Rick Salutin: Making sense of America in its Donald Trump phase
I had an older friend, dead many years now, who spent the chaotic 1940s in China. That decade there blended revolution, civil war, a war with Japan and World War Two. He said that once, hiding under a bridge as bombs exploded all around, he came upon a pamphlet that illuminated the pandemonium. It actually made sense of it, and he felt grateful.
I feel this way about Greg Grandin’s recent, . I don’t think I’ve marked and highlighted a book as much since my undergrad days, when far too many volumes looked like that.
Trump didn’t erupt from nowhere, or from hell below. His obsession with The Wall, and that of his believers, is understandable, even predictable. If it hadn’t been Trump, it might’ve easily been someone else. He makes sense!
From the start, the U.S. dealt with its major problems through violence and expansion. Its Revolution threw off British rulers, partly because they made peace with Indigenous nations, confining “Americans.” The War of 1812 was the first in a continuous series (and the only one that failed). Indigenous people were wiped out or pushed farther west and south. The Louisiana Purchase, the war with Mexico and the final “Indian wars” filled in the continent. U.S. democracy was essentially, says Grandin, “Caucasian democracy,” treating non-whites brutally.
Whenever it faced internal problems of race, region or class, its preferred solution was to expand violently and shift its restive populations outward. The myth of the frontier transformed a static boundary into an endless opportunity. Going West (young man) became the ubiquitous “safety valve” to release social pressures, in the same era when safety valves were invented. Expansion was “the solution to all problems, especially those caused by expansion.”
The Civil War did confront slavery but its outcome was largely reversed by Jim Crow laws and segregation. By the 20th century, expansion itself expanded into the Caribbean and Philippines, followed by world wars and Cold War. Then came Vietnam, likened at the time to another game of cowboys and Indians.
But Vietnam was the first war since 1812 that the U.S. lost. Subsequently, its wars grew punier. After the Soviet Union imploded, claims that trade deals like NAFTA could become “our new frontier” (Bill Clinton) sounded feeble.
With the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan, the “suction” began blowing inward, versus away. Trump’s wall turns the frontier back into a shabby border, keeping the world out while hemming Americans in, terrorized by fears of an imagined “reconquista” by Mexicans. He “rhapsodizes” over its “beauty” but it’s all fantasy, because that epic frontier can no longer exist in any real version. The U.S. has “lived past the end of its myth.” So begins an era, as Robert Frost said, “When we would have to put our mind/ On how to crowd but still be kind.”
This sounds overly schematic. Grandin traces a pattern but he’s not rigid or rhetorical. In the 1960s, I eagerly read U.S. “revisionist” historians, who made similar arguments. But Grandin, by seeing it all to a tragic, disturbing conclusion, is more plangent, poetic, even elegiac. It saddens and appals him.
Reading him leads to an odd sense of relief. Trump’s no unique, baffling, manic explosion of evil, nor a reprise of 1930s fascism. He’s older and more American. He’s not inexplicable, he’s foreseeable though not inevitable. He was a possible, even probable, outcome of what came before. No monster, then.
And there were countercurrents all along. John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, denounced the Indian removal act of 1830. The Civil War ended slavery. The Freedmen’s bureau and Reconstruction dealt with its aftermath, though they came up short. The New Deal of the 1930s explicitly aimed to replace the panacea of the frontier myth with legislated social programs. Then came the civil rights movement, culminating in Martin Luther King’s courageous challenge to the “giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism.”
Nothing was predestined and the forces of darkness, for those of us who see them that way, are neither overwhelming nor unprecedented. There is an ongoing fight for American’s future and its soul, and it’s not a hopeless one.
Rick Salutin is a freelance columnist and commentator for the Star about all things current affairs and politics. He is based in Toronto. Reach him on email: