Everyone liked the speech of the U.S. president: Business leaders were convinced that Trump is pursuing a profitable policy for them, and other forum participants simply enjoyed the show
This year, the expectations from the World Economic Forum in Davos, which are traditionally rather high, have seriously increased, as soon as it became known that U.S. President Donald Trump would speak at it.
U.S. presidents have traditionally frowned upon the forum. Back in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan spoke via video communication before the participants. The only U.S. president who spoke live at the forum was Bill Clinton, who in 2000 made it part of his farewell tour as a head of state and also, at the same time, put out feelers for life after the White House. Unpopular outside the United States, George W. Bush did not show up at the forum, nor did the darling of the international community, Barack Obama. And all of a sudden, three weeks before the forum, we see in the news that Trump will speak at Davos.
Antiglobalist in Davos
First of all, the plot thickens with the fact that Trump came to power with an agenda of economic nationalism, protectionism, accusations against his global partners of "dishonest" agreements (both in trade and, for example, in the security sphere) and under the slogan "America First." This all is so contrary to the spirit of Davos that his participation in the forum was perceived as an illustration of the famous joke about the performance of bees against honey.*
In the meantime, there is just a germ of truth in this comparison. The majority of forum participants are involved in transnational business, and their attitude toward Trump's agenda is positive and sometimes even enthusiastic. The U.S. tax reform, which reduced corporate income tax from 35 percent to 21 percent, as well as tax rates for the richest, was greeted with gratitude and admiration by corporations. Deregulation and abolition of "leftist" regulatory norms, which allow businesses to reduce costs, are also beneficial for corporations. Thus, despite the first impression, Trump came to perform not in front of enemies but in front of a loyal part of the international community.
Besides that, the domestic political reason for his trip was totally clear. After an awkward beginning of the year − which included the publishing of the book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” in which the president was demonized, the realized threat of a government shutdown on the anniversary of the inauguration and the continuing investigation of the connection between Trump's election campaign with the Russians − Trump wanted some success. A high-level international trip − what could be higher than Davos? − could become this quick victory for the president: He can brag about his accomplishments, show off in front of people who like his politics, and anger those who criticized him. What could be better?
Summary of Accomplishments
In general, Trump's performance was addressed to two parts of his unexpected coalition − global business and “forgotten men.” On the one hand, he emphasized all the profitable accomplishments of his administration, focusing on tax reform and deregulation. Trump was assuring them, like a real salesman, that America is growing at an unprecedented pace and now is the best time to invest in it. The economy is growing faster, while unemployment, on the contrary, is at a record low. Obviously focusing on the tolerant, liberal European public and nongovernmental organization representatives who are part of the "Davos crowd," Trump added that this low unemployment level also includes African-Americans and Hispanics.
However, Trump's main audience was his voters back home. In the second sentence of his speech, he stated that he was there to “represent the interests of the American people.” Thus, naming his personal accomplishments, Trump started with "lifting up the forgotten communities," giving support to those very representatives of the white working class who were deprived of their jobs due to automation and "unfair trade" and deprived of their life’s’ purpose by liberal, cultural policy. Obliged to these "forgotten people" for his victory, Trump addressed them from the platform of the main global forum in the world with a populist message − an amazing scene in the best tradition of "House of Cards."
It is not surprising that in his speech Trump pointed out the necessity of stiffening the immigration policy of the U.S. because it is the immigrants who are perceived by his voters as a threat. Another challenge is the unfair trade agreements, which Trump’s voters consider the main cause of the decrease in the number of jobs. It is hard to imagine a less appropriate place than the World Economic Forum to talk about the bilateral trade agreements to the detriment of "unfair" multilateral agreements, but if you understand who the main addressees of Trump's speech are, then this makes sense.
No Big Ideas
There are also two details of Trump's speech that should be noted. First, many permanent forum participants were wondering whether Trump would respond to last year's speech from the head of the People's Republic of China, Xi Jinping, who came with a much more global perspective than the current U.S. president. And indeed, Trump stated that the United States will no longer remain blind to unfair competition, including mass theft of intellectual property, subsidies to the manufacturing industry and state-planned economies. Although the U.S. president did not name the countries in question, it is difficult not to think of China in this description.
Second, Trump's speech was distinguished by the absence of any new big ideas that America would be ready to offer to the world. A confirmation of achievements and invitation for investment − this was approximately the same message as the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, and the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, gave. But, India did a lot of work on the eve of the forum, building a large pavilion and co-organizing a welcome reception on the opening day. Macron, in his speech, announced a number of specific mechanisms designed to stimulate innovation. Trump did not offer an agenda for the future, either for the U.S. or for the world, limiting himself to a simple listing of the advantages of the U.S. economy today.
Lack of a big idea and no explanation of the president's plan for the future are not surprising. First of all, as I already wrote earlier, this speech seems to have been prepared only in the last three weeks. Second, the prospects for the agenda of the Republicans and President Trump are now vague: They need to deal with the budget until early February in order to avoid another shutdown. Then they need to get Democrats on board with immigration reform, which won’t be easy. There is practically no chance to increase investments in the infrastructure in the face of a growing budget deficit after the tax reform. Cancelation of the Obama health care reform has already failed several times, and talking about it eight months before the midterm congressional elections is rather risky.
The lack of a big idea was compensated for by the huge interest of participants at the forum in Trump, but primarily as a media figure and not as a newsmaker. As a result, everyone got what they wanted: Business leaders were convinced that Trump is pursuing a profitable policy for them, and other forum participants simply enjoyed the show. Just like Trump himself. He retweeted the tweet of a Bloomberg journalist, who published a photo of the crowded hall of the Congress Center of the forum with the comment: "The waiting line for Trump’s speech in Davos (still nearly one hour to go). Has the feeling of teenagers queuing for a concert, but this [sic] are billionaires and CEOs!" Everything was the way the American president likes!
*Translator's Note: "Bees against honey" is a well-known expression meaning it is impossible to fight effectively against your own nature.