DAVOS, Switzerland — By any measure, he made a lot of money, the kid from Queens, maybe not as much as he boasted, but a fortune. And yet never accepted, never respected, he remained on the outside pressing his nose against the window of the club of elites he both revered and resented.
So when President Trump arrives in this snowy, mountaintop resort where financial titans mingle with heads of state in an annual saturnalia of capitalism, it may feel like a moment of vindication. Never invited when he was merely a businessman, Mr. Trump will arrive on Thursday as leader of the world’s last superpower, commanding attention if not admiration. Whatever else, he cannot be ignored now.
“Part of him will feel the resentment that has long smoldered within and part will revel in the fact that he’s the president and no one else is,” said Michael D’Antonio, a Trump biographer. “Considering his tendency to say or tweet whatever comes to mind, we might expect both Trumps — the testy one and the triumphant one — to appear. We may even see and hear him toggle between the two, uncertain if he’s superior or inferior.”
Mr. Trump’s decision to attend the World Economic Forum at Davos, something American presidents generally avoid lest they look out of touch hanging out with the jet-setting crowd, sets the stage for one of the most intriguing encounters of his year-old presidency. Not only will he finally crash the party that would not have him, but he will also bring his protectionist, “America First” message to the ground zero of globalization, addressing the very people he has cast as the villains of his political narrative.
The president foreshadowed the awkward and perhaps tense visit by slapping tariffs on imported solar panels and washing machines just before departing Washington. “I’m going to Davos,” Mr. Trump said after signing the orders. “We’ll be talking about investing in the United States again, for people to come in and spend their money in the good old U.S.A.”
Rather than touting the virtues of lowering economic barriers, Mr. Trump will promote the growing American economy and argue for foreign investment.
“The president will continue to promote fair economic competition and will make it clear that there cannot be free and open trade if countries are not held accountable to the rules,” said Gary D. Cohn, his economics adviser. “As the president has said repeatedly, America and his administration supports free and open trade, but it needs to be fair and reciprocal.”
His message will stand out. In the forum’s opening address on Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India defended globalization. Later in the day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada announced that his country and 10 other Pacific Rim nations had concluded talks for a trade pact without the United States.
Scheduled to depart from Washington on Wednesday night, Mr. Trump will stay in Davos just one night and meet with Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, with whom he had testy exchanges over his posting of anti-Muslim videos distributed by a far-right British group, as well as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, with whom he is friendlier. He will also attend a reception of world leaders in his honor and host a dinner for European corporate chieftains.
Seven cabinet secretaries, including Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, are scheduled to attend. Among those who will not come is Melania Trump, who has kept a low profile since a new book reported that she was so wary of life in the White House that she cried on election night and The Wall Street Journal reported that her husband’s lawyer sent $130,000 to a porn actress before the election to keep her from discussing an alleged sexual encounter with Mr. Trump.
Mrs. Trump denied the book’s account and has otherwise largely remained silent. Her spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, said on Tuesday that the first lady was not coming to Davos because there were “too many scheduling and logistical issues.”
How Mr. Trump will calibrate his message is the preoccupation of the forum so far. Will he declare victory over the fat cats? Lecture them about trade? Or seek to win them over?
“He’s not going to get up to the stage of Davos and insult them,” predicted Anne-Marie Slaughter, the president of New America, a Washington-based research organization, and a former director of policy planning at the State Department under President Barack Obama. “He’s so often a chameleon. He will adapt his message completely to the crowd. What he tweets, on the other hand, is likely to be very different.”
No American president has attended Davos except Bill Clinton, who came in 2000, and many were perplexed that Mr. Trump, who styles himself as a billionaire populist, would choose to.
“It’s so fascinating that he wanted to go,” said Karen Donfried, the president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a research group that focuses on trans-Atlantic affairs, and a former national security aide to Mr. Obama. “Maybe he thinks these are his people, the corporate people. But his statements are to the other side.”
To be sure, many of the American 1-percenters here have Mr. Trump to thank for the substantial corporate and personal tax cuts that he helped push through Congress in December. But privately, they consider him a global wild card and bristle at his efforts to build walls, figuratively and literally, against immigration and free trade.
“Will political and corporate leaders at Davos seek to flatter Trump to get on his good side or give him the cold shoulder given their growing concerns about his leadership?” asked David J. Kramer, a former State Department official under President George W. Bush who just hosted a conference on foreign policy under Mr. Trump at Florida International University.
Mr. Trump, after all, is the president who has taken a wrecking ball to the liberal international order that Davos represents. In his first year in office, he abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement with Asian nations, threatened to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada as well as a separate trade pact with South Korea if they are not renegotiated to his liking, threatened a trade war with China and announced that he would withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord now signed by every other nation in the world.
He has also offended many by referring to African nations in a meeting with lawmakers as “shithole countries,” or some variation of that, and saying in another meeting that Nigerians who visit the United States would not want to “go back to their huts.” At least 10 heads of state or government from Africa are scheduled to attend this year, and Mr. Trump will meet with President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, the chairman of the African Union.
But Davos participants rarely confront the grievances that globalization has produced in a visceral way, and some analysts said Mr. Trump’s message might be a bracing reminder that the wheeling and dealing has real-world effects on people far below this mountain retreat.
“It’s important for the Davos elite to hear from the populist president who, although a billionaire businessman himself, is better able than they to understand what real people need in the United States and perhaps in other countries as well,” said Peter Van Praagh, the president of the Halifax International Security Forum, another annual gathering.
“I hope President Trump brings with him to Davos a message to the business elite and to the political elite of some of the lessons he has learned as a candidate and in his first year in office, which is that making all of these issues real to people is the path to success,” Mr. Van Praagh added. “And although many of the people gathered at Davos intuitively understand this, they probably have a lot to learn from Mr. Trump.”
Whether they will listen is another matter. And whether they will accept the messenger as an authentic envoy from the 99 percent or a wannabe member of the elite still banging on their door remains to be seen.
“These same folks, as well as the business-media elite, generally find Trump to be a troublesome and boorish man,” Mr. D’Antonio said. “They may do what they can to ingratiate themselves, but privately and in some cases publicly they will reject him. He knows this as well as he knew that New York’s social elite rejected him in a similar way.”
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