Manifest destiny and the frontier in Trump’s State of the Union

Looks like the phrase “manifest destiny” still has legs, 175 years after John L. O’Sullivan coined it.  Trump went full-on frontier in his State of the Union Address:

In reaffirming our heritage as a free nation, we must remember that America has always been a frontier nation. Now we must embrace the next frontier, America’s manifest destiny in the stars. I am asking Congress to fully fund the Artemis program to ensure that the next man and the first woman on the Moon will be American astronauts using this as a launching pad to ensure that America is the first nation to plant its flag on Mars.

It’s not the first time a president has invoked “manifest destiny” in the SOTU.  Woodrow Wilson did it in 1920:

The Old World is just now suffering from a wanton rejection of the principle of democracy and a substitution of the principle of autocracy as asserted in the name, but without the authority and sanction, of the multitude. This is the time of all others when Democracy should prove its purity and its spiritual power to prevail. It is surely the manifest destiny of the United States to lead in the attempt to make this spirit prevail.

Two speeches, a century apart, both invoking the same notion grounded in America’s frontier ideal—a notion made visible in Emanuel Leutze’s painting Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, which hangs in the very building where both speeches were delivered.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

O’Sullivan’s idea of manifest destiny was both territorial and ideological.  The U.S., he claimed, was ordained to “overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”  America was destined both to expand geographically and to carry democratic government with it.  It’s interesting that Wilson and Trump’s uses of the term each reflect a different aspects of O’Sullivan’s phrase.  Whereas Wilson used it to encourage the proliferation of American political institutions and ideals, Trump’s use reflects the territorial aspect.  If frontier expansion has always been intrinsic to America, as Trump claims, then planting more flags on moons and planets seems as logical as the annexation of the continent seemed to O’Sullivan.

Where Wilson and Trump’s speeches overlap is in a third aspect of O’Sullivan’s idea of manifest destiny—the notion of American exceptionalism.  For O’Sullivan, it was a matter of “Providence.”  For Wilson, it meant a responsibility serve as an exemplar of democracy for the Old World.  For Trump, it seems to be a matter of historical precedent, and those precedents are explicitly tied to the frontier ideal:

This is the country where children learn names like Wyatt Earp, Davy Crockett, and Annie Oakley. This is the place where the pilgrims landed at Plymouth and where Texas patriots made their last stand at the Alamo — the beautiful, beautiful Alamo.

The American nation was carved out of the vast frontier by the toughest, strongest, fiercest, and most determined men and women ever to walk on the face of the Earth. Our ancestors braved the unknown; tamed the wilderness; settled the Wild West; lifted millions from poverty, disease, and hunger; vanquished tyranny and fascism; ushered the world to new heights of science and medicine; laid down the railroads, dug out the canals, raised up the skyscrapers. And, ladies and gentlemen, our ancestors built the most exceptional republic ever to exist in all of human history, and we are making it greater than ever before.

This is a sort of Turnerian notion of history, in which the taming of a wilderness defined the American character.  As one of my former graduate profs, Julie Reed, noted, this rhetoric that’s meant to inspire and create a sense of national unity and destiny must also leave quite a few Americans wondering where they stand, since this process of expansion and colonization happened at their ancestors’ expense.

But I think there’s another sense in which both Trump’s SOTU and his presidency as a whole reflect America’s frontier past.  In one of my favorite works of historical scholarship from the last few years, Patrick Spero has argued that many eighteenth-century Americans did indeed see themselves as a frontier people.  But when they used the word “frontier,” they meant not the leading edge of expansion, but rather “a vulnerable, militarized boundary.”

Despite Trump’s invocation of an optimistic, expansionist, and inspirational frontier ideal, much of his rhetoric seems closer to this eighteenth-century sense of America as a “frontier country.”  Trump’s America is a place where boundaries—geographic, demographic, economic, and cultural—are liable to incursion from dangerous, alien elements.  The impulse is thus to shore up these vulnerable boundaries and militarize them.  Indeed, with the creation of the “Space Force,” even the “next frontier” of the stars becomes militarized.

Spaceward the course of empire, I suppose.

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Filed under Frontier History, History and Memory

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