(The Washington Post) -- Later this week, President Trump is slated to travel to an alpine corner of Switzerland to address world leaders, business elites and celebrities. The government shutdown in the United States may yet derail Trump's trip to the World Economic Forum in the ski-resort town of Davos, but already the president's announced visit has cast a giant shadow over the annual conclave of global elites. His speech, scheduled for Friday, is considered the showpiece event of this year's session.
A year ago, things were different. The attendees in Davos whispered in uncertainty about what the “America First” president might do in power, while other leaders sought to fill the vacuum created by his absence. Chinese President Xi Jinping used the forum to burnish his nation's image at a time when the United States was questioning its own role as the custodian of the international order.
After all, Trump's legitimacy with his base seemed to hinge on an overt repudiation of globalist gatherings such as this. It was the leitmotif of his election campaign: Stephen K. Bannon, the now disgraced former Trump adviser, had once labeled the president's imagined ideological enemies as “the party of Davos.” No forum better embodied everything Trump-the-populist claimed to oppose.
The argument against the World Economic Forum was most famously made by late conservative American political scientist Samuel Huntington in a 2004 essay. Huntington coined the term “Davos Men” to refer to a new coterie of elites who came to the fore in the age of globalization.
“The rewards of an increasingly integrated global economy have brought forth a new global elite. Labeled 'Davos Men,' 'gold-collar workers' or… 'cosmocrats', this emerging class is empowered by new notions of global connectedness,” he wrote, imagining a distinct class of tens of millions emerging by 2010. “It includes academics, international civil servants and executives in global companies, as well as successful high-technology entrepreneurs.”
Crucial to Huntington's formulation was that these elites “have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite's global operations.”
Trump has embraced — at least rhetorically — this characterization of Davos and the global cognoscenti who convene by its slopes. He weaponized resentment toward “anti-national” liberals in coastal cities and decried the sort of high-toned international debates that take place at the World Economic Forum. At the same time, he grandstanded over and over again about the need for strong borders while casting his right-wing supporters as the “real” people of the country.
Never mind that the ruinous financial crisis of a decade ago dispelled any delusions about well-heeled “cosmocrats” steering the world toward a benign future. Never mind that the World Economic Forum itself has for years been almost painfully aware of the stigma surrounding its meetings, making plenty of noise profoundly earnest about finding solutions for the entrenched social and political conundrums affecting the wider world.
And never mind that Trump himself has shed most of his populist clothes, pushing an economic agenda that disproportionately benefits the same class of super-rich to which he putatively belongs.
In its own messaging surrounding this year's meeting, the World Economic Forum has implicitly acknowledged the ideological challenge posed by Trump and his ilk. A communique ahead of the meeting said its sessions would “focus on finding ways to reaffirm international cooperation on crucial shared interests, such as international security, the environment and the global economy. The meeting comes at a time when geostrategic competition between states is generally seen to be on the rise.”
On its website, the forum pointed to an interview with economic historian Marc-William Palen, who has studied American debates over protectionism vs. “globalism” dating back deep into the 19th century. “What is unprecedented today is that with Trump in the White House the United States, the leader of the global economic system and main advocate of trade liberalization since 1945, is now the first to advocate turning away from the very system it helped create,” Palen laments.
Even so, there's no reason to expect a tense reception for Trump at Davos. “Davos is already more relaxed about Mr. Trump than it was 12 months ago, in large part because he has failed to deliver on some of his more incendiary pledges, such as imposing swingeing tariffs on Chinese goods.”