Ever since Donald Trump was elected president, I have said that when he did something right, I would say so. That’s gotten me into trouble with some readers, but I’m going to do it again. On Friday at the World Economic Forum, Trump gave a good speech that was forthright, intelligent and conciliatory, embracing the world rather than condemning it. The address was extremely well received here at the World Economic Forum by both American business leaders and even non-American attendees, who are overwhelmingly skeptical of Trump overall.
If the speech represents a new approach for the president, it will be a huge step forward. But of course, the problem with Trump is that, by tomorrow morning, he might veer off in an entirely different direction.
The Trump presidency has been composed of three parts. Trump I is the circus — the tweets, the outlandish claims, the reality-TV-like show. Trump II is the dark populism and the demagogic assaults on minorities, the press and the judiciary. Trump III is the conventional Republican president, following a fairly standard GOP agenda — tax cuts, deregulation and a hawkish foreign policy, guided by mainstream advisers such as National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
We could be entertained by the circus, and we should be appalled by the demagogue, but we have to be encouraged by Trump the Republican. That’s not because I agree with all the ideas he has put forth in his agenda. I continue to think the tax cut is fiscally irresponsible, blowing a huge hole in the deficit that will starve public investment and effectively transfer government resources from the poor to the rich. On the other hand, his deregulatory push could be an important reform of an administrative state that has grown burdensome and overly complex. Trump’s policies and cheerleading rhetoric have undoubtedly boosted business confidence, which, as former Obama economic adviser Lawrence Summers has often noted, is the cheapest economic stimulus.
But whatever you think of the policies, the larger point is that Trump the conventional Republican is working within the American system rather than trying to destroy it.
It’s possible that the weight of the presidency and the challenges of the job have pushed Trump toward a more sober and responsible path. But it is also possible that Trump simply decided, for now, to side with his moderate advisers. He often seems to be an unstable compound of Trumps I, II and III, in a single day tweeting out juvenile absurdities and lashing out at democratic institutions but then also promoting some sensible policy. Even at Davos, he couldn’t stop himself from attacking the news media and repeatedly making false or misleading claims.
The mood at the World Economic Forum is often an interesting indicator because, while it is an elite gathering of business leaders, it also involves lots of people from nonprofits, social enterprises, politics and the media. The forum is also genuinely global, drawing people from around the world, far more than any other conference I have attended.
The mood this year in Davos was upbeat. The world is experiencing synchronous global growth, something very rare. The U.S. economy is humming, Europe is having a solid recovery and Japan has (utterly unexpectedly) had seven consecutive quarters of growth. China continues to power along, India is rising, and Latin America has many success stories, as does Africa. Markets reflect this. They are almost all up at the same time — stocks, bonds, real estate, oil.
But underneath this good cheer, there is disquiet. Partly this is because people remember the optimistic mood just before the global recession hit. But there is also unease that while global economies look reasonably stable, global politics are in turmoil. The old world order created and led by the United States is eroding, and new great powers are entering the stage, most of them illiberal, mercantilist and narrow-minded. What will the world look like when China, Russia, Turkey and India have much more weight in global affairs?
In that context, the role, capacity and intentions of the United States and its president become central. If the U.S. president and his administration, in these times, seem uncommitted to the international system, that’s a larger risk than it might have been in the past. If the president seems hostile to the world, indifferent to democratic values and mercurial in temper, that’s especially dangerous today. So when Trump behaves better, as he did here Friday, everyone breathes a sigh of relief.
I don’t seek to normalize Trump. But I do believe that, given the stakes, the United States and the world are better off for these moments when he behaves more like a normal president.