The End of the Myth | Greg Grandin

Summary of: The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America
By: Greg Grandin

Introduction

In ‘The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America’, Greg Grandin delves deep into the origins of Trumpism, dating back to America’s formative years, and uncovers the significance of the American frontier’s myth. The summary explores how America’s early expansion, coupled with the treatment of Native Americans, Mexicans, and freed people, influenced the nation’s political landscape. Key themes addressed include the connection between prosperity and frontier expansion, the rise of Jacksonian principles, and the role of wars as a safety valve. This insightful analysis will provide readers with a better understanding of how the nation’s history has shaped its current policies and discourse.

The Myth of the American Frontier

The origins of Trumpism can be traced back to America’s formative years, where prosperity was linked to frontier expansion, leading to the belief that economic opportunities are limited, not everyone can share in prosperity, and government policy should reflect this reality. The success of the United States was tied to expansion, and the nation’s founding fathers saw diversity as one of the country’s great virtues. However, the issue of the lives and rights of Native Americans, Mexicans, and freed peoples tested the vision that diversity and expansion were the keys to peaceful coexistence.

The Expansion of the United States

The United States continued expanding its borders, raising questions about the treatment of native peoples. The presidency of Andrew Jackson marked a turn towards small government and individual freedoms, which led to the removal of Indians from their land. For Jackson, the best government was one that could barely be detected, unless you were an Indian. This principle resonated with southern states seeking autonomy from northern bureaucrats, especially regarding slavery.

Safety Valve and US Expansion

In the early 1800s, the safety valve became a crucial component of steam engines to prevent explosions, and the term caught on as a metaphor. Every policy, from territorial expansion to slavery, became a “safety valve.” Armed conflict, starting with the Mexican-American War in 1846, became a means of uniting a divided nation. Expansion served to extend an existential frontier, and war continued to be a safety valve for southerners. The US military became both a tool for endless expansion and a means of unification.

American Frontier Myth Debunked

The Frontier Thesis proposed by Frederick Jackson Turner nurtured the myth that the American frontier was a symbol of democracy and equality. However, the idea of the frontier communities learning the value of cooperation and fairness on their own was flawed from the outset. In most cases, the government preceded the settlers at every step of westward expansion. Turner deliberately suggested otherwise to nurture the idea that America’s frontier could go on forever. He proposed an inward new frontier of public policy and legislation for future expansion. While this did not align with the ideals of small government, industrialists found hope in Turner’s vision of new frontiers for corporate profit-making.

America’s Shifting Attitude

The United States has a rocky relationship with social democracy, but it all changed during the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s New Deal marked the most ambitious social project since the Freedmen’s Bureau. With social security and national programs, the country shifted from taming physical wilderness to subduing social wilderness.

Throughout history, America’s attempts at progressive social programs have been short-lived. Political resistance led the Freedmen’s Bureau to close in 1872 after seven years, despite being the most significant institution of social uplift the US had ever embarked on. The various Homestead Acts, aimed at distributing land fairly to willing farmers, also fizzled out after being dubbed examples of governmental overreach.

However, the Great Depression marked a turning point in America’s misunderstanding of social democracy. The realization that the future isn’t boundless thrust home; there was an inward focus on the internal challenges presently facing the US. Stuart Chase, a go-to economist for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, believed that fighting economic battles at home was the only option.

Studying at Harvard, Roosevelt had taken a class taught by Frederick Jackson Turner and was familiar with Frontier Theory. He proposed a New Deal that included Social Security and programs designed to put people to work. It was the government’s most ambitious social project since the Freedmen’s Bureau. Terms like “social individualism” were coined to shift the American mindset from taming physical wilderness to subduing “social wilderness.” These programs brought about national parks, tree planting, and crop sowing.

In conclusion, the United States has a rocky relationship with social democracy, and political resistance to progressive social programs has always existed. However, the Great Depression marked a turning point in America’s understanding of social democracy. Roosevelt’s New Deal marked the most ambitious social project since the Freedmen’s Bureau, shifting the focus from taming physical wilderness to subduing social wilderness.

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