The Frontier Myth and U.S. Politics Since 1900
David A. Smith
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2021
Hardcover. x+277 pages. ISBN 978-0806168487. $36.95 / £29.95
Reviewed by Charles J. Holden
St. Mary’s College of Maryland
There is a particular moment worth remembering from the Donald J. Trump presidency when the New York City-born real estate mogul turned reality television star attempted to look tough before his fanatical followers. Having been infected with the COVID-19 virus and receiving the best medical treatment in the world, the weakened president was then flown the short distance back to the White House. In a clearly-staged moment made for television, he managed to climb a few steps to a portico where, visibly out of breath, he turned to his admirers and, with a sneer, whipped off his mask as if he personally had conquered the virus. Of all of Trump’s ludicrous attempts at masculinity, this would have been a singularly pathetic, almost comical moment had it not symbolized the shameful response by the president and his followers to a disease that has killed over 600,000 fellow Americans. But as historian David A. Smith demonstrates clearly in Cowboy Presidents: The Frontier Myth and U.S. Politics Since 1900, various American presidents have, for over a century now, felt compelled demonstrate a kind of can-do toughness, even if for a surprisingly broad range of political objectives. One would assume that projecting an image of masculine toughness would be the special preserve of conservative presidents. Smith makes a convincing case that it has also served progressive presidents well at times.
The origins of frontier politics, Smith argues, dates back to the late 1800s when Americans became obsessed with the notion of the American frontier itself. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner caused a stir among the intelligentsia with his 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Turner’s reading of American history up to that point led him to conclude that it was the frontier experience itself – the settling of new lands and the building of new local communities in the westward drive of white Americans – that had forged a uniquely American identity grounded in individualism, democracy, and initiative. These characteristics, Turner concluded, had been essential to the success of the American experiment.
Turner’s rendering of American history raised grave, existential concerns over the future of the nation when paired with the announcement from the U.S. Census Bureau in 1890 that the frontier was now “closed.” What would the American future hold if the frontier was no longer there to forge the elements of American identity and success? Theodore Roosevelt was the first American president to answer that question.
Roosevelt’s personal story intersects with Turner’s thesis in a powerful way. Shattered by the loss of his young wife and mother – on the same day – Roosevelt moved out to the Dakota Territory in the mid-1880s. The Dakota Territory offered Roosevelt the individualistic, rugged, manly experience that he craved in his grief. But he also wrote glowingly about what he experienced as the egalitarian, problem-solving, community-minded ethos of the frontier – neighbors helping neighbors in their time of need. Upon his return to political life first in New York state and then eventually as president, he brought back with him a fervent belief in the virtues of the frontier experience.
If by the time he became president in 1901, the frontier was no longer an actual physical space, Roosevelt was convinced that it could live on in a spiritual or psychological sense – the frontier became an idea that could shape his progressive politics. Smith shows how Roosevelt extolled the values inculcated by the frontier experience to make the case for greater efforts by the federal government to preserve the land and other natural resources of the West. Roosevelt’s trust-busting efforts to rein in the power of industrialists and financiers were also done in the name of fair play for the common man, another value he ascribed to the nation’s frontier experience.
Smith finds similar themes and objectives in Lyndon Johnson’s evocation of the frontier – or the West generally – in his efforts to forge his Great Society. In the mid-1900s, Johnson, a Texan, perceived that the legal ground was shifting under the racist foundation of white southern political power. As a result, Johnson began to highlight his western (versus his southern) background, having grown up in the Texas Hill Country. He purchased a fully functioning cattle ranch in 1951; on went the cowboy hat for photos; and by 1964, his presidency was awash in cowboy and western imagery. A New Dealer at the start of his political career in the late 1930s, LBJ had seen how an active, empathetic federal government could better the lives of the poor. The common folk of the Hill Country needed the occasional helping hand and the New Deal obliged. Now as president, LBJ in the mid-1960s sought to do the same through his ambitious Great Society efforts to eliminate poverty and racial discrimination in American society. Johnson used his rural Texas background to promote a frontier legend of neighbors helping neighbors.
Unfortunately for Johnson, the conservative backlash against the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, and liberalism generally meant that his “neighbors helping neighbors” frontier ideal soon fell on deaf ears. Right-wing political leaders like Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, and Strom Thurmond, among others, made it clear that they did not consider poor African Americans trapped in abandoned urban centers or the antiwar protestors or the hippies their “neighbors.” The collapse of the Johnson administration by the end of 1968, Smith argues, signaled the end of the liberal frontier myth.
Ronald Reagan, raised in a small Midwestern town, like millions before him moved west to seek his fortune – although in this case to Hollywood. Fittingly, Reagan, Smith notes, “paid little attention to the historical West” . A Hollywood insider for decades by the time he won the 1980 presidential election, Reagan nonetheless sensed accurately that the nation longed for a can-do, “western” man at the helm after the “long national nightmare” of Watergate, the trauma of Vietnam, and then the ineptness of the cardigan-sweatered Jimmy Carter. Reagan’s use of the frontier myth emphasized rugged individualism and his handlers often filmed him riding horses and chopping away brush on his California ranch. His campaign posters featured an image of Reagan that bore a striking resemblance to the “Marlboro Man” ads of the 1960s. The visual imagery of western individualism and masculinity supported Reagan’s political philosophy that government was not the solution, government was the problem. These images then helped his administration roll back the New Deal-Great Society state in a number of areas. But perhaps its lasting legacy rests in the cultural repercussions. Reagan’s use of the frontier myth gave the growing conservative movement permission to not only reject liberalism, but to mock it as effeminate and weak. Reagan’s western image and libertarian rhetoric encouraged an attitude now widespread on the American Right whereby norms, laws, facts and concern for others need not matter if one is sufficiently “free” as an individual – and especially as a white man.
George W. Bush, Smith argues, follows closely in the Reagan / conservative frontier myth path. The young Bush spent part of his childhood years raised in Texas, but he is part of a long-established New England political family. Bush attended a private academy in Massachusetts before receiving an Ivy League education at Yale and later at Harvard Business School. But by virtue of his father becoming Reagan’s vice president, George W. had a ringside seat to observe the political gains made by embracing the conservative frontier myth. Bush, too, had his own ranch (conveniently purchased on the eve of his 2000 presidential run) from which to project a rugged, western image. Afraid of horses, Bush was a pickup-driving rancher who was frequently filmed clearing brush to no particular purpose. Still, like Reagan’s, the Bush presidency brimmed with cowboy imagery. But, Smith notes, of the four presidents examined, “Bush was arguably the most contrived and self-conscious” in his use of the frontier myth. (179)
The Bush presidency had barely begun when the nation was rocked by the attacks of September 11, 2001. Smith notes how almost by muscle reflex, Bush invoked the language of the western, sneering that the United States now wanted those who perpetrated or abetted these acts of terror “dead or alive.” The ensuing “war on terror” also invoked a component of the conservative frontier myth whereby a determined, “civilized” people engaged in acts of violence against the savagery of the “uncivilized.”
The righteous “can-do” optimism of the frontier myth then fell apart spectacularly during Bush’s second term. Americans in 2003 largely took the Bush Administration at its word that there were bad guys in Iraq who also needed to feel the civilized might of American military force. The Bush Administration’s word, however, turned out to be based on ginned-up evidence of Iraq’s nuclear capability. Nonetheless, the Bush team led the nation into a disastrous invasion that caused thousands of casualties, trillions of dollars, and gave way to rise of ISIS. Over time, none of this seemed justifiable, let alone honorable, to a growing number of Americans and Bush left the presidency with abysmal approval ratings.
It was one thing for George W. Bush to build up a cowboy image on a false narrative and quite another to go to war on false premises. Today, Smith concludes, the political use of the frontier myth appears to be in a “state of recession” . Indeed it is hard to foresee it returning anytime soon, but he is certainly correct that we should not be surprised if – or when – it somehow does.
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