DAVOS, Switzerland — President Donald Trump will arrive here Thursday to be greeted politely by global elites who commonly regard him as a buffoon.
What has come as a surprise to many of those people is how much they are learning to live with—and in some cases even enjoy—the Buffoon Presidency.
However much the typical Davos habitué disagrees with Trump’s rhetoric on free trade and global integration, these are supremely practical types. One year into Trump, they are accommodating themselves to a changed power reality.
Across the spectrum, it seems evident that the pleas of Trump critics in the United States—don’t normalize an abnormal presidency—have been rejected by the government and industry leaders who congregate at the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering in the Alps.
POLITICO’s team in Davos spoke this week with a roster of leaders that included current and former heads of government as well as leading business executives.
Aside from Trump’s incendiary bluster, many say, the actual consequences of his presidency have been more agreeable (or less disagreeable) than they feared a year ago. This is especially true in business circles, where people note that both the U.S and European economies are purring nicely.
There is a wider group of people, dominated by political types, who say the Trump presidency is just as offensive as they always thought but has come with an alluring benefit: The chance for other nations to fill a power vacuum left by a U.S. retreat from global leadership.
“If America retreats so many [vacuums] are going to appear,” said Werner Hoyer, president of the EU’s European Investment Bank. “Which at the end of the day is an opportunity for Europe.”
Marietje Schaake, a prominent Dutch politician in the European Parliament is like many at Davos in loathing Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accords, among other things. Of his scheduled Friday speech here, she said: “With low expectations it will not take much to exceed them. Still, at the end of the day, while words matter, actions always speak louder than words.”
Assessing Trump’s standing with Davos elites requires exploring the gap between the earnest rhetoric that prevails here—the official theme of this year’s event is “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World”—and the more self-interested thinking behind it.
The customary pose is mournful words delivered with a furrowed brow.
How troubling to have a U.S president who sounds contemptuous of international institutions and the connected world they promote. How worrisome that anxious voters in America and elsewhere take refuge in his snarling brand of nationalism.
The grimace, however, sometimes conceals a smirk. For a generation, many leaders fretted that the United States had become an unchecked “hyper-power”—a lament not heard much at Davos this year.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau underscored the mood when he announced in a speech here that his government had just struck a trade deal with 10 Asia-Pacific countries. Trump upon taking office pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The implication was obvious even without an explicit reference to Trump: Canada was happy to lead if Trump wouldn’t.
At the same time, many people here expressed respect for Trump’s ability last month to pass a tax overhaul, which they believe will stimulate U.S. and global growth.
Sixty-one percent of global institutional investors surveyed by business advisory firm FTI Consulting approve of Trump’s performance in his first year. Trump’s highest rating – 87 percent – came for creating a business-friendly environment in the U.S. “Investor confidence in Trump’s first year has been met and exceeded in some key areas in the U.S.,” said FTI’s Dan Healy.
By contrast, only 33 percent rated him successful at promoting global trade, and only 29 percent said he promoted global economic stability.
But one prominent former British minister said he once took Trump’s words seriously and feared he would demolish NATO and practice appeasement with Russia. Instead, he’s found, the sun is still rising every morning and—with the exception of trade—administration policies are not that different than if any of the conservative Republicans Trump trounced on the way to the GOP nomination had become president.
On stylistic grounds, Trump still rattles sensibilities among the Davos crowd. They howl at his most provocative tweets and regale themselves with speculation about his mental condition with all the disapproving delight of a New York Times editorial writer. But it’s clear the alarm is less acute than a year ago.
“To be blunt,” the former minister said, “Trump hasn’t really f---ed anything up so far.”
Ordinary citizens—the ones down the mountain—are less impressed.
A new Bertelsmann Stiftung survey released Thursday showed that only 23 percent of Europeans approve of Trump’s performance, down six points from the start of his term.
That popular disdain has been woven through the official Davos proceedings—including in speeches Wednesday by German chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s dominant political force for the 12 years she has been in power, and newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron, a new star at age 40.
Neither leader mentioned Trump by name. Both made unmistakably clear they were raising their voices against his brand of nationalism and barrier-building. Both called for more attention to the problems of ordinary citizens to ensure that the benefits of globalization are more widely shared and to combat what Merkel called “right wing populism” and “the poison that appears whenever you have unsolved problems.”
Merkel is in a position of exquisite balance, according to people familiar with her views. She is disapproving of many aspects of Trump on stylistic and substantive grounds—especially on the question of climate change. His attacks on independent media have undermined belief in the primacy of facts over propaganda. At the same time, she believes the world’s most urgent problems require U.S. leadership, and she’s urged associates not to overreact to Trump’s Twitter tirades and other provocations.
At a POLITICO-moderated panel at Davos this week, Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said of Trump’s conflict-oriented brand of politics: “I think what it does change is kind of the moral leadership that the US used to have in the world. That is diminishing rapidly. But that is something that can come back—easily.”
Also at that panel, Indian Minister of Railways and Coal Piyush Goyal suggested other nations can more readily solve problems by relinquishing any Trump obsession: “I know it’s a powerful nation, I know it’s a large nation, but I don’t think we need to overstate or overhype one person’s individual fancy.”
Ryan Heath, Florian Eder and Elizabeth Castillo contributed.