Critic's Notebook: At Davos, Trump Makes Nice With the Elites He Scorned

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President Trump

The president tries to sell business tycoons and world leaders on his "America First" policy and sounds like a small-town mayor wooing Walmart to open a store in his community.

President Trump seemed decidedly low-energy during his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Perhaps it was the jet lag. Or the sleepless nights he's endured at Melania's hands since the Stormy Daniels story came out. Or maybe it was the bombshell story in the New York Times that he had attempted to fire Robert Mueller back in June. It's a shame how fake news can really put a damper on things.

In any case, this wasn't the Trump you saw on the campaign trail. Gone was the bombast, the threats, the braggadocio. Of course, that was to be expected. He wasn't speaking to his loyal supporters, but rather to the global elites whom he had spent his entire campaign decrying. Trump had never been extended an invitation to Davos during his business career. He was obviously thrilled just to be in the room.

"I'm here to represent the interests of the American people," he began, ignoring the fact that the majority of the American people don't want him representing their interests. "America hopes for a future in which everyone can prosper," he said, describing the American dream as "a great job, a safe home and a better life for their children." All true, but right now there are also plenty of Americans dreaming of a president who won't embarrass them.

Naturally, Trump took a victory lap. He takes so many of them that he really should be in better shape. "After years of stagnation, the United States is once again experiencing strong economic growth," he boasted, apparently confusing the Obama years with the Great Depression. To absolutely no one's surprise, he trumpeted the rise of the stock market, which he described as a "bubble" when he was running for president, for maybe the billionth time. This is clearly a president who pays less attention to his national security briefings than the Dow Jones.

He bragged about the record low unemployment among African-Americans, Hispanics and women. He didn't even seem to mind that all three groups disapprove of his presidency in large numbers.

Trump sounded less like a president — although to be fair, far more presidential than he normally sounds — and more like a small-town mayor desperately trying to woo Walmart to open a store in his community. "America is open for business and we are competitive once again!" he announced. "America is the place to do business!" he declared. "I believe in America!" he enthused. "America has the best colleges and universities in the world!" he boasted. All that was missing was a PowerPoint presentation and the promise of snacks afterwards.

Trump naturally brought his patented "America First" routine to the august gathering, but he was less belligerent about it than usual, almost conciliatory. "As president of the United States I will always put America first," he said.  "But America first does not mean America alone," he added, as the audience of business tycoons and international leaders breathed a sigh of relief. Of course, Trump wasn't yet done rebuking them. "We support free trade, but it needs to be fair," he chided. "It needs to be fair and it needs to be reciprocal." He went on to announce his support for "mutually beneficial, bilateral trade agreements with all countries," even hinting at rejoining TPP. That Donald, he's such a tease.

The brief address featured his usual greatest hits, although to his credit he managed to refrain from threatening other countries with nuclear obliteration. He did promise to apply "maximum pressure to de-nuke the Korean peninsula," looking pleased that he had invented yet another new word.

Trump wound down by segueing into the world's most powerful motivational speaker. He promised to "empower dreams" and provide "a better world for everyone." It all sounded very nice, but it was easy to tell that the only reason the audience was on his side was because of those huge corporate tax cuts that will inevitably fuel stock buybacks and higher dividends.

After the scripted speech, which he delivered with all the passion of an accountant delivering a profitable earnings report, Trump sounded a bit more animated during a surprise Q&A session conducted by World Economic Forum leader Klaus Schwab. It wasn't exactly a hard-hitting interview, with Schwab channeling his inner Oprah. "What experience from your past has been most useful in your presidency?" was a typical softball question. "I've always been successful at making money," Trump responded, while discussing his checkered business career. "For whatever reason, I've always been able to get a disproportionate amount of press," he added, sounding as perplexed about it as the rest of us. He also decried "fake news," eliciting boos from the crowd. It was hard to tell whether they were booing him or the media.

Of course, he again took the opportunity to boast about his achievements. "We have a brand new United States," he rejoiced. "There's a tremendous spirit!" he proclaimed.

Yes, there is. It's called the Resistance.