It was quite the neoliberal day on Tuesday for President Trump. The New York Times broke the story that the president was going to be hobnobbing with the global elites he bashed during his presidential campaign. In short, Trump is going to Davos!
“The president welcomes opportunities to advance his America First agenda with world leaders,” Ms. Sanders said. “At this year’s World Economic Forum, the president looks forward to promoting his policies to strengthen American businesses, American industries and American workers.”
Mr. Trump’s planned appearance at an event that is synonymous with wealth and elite prestige comes as he enters the second year of a term he won on a message of economic populism.
Presidents have rarely attended the forum in Davos, in part out of a concern that it would send the wrong message to be rubbing shoulders with some of the world’s richest individuals.
The Times report expressed some puzzlement as to why Trump would attend such a gathering. Politico’s John Harris and Ben White speculate that it’s because Trump wants to throw some bombs:
Some West Wing advisers were arguing that Davos would be the perfect venue for Trump to unleash an especially gassy stink bomb aimed at ideas — free trade deals, a more integrated global regulatory system, and all manner of liberal pieties cherished by global elites — he deplores….
One administration official said Trump’s appearance will be a “Nikki Haley at the U.N.” moment, referring to a speech from the U.N. ambassador in which she threatened to pull U.S. funding for the organization over its condemnation of the administration recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump will be trumpeting the same “America First agenda” he promotes at home. …
“I think it’s a brilliant move,” said Larry Kudlow, the conservative economist who could be Trump’s next National Economic Council director. “He can sell his economic growth policy on the world stage and maybe take some whacks at the World Bank or the IMF. Remember, he went to NATO and told them to pony up, and they did.”
[Side note: to paraphrase Luke Skywalker, everything Kudlow just said was wrong. Trump can try to sell a supercharged U.S. economy, but there is no real evidence that job growth or stock prices have accelerated under his administration. NATO members did not start ponying up more on defense after Trump spoke to them; that started before Trump was president. Davos attendees will care a lot more about the WTO than the World Bank or IMF. Also, the last time Trump gave a big economic speech overseas was at APEC, and boy did it fall flat. If Trump does sound “America first” themes, it would be another in a series of gift-wrapped miscues for China’s Xi Jinping.]
BuzzFeed’s Hayes Brown shrewdly observes the problem that Trump will face at Davos: He is not necessarily going to be the most important person at the venue. “This should be a fascinating event, because while Trump loves being the center of attention and one of the richest people in the room, he’s gonna be surrounded by [even richer] people like Sergey Brin of Alphabet, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and Alibaba’s Jack Ma.” Furthermore, informed sources tell me that the main action at Davos comes at the margins: the exclusive parties that sponsors throw for power-schmoozing. Trump may not do well at these events if he even attends them.
Furthermore, the whole point of Davos is to reward the kind of dynamic cosmopolitan, well-educated sectors that congregate in coastal cities. As Kevin Williamson noted recently in the National Review, “Republicans have put themselves at odds with many of our most successful industries, institutions, and communities. Republicans sneer at Silicon Valley and at the elite universities that educate the people who work there.” Despite being a coastal elite, Trump epitomizes this disdain and lack of comprehension. That is not a recipe for success at the World Economic Forum.
Does that mean Trump will bomb at Davos? Not necessarily. There are ways in which the confab could work for him. Even though he is a historically unpopular president across most of the world, Trump should have some supporters in attendance. Attendees from Israel and the Persian Gulf, as well as the Western business moguls who know him, should be available for positive quotes.
There is also the chance that Trump will sound more neoliberal at this event than he normally does. This would represent a continuation of how Trump has behaved recently. After all, he just orchestrated a complete divorce from Stephen K. Bannon. He made confusing noises about immigration that signaled he might be amenable to compromise. His administration has become super-forgiving toward big banks. As Ramesh Ponnuru noted a few days ago, on economic policy Trump has rejected most of his populist impulses and lashed himself to a conventional GOP policy program.
This week, at least, Trump’s populist nationalism seems to be at a low ebb. Rhetoric aside, the Trump administration has pursued an economic policy agenda that consists of deregulation and tax cuts. Many Davos attendees like these things! Whether it lasts until Davos is anyone’s guess. If it does, however, then it might go better than expected.
Since no president has attended Davos since 2000, Trump will be able to claim that he received the greatest reception at Davos that any president has received in this century. Of course, it will also be the worst.