A year ago, things were different. The attendees in Davos whispered in uncertainty about what the “America First” president might do in power, while other leaders sought to fill the vacuum created by his absence. Chinese President Xi Jinping used the forum to burnish his nation's image at a time when the United States was questioning its own role as the custodian of the international order.
After all, Trump's legitimacy with his base seemed to hinge on an overt repudiation of globalist gatherings such as this. It was the leitmotif of his election campaign: Stephen K. Bannon, the now disgraced former Trump adviser, had once labeled the president's imagined ideological enemies as “the party of Davos.” No forum better embodied everything Trump-the-populist claimed to oppose.
The argument against the World Economic Forum was most famously made by late conservative American political scientist Samuel Huntington in a 2004 essay. Huntington coined the term “Davos Men” to refer to a new coterie of elites who came to the fore in the age of globalization.
“The rewards of an increasingly integrated global economy have brought forth a new global elite. Labeled 'Davos Men,' 'gold-collar workers' or… 'cosmocrats', this emerging class is empowered by new notions of global connectedness,” he wrote, imagining a distinct class of tens of millions emerging by 2010. “It includes academics, international civil servants and executives in global companies, as well as successful high-technology entrepreneurs.”
Crucial to Huntington's formulation was that these elites “have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite's global operations.”
Never mind that the ruinous financial crisis of a decade ago dispelled any delusions about well-heeled “cosmocrats” steering the world toward a benign future. Never mind that the World Economic Forum itself has for years been almost painfully aware of the stigma surrounding its meetings, making plenty of noise profoundly earnest about finding solutions for the entrenched social and political conundrums affecting the wider world.
And never mind that Trump himself has shed most of his populist clothes, pushing an economic agenda that disproportionately benefits the same class of super-rich to which he putatively belongs.
In its own messaging surrounding this year's meeting, the World Economic Forum has implicitly acknowledged the ideological challenge posed by Trump and his ilk. A communique ahead of the meeting said its sessions would “focus on finding ways to reaffirm international cooperation on crucial shared interests, such as international security, the environment and the global economy. The meeting comes at a time when geostrategic competition between states is generally seen to be on the rise.”
On its website, the forum pointed to an interview with economic historian Marc-William Palen, who has studied American debates over protectionism vs. “globalism” dating back deep into the 19th century. “What is unprecedented today is that with Trump in the White House the United States, the leader of the global economic system and main advocate of trade liberalization since 1945, is now the first to advocate turning away from the very system it helped create,” Palen laments.
Even so, there's no reason to expect a tense reception for Trump at Davos. “Davos is already more relaxed about Mr. Trump than it was 12 months ago, in large part because he has failed to deliver on some of his more incendiary pledges, such as imposing swingeing tariffs on Chinese goods,” wrote Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman.
The gathered globalists may in fact see Trump as an easy mark. “Co-opting 'difficult' political figures is the name of the Davos game,” Rachman wrote. “An organization that has in the past rolled out the red carpet for figures as diverse as the presidents of Russia and Iran is eager to embrace Mr. Trump. Klaus Schwab, longtime WEF president, is an expert in extravagant flattery and Mr. Trump is known to respond well to that.”
And Trump could, in theory, use his time among the Davos Men as a platform to signal a more measured approach. But simply avoiding disaster will probably be success enough for everyone — especially given the downsides if Trump's appearance causes more international acrimony.
“The bar for success at the World Economic Forum is actually pretty low. It will come down to whether the president’s words, gestures and public posture convince the audience that he is able to conduct himself as a leader who not only warrants respect but also will be effective in the future,” wrote veteran Republican operative Ed Rogers. “Failure at Davos will have wide repercussions. A large share of the world’s leaders could give up on the Trump presidency. They may still hope for the best, but they will no longer think that big things are possible for the United States.”