President Trump at the White House on Tuesday. (Mike Theiler/Pool/Epa-Efe)
Two years ago, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, it seemed inconceivable that Donald Trump would be elected president of the United States. One year ago, it seemed inconceivable that he would ever come to Davos in that role. This week, the worst nightmare of Davos Man is coming true. President Trump — the personification of all that the “globalists” fear and loathe — is coming to town.
No part of the world — perhaps not even Washington — misses former president Barack Obama more than Davos. Trump wants tighter controls on immigration, and he has only recently referred to African countries in scatological terms. He is openly protectionist and has repeatedly threatened to scrap free-trade agreements such as NAFTA. He has shown little respect for the European political elite that sets the tone at Davos, leaning on them to contribute more to NATO. Above all, the president has come to exemplify the Ugly American in European eyes.
Yet to imagine that Davos is all about liberal principles is to misunderstand it. There’s a reason Obama never showed up. There’s a reason Trump will not be pelted with Swiss rolls when he does.
The forum was founded in 1971 by a bespectacled Harvard-trained German academic named Klaus Schwab with the idea that a regular conference of international business leaders could realize his vision of “corporations as stakeholders in global society, together with government and civil society.” The result has been described as a name-dropper’s paradise, populated not only by the chief executives of multinationals and selected politicians, but also, as the New Yorker’s Nick Paumgarten described the sprawling scene, by “central bankers, industrial chiefs, hedge-fund titans, gloomy forecasters, astrophysicists, monks, rabbis, tech wizards, museum curators, university presidents, financial bloggers [and] virtuous heirs.”
Thanks to Schwab, Davos now truly deserves the name Thomas Mann once gave the mountain that towers above it: der Zauberberg, the Magic Mountain.
Those who mock the World Economic Forum — and there are many, most of whom would drop everything and rush there if they were ever invited — underestimate its power. Think only of Nelson Mandela’s 1992 speech in which he ditched one of the core commitments of the African National Congress’s Freedom Charter: the nationalization of South Africa’s key industries.
But what matters at Davos is not the speeches given by world leaders, much less the panels with worthy titles such as “Rethinking Climate Change and Work-Life Balance in the Sixth Industrial Revolution.” It is the meetings behind the scenes, in the well-guarded private rooms of the resort’s main hotels: meetings like the ones that changed Mandela’s mind on state ownership of the economy. The really interesting question is whether or not Trump and his entourage will be taking such meetings — and with whom.
The media will probably focus their coverage on handshakes and other body language with the other world leaders on this year’s Davos list. Will he and the French President Emmanuel Macron reenact the longest handshake in Franco-American diplomatic history? Will he do the opposite with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose hand he declined to shake last year? Will Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi get some Trump time?
None of this will matter. The real issue is the message Trump chooses to communicate to a global business elite that has an embarrassing little secret they would rather not say too much about: They may hate his tweets and his politically incorrect rhetoric, but they have spent the past year loving his economic policy to bits. Deregulation plus corporate tax cuts have helped to drive the price of nearly every stock represented at Davos to record highs. Forget the public handshakes; it’s the private high-fives that will matter. As I prophesied two years ago: Trump was always going to come to Davos if he was elected president, in order to remind his fellow billionaires that, when all is said and done, he is really one of them.
The reason Obama never went to Davos is that, aside from raising campaign funds from them, he had little real use for businessmen. Trump, by contrast, is a businessman, whose network of business ties — not least to Russia — remains a focal point of an investigation that may yet determine the fate of his presidency.
That is not to say I expect him to turn up at Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska’s legendary Davos party. But he would not be wholly out of place there: After all, Deripaska employed Paul Manafort before Trump did.
One of my favorite lines about Davos comes from JP Morgan boss Jamie Dimon: “Davos is where billionaires tell millionaires how the middle class feels.” The events of 2016 revealed that Trump knew a lot more than most members of his class about how the American middle — and working — class felt. For that reason, if no other, he can expect more than a cold shoulder from the globalists this week.