The idea of Donald Trump, the man who ran and governed on the idea that we need to think of “America first,” speaking before the World Economic Forum in Davos, the hub of globalist thinking, had lots and lots of people expecting major fireworks.
Instead they got a fizzle. And that’s a win for the president and his advisers.
The speech that Trump gave Friday afternoon in Switzerland (it was just after 8 am on the east coast) was – dare I say it – incredibly traditional and even somewhat mundane. Trump spent 15 minutes touting the benefits of investing in America and regaling attendees with evidence that the US economy was roaring to life.
“The world is witnessing the resurgence of a strong and prosperous America,” Trump said at one point of his speech. “I’m here to deliver a simple message: There has never been a better time to hire, to build, to invest, and to grow in the United States. America is open for business, and we are competitive once again.”
That’s a line that you can imagine almost any past US president delivering in front of an audience like Davos. And that, in and of itself, is remarkable – given that Trump has so rarely acted in ways over his first year in office that echo the conduct or rhetoric of his predecessors.
More broadly – aside from any specific piece of rhetoric – Trump’s framing and tone in the speech was more kumbaya than confrontational.
Rather than focus on the idea – as he did on the campaign trail and has at times in the White House – that America has been taken advantage of by the world and how his election would end all of that, he offered the conciliatory “America first is not America alone.”
Instead of repeatedly going off teleprompter to deliver long asides about a pet topic – or play to the crowd – Trump very much stuck to the script. His tone was calm and measured. He was confident without displaying any of his trademark over-the-top arrogance and braggadocio.
Even when Trump moved to the Q and A portion of the event, he was far more restrained than we are use to seeing. He did take a dig at the “fake news” – which brought boos from the crowd – but pivoted away from it very quickly. He talked about his business acumen and did some back-patting, but he didn’t spend five minutes talking about how big his buildings were, how nice his houses were or how everyone wanted to be him.
Acting presidential for 15 minutes is, admittedly, a very low bar. This speech should not be taken as a pivot in any meaningful way to a different sort of Trump – one more committed to acting like all the men who have come before him in the job. This is not that. And that is simply not going to happen.
But what I am certain of is that when Trump got on Air Force One to head back to the United States earlier today, his staff – and virtually every Republican senator and House member – breathed a big sigh of relief.
Trump didn’t say or do anything in his speech that will cause any more global anxiety than his presidency has already sparked. He didn’t back down from the message that won him the White House, but he quite clearly tailored that message to work with the crowd he was addressing.
Of course, when Trump lands later Friday back in Washington, he will be confronted with reports that he ordered special counsel Bob Mueller fired in June 2016 – and his repeated insistence after that time that he had never, ever considered getting rid of Mueller.
In a White House as frenetic and troubled as this one – and with a president challenging historic lows for his approval rating at this time of his tenure – small victories are better than no victories at all. Trump’s Davos speech counts as a small victory over the chaos that it always knocking on the door of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.