BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On The Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. James Monroe, writing about the U.S. in the 1920s, declared there is no object which as a people we can desire which we do not possess or which is not within our reach. That sentiment has driven centuries of history and that peculiar notion we call American exceptionalism. That seemingly limitless reach, that unappeasable desire is set to have its roots in America's relationship with the frontier. Those of us alive today feel it mostly metaphorically. John F. Kennedy in 1960.
JOHN F. KENNEDY: And we stand today, on the edge of a new frontier. The frontier on the 1960s. The frontier of unknown opportunity and perils. The frontier of unfilled hopes and unfiled threats. [EN D CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ronald Reagan in 1982.
RONALD REAGAN: As we hold to this new path, You and your forebears as Malcom said tamed the wild frontier. And believe it or not you did it without an area redevelopment program or urban renewal. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: George W. Bush promising to quote extend the frontiers of freedom in the war on terror.
GEORGE W. BUSH: The story of America is the story of expanding liberty. An ever widening circle constantly growing to reach further and include more. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Endless possibility but also endless consumption, endless military might. Presidents have promised boundless opportunity by pushing our boundaries ever outward–whatever the cost. But in his new book, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, historian Greg Grandin says that the movement outward has come to a screeching halt.
PRES. DONALD J. TRUMP: We're going to build the wall. We have no choice. We have no choice.
CROWD: Build that wall.
PRES. DONALD J. TRUMP: Build that wall. Build that wall. Build that wall. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But first Grandin takes us back to the underpinnings of the frontier ideology.
GREG GRANDIN: Ceaseless expansion, that there is no problem caused by expansion that can't be solved by more expansion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the next few weeks we'll be unpacking the national narrative of expansion and exceptionalism. Next week we'll expand our inquiry overseas. But this week we've enlisted Greg Grandin as our transcontinental guide.
GREG GRANDIN: Thomas Jefferson's first political track a couple of years before drafting the Declaration of Independence held out that the right to pick up and move, to escape tyranny wasn't just a natural right–it was the condition of all other natural rights. And Jefferson laid out a moral history in which Saxon free men, in what is now Germany, when feudalism began to take hold, picked up and moved over to the British Isles. And then when the layers is social life began to weigh heavy on Saxons and on the British islands and they just moved over to the Americas. His argument is that movement allows all other rights to take place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the founders acknowledged, always, that there would be tension between the haves and the have-nots. And James Madison solution would be to extend this sphere meaning territory.
GREG GRANDIN: The founders were fairly clear that the concentration of wealth would cause a problem to republican virtue. One solution then was put forward by Jefferson and was to redistribute property to every generation. So it didn't build up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Take it from people?
GREG GRANDIN: He gave up that idea pretty quickly. And the solution that presented itself was fairly obvious. To extend the sphere, as Madison put it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He believed that citizens spread over a wide territory would be less likely to join quote common interest or passion or to discover their own strength and to act in unison with each other. This is pretty frank stuff.
GREG GRANDIN: Yeah expansion was held out as the breaker of every paradox. The overlay of every [inaudible].
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So there was a metaphor for what expansion did, for its use as a remedy. It was called the safety valve–to relieve the pressure. The pressure of what?
GREG GRANDIN: Well one was a class pressure. The increasing number of wage laborers, immigrants that were coming into the country. How do you prevent a Labor Party from forming, for instance, that might challenge the sacrosanct right of private property? And the second problem the safety valve was thought to solve was the question of slavery.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You quote the editor of the Western Monthly Review Timothy Flint. He proposed America by Mexican territory because it would serve as the proper escape valve from the danger of too great an accumulation of blacks in the slave states. Thinning the population by diffusing it over great surfaces. And when it comes to class, you have the Massachusetts Congressman Caleb Cushing in 1839 who called the west the great safety valve of our population.
GREG GRANDIN: One of the dangers that somebody like Cushing identified was that as the vote was extended to unpropertied white men, to working class illiterate white men, the fear was that they would use that vote to vote in socialism, to vote in the Labor Party. So what to do? Their answer was to use the expansion west, the distribution of public land the West, as a way of diffusing and dispersing concentrated social demands.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It seems that Cushing was also a bit of a libertarian because he hoped that the westward movement would also keep the government occupied.
GREG GRANDIN: Well, exactly. Because that's the second problem. Right? That the problem of concentrated wealth and the problem of social movements contesting the concentrated wealth is that you wind up having the growth of government trying to solve the problem–either becoming overly repressive in clamping down on the demands or overly generous in distributing property. And either of those solutions were anathema to somebody like Cushing. So what's the solution? You go west.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: To explain how that frontier mentality set the U.S. on its ruggedly individualistic trajectory, Grandin suggests we pause it 1848. Across Europe it was a year of revolution. Workers were rising up in Paris and Berlin, in Milan with La Scala opera house was closed during a riot delaying the opening of this work Mercadante's opera The Saracen Slave. The poor were waging war on the rich.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Waging war upward.
GREG GRANDIN: It was like a wildfire and basically it thrust the class question, the question of economics into the political sphere. When you have the rise of industrial factories, when you have the spread of economic immiseration, from that moment there emerges Labor parties, an ethic of social democracy. The beginning of social rights not just political rights, not just right to property or the right to assemble or the right to have free speech but the right to healthcare, the right to education. Rights that take a more activist government to form. In some ways, that's the inflection point and that's what the United States does not develop. Its liberal tradition does not socialize. It does not move from embracing political rights and individual rights to expanding the palette to include the right to education, the right to healthcare. And 1848 is an interesting turning point, they don't have a revolution. What they have is a racist war against Mexico.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The end of the 19th century was a period of political theories. The dominant figure responsible for turning the frontier from a mappable place into an abstract idea is Frederick Jackson Turner at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.
GREG GRANDIN: Up until that point historians tended to argue what they called the germ theory of history. By that they didn't actually mean bacteria but they meant that everything that was good about American Anglo-Saxon culture came wholesale from Europe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Germ meaning germinate.
GREG GRANDIN: The seed that basically the Puritans created nothing. Their institutions were already perfected from Europe. Turner born in Wisconsin, Midwestern, he turns that on its head. He says that was good and unique and dynamic about America was born in America. It was born on the frontier and he identified a number of particular traits that he felt with exceptional to the United States. One was individualism, crude intelligence that was practical, that was innovative, that was resilient. This becomes, in some ways, the foundation of an organic American born Americanism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And as you wrote, 'he glosses over the small matter of the series of Indian wars and the slavery question. The frontiersman is virtuous. There's no reference to the high price paid by some for the myth of boundless American freedom.'
GREG GRANDIN: Absolutely. The frontier theory was implicitly, and at times explicitly, racist. But it's important to note that it didn't elevate racism as a motor of history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The way the term the germ theory--.
GREG GRANDIN: The way that somebody like Theodore Roosevelt--Theodore Roosevelt was also an historian. For him war and the domination of Native Americans was the engine of history. It was from this violent, primal confrontation with base nature in the form either of Native Americans or of the natural world that creates civilization. There's none of that in Turner. Turner barely mentions war. Nothing as brutal that is on every page of Theodore Roosevelt.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It isn't slaughter--.
GREG GRANDIN: It isn't slaughter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: --that elevates one.
GREG GRANDIN: And this is important because America's about the launch itself into the Pacific– into the world. And if it has claims to universalism that kind of out and out racism of the Saxon germ theory or Theodore Roosevelt's war against nature, it is not a particularly useful way to think of how to organize the world. So Turner it becomes an important way in which racism becomes sidelined and the implication of his theory is that as the U.S. moves across the frontier, racism is left behind as a residue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The frontier thesis, according to Turner was a way to explain the formation of the national psyche.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Through a particular sequence of events. First settlers arrived in the wilderness then enterprising families follow after to work the land. Think Little House On The Prairie.
[CLIP OF LITTLE HOUSE OF THE PRAIRIE]
We crossed into Kansas four days ago. What are you looking for?
We had no future where we were living before. it was a hand to mouth existance at best and I want more than that for you and the children. A hundred and sixty acres free and clear from the government. Just to plant and harvest my own crops to be owning to no man, I want that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Eventually those families assemble into communities and then the communities coalesce to form civil society. And then, as Turner put it, as by magic, markets emerge.
[CLIP OF LITTLE HOUSE OF THE PRAIRIE]
I need a plow and seeds, enough for a 100 acres.
Well, you've come to the right man. I sell only the best. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Finally after everything is created, then set in motion, the state arrives.
GREG GRANDIN: And the state's only legitimate function is to protect virtue, not to create fear in the form of social rights.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it was a lie and he knew it.
GREG GRANDIN: It was a lie and he knew it. And one of the articles that he was reading where he got a lot of his ideas, he has a little notation that says government came before. Because the fact is that you don't have any of these things without government. You don't remove native Americans off the land, move them west. You don't create the infrastructure needed to create markets without a strong state. The West had always been the terrain of large scale corporations or federal infrastructure projects that preceded the ideal of virtuous civil society mixed with nature.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The premise that the state doesn't show up till the end gave ballast to the idea that it had no responsibility to create social or economic rights. These things offered by the state would be perverse or unvirtuous?
GREG GRANDIN: This is the foundational premise of the ideal of a minimal state, of the ideal of individual rights being the only legitimate rights.
PRES. DONALD J. TRUMP: They want to replace individual rights with total government domination.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: We know jobs are not created by government and jobs are created by free market.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Thomas Jefferson said government that governs least governs best. [END CLIP]
GREG GRANDIN: The denial of the state and government action and federal action in creating this world allows this fiction to take root and to flower.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I still don't get it. They're saying that it is literally unvirtuous to offer health care or education or welfare. Why?
GREG GRANDIN: Well it would entail an intrusion in the realm of economics and--.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Meaning you'd have to tax people to pay for it.
GREG GRANDIN: You'd have to tax people to pay for it. You have to regulate the economy. I mean what we call libertarianism in this country has deep roots.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: By the late 90s, the frontier had come to an end. The census officially declared there was no more open land in the West. Yet, the U.S. kept expanding to Puerto Rico to Hawaii to the Philippines, but more on that next week. Let's just observe that in discussing expansion post 1898, President Woodrow Wilson said quote 'we made new frontiers for ourselves beyond the sea.'
GREG GRANDIN: Turner was a friend of Wilson and went along with pretty much everything Wilson did--.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He was such a racist. He was just as racist as Teddy Roosevelt.
GREG GRANDIN: Yes, yes. The Frontier thesis moves from an historical theory to an ideology. It moves from an explanation of how and why something has happened to an argument for why something should happen. The frontiers understood not just there's a line to stop that but a line to cross over. There's not one president that doesn't use the frontier thesis to justify American power in the world.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: But in some precincts, Turner's thesis was turned against itself. In 1912, Walter Weyl, the future founding editor of The New Republic, wrote a piece describing the individualism championed by Turner as a curse. The westward march of the Pioneer gave to Americans a psychological twist which was to hinder the development of the socialized democracy. The open continent intoxicated the American. It gave him an enlarged view of self. It dwarfed the common spirit. It made the American mind a little sovereignty of its own, acknowledging no allegiances and but few obligations. It created and individualism self-confident, short sighted, lawless, doomed in the end to defeat itself as the boundless opportunism which gave birth became the last circumscribed.
GREG GRANDIN: Right. It's right there in that Walter Weyl line that it inhibited a socialized democracy. The frontier is still being used to explain America but now they're explaining all the things that are bad about America, all the things that old preventing America from developing a government that has the capacity to respond to mounting social problems. Weyl use the word slum almost as much as Turner use the word frontier. Right? There was a sense that political inequality, all the problems that come with industrialization, all the problems that come with mass migration, all of the problems that come with the rise of cities and concentrated populations, that the federal government was completely incapable of addressing those problems.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So after the Great Depression was met with a bootlace response from Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt endorsed the frontier theory as an explanation of the nation's past. And then, in his 1932 presidential campaign declared it defunct.
GREG GRANDIN: So in his famous Commonwealth Club speech in San Francisco during the presidential campaign, he spent some time laying out the Turner a thesis and trying to explain the development of American capitalism and and all of the good things that came from that. And then with just one sentence he would just say. But those days are gone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In 1938, on the third anniversary of the signing of the Social Security Act, he brought it up again.
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: And because it has become increasingly difficult for individuals to build their own security singlehanded, government must now step in and help them lay the foundation stone. Just as government has helped lay the foundation of business and industry.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Leveraging the power of the state to cure what ails its people, now that was virgin territory.
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: “There is still a frontier that remains unconquered, an America unreclaimed. This is the great and nationwide frontier of insecurity, of human want and fear. This is the frontier, the America, that we have set ourselves to reclaim.” [END CLIP].
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Roosevelt's brain trust wove Turner's thesis into all facets of the New Deal including efforts to cope with the Dust Bowl brought on by unsustainable frontier farming.
GREG GRANDIN: A kind of strip mining of the soil that happened as a result of expansion of just like moving on and moving on and moving on. And what these New Dealers did was they basically just to fix the words social to all these ternary categories. So instead of having democracy now you had social democracy. Instead of having education, you had social education. Instead of having civilization, you had a social civilization.
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: Social justice, through social action. [END CLIP]
GREG GRANDIN: And he was also good at using the Turner thesis to explain the social relations of existence. He has one phrase this man made world of ours. Again these terms and phrases that capture a whole world view, a new political ethic, a new political culture that was laying the groundwork for the closest the United States came to some kind of social democracy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Isn't its weird how the argument over the frontier theory just keeps recurring and recurring. Martin Luther King--
GREG GRANDIN: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: --here he is in his the summer of our discontent speech in 1964.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: We are the nation that worships the frontier tradition. And our heroes are those who champion justice through violent retaliation against injustice. It is not simple to adopt the credo that moral force has as much strength and virtue as a capacity to return a physical blow. That to refrain from hitting back requires more will and bravery than the automatic reflexes of defense. [END CLIP]
GREG GRANDIN: Yeah and it speaks to the deeper level in which King presented his nonviolence, not just as a tactic but really as a counter value to the whole of American history. King saw something deeply pathological in the myth of the west. In what he called rugged individualism for the many and the poor, but socialism for the rich and the form of subsidies and write offs. And if somebody like Turner and other moral philosophers believed that individualism and the legitimacy of self-government had to do with your ability to regulate yourself use your virtues to control your emotions, King transferred that more into the social realm and he talked about African-Americans who moved through the social wilderness of racism and were able to not give in to anger and not give in to justifiable rage. And that was a higher claim to self governance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Vietnam War, what Grandin calls the first frontier war we lost was rife with frontier imagery.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Soldiers gave names like crazy horse and Sam Houston to their air and ground operations and reportedly cut off the ears of dead Vietnamese. The historian Richard Drennen noted that the quote 'as of cowboys and Indians were the only game the American invaders knew.' In 1970, the Mexican author Octavio Paz described the U.S. as a quote 'giant that is walking faster and faster along a thinner and thinner line.' With the Vietnam War Grandin says, 'the U.S. hit its limit.' It was around this time that the idea of border walls started to loom larger in the public's imagination. And conflict and vigilantism on the border became even more acute. In 1977, the Ku Klux Klan led by David Duke set up a border watch that was much covered by the press and supported by patrol agents. The association with that last frontier war in Indochina went beyond the symbolic.
GREG GRANDIN: Sheetmetal landing pads that were used to land helicopters and cargo planes in Vietnam, they were brought over and used as as some of the first physical structures along the border.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I was struck when you wrote that some of the fencing was repurposed from the Crystal City Japanese American internment camp.
GREG GRANDIN: Right. So you see the wall taking shape from all of these different sediments and moments of U.S. racial history. The internment of Japanese in 1948, some of the first fencing when that internment camp and Crystal City was disassembled, the chain lengthened the posts were then used on the southern border.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If the countries lived past the end of its myth, the frontier myth, what replaces it?
GREG GRANDIN: The border wall. The idea that the world's resources are not limitless. Not everybody could sit at the table, that the United States needs to batten down. It needs to turn inward.
PRES. DONALD J. TRUMP: It's going to be only America first. America first. [END CLIP]
GREG GRANDIN: The unique ability to constantly deflect outward, to flee forward, to divert Social contradictions and class conflict and race outward, to roll over the trauma from the last war into the next war, to use the promise of growth to organize domestic politics, to say whatever problems we have now will be solved in the future through more expansion. Now that is no longer an option, the promise of unlimited growth has come crashing down in terms of the exhaustion of the economic model, the exhaustion of the military model and climate change.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell me again why you wrote this book?
GREG GRANDIN: I was trying to figure out a way to get beyond what had seemed to be a simplistic opposition in talking about Trump. Trump was either presented as completely unprecedented, an interruption in the United States as a long history of proceduralism and pluralism and multilateralism and openness. Or if one was more critical of the United States, Trump was presented as the culmination of a brutality that was in there from the beginning and settler colonial expansion. You know, I think that opposition fails to account for the contingencies of immediate history. What happened with Iraq, what happened with the changes in the political economy, what happens with climate change and the way that that has scrambled politics and the way politics could be organized. I was trying to present a way to think about Trump historically that didn't fall into one or the other. He's wholly new or he's just the fulfillment of settler colonialists.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
GREG GRANDIN: Thank you Brooke for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Greg Grandin is a professor of history at New York University and author of The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Was in the Mind of America.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's it for this week's show. On The Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan and Asthaa Chaturverdi. We had more help from Xandra Ellin. And our show was edited by me and Katya. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Han. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter WNYC vice president for news. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On The Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Bob Garfield we'll be back next week, I'm Brooke Gladstone.