Forget the Boos—Trump Didn’t Bomb at Davos
European leaders Merkel and Macron made a show of filling the leadership vacuum, but Trump spoke to Davos billionaires in the only language that matters to them—tax cuts.
PARIS—French President Emmanuel Macron, among his many talents, has emerged at the world’s greatest Trump whisperer. He’s apparently able to get the American president to go places, say things, and maybe do things nobody else thought possible.
That first became apparent last summer, when Macron invited Donald Trump to Paris for the Bastille Day parade and celebrations. Trump clearly loved the pomp while seeming almost oblivious to the circumstances, including what veteran journalist David Andelman noted as Macron’s “underlying agenda.”
It “may not be immediately apparent to the American President,” Andelman wrote, but “Macron is bidding for France to become the central pillar of a resurgent Europe. And if becoming Europe's Trump whisperer has to be a part of it, he seems willing to grit his teeth, smile winningly, and pitch right in.”
That strategy was even more apparent this week before and during the World Economic Forum in Davos. For starters, there was the announcement that Macron will be the first world leader received by Trump in Washington on an official state visit. And even when it came to the question of Trump attending Davos, it appears Macron’s whispering played a part.
Trump might well have balked rather than go to a frigid club for the global elite that never once invited him to attend when he was just a self-proclaimed billionaire with a reality TV show. And conventional wisdom said everybody there was in favor of globalization, not Trumpian isolation. But Macron got on the phone.
"I urged him to come to Davos to explain his strategy and immerse himself … to confront other ideas,” Macron told the Swiss radio and TV network RTS. "This personal relationship [with Trump] is very strong for me, I am very attached to it.” The United States is France’s partner in some key areas, like the fight against terrorism and policy on Syria, Macron pointed out. "If we get angry with [the U.S.], we cannot act anymore."
"France has never built a real strategy to change the world without the United States," Macron said.
When asked, "Is Donald Trump dangerous?" Macron replied: "I think he is sometimes unpredictable. That can make people feel insecure. But I've never ‘caught him in the act’ of incoherence over the objective sought."
That may sound to some like damning with faint praise, but, if so, Trump doesn’t seem to have noticed.
When Macron addressed the forum on Wednesday, he came on as a strong advocate of multilateralism, a vehement proponent of measures to fight climate change—he even made a joke at Trump's expense, noting that Davos was almost cut off from snow and "it could be hard to believe in global warming," Macron said in English before a large, enthusiastic audience, then ironized, "obviously and fortunately you didn't invite anybody skeptical with global warming this year."
There are so many issues where Macron stands diametrically opposed to Trump. But he also presented himself as a president who has—as he no doubt tells POTUS—worked to pare away bureaucracy, reduce taxes, and encourage businesses. “France is back!” said Macron.
Then there was Angela Merkel, leader of Europe’s most powerful economy, who has never been able to bring herself to praise Trump in the fashion of Macron. At Davos, she bluntly attacked “the poison of right-wing populism” that has developed in Germany. In a clear allusion to Trump’s policies, she said turning back in on oneself won’t resolve problems: “The answer is not protectionism.” Even more pointedly, she told the Davos crowd, “right now when the United States is concentrating on itself, we have to take our destiny in our own hands.”
Where it was China, last year, that presented itself at Davos as the alternative to Trump’s regime, this year, as the French daily Le Monde put it, Europe was rousing itself to face Trump’s “America First.”
One of the most elite of the Davosian global elite, billionaire George Soros—a major donor to organizations fighting for a civil society, and to the Democratic party—leveled a full broadside at Trump, accusing him of trying to create a "mafia state" and risking nuclear war with North Korea.
But the Davos hosts seem to have learned the Macron lesson. They did everything they could to flatter the American president, there was even a brass band to welcome him on stage. So he came, he saw, and if he did not conquer, he no doubt thought that he had.
And in truth, a big part of the World Economic Forum audience was perfect for him.
Trump’s speech on the last day of the forum was perfectly predictable (and had been foreshadowed earlier in the week by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, a Davos veteran).
Trump took credit for the booming stock market and declining unemployment—trends well under way before his election, but more dramatic since. He pitched America as an ideal place to do business, with regulations being stripped away and taxes dropping dramatically. What’s good for the huge American economy, he suggested, is good for the world. And he reiterated his desire to replace multilateral trade deals with bilateral ones. “America first does not mean America alone,” he said.
Trump didn’t get the standing ovations accorded Macron, or the laughs. And when he had a sit-down on stage with WEF founder Klaus Schwab and made some of his usual pro forma remarks about "fake news," there were a few boos (some of which came from the press). But generally Trump got better than polite applause.
Davos has always been a three-ring—and often a 30-ring—circus with a lot of competing acts. But there are, essentially, three sets of performers every year.
You have billionaires and the CEOs of many of the world’s most powerful corporations. Then you have government leaders. And finally you have people pushing ambitious projects to make the world a better place by fighting climate change, pursuing global goals for sustainable development, reducing poverty, helping refugees—the list is long.
The latter group always hope they can break through to the former ones, and that struggle can be interesting. WEF communications head Adrian Monck, in a nice phrase, told The Daily Beast, “Our job is to make people feel uncomfortable about feeling comfortable.”
But in private conversations with the ultra-rich at Davos, one quickly discovers that many if not most are there to network and grow their businesses. After a few token visits to what they see as do-gooder panels and presentations, many hit the ski slopes with their spouses (or lovers). And while the themes of Davos meetings often are variants on the need to fight inequality, these proud one-percenters are rarely embarrassed as they climb into their private planes to head home.
So, the notion that Donald Trump would be facing a unanimously hostile audience when he landed in Davos on Thursday was always misplaced. A major part of it, the big money part, was always going to be receptive.
The massive corporate tax cut Trump and the GOP managed to push through in December was a fantastic Christmas gift to the mega-rich on the Magic Mountain. He lined their already bulging pockets—and told them they could be comfortable with being comfortable.