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Greg Grandin on “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America”

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As the Senate appears poised to pass a resolution to overturn President Trump’s national emergency declaration to build a wall along the southern border, we speak with historian Greg Grandin about his new book, “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America.” Grandin writes in his book, “The wall might or might not be built. But even if it remains only in its phantasmagorical, budgetary stage, a perpetual negotiating chip between Congress and the White House, the promise of a two-thousand-mile-long, thirty-foot-high ribbon of concrete and steel running along the United States’ southern border serves its purpose. It’s America’s new myth, a monument to the final closing of frontier. It’s a symbol of a nation that used to believe that it had escaped history, or at least strode atop history, but now finds itself trapped by history, and of a people who used to think they were captains of the future, but now are prisoners of the past.” Greg Grandin is a professor at New York University and a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the Senate appears poised to pass a resolution to overturn President Trump’s national emergency declaration to build a wall along the southern border. On Sunday, Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky became the fourth Senate Republican to join Democrats opposing the emergency declaration. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen held a closed-door meeting with Republican senators Tuesday in an attempt to win more support for Trump’s emergency declaration. The president is threatening to veto the resolution if it comes to his desk.

AMY GOODMAN: As the debate over the border wall continues in Washington, we turn to a new book that looks at the border wall, well, in a new light. It’s called The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. It’s written by the acclaimed historian Greg Grandin, professor at New York University. His book Fordlandia was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Greg, thank you so much for being with us. Congratulations on your new job at Yale next year—

GREG GRANDIN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: —next semester, but you’re still here at NYU. Talk about the significance of the wall, both what Trump is attempting to do right now, and you look at it as a metaphor as well as a reality.

GREG GRANDIN: Right. Well, the way to understand the significance of the wall in American history is to step back and look at that other myth of American history, that for decades kind of underwrote American exceptionalism, America’s sense of nationalism, and that’s the frontier. The frontier has been a kind of proxy for a privilege that no other nation in history has enjoyed, and that’s the ability to use expansion, use the promise of limitless growth, in order to organize domestic politics. The frontier as a symbol of moving out in the world, as a symbol of the future, as—you know, this has been ideologized by various theorists going back to Frederick Jackson Turner at the end of the 19th century.

And so, one of the themes of the book is trying to look at the way the wall has trumped the frontier as the national symbol, and what that means. Where the frontier symbolized expansion and the future and a certain kind of openness to the world, the wall symbolizes almost its exact opposite, kind of. It embodies what some theorists have called a race realism, a sense that the world isn’t limitless, that there are limits, and that the United States has to take care of its own. So, in some ways, it’s a monument to a turning point in U.S. history, when the U.S. can no longer use the promise of unlimited growth to respond to social demands, or to channel and divert and vent extremism outward. All of the violence and radicalization of the previous wars could be rolled over into the next war, and that is no longer possible. So, all of that stuff is now swirling around the homeland, and that is the essence, I think, of what Trump represents and what Trumpism and the nativism that Trump represents.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, and, Greg, one of the particular ironies of all of this, as I’m reading—as I was reading your book, and you go back into the history of the country, is that really the issue of legality or illegality when it comes to migration across borders never seemed to bother the United States much. And, in fact, you argue that one of the main reasons for the American Revolution was that the colonists didn’t like the fact that England would not permit them to move beyond the East Coast, over the Appalachians, into Indian territory. And, in fact, even George Washington said, well—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —told his people, “Find me land in the illegal areas that we’re not supposed to be in”—the Indian territory. So there was—the revolt was against British attempts to hold the colonists along the Eastern Seaboard.

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah, to pen white settlers east of the Appalachias. I mean, I don’t argue it; that’s a fairly accepted view of the American Revolution. Look, the idea of expansion was built into the conception of the United States even before it was founded. Thomas Jefferson’s—one of his very first political tracts, three years before the Declaration of Independence, identified the right to move, the right to migrate, not just as a natural right, but almost as the condition of all other rights, because free men, whenever they were threatened, could just pick up and move. And he provided a kind of moral history of Saxons fleeing Europe for the British Isles, and then the people from Britain fleeing the British Isles for the Americas, and then people on the East Coast fleeing west. This was a conception of natural—of freedom built into the very beginning of the United States and then manifested—manifest destiny—in various ways across the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. You know, the frontier just, it meant—the landed frontier closes at the end of the 19th century, but then the word is used to symbolize all sorts of other venues, vectors of expansion, be it military or market.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you talk about the frontier constant expansion—I mean, the U.S. has 800 military bases around the world—and then the effects of that, and people start to try to come to this country as they’re affected by U.S. policy. Can you talk about some of that, what that means? And now, just moving into this new period of we expand out, but now, to prevent people, feeling the effects of that expansion, from coming in, we’ll simply build a wall.

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah. Well, back when Trump was on the rise and building momentum, there were two kind of oppositional ways of thinking about him, mutually exclusive. One is that he represented something unique, completely unprecedented in American history, a violation of a long history of openness, of proceduralism. Another position had him as the fulfillment of a kind of bloody history of settler colonialism, all of the racism and violence that’s embedded in U.S. history, the continental expansion or a more neocolonial rule that the United States has presided over, over the last couple of decades, fulfilling itself.

And I think both of those perspectives miss the importance of expansion and something that has changed. With the Iraq War and with the exhaustion of the neoliberal growth model and with climate change, the U.S. can no longer offer that safety valve, that promise of expansion, as a way of diluting passions and diverting extremism. And so, what you’re seeing is, yes, all of the Trumpism is, in some ways, the fulfillment of the contradictions of that earlier model, where—and certainly in Central America and in Mexico—you know, the border becomes the flash point of that long history.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to this discussion with Greg Grandin, prize-winning author, professor of Latin American history at New York University. The new book, out this week, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. This is Democracy Now! Back in 30 seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: “Ramon Casiano” by Drive-By Truckers. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guest, Greg Grandin, author of The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. Tell us the story of Ramón.

GREG GRANDIN: Ramón was a—

AMY GOODMAN: That the song is about.

GREG GRANDIN: —was a Mexican-American youth in Texas, and he was shot dead by Harlon Carter. Harlon Carter was a teenager. They were both teenagers. And it was a kind of “stand your ground” kind of murder in which Harlon Carter felt that Ramón and his friends were harassing his family, and he shot him dead. And Harlon Carter’s father was a Border Patrol agent, and then Harlon Carter went into the Border Patrol.

And why this story is interesting is it encapsulates what I call the nationalization of border brutalism, that kind of racism that had been concentrated at the border. Even as the frontier myth was moving forward and advancing a certain kind of universalism, a white supremacy was distilling on the border. And Harlon Carter then goes on, rises up in the ranks of the Border Patrol. He helps execute, he presides over Operation Wetback, which was a brutal mass deportation program in the 1950s.

But then, after he retires from the Border Patrol, he goes on to lead a right-wing coup within the National Rifle Association, and he basically transforms that organization into one of the pillars of the new right, that we know of it as today, an extremist organization. So, it’s a perfect example of how a certain kind of brutalism, that is bred and maintained and created on the border, has over the years become nationalized and has taken over national politics. So it’s a very graphic illustration of that process.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in that line, in terms of the Border Patrol, you make the point that the Border Patrol, according to you, has been, quote, “the frontline instrument of white supremacy,” that it’s perhaps the most repressive of all law enforcement agencies. And actually, it has its roots in the fact that, back in the 1920s, when immigration laws were restricted for different parts of the world, that Mexico was still allowed to have folks come into the country without restrictions, and the right wing then saw the need to create a Border Patrol. Could you talk about that history of the Border Patrol?


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Especially in light of the fact that people—some people are now demanding the abolition of ICE.

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah. Well, the Border Patrol, as a federal agency, was exempt from any kind of that oversight that either the FBI or the CIA was submitted to in the 1970s. There was no equivalent of the Church Committee. It really has been, in some ways, a rogue agency, both because of its nature, working in this kind of liminal area between the foreign and the domestic, and, you know, on these borderlands, with very little oversight. And it was founded in 1924. And it was founded the same year that the U.S. passed its nativist immigration law, which basically reduced immigration from Asia to zero, emphasized and privileged immigration from Protestant Northern Europe. But Mexico was exempted from that law because of agricultural interests. They wanted cheap access—unfettered access to cheap Mexican labor. And so there was no quotas placed on Mexico.

But the Border Patrol, in effect, became a consolation prize to the nativists, who lost the larger argument, that did want quotas placed on Mexico, because it invested in the Border Patrol an awesome amount of power to police immigration on the point of entry. And there was many incidents. What had become a—what was a fairly open process of seasonal migration increasingly became a kind of racist gauntlet, where these front-line Border Patrol agents, many of them who had worked in the Texas Rangers or came from local National Guards or local police forces, they were one or two generations removed from agricultural life themselves. They didn’t see their interests as exactly mapping onto the large-scale agricultural interests, but they saw themselves as a broker to those interests. So, a lot of the—so they were able to execute and commit quite a degree of unsupervised, unregulated abuse on migrants.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you make the point that there was really a high tide of these attacks on migrants in the ’80s and ’90s, but then, after the 9/11 attacks, the focus of the hate and anger shifts overseas—

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah, yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —and there’s actually some kind of a diminishing period, in the early 2000s, of the attacks on migrants, only now being resurrected under Trump.

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah. Well, there’s two currents of the militarization on the border. One is the white supremacy, the out-and-out revanchist violence, that gets worse after Vietnam. The troops, radicalized from the right, come back, and many of them begin mobilizing on the border, and there’s a spike in paramilitarism. On the other hand, there’s a bipartisan militarization of the border that Clinton presides over, which you have covered often. So there’s these two tracks going on.

Around 2000, there’s once again a resurgence in paramilitarism, militia on the border. But then 9/11 happens, and the nation’s attention moves to Afghanistan and Iraq. And I don’t know if paramilitarism actually declines, but nobody’s paying too much attention to it at the border. It begins to spike again right as Bush’s—George W. Bush’s wars start to fall apart. There’s a way, in the past, other—usually, like Kathleen Belew’s book, [Bring] the War Home, right-wing paramilitarism happens after the war’s end. In terms of the war on terror, what you see is that domestic paramilitarism grows in tandem as the wars are still going on, but as they are discredited. There’s almost an exact correlation between the scandal of Abu Ghraib, which I take as a turning point in really desanctifying the whole foreign policy of the United States, revealing it to be morally bankrupt—and it’s at that moment that the Minutemen are formed, and the rise of this kind of right-wing paramilitarism, which begins to take over the Republican Party, with the nativism—you know, both the specific militias, but then, generally, within their orbit—and influences the debate.

AMY GOODMAN: You go back in time to the ’20s, saying Border Patrol doused Mexicans crossing the border with Zyklon B, which was later used in the Nazi death camps?

GREG GRANDIN: Yes, and that’s from other historians’ work. I mean, that’s also a well-known—that’s not something that I found; that’s something I cited in a book. But, yes, there was Zyklon B. It was a delousification program that was part of the ways in which—the process of migration. Even though Mexico was exempt from quotas, the crossing became increasingly dehumanizing.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have the U.S.—President Trump attempting to build this border, isolate the United States from the effects of U.S. policy. And yet, at the same time, his people, and President Trump himself—Pence, Bolton, Elliott Abrams—are pushing this coup attempt against Venezuela.


AMY GOODMAN: And you even have the countries that are supporting the self-proclaimed president, Guaidó, balking at actually invading or using the military.

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting that as Trump is staging one border crisis here, they’ve also—the administration has also, via Marco Rubio, has managed to stage a second border crisis in Venezuela. There’s a lot of layers to Trump’s bid to overturn Maduro in Venezuela. Obviously, it’s just purely transactional, a way of trying to keep the neocons and Florida electoral votes within the Republican coalition. It’s a way of mobilizing this new right in Latin America, new allies in Brazil and in Colombia. In some ways, it’s a gesture towards Mexico, right? Mexico is the last—one of the last progressive countries, with AMLO president, kind of squeezing him in. We saw Bolsonaro’s son come to Mar-a-Lago and chant, “Build that wall,” you know, at some country and western party that the Trump family hosted in Mar-a-Lago. So, I read that as a kind of—as a signal to Mexico.

But it is an interesting indicator or test to how successful Trump’s bid in Venezuela will be, because my argument is that political coalitions have lost the ability to use foreign policy to establish domestic legitimacy. And that’s obviously what Trump’s trying to do. He’s trying to use Venezuela to set the terms of the 2020 debate, to say, “You want socialism? This is what socialism is. America will never be socialist.” Let’s see. Its success or failure will be, in some ways, a test of the book’s argument.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We only have about a minute left, but I wanted to ask you about the family separations, because one of the things that—points in your book is that this tactic of separating families is not new, but, actually, the Border Patrol was doing it back in the ’80s and ’90s and decades ago.

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah. I mean, there’s nothing that you’re reading about now, under Trump, that is new. The Border Patrol has been on the vanguard of some of the worst, most brutal policies that one can imagine. It just hadn’t been covered. I mean, there were certainly families separated. There’s certainly the tactic of separating children from parents in order to make parents break or confess. There was the releasing of children back into Mexico without any supervision, including U.S. citizens that were accused of not being U.S. citizens. There was sexual terrorism. There was violence and brutality and abuse and beatings and corruption. The INS was riddled with corruption through the 1970s and 1980s. You know, there’s nothing—Trump politicized the issue. Trump turned it into national spectacle, a kind of abuse—a system of abuse that had been more subterranean.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can stay for Part 2, we’ll post it online at democracynow.org. Greg Grandin, professor of Latin American history at New York University, soon to be at Yale. His new book, out this week, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. He’ll be in conversation with Naomi Klein at 6 p.m. at NYU’s Journalism School. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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