Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis contends that the frontier, and the territorial expansion that accompanied it, defined not only American history, but also American culture and the American character. Turner believed that the frontier had fostered innovation, democracy, pragmatism, a can-do spirit, and political moderation; and because of this, the frontier had made the Americans an exceptional people.
Greg Grandin, in The End of the Myth, begs to differ. He argues that the frontier, and the United States’ centuries-long expansion, has been a blessing for some and a curse for everyone else. The frontier engendered perpetual war, racial subjugation, environmental degradation, a misanthropic individualism, and notions of freedom so disconnected from basic communal concerns that social stability suffered. The frontier also promoted the belief that there were no limits to America’s cultural expansion. America’s values, capitalist economic model, and form of governance had universal applicability. This misplaced idea led the United States into disastrous wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Grandin traces the history of the Frontier Myth from its colonial origins to its recent demise.
Beginning in the 1600s, British colonists migrated to North America to free themselves from the corruption, repression, and sectarian violence ravaging Europe. Once in America, they sought to build a new, righteous world. That the colonists erected their “City on a Hill” atop the blood and bones of Native Americans did not dampen their faith in America’s ability to wipe the historical slate clean. Rather, they rid themselves of their collective guilt through further expansion – and further bloodletting. Building a New World justified the ethnic cleansing needed to accomplish it.
From the War of 1812 to the Civil War, European-Americans went on a binge of westward expansion, killing, removing, or oppressing anyone who stood in their way. The Civil War was not just fought to end slavery. Americans slaughtered each other in droves in the 1860s in order to determine who would control future expansionism – whether Northern bankers and industrialists or Southern planters. The war settled the issue, and afterwards the United States continued its westward push.
In 1890, the North American frontier came to an end. A question then confronted America’s elite – what next? For over a century, the western frontier had served as a safety valve, maintaining social and political stability by directing the energies, and racism, of marginalized whites outward. In the absence of that safety valve, America’s political and industrial leaders feared the United States would fall prey to labor strife, race wars, urban unrest, or, god-forbid, socialism.
A solution to the problem posed by the closing of the North American frontier came quickly – further expansion, this time overseas. In the 1890s, the United States seized Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. In subsequent years it sent troops into the Caribbean and Central America.
America’s initial surge of overseas expansion accomplished three inter-related objectives: 1) it directed violence and racism outward; 2) it opened new markets for U.S. agricultural products and manufactured goods, which bolstered employment and thereby diminished the threat of labor strife, and; 3) it temporarily kept supply from outstripping demand, which stabilized markets.
In the Roaring Twenties, expansionism, and the idea of personal and societal limitlessness, fueled a decade of decadence. That decadence ended abruptly in the Crash of 1929. Household debt, extreme inequality, oversupply, and environmental degradation brought the U.S. to its knees.
The Great Depression convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his “Brain Trust” that the United States needed a new organizing principle; one based on social democracy, with regulated markets, strong labor unions, environmental protections, universal health care, free education, affordable housing, and livable wages for all. Roosevelt wanted to build a society where social stability and human well-being trumped unrestrained individual freedom and excessive capital accumulation.
Of course, that society never came into being. World War II, entrenched wealth, the Cold War, McCarthyism, and further wars of expansion, including the war in Vietnam, prevented the emergence of social democracy.
Nevertheless, by the mid-1970s, the myth lay in tatters, having taken a beating by the Vietcong in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Then a mediocre actor named Ronald Reagan showed up and revived it. Reagan promised the American people more of everything – more consumables, more war, more individualism, more corporate profits, and more delusions. The American people loved him for it.
In the 1990s, the United States went even further afield. During the Cold War, Soviet power had kept the U.S. out of the Balkans, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and portions of the Middle East. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States quickly moved into areas previously closed to its influence. The American economic boom of the 1990s was fueled in large part by this new burst of expansion – and the cheap oil, cheap foreign labor, and new markets that went along with it.
Bill Clinton pushed Globalization – the catchphrase that came into vogue during his presidency – with a passion only equaled by his desire for young interns. Globalization was nothing more than American imperialism wrapped in Hollywood glitz, cool tech, and sexy consumer products.
By the turn of the twenty-first century, America seemed up-stoppable. Its corporate capital flowed into the world’s every nook and cranny; and its cultural influence could be found everywhere. The world was America’s oyster. Yet, all of the expansion of the previous four centuries had merely kept a loose lid on the moral and cultural rot at home, visible in the Monica Lewinsky Scandal, the Columbine Massacre, and the Jerry Springer Show.
Then it all went awry. Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Great Financial Crisis revealed not only the limits of American power, but the dangers inherent in a myth that promoted limitlessness. America finally ran up against reality. There was nowhere else to go. There were no more frontiers. So the American people turned inward and directed their fears and hatreds against each other. And that’s when the social dysfunctions long deferred by expansionism – and a fanatical faith in the myth – came home to roost. The second decade of the twenty-first century witnessed an America riven by gun violence, economic inequality, pathological individualism, white nationalism, and unbounded corporate greed.
All of which brings us to Trump. He appeals to his base because they, like him, do not want any restraints on their words or their actions. They want unfettered freedom – the same freedom once available on the frontier, which means freedom to repress minorities, degrade women, carry guns, exploit labor, and devastate the land.
Trump, like Reagan, is now attempting to revive the myth by promising the American people more of everything: more money, more trinkets, more freedom to do as they damn well please. What remains to be seen is whether the American electorate in 2020 will again reject social democracy in favor of Trump’s frontier freedom.