Reality and Its Alternatives   /   Summer 2019   /    Book Reviews

The Great Wall of Trump

What historical category truly contains a Trump?

Nancy Isenberg

Fence along the Mexican border in Arizona; Cavan Images/Alamy Stock Photo.

Seeking to explain the political orientation of the American character, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner published a series of essays during 1890s introducing and elaborating his thesis that settler life on the ever-westering frontier shaped a people committed to individualism and equality. The scramble for free land had made frontiersmen restless and self-reliant; liberation from the “aristocratic” East had made them more egalitarian and democratic in spirit. Turner’s thesis, though largely sympathetic toward these pioneers, also had a dark side. The West, he posited, served as a “safety valve,” purging settlers of the worst of their primitive impulses: an inclination to violence and a compulsion to dominate. But as Turner well knew, the Census of 1890 heralded the loss of that safety valve in the impending conquest of the last unsettled lands.

Turner serves as an imperfect muse for Greg Grandin’s polemical argument in The End of the Myth. The New York University historian insists that the “expansionist imperative” has been central to a host of myths surrounding American identity. After briefly sketching some of the imperial ideas at play during the British colonial period and the American Revolution, Grandin details the more aggressive push west of “Caucasian democracy,” spurred on by the Jackson-era Indian Removal Act of 1830 and further boosted by the territorial gains resulting from the Mexican-American War of 1848. Next came the Morrill Land-Grant Act, the Pacific Railroad Act, and the Homestead Act, all enacted during the Civil War. This legislation funded public colleges and transportation projects and also provided land to settlers to encourage national migration and growth.

Frontier expansion is ground well trod by historians, but Grandin does not want his book to be a traditional history. His true purpose is to address the troubled ambitions of one man. You know who. Donald J. Trump. Specifically, Grandin addresses what President Trump imagines to be the threat from a supposed invasion of waves of north-bound Spanish-speaking migrants. Grandin declares that the poetry of Turner’s frontier thesis came to an end on June 16, 2016, when Trump announced that he would “build a wall.”

Trump is not the first president to hold or express racist views, but Grandin sees something especially sinister about him: “Trumpism is extremism turned inward, all-consuming and self-devouring.” The cry of distress that courses through the pages of Grandin’s book echoes what he first sketched in an article in The Nation last year: a sharp denunciation of Trump as America’s “id” and a symbol of unhinged fury. Trump, Grandin would have us believe, killed the long-held myth that Turner had shaped, that of the “soothing processional” that became the “official anthem of a nation moving out in the world, not as a conquering race,” but “in the name of humanity.”

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