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As Trump becomes president, the global elite at Davos wonder why people don’t like them

Matt Damon, Gary White, Stella Artois and Host Panel Discussion at World Economic Forum
A scene at Davos.
(Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images/Stella Artois)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Through an incredibly fortuitous historical coincidence, the World Economic Forum — the premier confab of the global political and economic elite — is happening on the same day that Donald Trump is taking office in the United States. The dispatches from Davos, Switzerland (where the forum takes place), make it sound like a place of barely concealed panic.

Perhaps the best example, recorded by the New York Times’s Alexandra Stevenson, came at the panel on “the middle-class crisis” — the well-documented fact that the middle class in the developed world haven’t seen their incomes grow, and in many cases simply lost their jobs, over the course of the past 20 years. There are many reasons for this crisis, but two of the most notable — cutting the size of government and growing trade between the developed and developing world — are among the favored ideas of Davos-goers.

Here’s what one of the panelists, a wealthy hedge fund manager, had to say about the Trump phenomenon (per Stevenson):

“I want to be loud and clear: Populism scares me,” Ray Dalio, the billionaire hedge fund manager, said during a panel on how to fix the middle-class crisis. “The No. 1 issue economically as a market participant is how populism manifests itself over the next year or two.” But Mr. Dalio offered little by way of a solution, beyond opining on the positive aspects of loosening regulation and lowering taxes.

On the subject of rising populism, Mr. Dalio, who runs the $150 billion investment firm Bridgewater Associates, added: “It’s an anti-Davos way of operating.”

So to recap:

  • Davos had a panel on the woes of the middle class starring a billionaire hedge fund manager.
  • The billionaire’s only policy ideas were slashing government and lowering tax rates.
  • He then condemned populism for being “an anti-Davos way of operating.”

There are multiple levels of poetic irony at work here.

The first, and most obvious, is an American billionaire at a ski resort in Switzerland claiming to speak for the middle class. The second is that this is happening while Trump is literally preparing to take office, showing the Davos confab to be profoundly out of touch with the political realities of the world’s wealthiest country. The third is that people like Dalio are terrified of Trump when his actual budget — which may contain up to $10.5 trillion in spending and tax cuts — is the same kind of thing that Dalio sees as an answer to the Trump phenomenon.

Dalio is also focusing on the wrong problems. The best evidence suggests that the “middle-class crisis,” real though it is, is not the reason for the rise of Trump and similar right-wing populists in Europe. Instead, these movements are a reaction to mass immigration and multiculturalism, a kind of white riot against the rising status of nonwhite, non-Christian minority groups. If we want to talk about responses to Trump, we need to start with figuring out how to acclimate the West’s majorities to an inevitably multicultural future.

But one thing is for sure: A bunch of superrich people getting together and talking about the need for policies that would serve mostly to make themselves richer is not exactly an effective response to ordinary Americans feeling like the global elite is out of touch. Davos has never felt less relevant.

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