Washington Signature
[ Search and Navigation ]   [ View Full Site ]

Starr Center for the


Study of the American Experience

The Significance of Snake-Filled Moats in American History


Date: 5:00pm EST November 21

A talk by Greg Grandin,

Ever since this nation’s inception, the idea of never-ending expansion – either in the form of a landed frontier, economic growth, or, now, an endless war – has been central to American identity. Symbolizing a future of endless promise, the “frontier” was the foundation of the United States’ belief in itself as an exceptional nation—democratic, individualistic, forward-looking. Today, though, America has a new symbol: the border wall.

This talk will explore the meaning of the expansionist imperative throughout the full sweep of U.S. history—from the American Revolution to the War of 1898, the New Deal to the election of 2016. For centuries, he shows, America’s constant expansion—fighting wars and opening markets—served as a “gate of escape,” helping to deflect domestic political and economic conflicts outward. But this deflection meant that the country’s problems, from racism to inequality, were never confronted directly. And now, the combined catastrophe of the 2008 financial meltdown and our unwinnable wars in the Middle East, combined with the climate crisis, have slammed this gate shut, bringing political passions that had long been directed elsewhere back home.

It is this new reality, that explains the rise of reactionary populism and racist nationalism, the extreme anger and polarization that catapulted Trump to the presidency. His border wall  - much less an idea he once floated, a snake-filled moat – may or may not be built, but it will survive as a rallying point, an allegorical tombstone marking the end of American exceptionalism.

Greg Grandin is the author of Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. A professor of history at New York University, Grandin has published a number of other widely acclaimed books, including Empire’s WorkshopKissinger’s Shadow, and The Empire of Necessity, which won the Bancroft Prize, and, The End of the Myth.