Donald Trump campaigned as an arch-nationalist, a man who would stand up for ordinary Americans against the “false song of globalism,” as he once put it in a speech. One of his very last campaign ads was a YouTube video that, in conspiracy theory-tinged language, blasted “a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class.”
But on Tuesday, the White House announced that President Donald Trump will be attending the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, later this month.
Davos is the signature gathering of the global elite, an event synonymous with the dream of a borderless, free-trading, fully integrated world — the exact kind of globalism that Trump claims to oppose. Davos is so synonymous with the international power structure that former White House Senior strategist Steve Bannon used the conference as a byword for his enemies.
“The working men and women in the world,” Bannon said in a speech, “[are] just tired of being dictated to by what we call the party of Davos.”
That “party” now seems to count President Trump as one of its members.
This is a betrayal of Trumpism as an ideology
Though Davos is a major conference of global muckety-mucks, the kind of place where you can find the former leaders of major countries just lounging at the hotel bar, American presidents typically don’t attend. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama skipped the conference entirely; Bill Clinton is the only US president ever to attend while in office.
Trump’s attendance, then, is not just some pro-forma appearance he’s required to attend. It is actually a break with precedent, meaning there’s some reason that Trump is choosing to act like, to borrow the language of his alt-right fans, a “globalist cuck.”
It’s important to note that Trump is in the midst of a very public falling out with Bannon, who’s quoted accusing Donald Trump Jr. of “treasonous” behavior in the new book Fire and Fury. It’s possible that this is intended, at least in part, as a slap in Bannon’s face given his well-documented hatred of the conference.
It’s also possible that some of Trump’s more mainstream advisers, like Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and National Economic Council Chair Gary Cohn, see Trump attending Davos as a way of calming fears about his presidency. US allies are deeply concerned by Trump’s vocal hostility to immigration, his attacks on free trade, his criticism of US alliances as one-sided, and his support for European far-right parties. Bringing him to Davos, an event that symbolizes the exact opposite of all that, could be a way of trying to calm down jittery partners.
And in some ways, Trump really belongs at Davos. He is a self-described billionaire, born rich, who has properties and investments all over the world. He sells himself as a champion of the neglected American working class, and there’s little evidence that he actually disgusts globetrotting elites in the same visceral way that Bannon and his followers seem to. You could see this less as Trump betraying his own rhetoric and more as a reversion to form.
Ultimately, the clearest takeaway from this decision is that Trump is not the ideologue he sometimes seems to be.