American Extremism Has Always Flowed from the Border

Source: Boston Review

Donald Trump says there is “a crisis of the soul” at the border. He is right, though not in the way he thinks.

The United States was made by its frontier. Today it is being unmade by its border. In his recent national address aimed at building public support for a border wall, Donald Trump called the current moment “a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul.” He is at least right about that, and it is a crisis a long time coming.

All nations have borders, and many today even have walls. But only the United States has had a frontier, or at least a frontier that has served as a proxy for human liberation, synonymous with the possibilities and promises of modern life itself and held out as a model for the rest of the world to emulate.

For over a century, the frontier has served as the defining myth of the nation’s identity, a wide-open threshold into the world and the future. According to the myth, expansion across the continent transformed Europeans into something new, into a people both coarse and curious, self-disciplined and spontaneous, practical and inventive, filled—as the frontier’s most influential theorist, historian Frederick Jackson Turner, put it in the late 1800s—with a “restless, nervous energy” and lifted by “that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom.” What became known as Turner’s Frontier Thesis—the argument that expansion across a frontier of “free land” created a uniquely U.S. form of political equality and individualism—placed a wager on the future.

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