Who's afraid of Trump at Davos?

There is no contradiction between President Donald Trump's decision this year to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos - that ultimate congregation of elites - and his populist politics.

Rather, everything Mr Trump has done so far promotes a slogan JPMorgan Chase chief executive officer Jamie Dimon coined half-facetiously at last year's Davos: "Make elites great again!" (#MEGA).

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin defended Mr Trump's trip by saying he did not think Davos was "a hangout for globalists".

He need not have bothered. Davos is a hangout for everybody who is anybody. Even the Russian communists did not mind when their leader Gennady Zyuganov came in 1996 when it appeared he was about to beat Mr Boris Yeltsin for the presidency.

Davos is a stage on which any message, including an anti-globalist one, can reach the right ears. Not going simply means that someone else gets to deliver his message instead.

Last year, when Mr Trump did not go, Chinese President Xi Jinping stole the show when he made the case for free trade.

This time around, Mr Trump, according to Mr Mnuchin, intends to lay out his "America First" policies and argue that if they are good for the United States, they are good for the rest of the world, too.

That in itself will be a concession to the forum's significance, which promises to set up something of a showdown.

French President Emmanuel Macron and possibly also German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be there to present an alternative European vision.

In a way, however, Mr Trump casts less of a shadow over this year's World Economic Forum than he did at the 2017 one.

A year ago, he embodied the populist threat hanging over Europe and the US.

His inauguration speech, with its harsh nationalist message - "From this moment on, it's going to be America first" - resonated around the world on the last day of the Davos forum, held under the slogan of "responsive and responsible leadership". In that speech, Mr Trump advertised his way of making US leadership responsive to the grievances of the victims of what he termed "American carnage".

Wealthy investors and experts at Davos voiced fears of the revolution he appeared to symbolise.

"I want to be loud and clear. Populism scares me," hedge fund manager Ray Dalio told a panel.

"The No. 1 issue economically as a market participant is how populism manifests itself over the next year or two." Now Mr Dalio has his answer. In the US, Mr Trump has achieved nothing as a populist.

The only important piece of legislation he has signed has been a tax reform that benefits the wealthiest Americans, not a populist measure by any standard.

Mr Stephen Bannon, the ideologist who helped push Mr Trump into the unlikely role of working-class advocate, is out of the Trump administration and is the target of some of the President's most vicious tweets.

Mr Trump has failed to start building a border wall. Jobs creation slowed down slightly. The international image of the US has taken a hit.

His presence this year is the ideal backdrop for leaders such as Mr Macron and Dr Merkel.

Not only did they win elections last year, thwarting populist challenges, they have actually achieved something since doing so.

Mr Macron, in his first months as President, worked effectively with labour unions and the employers' lobby to push through a business-friendly reform of France's convoluted labour code, and has moved towards fixing the professional education and pension systems.

Dr Merkel, who was forced by the September election results to engage in complex coalition-building, has just struck a deal with the German Social Democrats that will likely allow her to form a stable government.

Consider the 28-page preliminary coalition pact, which spells out specific policies the two parties will get through Parliament in the next four years and even lays down spending numbers on particular measures - a level of detail, and of government predictability, that Americans can only envy.

Compared with the erratic, beleaguered Mr Trump, with his uncertain grasp of specifics and dubious role in steering the US, Mr Macron and Dr Merkel are paragons of skill, confidence and responsibility.

Mr Trump does not come to Davos as a fearsome figure.

He comes as a symbol of failure and a living reason why the policy and business elite he campaigned against does not deserve the guillotine. #MEGA indeed.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2018, with the headline Who's afraid of Trump at Davos?. Subscribe