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.”

But Turner’s thesis was showing cracks long before Trump came along. In fact, long before Turner came along. Though racist rants were absent from Turner’s language, it remains debatable whether his version of the settlement of the American West elevated Americans’ passions in the way Grandin suggests. We need to recognize that Turner’s academic prose had less reach than that of his authorial rival, Theodore Roosevelt, who, in his multivolume history The Winning of the West, condoned vigilantism, lynch law, and the eradication of the Native American population in the 1880s.

Grandin is not completely unaware of this. He even mulls over whether Turner’s idea of the “safety valve,” a natural force for reducing racial and class tensions, actually did cool the “racist heat” bubbling through the veins of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Americans. In part, Grandin concurs with Martin Luther King Jr., who reminded Americans in the 1960s that expansionism diverted energies needed to reduce racial division. To support that view, Grandin points to the brief war the United States waged against Spain over Cuba in 1898; an implicit result of the war was the easing of relations between North and South, still tense despite the termination of Reconstruction two decades earlier. In effect, greater unity was obtained by identifying a common enemy outside the boundaries of the United States.

But while Grandin may be skeptical of some of Turner’s claims, he also repeats many of Turner’s mistakes. Chiefly, he renders women as invisible as they were in Turner’s work. Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization (1995) demonstrates that Turner’s compulsion to resurrect the inner savage of the frontiersman was not about offering readers a soothing narrative; intellectuals at the turn of the century worried that middle-class white men had become feminized and unheroic. Moreover, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and many other proponents of continental expansion understood that the strength of a nation lay in its people’s numbers. Grandin cites Jefferson’s promise in his 1801 inaugural address of “room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation,” yet he misses Jefferson’s broader meaning: The idealized future had to be literally bred into existence. Secretary of State James Madison stated in 1803 that Americans didn’t need a military to conquer Spanish territory; as settlers flooded in, the outward push of migration would cause a “weak” Spanish Empire, too enfeebled to control its North American holdings, to cede land to the United States. Reproduction was as much the engine of conquest as racial hatred.

Women’s role was central to every expansion scenario. In Turner’s own Wisconsin, as Bethel Saler has demonstrated in The Settlers’ Empire (2014), jurists in the territorial days of the early nineteenth century were preoccupied with the elimination of “country marriages” between whites and indigenous partners. Migration brought about new regulations to control the inevitable process of racial mixing. Military conquest also relied on theories of sexual domination and assimilation. In the wake of the Mexican-American War, politicians came to praise marital “annexations,” and Congress introduced a loophole in the law so that Anglo-American soldiers could marry “beautiful señoritas” and thereby acquire land. In 1855, Congress passed legislation that laid the sexual foundation for birthright citizenship: Noncitizen Caucasian women were naturalized through marriage, and children born outside the United States inherited their father’s nationality.

Grandin also ignores the obsession with breeding that fueled the eugenics movement. One of its leaders, Harry H. Laughlin, helped draft the notorious Immigrant Act of 1924. By setting immigration quotas for each nationality based on its representation in the US population as of the Census of 1890 (and barring Asian immigrants altogether), this law effectively favored immigrants from northern Europe over other groups. The foremost eugenicist at the time, Charles Davenport, wrote in 1920, “Can we build a wall high enough around the country so as to keep out these cheaper races?” Like Theodore Roosevelt, Davenport feared “race suicide.” That phrase derived from British contempt for poor women, believed to breed at a faster rate than those of the educated classes. In 1905, Roosevelt had called on educated white women to bear at least four to six children, and later he advocated using tax exemptions as an incentive. “Work-fight-breed” was the old Rough Rider’s motto.

Political campaigns against immigrants almost always target the poor. The loaded word “caravan,” recently in the news, draws on a host of inherited images: of gypsies, vagrants, squatters, and “roving hordes” (the last a term for Depression-era migrants heading west). In the 1930s, Californians created their own wall, the infamous “Bum Blockade.” Police rounded up Okies, ignored their rights, and expelled them from the state. Repeating Turner’s mistake, Grandin downplays the long-standing hatred of the migratory poor in the American West; for many, “safety valve” was a euphemism for “dumping ground.”

Grandin does provide a useful primer on how the Mexico-US border became politicized after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which removed racial quotas but set numerical limits on immigrants from Mexico. In 1968, courts began ordering the deportation of those who entered unlawfully. Grandin also recalls the shrill racism of Pat Buchanan’s demands for a wall in the “America First” campaign of the 1990s. Many of Trump’s seemingly radical ideas––from building an impregnable barrier to eliminating birthright citizenship for migrant children––were, in fact, Republican talking points during the Reagan administration. With Trump’s family separation policy and the increasing numbers of migrant children being detained at the border, the politics of reproduction are just as important now as they were in the past.

But what historical category truly contains a Trump? Of the stock frontier characters literature has given us, he most resembles an eastern “eelskin,” the huckster who sells snake oil to gullible backwoodsmen. This is essentially how the king of reality TV, Mark Burnett, who did most to fashion Trump’s image, described him back in 2004. Trump “understands the gullible essence of the American people,” Burnett said, adding that the real-estate mogul was loyal to very few others and metaphorically aimed to “kill” his enemies. This ruthless, conniving drive was what made him American, the British-born Burnett insisted, “like the guys who built the West.” Trump hasn’t killed the Turnerian myth so much as taken charge of its overconfident script, in which ethnocentrism and jingoism coexist. Lest we forget, candidate Trump promised that Mexico would pay for a wall that would surpass the Great Wall of China. The eelskin’s fantasy lives on in Trump’s wall—a trompe l’oeil––a wall of words.