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History’s Sinkhole

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Historians have largely discounted the argument that the American West worked as a “safety valve” for class tensions in the East. But throughout the twentieth century, presidents found that appealing to what Wilson called America’s “frontier heart” was an effective way of simplifying the complexities of the modern world, of sublimating domestic political conflict into the myth of limitless expansion. Richard Nixon generally avoided pioneer symbolism, which might have had less to do with wanting to distance himself from JFK’s New Frontier—or with the Vietnamese, whose tenacity revealed that there were indeed constraints on American power—than with the fact that when he was a boy, he worked as a barker at Dick’s Wheel of Fortune at the annual Frontier Days summer rodeo in Prescott, Arizona. As a politician, he could put that experience behind him and try a different hustle.

Waiting for José
The Minutemen’s Pursuit of America.
By Harel Shapira.
Buy this book

About the Author

Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin teaches history at New York University and is the author of Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize...

Also by the Author

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The main characters in Melville’s Moby-Dick and Benito Cereno represent the dark, corrupting branches of American imperialism.  

No one milked the myth better than Ronald Reagan, who invoked a morality “born and bred in the wide open spaces” to restore certainty to American politics after defeat in Vietnam. “The difference between right and wrong,” he said in 1983, “seems as clear as the white hats that the cowboys in Hollywood pictures always wore so you’d know right from the beginning who was the good guy.” 

Reagan’s escalation of the arms race with the Soviet Union and push into the Third World was objectively important in helping the United States restore its supremacy after losing its grip on Iran, Nicaragua and Southeast Asia. But his revival of the Cold War also kept busy the contentious theocon and neocon factions of the New Right, which otherwise might have focused their fire on his many domestic compromises with the Democratic establishment (on, among other things, immigration legislation). He empowered an interagency group of men, headed by Oliver North, who collectively called themselves the “cowboys,” to run foreign policy as if it were a revival of Bill Hickok’s Wild West Show. Iran-Contra, as the various scandals involving the cowboys became known, was as much a crime as a romance, a bid—and a successful one for a time—to reopen the frontier through counterinsurgency in Central America and elsewhere.

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At this point, the frontier is a dead metaphor. It was done in partly by Reagan himself. People tend to remember him as the embodiment of rawhide authenticity, but he performed his role as rancher-president with a twinkle of Brechtian irony. Reagan even once quoted the liberal historian Henry Steele Commager, admitting that the public knew there was a difference between “myth” and “reality,” but it didn’t matter: “Americans believed about the West not so much what was true, but what they thought ought to be true.” Such historical self-awareness made it hard for his successors, like George W. Bush, and would-be successors, like Texas Governor Rick Perry, to play it straight. 

But it was the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the 2008 economic collapse, that ultimately killed the frontier as an ideal. Washington is still waging a worldwide counterinsurgency, with military bases that span the globe. And Barack Obama did have one cowboy moment, when he sent SEAL Team Six to kill “Geronimo,” as Osama bin Laden was code-named. Obama’s submission to the premises of the national security state has been total, yet for the most part he’s secularized the imperium, reframing militarism as a matter of utility, competence and pragmatism—technocracy. This has made it difficult for the right to muster itself through war and foreign policy. With backroom supervisors preparing kill lists and game boys flying the drones, the romance is over.

In the last decade, “quick-draw” corporate mercenaries were let loose to re-create the death cult of the West in what they called “Indian country,” the Iraqi and Afghani provinces of Kandahar, Najaf and Anbar, turning the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi and others into Tombstones. Outfits like Blackwater were as much Christianist as militarist, which allowed them to play the same role that Iran-Contra did in the 1980s by uniting in a foreign campaign the Kit Carson Indian-killing and Elmer Gantry evangelical wings of the conservative movement. But many of these companies have gone international, which undercuts their ability to aggregate the nationalist right.

Erik Prince, for instance, the founder of Blackwater, still has gun and will travel. But he’s decamped to Abu Dhabi, where he is being bankrolled by emirate oil money to start up a new battalion of mercenaries, staffed mostly by Colombians and South Africans. Prince has two missions: to ensure that the kind of mass demonstrations that occurred in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and elsewhere don’t take place in the United Arab Emirates, and to suppress piracy in sub-Saharan Africa, making the continent safe for corporations looking to tap into its mineral wealth, including Prince’s own Frontier Resources Group, which he started with private and state Chinese capital. The frontier is now multilateral, and the kinds of men who find themselves on the US-Mexican border no longer have access to it. They are tin soldiers. 

With nowhere left to go, the “furies” of the right, as Sam Tanenhaus describes the conservative fringe, whip around the homeland, revealing the supremacist roots of America’s settler tradition. Ideas that in the past had been suppressed, or deflected into war, now burst out in domestic policy. Conservative activists and politicians can’t mention healthcare without turning the discussion to rape. Bring up taxes, and suddenly they are stuttering on about slavery. On the border, Mexican-hating has become metaphysical: they are waiting for José but thinking about Abdul. Many of the vigilantes that Shapira talks to say they would rather be killing Muslims over there. But they can’t. So they ambush Mexicans and Central Americans here. The rise of the Minuteman movement corresponded with a spike in anti-Latino hate crimes, which according to the FBI increased 40 percent between 2003 and 2007. It’s an old tradition. According to William Carrigan and Clive Webb in their recently published book, Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence Against Mexicans in the United States, white vigilantes in the Southwest lynched an unknown number of Mexicans between 1848 and 1928, with conservative estimates putting the tally in the thousands. 

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