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The Globe and Mail

The real wall is the one that divides the West from the rest

Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto

You might not think so, having watched it, that President Donald Trump's inaugural speech outlined a theory of justice, and yet it did. He promised a "philosophical" speech and, underneath the surliness and self-praise, he delivered. Between invocations of God and derision of every event and personage predating his miraculous Washington advent, the President referred to the "just and reasonable demands of a righteous people" who have been "forgotten" by the system.

These people, presumptively the base supporters addressed by Mr. Trump's rhetorical "you," consider themselves victims: of history, culture, immigration, political correctness (whatever that is), media misrepresentation and much else. The new President promised that they would not be forgotten again, the "carnage" of their landscape healed.

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Since that moment, which seems so long ago given the bizarre twists since, many have quarrelled with Mr. Trump's view of the United States. Employment and crime statistics belie the dystopian picture offered by this ultimate insider who loves to denounce insiders. And yet, his vision here is actually clear. Combined with the vivid, indeed ruthless "America First" sections of the same address, the new President stands revealed as an unlikely social-justice warrior. But only for Americans.

You might respond, well, naturally only for Americans. That's what countries are for, after all, to defend the land mass and its resources at the border, and to serve only those within. Any other view is a recipe for disaster. It might even be socialist, or internationalist, or science-fictionalist.

Whether Mr. Trump's isolationism is tenable, given the realities of global trade and capital's transnational drift, is one question. Will Americans actually be willing to shoulder the costs of domestic production when it comes to consumer goods, for example? More to the point, will U.S. companies accept the slimming of profit margins likewise entailed?

An even deeper question is whether the position is, or ever can be, right. I realize this may sound odd in our current post-whatever reality. Still, the President opened the door by talking about justice, so I'm walking through.

Here's the global reality: The United States is by far the wealthiest country on the planet. The vast majority of Americans are either upper-middle income or high income when compared with the rest of humanity. Even those Americans classified as "poor" fall largely in the middle-income bracket of wealth distribution. They may feel left behind compared with neighbours with better jobs and less debt, but they are reliably fed, sheltered and physically secure. Almost all of them have potable water to drink and toilets that work. That's not poverty, except by special pleading.

Mr. Trump also argued that the wealth of the American middle class "has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world." Well, no. Apart from military support, mostly bestowed on Israel and Egypt with in-built buy-American guarantees, the U.S. contribution to global spending is vanishingly slight. Foreign aid amounts to less than 1 per cent of the U.S. budget, with $18-billion (U.S.) allotted for economic and development projects, another $8-billion for security. For comparison, the domestic U.S. bacon market alone is worth $6-billion.

Which is all to say: the United States, despite the bright promises of beacons and cities on the hill, has decisively turned its bacon-chomping back on the rest of the world. A few stragglers may still be allowed inside the gate, if they do it "the right way." From here, the idea that there might be a just arrangement for all, or that anybody on the inside should sacrifice for the sake of someone outside, is absurd.

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These facts make recent angst about a Mexican border wall entirely ridiculous. The real walls are not physical, they are economic and political. Even before Mr. Trump, the United States was a weaponized fortress of privilege whose fortunate inhabitants have no interest in those on the other side. The President's bullet-biting nationalism simply admits what everyone knows but won't say.

Can we do better, welcoming immigrants and refugees as the lifeblood of a better future, or sending more aid? Maybe. Meanwhile, the real dystopia is that the West, with the United States in the forefront, has abandoned any pretense to global justice. The privileged few had the good sense to be born on the right side of history. Everyone else might as well be hapless toddlers washing up dead on the beach.

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