Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Donald Trump at Davos was like the boorish big boss at a company striding into the annual executive retreat a few days after everyone had received a big and mostly unearned bonus.
Even though a bit of snickering can be heard in the back of the room, the usual grousing and mockery gets set aside because this is the guy who signed the checks. The warmth created by all the money cools the boss’s temper, and to everyone’s relief he pleasantly drones through his remarks.
Polite applause and softball questions were the President’s rewards at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, which draws more of the global financial elite than might be found at any other gathering.
Its lion’s share of the recently enacted US tax cut was not a reward for a job well done, but a no-strings-attached gift of the sort that would make almost anyone smile and applaud politely as the boss, who spent much of the past year creating chaos and crisis, indulged in a subdued version of his usual display of bragging and self-congratulation.
Trump’s brief Davos speech included more than 20 references to himself – “my election,” “as I have said” and so on – and so much boasting that parts of the text read like a rally speech. He even indulged his autocratic side, taking a jab at the “nasty” press. However if you listened to his delivery, you would have noticed a much softer tone than Rally Trump presents. Davos Trump said positive things about global trade and international cooperation, and sounded much like an ordinary master of the universe.
Watching Trump at Davos, it was possible to forget the chaos that marked year one of his presidency and the latest crises in his world. The New York Times broke the news Thursday evening that he had ordered his staff to fire the special counsel investigating him and his team, and then backed down when the White House lawyer refused to do so. Earlier in the week we learned that first lady Melania Trump decided not to go to Davos after The Wall Street Journal reported that a porn actress had been paid $130,000 to be silent about a reported relationship with her husband.
In any other time, and with any other president, a porn star payoff and a showdown over a special counsel, would be overwhelming scandals. In Trump’s case they amount to business as usual. This is, after all, a President who offers lies and distortions at such an unprecedented rate that the world discounts much of what he says. In the meantime, the people around the president do everything they can to calm him down.
At Davos, the sedatives applied to the Trump temper included a brass band – something not ordinarily seen at the conference – that trumpeted his appearance. This was a balm for the soul of a man who loves pomp.
After his remarks, the conference’s host, Klaus Schwab, invited the President to stake a claim to his pre-presidential greatness, by asking him to tell the crowd about an experience that prepared him for the Oval Office. “Being a businessman” was Trump’s reply. Then he bragged about his status as the only man ever to be elected president despite having no government or military experience.
As a businessman, Trump was most adept at sales, as he peddled everything from real estate to steaks to courses offered by Trump University. He was in full salesman mode at Davos, declaring America “open for business” and citing the red hot stock market and low unemployment as features that should entice investors to buy American.
Of course, all of the positive economic trends Trump cited began with his predecessor, Barack Obama, who guided the country out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Obama was, in essence, like the homeowner who purchased a tumbledown wreck of a house, renovated it completely and turned it over to a new owner. Trump has the key now, and likes to show it off, but he never mentions the hard work done before he moved in.
The Davos crowd knows the back story, and generally approved of Obama’s leadership on trade, climate change and other global issues that Trump has generally reversed. They also worry about Trump’s temperament when it comes to the basics of democracy. It’s worth noting that when the President complained about the “nasty, mean, and fake” press, some in the crowd subjected him to boos and hissing.
This negative response reminded all of the reality hanging over Trump and his presidency. For all his salesmanship and cheerleading, he remains a troubling and divisive figure. His distortions, lies and frequent reversals have led many to believe he is not to be trusted. Yes, his tax cut bought him a moment of acceptance at Davos, but it didn’t buy him the kind of love that lasts.
As Trump comes home, America and the world remain poised on the edge of a presidential crisis. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation could lead to prosecutions and even impeachment. These events would drown out the cheerleading and the sales pitch and make the President long for the serenity of the Swiss Alps event where he could set aside his troubles and the elite was programmed to like him, if only because he paid them to.