anymore.” Translated, the message is simple: the pie isn’t endless, and there’s no way to keep hiding that lie. The system has always been based on excluding you. If you think you can get around that, then we will build a wall to keep you out. A very un-American sentiment. Or is it?
Like Mrs. Luce, Trump embodies the reality that’s been hidden by the myth: he sees the world as a Darwinian free-fire zone, a planetary game of King of the Hill in which the wealthy countries of the “West” are besieged by dark-skinned tidal waves of criminally-predisposed immigrants.
For all the evil he commits, he at least maintains no illusions about who we really are.
Trump’s skepticism over “humanitarian” military interventions comes less from any sincere opposition to bloodshed (he is more than happy to pay countries like Saudi Arabia to do the killing for us) than from indifference for people in those “shithole countries” in the first place. Yet he’s more than willing to deploy troops to the southern border, owing to the belief that people coming from those countries constitute a security threat, a plague, an “invasion.” Ground troops shouldn’t be deployed in the name of saving dark people. But they most certainly should be dispatched to keep them from breaking inside the perimeter, where they can then “take our jobs” and “rape our daughters.”
This vision of a world divided between the poor Global South and the militarized Global North provides Grandin with one of his most potent, yet underdeveloped, ideas. An entire book should be written about it.
He posits that the executor of a distinctly American totalitarianism wouldn’t resemble the SS in Nazi Germany or the KGB in Stalinist Russia. Rather, it would come from the rogue agencies charged with the impossible task of sealing the Mexican border, a line that not only separates the US from Mexico but that lays a cordon between our vast wealth and the world of immense poverty beyond.
“If despotism ever came to the United States,” he writes, “it wouldn’t be due to the usual explanations offered by the left and the right, in reaction to either a threatening workers’ movement or the expansion of the nanny state. It would be the result of the country’s exceptional border—a border that was policed not because of national security concerns but because ‘it is the demarcation between such desperate poverty and such massive wealth.’”
Trump’s ascendancy has often been invoked as an apocalyptic event. As exaggerated as such a characterization may have been, the terminology of the word merits examination. In Ancient Greek, it meant “revelation” or “an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling.” Trump, from the moment he came down the staircase in 2015, proved to be an inadvertent revelation of 250 years of national history: the swaggering embodiment of the racist violence, exclusion, and dispossession. Even liberals predisposed to imagine a sunny view of pre-Trump American history concede that, in his vulgar racism, he represents the worst of our nations temperament. For centuries, Americans playing off the frontier myth could pretend that their supposedly endless growth didn’t entail the violence that it did, that it wasn’t based on exclusion. Until the Wall came. Until the racists came out of the closet. Until Trump was elected President.
The reality of American violence, exclusion, and dispossession still exists. But the myth that hid such a reality is no longer. No wonder, as Grandin says, that the Border Wall, which says that America can no longer grow, can no longer accept the tired and hungry masses, “stands as a vast wall to disenchantment.”
Migrants continue dying. Tens of thousands wallow in desert detention camps—detritus of our militarism from the past and victims of its cruelty in the present. Each year, hundreds of thousands continue braving their way northwards to escape the poverty, violence, and hunger of a collapsing Global South. Meanwhile, an America calcified in its racism abandons its own frontier mythologies of limitlessness as the reality of an economically segregated, ecologically unsustainable world becomes impossible to ignore. All the while, right-wing militias, our own American paramilitaries, circle terrified groups of thirsty Central Americans in the scorched wastes of borderland deserts. Somewhere, in a stadium packed to the brim, a crowd roars.
“It’s beautiful,” Trump says of the Wall. “Just beautiful.”