Finally, after a somewhat-fawning preamble in which Schwab praised Trump for pushing through tax legislation that benefited U.S. corporations, the president delivered a mostly mild address, insisting that “America First” did not mean “America alone” and that his country's economic success was a boon to the rest of the world.
After days of almost feverish anticipation — indeed, in private, a few forum organizers complained of the media fixation over Trump's appearance — the speech was a bit of an anticlimax. Apart from a veiled attack on China's “state-subsidized” economic interference and a dig at the “nasty” press, which drew boos from the audience, Trump said little to stir controversy. In reaction to his allegedly racist rhetoric, a handful of attendees staged walkouts in protest.
On the whole, however, it was a speech made to a friendly and receptive audience. Dispensing with the blood-and-soil nationalism of his last major address in Europe, Trump instead framed his presidency as that of a deregulating, tax-cutting business titan. Many in the gathering of high-flying executives and financiers lapped it up.
“We can’t ignore the fact that the U.S. economy is booming,” said Khalid Al Rumaihi, the chief executive of the Economic Development Board of Bahrain. “I think his message was balanced and his message was positive for the global economy.”
Others were less impressed. Trump's speech was anodyne — virtually every world leader who appears in Davos bills his or her nation as “open for business” — and offered little vision for the world as a whole. That was in sharp contrast to his counterparts, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French President Emmanuel Macron, who addressed global challenges such as climate change and widening inequality.
“Every president and prime minister when they come here tries to sell their country,” Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz said to a gaggle of journalists outside the venue. “The sad news is that if you grade them, I think France’s president and the Indian prime minister wind up at the top and, unfortunately, America’s winds up at the bottom.”
Winnie Byanyima, the executive director of Oxfam, an international humanitarian organization, was scathing in her critique of Trump's faux populism, citing growing American disapproval of Trump's economic agenda. “It’s not an American First agenda, it’s a Billionaires First agenda,” she told Today's WorldView, referring to the giant corporate tax cuts praised in Davos. “The first piece of legislation is a gift to billionaires, corporations and the super rich.”
There was one curious wrinkle in Trump's remarks: He seemed to suggest that the United States could join the sort of multilateral arrangements that he has consistently railed against, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal he spiked when entering office.
“There’s a subtle change in how he’s talking about trade,” Douglas Peterson, the CEO of S&P Global, told my colleagues. “That to me is the good thing about him coming to Davos. He’s meeting free traders, and he’s shifting a little bit.”
But given the erratic nature of Trump's own messaging, it's probably best not to infer all that much from his brief, 15-minute cameo at the World Economic Forum.
“There were few surprises, if any,” said former U.S. diplomat John Negroponte to Today's WorldView. “There are two Trumps: the Twitter Trump and the teleprompter Trump. This was definitely the latter.”