DAVOS, Switzerland — The Ivy League professor walked up to the economist, who was sipping on coffee and noshing on an assortment of croissants.
“How are you feeling?” the professor asked.
“Not bad, aside from the fact that the world is going to end this week!” the economist quipped.
It was three days before the inauguration of a man who wasn’t seen at the World Economic Forum, the premier annual gathering for global elites here in Davos. But US President Donald Trump was a constant presence — in the hearts, minds, and words of the attendees and organisers.
“He’s like a ghost, hovering over everything this week,” said one journalist who has covered the conference for several years.
“For once, these people are wondering, ‘Why are we not getting any attention?'”
The gathering nearly perfectly encapsulates the image Trump railed against on his way to victory in the US presidential election. The crowd was full of billionaires, CEOs, finance ministers, left-leaning economists — generally, the type of people Trump labelled as the “global power structure,” with more than 3,000 participants from more than 100 countries.
They spent most of the week figuring out what to do about him and the world events that have foreshadowed or followed his rise — Brexit, the Italian referendum, and the general rise of populism in the US and across Europe.
“You look at the mood last year, it was so shocked that Donald Trump was even in the primaries,” former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, whose stunning 2014 primary defeat in 2014 was perhaps the first shot in the war on the establishment elite, told Business Insider in an interview.
“There was a lot of scepticism about his candidacy. It wasn’t just here — we had scepticism at home among the establishment Republicans as well,” added Cantor, now a managing director and vice chairman at the investment bank Moelis & Co. “But I think this year, there are a lot of people who just don’t want to admit that there is a lack of confidence in the establishment — however you want to define that — and that there needs to be willingness to respond in a way and not just defend your position.”
Panelists and attendees at the conference warned about what they described as the dangers of protectionism. They called for an expansion of free trade at a time when they are under assault from Trump and other populist-style leaders. They promoted the rise of China to fill a perceived void from the US, as its president, Xi Jinping, took center stage with the opening plenary speech.
From all over the world, they were on the defensive. One panel featured finance ministers from G20 countries cautioning against a protectionist path for Europe and the US.
“If you want to get more inclusive growth, you need more free trade,” said Wolfgang Schäuble, federal minister of finance of Germany, in a panel discussion on Thursday.
“The new administration is opening the economy and wants to open up and receive the benefits of globalization to generate more inclusive growth,” added Nicolas Dujovne, the treasury minister of Argentina.
A day later and across the Atlantic Ocean, Trump riled up a crowd in Washington with a fiery inaugural address that encouraged the “America first” approach he espoused on the campaign trail.
“Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families,” he said.
“We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”
Though it was inauguration week, the incoming Trump administration — and its viewpoint — was largely absent from the conference. Trump adviser Anthony Scaramucci, the well-known New York financier, had a short stay, speaking on a pair of panels while clarifying comments Trump had made about the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican congressman from California, is one of the few frequent conservative-leaning conference attendees. He said he spent a lot of time this year answering questions about the new president, reassuring the conference-goers that Trump is deliberate, thoughtful, and willing to seek input from many sources.
“They ask, ‘What does he mean? What is he going to say?’ And of course, the question I haven’t been able to answer very well for the last eight years, but I can answer a little better with Donald Trump is, ‘Who does he listen to? Who does he seek counsel from?’ Those kinds of things,” Issa said in an interview.
He added: “The good thing is, President Trump takes calls from people all over the world. He is a very active listener. And so, a lot of people have his ear. And a lot of people here are happy to hear that.”
But the first few hours of Trump’s tenure seemed to confirm many of the suspicions that pervaded through the conference all week.
Trump delivered a fiery inaugural address that stood out as one of the most ideological in history. Throughout the weekend, his aides proceeded to lambaste the media for accurately reporting information about inauguration crowd sizes — then saying they offered “alternative facts,” not falsehoods, about the crowds.
One former Obama administration official left the week with a striking conclusion: China has traded places with the US in terms of policies related to trade and globalization.
“It’s odd, is all I can say,” the official said, requesting anonymity to speak candidly. “It’s odd to feel rather comforted by China.”
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