Maybe we should call it the Craven Caravan of Corporate Capitulation and Collaboration; Donald Trump seems to prefer “the President’s Strategic and Policy Forum.” But whatever it's called, what we’re experiencing right now is a dizzying move to a Russia-style capitalism where, more than ever, success in business is associated with being close to the government and to the family of the president.
On Wednesday we saw a prime example of this, with Donald Trump’s much-heralded tech summit. Trump, of course, was in the middle of the seating chart, next to the evil billionaire who orchestrated the entire event, and across from his billionaire son-in-law. Meanwhile, at the top of the table sat all three of Trump’s adult children, with Eric Trump, according to the transcript, going out of his way to welcome the genuinely successful tech leaders into his father’s gilded tower of mirrors and self-regard.
The CEOs, for their part, knew the drill. One of them even said the words out loud, during the brief on-the-record portion of the meeting: “I’m Safra Catz, I’m CEO of Oracle. I’m actually privileged and honored to even be here, and we are looking forward to helping you, and your administration.” The rest of them, of course, sent exactly the same message, by simply turning up in the first place and by making no gestures whatsoever against America’s unspeakable president-elect.
While this kind of system is terrifyingly new to the United States, it’s depressingly common in other parts of the world. That’s one reason why large global companies have relatively little difficulty adjusting to it: They’re used to it elsewhere.
Exhibit A, here, is Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State. As Julia Ioffe explains, he tried–briefly–standing up for the rule of law in Russia while he was trying to do business there as the CEO of Exxon Mobil. That didn’t work out so well, so he moved to Plan B:
To do business in Russia—both for Exxon Mobil and for Tillerson’s own massive retirement fund, whose fortunes would rise significantly if a Trump White House lifted sanctions—you have to dance to Putin’s tune, and take whatever favors and humiliations he sends your way. Putin may act a friend and pin state medals on your breast, but he is, ultimately, a cynic. And to play ball with him, you have to be a cynic, too. Forget your honor, your rule of law, your independent judiciary, your human rights, your international law, and focus on the gold coins he throws to your feet. And forget looking dignified as you gather them up.
While academics and the media do their best to warn of the dangers of a Trump presidency, the engines that power America’s economy are an entirely different matter. The stock market is up 6% since Trump was elected, the Federal Reserve shows no signs of being worried, and Trump’s Cabinet is full of Goldman Sachs plutocrats who are well aware of how to deal with corrupt governments in places like Greece and Libya.
Next month, the world’s economic and political elites will convene in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum’s annual gabfest. If 2016 was the year that the disconnect between rhetoric and reality became too obvious to ignore, then, I predict, 2017 is going to be the year of capitulation to (rather than opposition to) what has happened.
The Forum’s stated goals are globalist and universal and genuinely laudable; they’re also antithetical to everything that has driven the rise of isolationism and nativism around the world, from Britain to Italy to Abe’s Japan, Putin’s Russia, Xi’s China, and Trump’s United States. That’s a real problem, for Davos. I’m old enough to remember a time, before the global economic crisis, when the two were coming into alignment with each other, when you could make money by making progress, when a hopeful and noble European Union had managed to evolve out of a commercial organization called the European Coal and Steel Community.
But those days are over now. If Trump sees the world in zero-sum terms, then that’s exactly the kind of world he’s likely to get. Which leaves the world’s economic leaders with a stark choice. Do they try to address the problem by confronting those who would take us back to a poorer and bloodier past of sexism and xenophobia? Well, you can ask Rex Tillerson how those types of confrontations generally turn out for corporate elites.
Alternatively, while preaching fealty to unchanged ideals, you can decide to work with governments to salvage what you can (and, in doing so, make as much money as possible). This has always been the Forum way: Davos loves to extend a welcoming hand to most any evil tyrant, up to and including Vladimir Putin.
In fact, Davos is probably the world’s foremost institution for enabling leaders with deeply opposed principles to shake hands and make money together anyway. It’s easy to hate someone you’ve never met; it’s much harder to hate someone who seems so friendly in person. When someone like Mitt Romney starts waxing lyrical about his “very high hopes” for the Trump administration, that’s what you’re seeing: the very human desire to like and be liked by the people we spend time with, no matter how vulgar they might be.
Trump’s surrogates in Davos, people like the craven Anthony Scaramucci, will be sought out more than ever for schmoozing and glad-handing, which are exactly the things they’re best at. They will tell the CEOs and the billionaires exactly what they want to hear, which is that America is open for business and that they want to work closely with industry. Thus will the global elite, which was so horrified by Trump before the election, trot obediently into his oleaginous embrace from day one of his administration.
The delegates at Davos are the winners of the global lottery, the 0.001%. Things have gone very well for them, in a way that gives them a generally optimistic mien. That’s how Bill Gates, the epitome of Davos Man, can prattle about Trump being “very sophisticated” while comparing him to JFK. Trump flatters Gates; Gates flatters Trump; and, their backs thusly scratched, both can contrive to ignore the rivers of hate and ignorance that flowed out of Trump’s mouth for 18 gruesome months on the election trail.
In recent weeks I’ve been hearing a simple question: Given how beyond the pale Trump was universally agreed to be at Davos 2016, will Davos 2017 provide exactly the high-level forum the world needs to unite against him and to build a strategy to oppose his agenda? My prior, a month before the meeting, is that the answer is going to be an emphatic no. Davos Man never succeeded by working against the government, and he’s not going to start now. But I do hope that I’m wrong. Because the combined power of the delegates atop that alp next month is one of the few forces with any hope of standing up to the destructive power of the coming Trump regime.