Donald Trump’s decision to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, has already been seen as evidence that the president has come around to the GOP establishment’s way of thinking on economics. Davos is synonymous with everything that Trump railed against on the campaign trail in 2016—open borders, free trade, globalization. His decision to attend also came in the same week that he parted ways with Steve Bannon, who provided a quasi-philosophical framework to Trump’s insurgency against the “Davos Man” and the corrupt elitism he represents.
But even as he’s lambasted the pillars of the Davos worldview, Trump has repeatedly wooed the wealthy and the powerful. As president, he’s hardly governed as a Bannonite, instead signing off on a slew of long-standing Republican priorities. His trip to Davos will be seen as a betrayal by Bannon (and Alex Jones, who has described it as “Luciferian”), but it’s in keeping with Trump’s complicated relationship with the elite, a group he alternately reviles and admires.
Held since 1971 in the Swiss Alps, the World Economic Forum is a go-to destination for the super-rich (think Bill Gates, George Soros), the super-influential (Henry Kissinger, Tony Blair), and the super-famous (Bono). At Davos, they hold airy panels devoted to fixing the world, and at the end they make pledges to fight poverty or disease. It is kind of like TED Talks, the difference being that Davos has no interest in TED’s middle-brow approachability. The world’s luminaries come together at Davos for the sake of coming together; it’s a networking event dressed up as a mega-seminar on policy. The theme for the 2018 conference is “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World”—“How Globalization Can Survive Donald Trump,” in other words.
Davos functions as a way of rationalizing the current global economic order—or, in the case of this year’s summit, ensuring its continued existence. It is a highly publicized, highly exclusive way for a global class of capitalists to both showcase their wealth and the benevolence with which they are distributing it.
It’s this aspect that has unsurprisingly opened Davos up to attack. Protests were common in the 1990s and 2000s, and the conference was placed under new scrutiny after the 2008 economic collapse. But this criticism had, until recently, come from the anti-globalist left. Steve Bannon and Donald Trump changed that, targeting Davos as a symbol of a shadowy global order bent on destroying the American white working class. “The working men and women in the world,” Bannon said in a 2014 speech that acted as a kind of manifesto, “[are] just tired of being dictated to by what we call the party of Davos.” Trump’s repeated criticisms of globalization, free trade deals, and immigration seemingly place him at odds with the World Economic Forum’s raison d’etre.
It’s possible that Trump will use his Davos trip to thumb his nose at these elites. “What planners didn’t know was that some West Wing advisers were arguing that Davos would be the perfect venue for Trump to unleash an especially gassy stink bomb aimed at ideas—free trade deals, a more integrated global regulatory system, and all manner of liberal pieties cherished by global elites—he deplores,” John Harris and Ben White wrote in Politico. But this misses all the ways in which Davos is actually a perfect fit for Trump.
Trump’s antipathy toward free trade deals is one of the few beliefs he has held consistently for decades. Rubbing shoulders at Davos isn’t going to convert him any time soon—in fact, Axios reports that Trump will argue that “America has been mistreated [in trade and security deals], and is going to stand up for itself.”
But another constant is his admiration for the ultra-wealthy, who fill his cabinet. Their wealth, he believes, is a manifestation of their inherent pluck and intelligence. As Trump has said, “I love all people—rich or poor—but in those particular positions, I just don’t want a poor person.” Moreover, in the past year he has proven himself very amenable to the Davos Man’s interests. The “moderate” wing of the Trump White House—led by Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner—has kept a steady stream of CEOs flowing into the White House. And Trump has been a reliable rubber stamp for the “globalist” wing of the Republican Party, a switch exemplified by his signing of a tax reform bill that benefited the very 1 percent (including foreign shareholders) who will be wined and dined at Davos.
In terms of what he has accomplished, Trump has governed like a conventional Republican. Without Steve Bannon sitting on his shoulder in a devil’s costume, he has ceded most of the policy-making to cabinet members and Capitol Hill Republicans. He still talks about the wall on the U.S.–Mexican border and whispers about launching a trade war with China, but so far those issues aren’t gaining much traction. Far from being an evolution, Trump’s trip to Davos represents the latest swerve in his on-again, off-again love affair with the global elite, whose approval he desperately seeks even as he bashes them from the ramparts.