On January 6, 2021, many Americans were horrified to see images of men and women protesting the results of the 2020 presidential election by storming the U.S. Capitol with Confederate flags and other symbols of white supremacy. But if they had read Greg Grandin’s book about American exceptionalism, they would have recognized these actions as yet one more manifestation of the nation’s long history of violence, racism, and reactionary politics. Grandin wrote his sweeping survey of the myth of the frontier idea before the capitol insurrection, but he might have anticipated it.
The End of the Myth takes readers through the violent history of the United States and its dependency on opened frontiers and closed borders, from its founding through the 2016 election. It builds from Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, advanced at the end of the nineteenth century, and argues that the United States has controlled social ferment through expansion. According to Grandin, expansion, or militarism, became the American go-to solution for deflecting domestic problems. The frontier idea served as a justification to take Indian lands via extermination or debt peonage, to expand slavery, and to conquer other nations. This mythology reserved the concept of “freedom” for white settlers, and later for capitalists and their political proxies, so they could do as they pleased. To emphasize the through-line of reactionary populism in U.S. history, Grandin frequently loops back to Andrew Jackson, graphically detailing the violence that Jackson inflicted on his slaves and the Native Americans he forced to leave the eastern half of the country. (Grandin notes, tellingly, that President Donald Trump hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office.)
Quoting John Adams in the chapter entitled “Are You Ready for All These Wars?,” Grandin describes how the U.S. war against Mexico deepened “the nation’s habituation to racist wars” (85) and details the horrific atrocities committed by state militia volunteers against Mexican civilians. Domestically, instead of fighting class wars against the capitalists who benefited from war and continued to immiserate workers and farmers, many white Americans “waged race war outward” (95) against Mexicans, Indians, and African Americans. For the latter, the brief promise of social and economic justice represented by the Freedmen’s Bureau at the end of the Civil War was crushed by industrial capital, the planter class, racial terror, and starvation wages. The United States turned its attentions outward again in 1898 when it declared war on Spain, seized new territories, and fought counterinsurgencies in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and the Philippines. President Woodrow Wilson sent troops to Nicaragua and Mexico in 1914 and the Dominican Republic in 1916; he sent Marines to Haiti in 1915, which began a twenty-year occupation that killed 15,000 Haitians. These wars brought death from disease, famine, and exposure to hundreds of thousands of people.
Throughout the book, Grandin reveals how U.S. wars have kept the symbols of the Confederacy and white supremacy alive. During the Spanish-American War, leaders offered redemption to the white South, recruiting former rebels to transform “the preservation of slavery” into “humanity’s cause for world freedom” (137). Over the next century, soldiers unfurled Confederate flags throughout the Caribbean, over Okinawa and in Germany during World War II, and in Korea in the 1950s. Although many remember defiant GIs wearing black armbands to protest the war in Vietnam, Confederate flags were more popular than any other flag purchased in Vietnam. When black GIs pushed back against Dixie-ism at their bases, they suffered retaliation. American soldiers carried the flag, as well as perverse forms of racist brutality, into Iraq and Afghanistan; likewise, in recent years, vigilante groups flew Confederate flags as they patrolled the U.S.-Mexico border.
Wars and racist extremism are important historical components for understanding Trumpism, Grandin argues, but antimigrant nativism that “flows from the border…has become the binding agent” (166). After 1848, Mexicans suddenly found that the new southern U.S. border separated them from their relatives farther south and, beginning in the twentieth century, that line of separation gradually hardened. The Texas Rangers and vigilante groups lynched or executed many border crossers and prevented enfranchised Mexican Americans from voting in U.S. elections. Although Mexicans were excluded from the restrictive immigration acts of the 1920s because commercial agriculture needed their labor, the Ku Klux Klan harassed migrants throughout the West. The United States established the Border Patrol in 1924 and it became “a vanguard of race vigilantism” (163). The United States enacted the Bracero program during World War II to deliver agricultural laborers, but it also built more detention centers along the border to deport other migrants. Subsequent presidential administrations, from Johnson to Trump, sought to reinforce the border and criminalize those who crossed it, even as employers continued to demand Mexican labor. President Ronald Reagan’s wars in Central America generated refugees, with many still fleeing the consequences of those wars today. Proposed by Reagan and George H. W. Bush and implemented by Bill Clinton, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) removed remaining restraints on capital as U.S.-subsidized agricultural products wiped out Mexican small farmers, who were then forced to migrate north in search of work. Free trade applied only to capital, and over the next thirty years the United States applied more punitive measures to push back those migrants. Instead of the “welcoming sun of manifest destiny on their brows,” observes Grandin, today’s migrants “are moving into a country that increasingly defines itself by what it hates” (248).
As a Latin American historian, Grandin brings his knowledge of this hemisphere to bear in important ways, especially in contrasting developments in North and South America. For example, in leading several South American states to break from Spain in the early nineteenth century, Simon Bolívar imagined a world government based on common ideals rather than conquest. The Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), a rebellion against Mexican oligarchs and U.S. capitalist domination, resulted in the world’s first social-democratic constitution, which served as a model for other Latin American nations in the post–World War II era. President Lázaro Cárdenas—elected, like Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the 1930s—enacted sweeping economic reforms, nationalized Mexico’s oil industry, and redistributed lands confiscated from U.S. corporations. Many New Dealers sought to learn from the Mexican example.
The book highlights some moments in U.S. history when intellectuals, policymakers, and activists challenged the myth of the frontier. The New Deal sought to promote the common good instead of individualism, and Americans embraced the idea that a more active and powerful central government could create jobs, support labor unions, and provide a social safety net. But the New Deal liberal consensus that emerged in the 1930s and ’40s also helped expand capitalism abroad as well as extend political liberalism at home. In the postwar era, Cold War militarism and American leaders’ desire to protect U.S. capital defeated efforts to expand social rights—health care, support for the poor, housing, labor protections—initiated during the New Deal, measures implemented by other democracies around the world. Congress rejected Puerto Rico’s plan to include social rights in its constitution and chose to limit benefits to military veterans. Ronald Reagan and other Republicans successfully used racist rhetoric to make additional cuts to remaining social programs and ushered in deregulation, privatization, and tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals. Martin Luther King Jr. decried the myth that provided “socialism for the rich and individualism for the poor” (202), as he watched the long history of militarism undercut social programs and struggles for justice that left the United States “standing before the world glutted by our own barbarity” (205).
Grandin argues that expansion relegated “racism and extremism to the fringe” to “redirect passions outward” (7), while Trump’s border wall symbolized the limits of capitalism and turned such anger inward. The book’s evidence, however, indicates that both inward and outward rage have been concurrent features of U.S. history. This impressive study deserves a wide readership to help us understand the myths and demons that sweep the land and how we might imagine a politics that embraces the social good rather than racist nationalism.