An alternative history of America

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An alternative history of America

    The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America by Greg Grandin, Metropolitan Books, US $39.00,    Pp 384, March 2019, ISBN 978-1250179821

The United States has had a history of open frontiers since it was founded. As the country expanded westward, it promised democracy and endless opportunities to whoever came here. It emerged as an exceptional nation in the last three centuries. The era of American exceptionalism seems to be nearing its end as Trump is insisting on building a wall with Mexico. In The End of the Myth, Greg Grandin explores the history of frontiers in the American history — from the American Revolution to the War of 1898 to New Deal to election of 2016. He argues that America’s expansion had been “a gate of escape” that deflected Domestic political and economic issues outward. Consequently, Americans avoided solving issues such as racism. He argues that this resulted in the rise of President Trump.

Greg Grandin says that all nations have borders, and many today even have walls. But only the United States has had a frontier or at least a frontier that has served as a proxy for liberation, synonymous with the possibilities and promises of modern life itself and held out as a model for the rest of the world to emulate. Greg Grandin says that decades before America’s founders won the independence, America was thought of as a process of endless becoming and ceaseless unfurling. In 1651, Thomas Hobbes described British colonialism in America as driven by an “unsatiable appetite, or Bulimia, of enlarging dominion.” Thomas Jefferson, in a political manifesto he wrote two years before the Declaration of Independence identified the right “of departing from the country in which chance, not a choice” had placed settlers, “of going in quest of new habitations” as an element of universal law.

According to Greg Grandin, the concept of the frontier served as both diagnosis (to explain the power and wealth of the United States) and prescription (to recommend what policymakers should do to maintain and extend that power and wealth). And when the physical frontier was closed, its imagery could easily be applied to other arenas of expansion, to markets, war, culture, technology, science, the psyche, and politics. Greg Grandin says, in the years after World War II, the “frontier” became a central metaphor to capture a vision of a new kind of world order. Past empires established their dominance in an environment where resources were thought to be finite, extending their supremacy to capture as much of the world’s wealth as possible, to the detriment of their rivals. Now, though, the United States made a credible claim to be a different sort of global power, presiding over a world economy premised on endless growth.

Washington, its leaders said, didn’t so much rule as help organize and stabilize an international community understood as liberal, universal, and multilateral. Greg Grandin says that the promise of a limitless frontier meant that wealth wasn’t a zero-sum proposition. It could be shared by all. Borrowing frontier language used by Andrew Jackson and his followers in the 1830s and 1840s, postwar planners said the United States would extend the world’s “area of freedom” and enlarge its “circle of free institutions.

The 2016 election of Donald Trump as president of the United States — and all the vitriol his campaign and presidency have unleashed — has been presented by commentators as one of two opposing possibilities. Greg Grandin says that Trumpism either represents a rupture, a wholly un-American movement that has captured the institutions of government or he is the realization of a deep-rooted American form of extremism. Does Trump’s crass and cruel appeal to nativism represent a break from tradition, from a fitful but persistent commitment to tolerance and equality at home and defense of multilateralism, democracy, and open markets abroad? Or is it but the “dark side,” of US history coming into the light? Breach or continuity?

Greg Grandin says that what distinguishes earlier racist presidents like Jackson and Wilson from Trump is that they were in office during the upswing of America’s moving out in the world, when domestic political polarization could be stanched and the county held together — even after the Civil War nearly tore it apart — by the promising of endless growth. Trumpism is extremism turned inward, all-consuming and self-devouring. There is no “divine, messianic” crusade that can harness and redirect passions outward. The expansion, in no form, can no longer satisfy the interests, reconcile the contradictions, dilute the factions, o redirect the anger.

The End of the Myth is an amazing alternative history of America that busts several myths and lies. Packed with new knowledge and rich perspectives, it tells you what it means to be an American. This erudite history will help us understand the Age of Trump. Greg Grandin shows how racism and violence are linked to the frontier narrative and President Trump’s vision of the wall with Mexico. We have avoided facing this aspect of history and now history is looking us in our face. We can longer afford to ignore history if we want to survive as a great nation. This creative way of interpreting history may be troubling but it is essential.

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