You can tell someone’s status at the splashy World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, by the color of the badge around his or her neck. White goes to the top caste, the billionaires who run the world, or think they do.
President Trump, the mogul who got elected by railing against global elites in favor of the “forgotten man and the forgotten woman,” on Thursday will fly into the Alpine ski resort where the elites gather annually for a two-day stay certain to be closely watched by both groups.
He’ll host some white-badged European captains of industry at a fine dinner, meet with several heads of state from Britain and Africa who have been angered by his rhetoric, and deliver a major address that many at Davos hope will answer the question: How does his “America First” doctrine fit into this year’s theme — “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World”?
Dozens of world leaders routinely attend. Last year, China’s President Xi Jinping was the star attraction, with a purposely un-Trumpian tribute to globalism. Trump will be the first sitting American president to visit the conference since a lame duck Bill Clinton did so in 2000, in large part because predecessors of both parties have seen it as politically perilous to rub elbows in such rarefied company.
That has many diplomats, financiers and others around the world wondering how the self-styled populist will use the occasion — whether Trump will soft-sell his populist rhetoric, as some administration officials are urging, or strike a confrontational tone favored by his more nationalist advisors, a diminished group since the firing last year of Stephen K. Bannon, formerly Trump’s chief strategist.
It was one of the globalists in Trump’s inner circle, economic advisor Gary Cohn, who previewed the president’s message for reporters on Tuesday. “America First is not America alone,” he said. “When we grow, the world grows. When the world grows, we grow.”
He dismissed the notion that Trump’s appearance comes in reaction to Xi’s address at the conference last year, which many saw as China’s bid to take on the United States’ global leadership role as Trump seemed to retreat from it.
Cohn said that Trump would be traveling as a salesman “to tell the world that America is open for business.” Despite new tariffs, threats to leave the North American Free Trade Agreement and the president’s decisions to withdraw from both the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and the Paris climate accord, Cohn insisted that, “The U.S. is pulling back from nothing,” and remained committed to trade.
Yet Trump’s speech on Friday will come on the heels of signs that he is getting more aggressive on trade, imposing new tariffs on solar panels and washing machines this week while sending sharply worded reports to Congress criticizing Chinese and Russian trade practices.
Support for both free trade and the need to combat global warming is virtual dogma at the conference. Trump has called climate change a Chinese hoax, and turned his back on the Paris accord as well as multinational trade agreements with European and Pacific Rim nations.
The perils of globalism that Trump made so vivid on the campaign trail — factory closings, outsourced jobs — are generally seen at Davos as the tradeoffs for greater prosperity overall in the United States and the rest of the world.
“It’s not that the Davos elite never raise the downsides of globalization,” said Jared Bernstein, a former economic advisor in the Obama administration. “It’s just that whenever they do, the solution is more globalization.”
“I think he’s going to go and say ‘Wake up and smell the coffee. This is what the world is really like and we are not going to stand by and get screwed,’” said Claire Reade, an assistant U.S. trade representative in the Obama administration.
The world has certainly seen this version of Trump, most recently at an international conference in Vietnam in November. There he declared, “We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore,” as he railed against “product dumping, subsidized goods, currency manipulation and predatory industrial policies.” Still, as president, Trump just as frequently has held such rhetoric in check, as he did on the same trip in a conciliatory meeting with Xi in Beijing.
Even if Trump the nationalist resists much of the Davos ethos, another part of him could find the forum appealing — the salesman eager to personally woo business leaders in a way that few presidents have done in the past. And certainly the setting also gels with his long-honed brand as a man who likes luxury and fame.
A longtime confidant who asked for anonymity to maintain his access to the president said Davos would test Trump’s “twin compulsions” — a sense of grievance toward the elites and a desire to be accepted by them. Trump is now the most famous resident of Palm Beach, Fla., another enclave of extreme privilege, but he largely crashed his way in, flouting the island’s discreet traditions as he fought for years with the town council to turn Mar-a-Lago from a cereal heiress’ estate into a showy membership club.
“On the one hand, he hates them because he’s an outsider and the fancy people would never accept him. They view him as nouveau riche,” said the confidant. “But he wants to be accepted by them. He wants them to think he’s doing a good job.”
Many in Davos are eager for the networking opportunities with a U.S. president. Trump’s unusually large delegation is dominated by his more globalist aides, led by Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs executive and hedge fund manager, and including Cohn, who was previously Goldman Sachs’s president, and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law.
Trump’s wife, Melania, who has not been seen publicly since the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that the president’s lawyer paid an adult film actress to cover up an affair, will not be accompanying him.
Mnuchin insisted during a briefing with reporters this month that Davos is not “a hangout for globalists. That drew chuckles of disbelief from his audience and suggested some defensiveness on the administration’s part.
Another administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss strategy, said Trump will not shrink from his anti-globalist stance. But, the official added, “There’s not an effort to make this a confrontation.”
Trump, of course, is famous for going off script or ignoring advice from his aides, as he did when he addressed the United Nations in September and referred to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man” on a “suicide mission.”
Regardless of how he is perceived, Trump will have access to all the top parties and meetings he could ever want. And he doesn’t even need a badge.