Like the pioneers two hundred years before him, Mark Romano recently decided to head West. Like those pioneers, Mark—a white, unemployed electrician from Pennsylvania with a military background—was driven by a combination of economic hopes, racist beliefs, and masculine desires. And like those pioneers, Mark moving West was at once a personal, as well as a national, project. But unlike those pioneers, Mark headed West not to expand America, but rather to set its limits.
These twin projects—both expanding and limiting—form the basis of Greg Grandin’s new book, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. To these projects, Grandin commits a tremendous amount of work because, as he convincingly demonstrates, expansion and limitation are the key to understanding America itself. Where once America defined itself through the project of expanding into a mythically “limitless” and “empty” frontier, today America defines itself through the project of hunkering down behind a mythically “dangerous” and “out-of-control” border.
While Trump has expressed a particularly dramatic focus on building a wall, the truth is that American politicians over the past few decades—Republicans and Democrats alike—have been engaged in the project of wall building. In fact, the first extended conversation I ever had with Mark Romano happened back in April 2006, shortly after the US passed its “Secure Fence Act” and the militarization campaign was in full swing.
We were at a gas station located in a stretch of otherwise empty desert, about an hour south of Tucson, Arizona. I was in the back seat of Mark’s pickup truck. Mark had driven to Arizona all the way from Pennsylvania, some two thousand miles, in order to patrol the border with the militia group known as the Minutemen. As Mark got out of the car to pump gas, I was struck by the remarkable number of people at this gas station in the middle of nowhere. There were roughly 10 Border Patrol agents alongside about six Border Patrol vehicles, as well as some 40 migrants, almost all young men, all in handcuffs, standing in a line outside a bus. (This bus belonged to the private security firm Wackenhut, which had been contracted by the US government to transport apprehended unauthorized immigrants.) There was also a truck driver pumping gas into a long flatbed truck, which contained pallets of metal and steel being used to build new fencing. Finally, there were about 20 men in camouflage, members of the national guard who had been deployed by then president George W. Bush to help “secure” the border. Months later, when I interviewed the Pakistani immigrant who owned the gas station, he would tell me how this gas station, which for years seemed like “a bad investment,” was now constantly packed. Times had changed. Business was booming. The border was coming to Arizona.
American history, Grandin says, is a history marked by two distinct periods: one of expansion—beginning in the early 19th century and extending until the 21st century—and one of setting limits. Today, of course, we are in the period of limitations.
These historical periods are marked by distinct mythologies. We can understand America’s historical arc as the shift from one mythology to another. First, America was possessed by a national mythology of the frontier, one dominated by a belief in the potential for universal freedom and boundless prosperity through continual Westward expansion. Today, America is possessed by a national mythology of the border, one dominated by a belief that the world is, and ought to be, unequal. Although Grandin does not directly name it as such, the language of dialectics threads his account, with the frontier representing America’s thesis, and the border representing its antithesis.
As a sweeping historical portrait whose main figures are presidents and military figures, Grandin’s book leaves unexamined how the lives of everyday individuals are shaped by frontiers and borders, either as subjects of their violence, or, as in the case of Mark Romano, agents of their violence.
Mark Romano did not come from a military family. His grandparents were working-class Italian immigrants who arrived in New York as part of the large wave of Italian migration in the early 20th century. The owners of a small household goods store—who always used to can their own food out of fear of potential scarcity—Mark’s grandparents, in his telling, were examples of “the American dream: hardworking immigrants who came to America to make a better life.” And he adds, no more than a breath later, “not like today’s immigrants who have no respect for this country.”
Mark says that his own “respect for this country” developed at a young age and that he always knew he wanted “to serve our country.” However, Mark’s poor grades in high school—coupled with limited alternatives and the potential for upward mobility through military service—had as much to do with his decision to enlist as any ostensibly patriotic feelings. And when reflecting on his military experiences, Mark repeatedly talks about gaining a sense of self-worth, purpose, and masculine pride. “I was the smallest guy in bootcamp,” Mark tells me, “but I did the best. All these big guys failed cause they had the wrong attitude, but for me, it was a breeze.” This sense of self-security was attained from a combination of factors: his learned proficiency with firearms, friendships with politically conservative men, and—after serving in the Gulf War and the 1991 invasion of Iraq—a strong belief that Muslims presented an existential threat to America.
While Trump has expressed a particularly dramatic focus on building a wall, the truth is that American politicians over the past few decades have been engaged in the project of wall building.
One cannot understand today’s border, Grandin convincingly and often beautifully argues, without first understanding the frontier that preceded it. Such historicizing of the border (as previously accomplished by scholars ranging from Joseph Nevins to Saskia Sassen) reveals that the US-Mexico border has only recently become a militarized space and the focus of our conceptions of national security, rather than a timeless bastion of American sovereignty. But more importantly, Grandin’s historicizing pushes this argument forward: by arguing that the border can only be made sense of by understanding it specifically as the closure of the frontier.
To understand the border, therefore, one needs to understand not what it does, but what it undoes. Specifically, the invention of today’s “border” is actually the undoing of a vast and violent history: a past rooted in the belief that American greatness equaled Westward expansion.
Such a history, undesirable as it may be, has taken many forms throughout the nation’s past. It is a history articulated by Andrew Jackson, who used the frontier myth to legitimize the slaughtering of Native Americans. In the early 20th century, Woodrow Wilson used the metaphor of the frontier to legitimize the necessity of fighting imperial wars abroad. Decades later—when physical expansion reached its limit, and when, in turn, those wars reached their own end points—John F. Kennedy talked about outer space as the final frontier. But even he was outdone by Bill Clinton, who spoke of expansion into “global markets” as the new frontier.
It was the 19th-century historian Frederick Jackson Turner who made the earliest and most famous argument for the frontier as a central feature of American life. In his famous 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American Life,” Turner conceptualizes the frontier primarily in geographic terms, and sees constant expansion into ostensibly uninhabited territory as the very basis of American identity. From Turner on, American politicians used and relied on the frontier—as both a physical space, and then, later, as a metaphor—not only as a source of political legitimacy, but also as a symbol and embodiment of the very idea of freedom and progress throughout most of American history. “The poetry stopped on June 16, 2015,” Grandin eloquently puts it, “when Donald J. Trump announced his presidential campaign by standing Frederick Jackson Turner on his head. ‘I will build a great wall,’ Trump said.”
Why is the closure of the frontier so consequential? Because, Grandin reveals, frontiers and borders are not things, but projects; not objects, but actions. Borders, then, are political projects that actively produce economic and racial inequalities (all while naturalizing those artificial differences).
For America, according to Grandin, the action that the frontier performed was that of a “safety valve.” That is, political elites employed the project of the frontier—whether expressed through the logic of territorial or market expansion—to address America’s internal racial and economic problems. The frontier functioned by “dissolving class conflict” and “helping vent extremism outward,” thereby “stabilizing the country” and negating any potential progressive, class-based politics. As a project instigated by elites to preserve the status quo, the frontier, you might say, worked.
But the frontier myth, Grandin explains, has now imploded; consequently, the safety valve has come undone. “Instead of peace, there’s endless war,” warns Grandin. “Instead of critical, resilient, and progressive citizenry, a conspiratorial nihilism, rejecting reason and dreading change, has taken hold. Factionalism congealed and won a national election.” By “negating” the frontier, the border negates America’s mythological expulsions; not only do America’s racist undercurrents now turn back and face inward, so too does the myth that a better future lies around the corner, just past the next expansion.
Just as Mark’s grandparents sought a better future by moving to America, Mark sought a better future by moving to the border.
In 2016, about a decade after he first started patrolling the border with the Minutemen, Mark, unemployed and uncertain about the future, picked up and moved from Pennsylvania to Arizona full-time in order to start a small business, just like his grandparents. Except, instead of selling household goods, Mark is teaching people how to use guns. Together with a former Border Patrol agent, Mark now co-owns and acts as the primary instructor of a firearms training school. He teaches not only civilians but also police officers: those looking for, as he calls it, “the stuff that they won’t teach you in the academy.”
Armed with the myth that guns will save him, Mark says that, while his grandparents were “survivalists who knew life skills, like canning their own foods, the new generation doesn’t know anything about survival.” Continuing with eugenic language, he explains: “All that stuff has bred out of the new generation.” Mark believes he stands apart from the weak, unprepared citizens of today. And so, once again, his sense of masculine self-worth is rooted in proficiency in violence. For example, he proudly explained, “This cop had never seen this technique I teach about how to exit a vehicle being shot at … now he says he trains his own men to do it.” Again, at the border, Mark believes he stands alone.
One cannot understand today’s border, Grandin convincingly and often beautifully argues, without first understanding the frontier that preceded it.
The trick of myths, as Roland Barthes tells us, is that they reverse the order of nature and society, giving what are, in fact, socially constructed texts the appearance of natural order. In asking us to consider both the frontier and the border as national mythologies, Grandin is asking us to recognize the tricks they play on us.
Whether it is Andrew Jackson’s claim that America had a natural and God-given mission to slaughter Native Americans, or Trump’s invocation that a nation without borders is not a nation—Grandin allows us to recognize them as political constructions: as socially constructed texts that only appear to be immovable features of the landscape. And in telling the history of how America transformed from a nation of frontiers to a nation of borders, Grandin allows us to see the political dynamics at play when borders are reified: when the divisions between legal and illegal, inside and outside, citizen and subject, are presented as the natural order.
While Grandin does a wonderful job of unmasking the mythology of the border, he also appears to have partially fallen for one of its tricks. Borders only suggest a limit; in fact, they are fully capable of furthering a project of expansion.
Consider the gas station where Mark and I first talked: located a good 50 miles from the territorial edge of America, it was far away from the actual “border.” Indeed, the place where the Minutemen patrolled was not at the “border,” but many miles north of it. And back home in Pennsylvania—far, of course, from the border—Mark went to surveil the parking lots of places such as the Home Depot, intimidating and reporting “illegals” searching for work. Now, he does the same in Phoenix and Tucson.
When he is patrolling the “border,” whether it be in Southern Arizona or urban Pennsylvania, Mark does so armed with his 1911 semiautomatic handgun. And Mark can have his gun with him, thanks not to the frontier’s lawlessness, but, instead, to a wave of legislation. Starting with Shall-Issue Laws in the 1990s, and moving on to Arizona’s “constitutional carry” law passed in 2010, men like Mark can carry their guns with them nearly everywhere they go, without any kind of formal licensing. Should Mark—who always talks about how dangerous the people coming across the border are—find himself feeling “reasonably afraid” and shoot someone, America’s constantly expanding “use of force” laws would make Mark’s violence much more legitimate and defensible in the eyes of the law. “It is,” as Mark tells me, in reference to Arizona gun laws, “a place that does not restrict my freedoms like back up North.”
Grandin himself acknowledges that borders are located not merely at the territorial edges of America, but, in fact, everywhere: checkpoints are found throughout America’s Southern highways; ICE raids take place thousands of miles away from “the border”; airports around the world are chock-full of America’s border guards; and a combination of multinational alliances and financial threats allow America to instill its own interests and policies on the borders of not only “nearby” countries like Mexico and Guatemala but those as far away as Morocco and Thailand. And yet he does not recognize the ways in which the border—as part of the broader project of American militarization of everyday life—continues to expand what the frontier was about: the capacities of certain people to engage in violence. Indeed, through laws such as constitutional carry and stand-your-ground, it expands these capacities to the public sphere itself. The border, then, didn’t just negate the frontier; in many ways, in fact, it has expanded the frontier.
America, then, is expanding, but through the logic of borders. Part of what the mythology of borders accomplishes is that it reinscribes the very project of expansion, and the violence and lawlessness associated with it, with a new legitimacy, precisely by denying that it is being undertaken.
By erasing the frontier, the border has only brought all the dangers of the frontier into the presumed safety of the home. It wasn’t just the border that came to the remote Arizona gas station: it was also lawlessness, militarism, detention, and violence.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.