Trump, the American Dream, and the Frontier
Greg Grandin's The End of the Myth & Arlie Hochschild's Strangers in Their Own Land
The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America
(Metropolitan Books , 2019)
Strangers in Their Own Land
(The New Press, 2016)
David Graeber once postulated that the reason conservatives hate Hollywood is not just because of the film industry’s sanctimonious liberalism but because this liberalism is disseminated by an industry that is profoundly nepotistic. From the Coppolas to the Barrymores to the Fondas to the Gyllenhaals to Gwyneth Paltrow, Matthew Broderick, Daniel Radcliffe, and Jaden Smith, Hollywood has notoriously and shamelessly granted opportunity, irrespective of merit, to those with the right connections at the expense of everyone else. Conservatives, Graeber argues, reject Hollywood because, in contrast to supposedly meritocratic (at least in the conservative imagination) industries such as business, Hollywood is unfair. That Hollywood is also bent on socially engineering the masses with the liberal fads of the day, while simultaneously trading in unending sex and violence, merely adds insult to injury.
Graeber’s recognition of conservatives’ overriding concern with fairness helps explain conservatives’ steadfast support for Donald Trump. Trump of course began his presidential run as an ostensibly unbeholden political outsider who took down the Bush and Clinton dynasties by asserting that he would halt all manner of global cheating and “put America first.” Promising to “drain the swamp,” the incoming Trump administration was characterized by an unusual and sometimes surreal openness as celebrities, eccentrics, and hangers-on dropped by to share their views with the president-elect.1 A 21st-century version of Andrew Jackson’s inaugural ball, this spectacle conveyed an administration freed from technocratic elites, micromanagers, and other unaccountable insiders (which is one reason why Trump’s incompetence rarely concerns his supporters, since it is merely more evidence of his overarching authenticity). Indeed, it would be interesting to examine the public’s letters to the president during those first months to determine whether there was an unusually high number of offers of assistance and auditions for employment given the perception, at least among his supporters, that the Trump White House was uncharacteristically accessible to those on the margins of the establishment.
Fundamentally, the notion that the Trump presidency is bent on establishing, or restoring, fairness mistakes appearance for reality. This critical distinction is obscured in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land (2016), in which the Berkeley sociologist travels to Louisiana to explore the thinking of Trump-supporting conservatives.2 Spending time with conservatives on their own turf and observing their interactions with their churches, workplaces, and neighbors, Hochschild pursues a “deep understanding” of conservatives “from the inside.” What she arrives at is a conservative “deep story” that is based on an extended metaphor of “waiting in line.” In sum, resentful, Trump-supporting, white people feel as if they have “played by the rules” by “waiting in line” in order to earn their rightful portion of the American Dream, but women, African Americans, immigrants, government workers, and even endangered birds are, with the aid of liberal government officials, increasingly “cutting” in front of them. When conservatives criticize the unfairness of this situation, they are shouted down for being racist ogres whose devotion to the Christian God, family, and country is the source of endless ridicule in mainstream culture.
Because much of Hochschild’s examination relies on her acceptance of the aptness of the line metaphor, it is important to note that such a notion is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of contemporary life. Capitalism has never been based on a line in which the good life is a reasonable outcome for those who dutifully work and wait for it. This idea is incapable of explaining, for instance, the fixed poverty of fast-food workers or among migrant farmworkers whose political vulnerability—which the state and business respectively produce and exploit—indicates that they are less "willing," as Hochschild and her interviewees would have it, than forced to work for sub-minimum wages. On the contrary, the image of a line—in which people face the same direction in a single file—mystifies the nature of a class society in which the power of a small elite is generated through exploitative interaction with the majority. Unable to transcend the contradiction inherent in wages, which are simultaneously a negative cost of business and the primary means of workers’ survival, the system reproduces poverty, even as the number and identity of its victims can vary under different historical circumstances.
Needless to say, Hochschild’s white conservative interlocutors do not blame their economic and other struggles on capitalism. On the contrary, Hochschild’s interviewees, some of whom express faith in impending rapture, complain about illegitimate “outsiders” and society’s supposed replacement of an honorable and rooted existence with “cosmopolitan selves [that are] directed to the task of cracking into the global elite … [who make] do with living farther away from their roots…[and take] pride in liberal causes." Such concepts, Werner Bonefeld reminds us, have long been used to express a violently reactionary and anti-Semitic worldview that positions itself against an enemy that is viewed as abstract, fluid, universal, mobile, intangible, rootless, landless, and represented by money and society, all of which are attempting to destroy rooted communities that are connected to the land through farming and industry, blood and soil.3
Such language has an undoubtedly dangerous pedigree, but Hochschild intends for us to listen to it so that we might cultivate a mutual understanding that will enable the national community to repair itself, which begs the question of not only what a national community entails but also whether Hochschild is reversing cause and effect. Conservatives and liberals are in conflict not merely because they fail to understand one another but because they understand all too well that they are separated by increasingly unbridgeable interests. Conservatives, Hochschild notes, reject government regulation of their weapons and investments, i.e., their own self-interested pursuits. When it comes to restricting women’s access to abortion or policing people of color, however, conservatives, whose political, social, and economic power is predicated on the domination of others, become ardent proponents of the regulatory state. Seeking to overcome such antagonistic interests through mutual understanding thereby constitutes a wrong answer to a wrong question. Conservatives do not conceive of themselves as merely one of many interest groups competing for influence over the government. On the contrary, they, not unreasonably, see themselves as occupying a fundamental and inviolable position within society precisely because of their historically aligned relationship to the state. Hochschild suggests this inheritance when she joins her interlocutors in describing US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan as “our troops,” and in the very fact that she accepts on faith that it is conservatives’ “own land” in the first place and that conservatives’ estrangement from it constitutes an unambiguously legitimate source of grievance. Reporting on her subjects as she finds them, Hochschild evades US militarism and the genocidal settlement of the land (i.e., US society’s material preconditions) and, as a result, divorces her interviewees’ ideas from the imperial context that helped shape them. In so doing, she obfuscates what she seeks to explain.
Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth contextualizes today’s crises through the metaphor of not a line of atomized individuals waiting for their turn but a frontier—a border that evolved into a “cultural zone or a civilizational struggle” through the settlement of the West and beyond.4 Unlike the line, the frontier produces an inside that is defined through antagonistic exchange with those outside—whether of shifting geographic boundaries or the domestic body politic. Whereas historians often debate whether the Constitution expanded or reversed the revolutionary spirit of the Declaration of Independence, Grandin highlights the racist expansionism within the Declaration’s enlightened universalism. Beyond taxes and billeting, Jefferson’s litany of King George’s crimes included the complaint that Britain was preventing the colonists from conquering the land of the “merciless Indian Savages.” That is, America may have been “born free,” but it was a freedom from a government that sought to constrain its subjects’ violent oppression of others.
We see this conception of negative freedom again and again, as in a story Grandin recounts of a young Andrew Jackson, who when transporting slaves through federally protected “Indian” land, became outraged after a government official requested to see his passport. Writing “My God, is it come to this … Are we freemen or are we slaves? Is this real or is it a dream?,” Jackson threatened to murder the agent and devoted himself to getting him fired. Jackson, of course, would have the last laugh as, once president, he would expel (ethnically cleanse in today’s language) the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek, and other Indigenous peoples from the southeast, where expanded chattel slavery and accelerated national expansion would take their place.
Such freedom not only drove early Western expansion—most dramatically via the Mexican land grab—but, once the continental frontier was closed, continued overseas through the Spanish-American War, the World Wars, and the seemingly unending US wars since. To be sure, the understanding of expansion itself evolved from the merely territorial (as with the taking of Puerto Rico, Guam, Hawaii, and other territories) to the economic (outlined in the “Fourteen Points” and at Bretton Woods Conference) to the political and the cultural. Along the way, the problems produced by expansion were resolved—or at least displaced—by ever more expansion, an approach to national development that, Grandin argues, has left the US disoriented and destabilized now that its ability to expand has finally come to an end. US racist violence and other pathologies, provided no effective outlet in a contracting and crisis-ridden world system, have come home to roost under Trump, who can only offer the frontier’s antithesis: the wall (one nevertheless wonders about the intensification of domestic racism attending, and surely lingering after, moments of US expansion, e.g., the virulent anti-Chinese racism during the settlement of the West and the anti-Japanese racism of WWII).
The End of the Myth performs a vital service in tracing the intrinsic violence of US historical development, showing that this violence does not constitute a one-time original sin but is instead recursive as it is enmeshed within the assumptions of American freedom itself. Yet, notwithstanding Grandin’s attempts to juxtapose US development with seemingly more peaceful national paths (he favorably looks upon the South American republics, notwithstanding their own eventual warfare), US history and its current crises reflect not only the peculiarities of US development, but also the demands and contradictions of a fundamentally violent global system.
Indeed, neither Trump nor his racist immigration policies—which include antecedents such as Operation Wetback, Pat Buchanan, and California’s Proposition 187—are new to US history, as Grandin writes. But neither are they unique to contemporary global politics. As harrowing as the border patrols on the Mexican border are, one can find comparable brutality in the Mediterranean, which, as Nicholas De Genova writes, the EU’s immigration policies have “actively converted … into a mass grave.”5 Similarly, the US’s rightward shift may have been articulated by Ronald Reagan, but it was born in the crises of the global economy of the 1970s, which incapacitated the Left while emboldening the Right, not only in the US but also in countries including Germany, France, and the UK. “Clinton was Reagan’s greatest achievement,” but Reagan was the achievement of both a reemergent US South and an oversaturated global economy.
Lest we reduce striking similarities between the US and other countries to mere coincidence, we ought to look at not only the ideas animating and justifying US development but also the structure of the global system itself. The United States has, since at least WWII, been the most powerful country in the world, so it is easy to forget that in some ways it is also the quintessential nation-state, the first to have based its legitimacy on what is now the reigning system of government today: republican pluralism. Madison developed this concept in his discussion in “Federalist No. 10” of the threat posed by factions, which he defines as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”6 Notably for Madison, “the most common and durable source of factions, has been the various and unequal distribution of property.”
Madison's solution to the problem of factions is brilliant, but he leaves us with a paradox: what is the difference between a majority faction of 99 percent of the population (which Madison would oppose) and the “aggregate interests of the community” or common good (which he supports)? What exactly does the common good consist of if not what the majority wants? Grandin suggests that Madison saw the common good as virtue and virtue as diversity itself, yet the contradictory interests contained within this diversity—e.g., the mutually exclusive antagonisms between boss and worker or landlord and tenant—cannot constitute the “aggregate interests of the community,” since it is not possible to aggregate contradictions without destroying one or the other, something Madison steadfastly opposes. When we talk, for instance, about hegemonic ideologies that claim to aggregate disparate interests, we are in reality speaking about the subordination of some ideologies (e.g., identities based on fidelity to family, city, or religion) to a dominant one (e.g., nationalism). Indeed, Madison recommends “extend[ing] the sphere” of government, not because he valued diversity as such, but in order to multiply factions so that they can offset one another, a specifically counter-majoritarian maneuver designed to make it “more difficult for all who feel ‘a common interest’ to discover their own strength.” But what precisely is it that Madison is trying to protect?
Madison’s purpose is made explicit when he defends his plan precisely because under it “a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it.” Writing amid Shays’ Rebellion, Madison was profoundly concerned with protecting “natural” property rights, not from the perspective of the framers’ narrow self-interest, a view frequently attributed to Charles A. Beard, but in general. Yet, even in general terms, private property, which is premised on the exclusion of the unpropertied, could not by definition constitute the common good. Madison’s common good, then, could only be the wellbeing of a modern and decidedly unneutral state that derives its power from a system of private property that secures both the interests of property holders and the concomitant dependency of everyone else.
And this modern state, consolidated with the American and French Revolutions, was born into a system of states in which the territory and power of each were inherently relational to the other. The US was founded through breaking away from Britain, and its earliest tasks, as Grandin notes, were to strengthen itself through acquiring land not only from stateless Indigenous peoples but also from its Spanish, British, and French rivals. It was within this geopolitical and national context that settlers, whom Grandin casts in a leading role in the story, helped spearhead Western expansion. Although these settlers often resented and exceeded the given policies of the federal government, their material wellbeing and political support were nevertheless contingent upon the state, which both protected them and capitalized on their efforts. Indeed, this good cop/bad cop dynamic of government/settler expansion is not unique to the US but reflects a pattern of development that can be found in numerous states including, perhaps most prominently today, Israel. That is, the determinative factor in US historical development was less, as Grandin suggests, an endogenous ideology or the settlers and other agents who articulated it, than a global system that provided the structure into which the US state’s material exigencies and ambitions were born.
US leaders were, to be sure, free to ignore the rules of the international system and not pursue state-building (as Grandin suggests in his comparison between the relatively humane John Quincy Adams and the genocidally-racist Andrew Jackson), but such dereliction was bound to come at a cost, paid for by either the individual (John Quincy Adams never received a majority vote and lost reelection) or the state itself. Justifying the US’s annexation of the Philippines following the Spanish-American War, William McKinley, who originally opposed annexation as a “criminal aggression,”7 was cognizant of these systemic pressures—not least the urgent need to relieve an economy depressed by overproduced goods—when he warned that if the US did not act it would be “bad business and discreditable” since its similarly glutted imperial rivals assuredly would.
None of this is to suggest that the development of a given state is a purely mechanistic affair, as there are of course contingencies as well as unique national cultures that influence all countries. Just the same, the cultural and the structural shape each other, and historically the former more often than not evolves upon material terrain shaped by the imperatives of the latter. Perhaps no event more than the Civil War, which Grandin only briefly discusses, demonstrates the confluence between the distinctively American version of freedom and the world system into which the US was integrating.
Although the existence of the federally intrusive Fugitive Slave Act gives lie to the South’s insistence that it was fighting for states’ rights as such, the South was just as assuredly fighting for its freedom to oppress Black people who provided the basis of its material and cultural way of life. To be sure, as Richard Hofstadter has shown, Southerners such as John Calhoun insisted that the Southern system protected slaves from the perverse freedoms—freedom to starve or lose limbs to industrial machinery—of the North.8 While the South’s brutally racist violence belied its professed paternalism and revealed Calhoun’s accusation against the North as a tu quoque, both sides did fight over whose interests Black people would be forced to advance: the sectional and parochial aggrandizement of plantation owners or the expansion of an increasingly industrial national economy that was in competition with other states through the apparatus of wage-labor based capitalism. For it is too infrequently noted that the slaves were emancipated in the same decade as the liberation of both the Russian and Japanese serfs, indicating that even disparate nation-states were pursuing the same goal, and with the same techniques, of 19th-century modernization.
The Civil War showed that the US would—under the systemic pressures of growth or decline—adapt itself to successfully compete in the global system, even as the war and its aftermath shaped a unique political culture. Although Reconstruction ended with the 1877 Hayes Compromise, it was not until the Spanish-American War that the South, Klan and all, was reincorporated into the nation on its own terms, as that war, as Grandin puts it, “both re-legitimated the Confederacy and allowed resurgent racists to drape themselves in the high ideals of a now-reconciled national history.” Taking redemptive pride in their contributions to US expansion, Southerners were now able “to atone for their sedition against the nation, even as they carried the banner of that sedition to the ‘farthest corners of the earth.’” With Woodrow Wilson segregating the federal government and Nixon adopting the Southern Strategy, the South won a peace that was predicated on the relegation of African Americans to a permanent underclass subsidizing postbellum capitalist society.
To speak, then, of Trump’s fairness presupposes a historically specific understanding of that term. On one hand, Trump is likely the most flagrantly nepotistic and corrupt president in US history. Yet such conduct little matters to his supporters; insofar as his dealings are self-serving, they are necessarily a challenge to the far larger system of corruption that he combats every day. Why criticize Ivanka for enriching herself through sweetheart deals abroad since this only means that the Trump family will now be further empowered to do battle against the “Swamp”?
On the other hand, Trumpian fairness, in its ideal form, is contingent upon foundational violence that naturalizes ongoing exclusion and oppression as timeless and apolitical. Accordingly, advocates of such fairness ferociously oppose any semblance of social or economic corrective as fundamentally artificial, exogenous, and unfair. It is furthermore a fairness based on conceptions of a masochistic self-sacrifice whose only assurance is not an acceptable standard of living but the freedom to destroy oneself in attempting to achieve it. For ordinary conservatives do not see that they—whether as Grandin’s settlers or Hochschild’s workers—were never in charge of a state that, its flattery notwithstanding, has increasingly little use for them. Projecting their sense of a lost and exaggerated agency onto their enemies, they dangerously believe that those who have been historically trampled are somehow now in charge. For in the final analysis, the fairness of conservatives is built upon the vain attempt to recapture a freedom that is not only based on the oppression of others but was never designed to transcend its subordination to the state.
- Among others, Kanye West, Ted Nugent, and Kid Rock visited the new president. Trump’s later decision to commute the sentences of Alice Marie Johnson and other prisoners was influenced by reality TV star Kim Kardashian, and Trump has helped create new celebrities such as his fans Diamond and Silk.
- Arlie Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land, New Press: New York, 2016.
- Werner Bonefeld, “Notes on Anti-Semitism,” Common Sense, Issue 21, 1997, pp. 60-76.
- Greg Grandin, The End of The Myth, Metropolitan Books: New York, 2019.
- Nicholas De Genova, The Borders of “Europe”, Duke University Press: Durham, 2017.
- James Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” in James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay The Federalist Papers, Penguin Classics: New York, 1987.
- William McKinley, “Decision on the Philippines,” Digital History, accessed August 17, 2020, https://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=3&psid=1257.
- Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition, Vintage Books Edition: New York, 1989.