The annual World Economic Forum in Davos, which President Trump will address this Friday, is the kind of place where even billionaires fight for the most elite badges and entry to the most crowded events. Full of panels about “shared equilibrium” and the “new global future,” Davos aspires not just to “set the global agenda” but to push it in a direction that is both internationalist and socially progressive — helping attendees leave feeling good about doing well.
That’s not the image cultivated by an American president who just imposed a round of tariffs on hip, eco-conscious solar panels, not to mention frequently deriding international cooperation, threatening to dismantle U.S. assistance to poorer countries, and reveling in gauche, racist language.
So, what will it look like when Trump shows up in the sanctum sanctorum of globalism? Will he be booed? Shunned? Will the millionaires with the eyes on the next guy’s badge want to claim a seat when he speaks — or make a point of not claiming one?
Not every American president goes to Davos. In some ways, the most interesting parallel to Trump’s current trip there is Bill Clinton’s in 2000. Clinton — who only went to be photographed with the alpine super-rich in the final year of his presidency — was likewise beset by scandal, personal failings, and policy controversies. His administration’s approach to trade and globalization was under fire, and he was met with shouting protesters both at home and abroad: Congressional approval of the deal that would allow China into the World Trade Organization was just months away, while anti-globalization demonstrations, the largest the U.S. had ever seen, had raged in Seattle just weeks earlier.
But where Clinton believed passionately in openness for its own sake, and was as sure that globalization would benefit every American as he was that the Sun would rise in the East, Trump knows in his bones that the world is a zero-sum place. It’s not that foreigners are bad — the world and its people and products are fine as long as they are furthering his vision of what benefits the United States, and who constitutes the United States. Clinton, and many Americans of both parties before and since, saw globalization, alliances, and international cooperation as a chance for win-win interactions with the world. To Trump those ideas are at best misguided, at worst empowering the wrong people and forces. (It would be left to Clinton’s wife, 16 years later, to be the highest-ranking Democrat in a reopened conversation about what had worked from his globalization and what had not, who had been helped by it and who it had failed.)
At the same time, Davos is moving to shed some of the image that might make Trump feel most at home: its reputation as a refuge for the rich, white, and male. In 2000, Davos attendees likely would have been not just on the “wrong” side of #MeToo and worries about income inequality, but proudly so. This year, however, those happen to be the two issues the conference — led by an all-female panel — has announced it is trying to tackle.
And, of course, Trump’s presence is an invitation for other world leaders to posture at his expense. French president Emmanuel Macron seems to be trying both to get credit for Trump coming to Davos and for declining to meet him there — after the White House suggested otherwise. German chancellor Angela Merkel gave a speech at the conference on Wednesday that took a shot at America First–style politics, warning against “a unilateral protectionist course where we isolate ourselves.”
That all might seem to make Trump a painfully unwelcome guest this year. But I suspect the idea that Davos will greet Trump with unrelenting hostility is overblown. It’s not the Women’s March. Plenty of attendees will still be willing to give the president a decent welcome, for three reasons.
First, money talks and the U.S. stock market is printing it, for corporations and wealthy individuals around the world. Ironically, Trump the economic nationalist is providing the most immediate returns to an elite group whose country is first-class lounges, private aviation hubs, and confabs such as Davos.
Second, Davos is full of deal makers — people who have already been successful in the private sector and see the conference as a chance to hear about doing good and to put themselves in the position to do even better. Trump has made it clear that he is nothing if not transactional, whether the topic is U.S.-China-Taiwan relations or a reprieve for Dreamers. They recognize in him a kindred spirit, if one is being kind, or a potential mark, if one is being unkind. When they sense an opening, they won’t let a little thing like calling dozens of countries “shitholes” — even if they are potential business locations — get in the way.
Finally, it’s not just Trump’s deal-making that earns him more kindred spirits abroad than his enemies at home might imagine. From Poland to Japan, Russia to the Philippines, India to Turkey to Brazil, plenty of political and business leaders share Trump’s embrace of a world in which national rights are paramount, human rights are devalued, and some cultures are more inherently worthy than others. Even at cosmopolitan Davos, those views are represented, and often loudly.
Last year Chinese president Xi Jinping spoke at Davos, claiming the mantle of world leadership before an audience that knows perfectly well that he doesn’t represent “Davos values” but still flocked to do deals with him.
As Trump brags about U.S. economic strength while presenting an international economic policy that some part of his team doesn’t believe in, expect the Davos audience to do likewise. Just don’t expect him to say to his critics in or outside the room, as Clinton did, “I heard you” — and even more, don’t hold your breath waiting for him, in future, to acknowledge that he got any of it wrong.