Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

President Trump's proposed wall along the US-Mexico border marks the end of the American frontier, argued Prof. Greg Grandin, history, New York University.

March 23, 2017

From Frontier to Border Wall: Historian Examines American Exceptionalism Under Trump

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American exceptionalism’s greatest metaphor — the American frontier — is dead, and in its place is Donald Trump’s proposed border wall, said Prof. Greg Grandin, history, New York University, in a lecture on Wednesday.

In the second of three lectures on American exceptionalism for the annual Carl Becker Lecture Series, Grandin traced the unifying role of frontier and empire in American history.

“Endless expansion, either through militarism or markets, helped diffuse domestic tension and allowed for the establishment of durable and stable institutions,” Grandin said.

However, he argued that Trump and his proposed wall are a “rupture” in that framework. Grandin described that the wall signifies a shift in United States’ ability to evade domestic conflict by externalizing it in foreign policy.

He went on to trace various conceptions of what he analogizes as America’s “safety valve of empire,” what he describes as the safety that the American frontier offers from domestic conflict.

“Empire allowed [the] United States to avoid a true reckoning with social problems … inequality, racism, crime and punishment, domestic violence … caused by the United States’s brand of largely unfettered capitalism,” Grandin said.

Grandin ultimately arrived at a central question: “why now?” Responding to his question, Grandin argued that the question requires looking at the “larger context.”

“Trumpism is more than … the full flowing of white resentment caused by economic dislocation. There’ve been similar cycles of dislocation in the past that have given rise to racist populists similar to Trump. … but those backlashes remained marginal,” he said. “Trumpism broke the constraints, and its threat is that it’s gained national power”

In this way, Trump’s proposed wall is more than politics. Grandin also connected it to the 2008 financial collapse, the consequences of recent wars and problems with free trade.

“Trump’s wall taps into … a primal shift of a frontier transformed from possibility to peril, where the world’s surplus population … need to be kept out.” In other words, “the safety valve was gummed up and perhaps finally for good.”

Although Grandin recognized that the United States still has a strong global presence, he argued U.S. expansion and empire are no longer able to provide “the place where the US deflects and dilutes its domestic contradictions into a horizon of endless promises.”

According to Grandin, the wall is now a place where, instead of diffusing into the world, “all of the global threats collapse into each other,” he said.

“With nowhere left to go, the furies of the right whip around the homeland, ideas that in the past have been suppressed or deflected outward into war, reconciled inward by shared service in war, now burst out in domestic policy.”

Ultimately, Grandin said that Trump’s wall reflects “how violence that has long been externalized comes home.”