Among the many flaws of the frenzied 24/7 news cycle is the lack of context for the latest breaking news story. That’s what makes New York University professor and historian Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America such a valuable contribution to our understanding of the fractious debate over immigration and the attendant controversy over a wall along the United States’ southern border.
Grandin’s compact survey of American history spans the pre-Revolutionary War era to the present, but at its heart is historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous 1893 “Frontier Thesis,” which argued, as Grandin summarizes it, that “the expansion of settlement across a frontier of ‘free land’ created a uniquely American form of political equality, a vibrant, forward-looking individualism.” Relying on a rich trove of source materials, both primary and secondary, Grandin pointedly contends that this mythic “Edenic utopia” has now been eclipsed by the shadow of a concrete and steel border wall, “America’s new myth, a monument to the final closing of the frontier.”
Whether he’s decrying the “Jacksonian consensus” over the means of westward migration, which promoted a ruthless regime “forged in frontier expansion and racist war,” or critiquing free trade agreements like NAFTA and post-9/11 American foreign policy, with its open-ended wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Grandin finds plenty of targets of all political stripes. But he reserves some of his harshest criticism of a country he says has “lived past the end of its myth” for President Trump and the segment of the American electorate he represents. “Instead of a critical, resilient, and progressive citizenry,” Grandin writes, “a conspiratorial nihilism, rejecting reason and dreading change, has taken hold. Factionalism congealed and won a national election.”
Grandin concludes The End of the Myth on an even more ominous note, observing that future generations will face a stark choice between “barbarism and socialism, or at least social democracy.” Regardless of whether one accepts Grandin’s Manichaean prophecy, with all the bitterness of the conflict it foretells, there is no escaping the need to come to terms with the painful legacy that’s meticulously revisited in this unsettling book.