Trump, the former reality star, understands imagery
The big test of Trump's welcome will come later Friday, at his speech
The populist “America First” protectionist who won the White House by scorching the globalized worldview of liberal elites who party at Davos every winter suddenly finds himself the star of their show – and he is milking it.
When Marine One swooped into Davos past the snowcapped peaks of the Swiss Alps Thursday, Donald Trump – at 71 – finally claimed his place among the global elite whose members had long spurned him.
As the champion of the “forgotten man,” some might wonder why he showed up to pal around with the hated global elite. But it’s not difficult to believe Trump may enjoy rubbing it in that he’s the world’s most powerful man.
In a grand entrance, Trump strolled through a forest of smartphones held up to capture his arrival at the World Economic Forum. When someone asked the interloper whether the globalists would treat him well, he shot back: “You tell me.”
Later, the leader of the global populist movement held court around a table packed with some of Europe’s most powerful CEOs, as they showered him with gratitude for the corporate tax cut and deregulation policies.
A clear picture on display
Trump, the former reality TV star, understands imagery and the picture that was sent was clear: Here he was, among his own kind, but towering over them all as President of the United States.
But the big test of Trump’s welcome will come later Friday, when he delivers a speech expected to explain the implications of his “America First” mantra, in which he will also lay claim to the surging US economy and stock market.
It’s then that starstruck fascination with Trump the performer may cede to skepticism and hostility if the President veers into his typical populist nationalist routine, with its cutting critiques of global free trade and multilateral institutions.
Still, Davos is not a political bear pit, and he will get a hearing.
“The people he is going to see there have better manners than his. Because of that they will be polite,” said Trump’s biographer Michael D’Antonio.
“They have much to gain from his favor, and there is no reason for them to respond negatively to his face,” D’Antonio said, though he predicted there would be plenty of whispering about Trump behind his back.
Outside the US, Trump’s presidency is widely seen as a departure from US norms, the values that underpin Western liberalism, and as a repudiation of America’s support for an open, pluralistic and free trading international system.
He faces a difficult assignment in convincing his audiences of business titans, politicians and top officials at international organizations that his nationalist viewpoint is a good fit for the rest of the world.
“He is going for show and not for substance. In terms of global policy, he has nothing to say to the people of Davos,” said Nicholas Dungan, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who teaches at Sciences Po, a prestigious French research university.
“If he is the ‘stable genius’ of his own description, he will realize at the World Economic Forum that the rest of the planet is moving quite swiftly to fill the void of US leadership in the global system which the US itself created.”
Layered in irony
Trump’s visit to the Swiss mountain resort is layered in irony, not least because he fanned resentment against such gatherings to win election.
In his final campaign ad, Trump flashed a picture of billionaire financier George Soros, a hate figure for conservatives, at Davos as he decried corrupt “global special interests,” which he said had bled America dry.
Davos is the kind of international, intellectual, technocratic talking shop that conservatives often used to decry as the natural habitat of the Obama administration. But in fact, President Barack Obama, who had a chilly relationship with businessmen, never went to Davos as President.
Trump’s arrival at Davos comes after a lifetime of being patronized by the wealthy, well-connected elites who looked down on the brash, self-promoting businessman who constantly boasted about his wealth.
In Manhattan real estate circles he was the upstart from Queens who persisted in the vulgar practice of plastering his name over his buildings and lived in a tabloid glare. In business, Trump was never accepted in the pantheon of corporate titans and Wall Street masters of the universe. In Washington, for the White House Correspondents dinner, Obama lacerated him as payback for his birther crusade, and the DC in crowd hooted at his humiliation.
Even when his credentials are good, Trump has never really been comfortable around the beautiful people. The disconnect was on display at the white-tie Al Smith dinner in New York shortly before the 2016 election, when Trump’s jabs at Hillary Clinton hit clanging, discordant notes.
But years as an outsider, rebuffed by the establishment, were to pay off for Trump in the most spectacular manner. His own history of being ostracized by elites fueled a quintessential political message that was a perfect fit for the widespread anger at the nation’s political leaders that had been boiling in urban, grass roots America, and to which he expertly gave voice.
Given his preoccupation with nurturing his political base, it’s certain that Trump will have a message for his voters watching back home.
Lessons for the elites
He might also have a lesson for his elite audience.
Two years ago, JPMorgan Chase & Co chief executive Jamie Dimon summed up Davos as the place “billionaires tell millionaires what the middle class feels.”
If that is true, Trump might be ideally positioned, given his appeal to the economically battered workers of the industrial Midwest in 2016.
Trump also believes he has a story to tell, not just on behalf of the United States. The President views the almost daily run of record highs on Wall Street as a personal validation. He will implicitly counter arguments already made by French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May at Davos that globalization is the only way forward with an argument that his policies could benefit the entire world.
“As America grows, the world grows,” Trump’s top economic adviser Gary Cohn told CNN’s Richard Quest in Davos, while also demanding a “level playing field” for US goods from foreign economies.
It’s also unlikely to escape the President’s notice that his tax reform bill and 14 percentage point cut in the corporate tax rate made many in his audience much richer.
But there’s probably another reason why Trump is in Davos – he can’t resist.
A showman who thirsts for the spotlight and is perpetually seeking recognition for his brains, success and wealth, Trump will be at the center of the world on Friday, the place where he most wants to be.
“He craves affirmation and acceptance at every level of society. He does it in every context – he could be speaking to a convention of laborers or a conference of masters of the universe,” said D’Antonio, author of the book “The Truth About Trump.”
“It doesn’t matter who is in the crowd – he wants their applause, but at the same time it’s quite possible that on another level he loathes all of the same people,” he said.