The aging sheriff surveys the frontier lands where the dead bodies have turned up, some eight or nine by one count. The enemy roaming the border has become more ruthless, more vicious. It’s a new kind of war. “I ain’t sure we’ve seen these people before,” he tells a rattled young deputy. “Their kind.”
The scene from Cormac McCarthy’s bestselling novel No Country for Old Men found a real-world parallel this election season when Donald Trump described an immigrant threat, its size and scope unknown. “We have some bad hombres here, and we’re going to get them out,” he said during the final presidential debate. In McCarthy’s frontier tale, the enemy cuts a deadly path across West Texas; the nameless killer is easily discernible as a symbol of evil. Likewise, Trump has built his candidacy by conjuring the image of faceless, dehumanized hordes on the border. “It could be three million; it could be 30 million,” he told a crowd in Arizona—an image that has triggered the American cultural and political imagination since the West was won.
Mexico, writes frontier historian Richard Slotkin in his trilogy on the frontier myth, “became a darkened mirror in which Americans saw the features of their own culture and society in obscure and exaggerated forms.” On the frontier, American morality and humanity are easily sacrificed and violence becomes “essential and necessary” for defending and enforcing democratic values.
In border tales, real and imagined, any man willing to confront a perceived threat is imbued with virtue.
Over time, Mexico and the border became a movie screen onto which the nation’s fears, anxieties, and uncertainty were projected. In Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, Slotkin writes, “the Mexico western was the only one of the standard Hollywood genres whose practitioners regularly used genre symbolism to address the problems of Vietnam and to make the connection between domestic social/racial disorder and the counterinsurgency mission.”
In the current incarnation, simply replace Vietnam with Iraq and Afghanistan, and insert a growing inequality while expanding fears of racial uprising, which are always in style, to include a panic over demographic changes.
In border tales, real and imagined, any man willing to confront a perceived threat is imbued with virtue, his flaws easily overlooked for the sake of our collective safety. By casting himself as the hero on the border, Trump has largely escaped political backlash from Republicans. After all, his violent messaging is safely wrapped in terms like “legal” and “foreign,” which stoke racist undertones while skirting the nation’s black/white racial paradigm.
Not only did the border offer legitimacy to an otherwise inexperienced and unprepared candidate, it provided a campaign platform from which Trump could inject toxic messaging, which included statements about Muslims and women, into the political mainstream.
The true power of the border myth, as Trump himself demonstrates, is its ability to arrive on the scene disguised as something new—a fresh experience. Even so, for much of the campaign season, the press and commentators have branded Trump as an aberration, his rhetoric seemingly a deviation from the political norm, his vision for the country a frightening possibility of the future. In reality, much of Trumpworld already exists.
Indeed, Trumpworld is shamefully ordinary.
In June, Trump startled the nation by describing Mexican immigrants as rapists who spread crime and drugs. In Texas, that quintessential frontier state, former state senator Dan Patrick, once warned that immigrants carried “third-world diseases.” In 2014, he was elected lieutenant governor. When Trump proposed abolishing birthright citizenship, which has been protected by the U.S. Constitution since the end of slavery, he set off a panic across the ideological spectrum. But few expressed outrage when Texas actually did it. State officials started denying birth certificates to Texas children born to undocumented parents way back in 2013 and only stopped this July after activists sued.
Perhaps nothing more plainly illustrates America’s collective willingness to overlook an existing Trumpworld than the countless chants of “build that wall,” even as some 700 miles of that wall already cleave communities and backyards, cemeteries and family farms—a wall first ushered into existence in Southern California by Bill Clinton.
Indeed, Trumpworld is shamefully ordinary. That the media continues to frame Trump as an anomaly reflects a political culture hell-bent on ignoring the powerful effect of border rhetoric and the demonization of Latinos and immigrants as vehicles of racism. In August, just days before Trump arrived in Austin, a city that brands itself as a liberal oasis in a red sea, immigrant parents and their children attended a city-council meeting to implore members to preserve funding for afterschool programs. From the dais, council member Don Zimmerman turned to a group of mostly Latino kids and, repeating the tired and debunked myth of immigrants as social burdens, told the children to “learn a trade, get a college education, start a business, do something useful, and produce something in your society, so you don’t have to live off others.” Never mind that Austin’s construction boom has been built on the backs of non-union immigrant workers who toil in dangerous conditions.
The strain of American culture tapped by Trump has long circulated widely across our nation, easily moving from popular culture to politics to press coverage.
Council member Delia Garza responded, assuring constituents that “we have your back.” Not only black and Latino members, she said, but “there are other progressive members of this council that support you and understand your issues.” Garza’s words, while conveying empathy, also managed to replicate the common political perspective that consigns respect for immigrants and their children to the realm of progressive politics.
It is tempting to locate Trumpworld within the boundaries of red states like Texas or to mark its borders around uneducated, marginalized working-class whites, as the press has obsessively described his supporters. A recent Gallup analysis, however, showed broad support for Trump among affluent whites living in predominantly white enclaves and isolated from the nation’s diversity. For example, Austin council member Zimmerman, a software engineer in one of the most segregated cities in the country, might fit the profile of a Trump supporter.
Indeed, the strain of American culture tapped by Trump has long circulated widely across our nation, easily moving from popular culture to politics to press coverage—a culture that celebrates violence and brutality toward migrants. In 2006, a year before No Country for Old Men hit theaters, political talk then too centered on a “Mexican invasion” with equally dehumanizing language. On the House floor, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) delivered his vision for a border wall complete with a model. “We could also electrify this wire with the kind of current that would not kill somebody, but it would simply be a discouragement for them to be fooling around with it,” he said. “We do that with livestock all the time.”
In 2014, Newsweek magazine published a cover story under the headline “Hunting Humans: The Americans Taking Immigration into Their Own Hands.” The piece blithely reported that ranchers in South Texas were hunting migrants by laying traps and chasing after them until they “tire out.” One rancher said, “It’s a cat-and-mouse game.” Missing was any concern over the moral or legal implications of one group of people preying on another.
Partisan differences offer little or no immunity from the violent border paradigm, even among those seemingly supportive of immigrants.
A few months ago, I was invited into the studios of a public radio program in New York City to discuss my essay about finding a lost Guatemalan migrant boy on the side of the road in South Texas. I described in detail the passing motorists who swerved out of the way to avoid the boy as he begged for help. At one point during the lengthy conversation, the host said the image that came to mind was that of reacting to a dog. Migrants as animals, dogs even—it is hard to imagine another context in which animal metaphors are aired by the so-called “polite company” of educated, liberal public-radio listeners. Tellingly, in a 2015 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, whites ranked Mexicans as less human and ranked Muslims and Arabs even lower.
Partisan differences offer little or no immunity from the violent border paradigm, even among those seemingly supportive of immigrants. In 2014, the nation awoke to the image of children turning up at the U.S.–Mexico border after fleeing their violent Central American homelands. Even though many were eligible for refugee status, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Christiane Amanpour that the U.S. should return them in order to “send a clear message”—as if the young bodies of children that had trekked across a brutal violence-plagued migrant route were bottles to be stuffed with notes.
More troubling was Clinton’s apparent willingness to sacrifice the children’s access to lawyers who could have helped them pursue a refugee claim within the legal process and allowed them to appear before a judge with an adult rather than a teddy bear. It should also be noted that Clinton, as senator, voted for the legislation that brought the expanded wall into existence.
If Texas heroes are made fighting Mexicans, can Mexicans ever stop being the enemy?
Each new iteration of the frontier myth—think the remake of The Magnificent Seven now in theaters—results in a re-entrenchment of its influence in our national identity and politics. During the last election, while I was living in Mexico City, I received word that Newshour had featured my PBS documentary film, Against Mexico: The Making of Heroes and Enemies, as part of its election coverage.
Told through the reenactments, also known as “living history” of nineteenth-century uprising in present-day Texas against Mexico that made the Alamo an international symbol, the film asks: If Texas heroes are made fighting Mexicans, can Mexicans ever stop being the enemy?
Even then, the political currency of the border had already paid off in the campaigns of less polarizing candidates. “At first blush, a group reenactment of Texas’s 1836 battle to secede from Mexico has little to do with today’s political environment,” wrote Beth Summers for Newshour. “But the notion of what it means to be an American is an issue that continues to stir up strong emotions, and resistance to a strong federal government can be seen in elections across the country.”
Therein lies the frightening likelihood that, regardless of the election outcome, the longstanding cultural paradigm that predates Trump will persist after him, unexamined and unchecked even as it shapes public perceptions of heroes and political change.
Over the years, I witnessed the construction of the border wall and gazed upon its imposing presence from Tijuana to Brownsville, Texas. The rough metal posts and mesh wiring has forced people on the borderlands to devise ways to preserve their way of life while accommodating a symbol forced on the border by people living far away to reinforce their idea of the frontier, an idea rarely born from actually visiting the borderlands.
Perhaps Cormac McCarthy’s sheriff best described the collective willingness to overlook and even tolerate an existing Trumpworld, to imagine it as an avoidable future that, come November, has no connection to the past. “You think when you wake up in the mornin’ yesterday don’t count. But yesterday is all that does count. What else is there?”