"If the mountain will not come to Mohammed," so the saying goes, "then Mohammed must go to the mountain." With his decision to attend this year's World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, U.S. President Donald Trump seems to be taking that message to heart (though he would undoubtedly recoil from any link between the Prophet Mohammed and himself).
For the global business, financial and political leaders who gather in Davos every January, the news that Mr. Trump would be joining them this year must have come as a shock, to say the least. Much of the global elite, exemplified by the Davos crowd, feel deep contempt for Mr. Trump – and their disdain has likely been deepened by his recent racist rants about "shithole countries."
Yet the conference will undoubtedly have its share of obsequious displays designed to appeal to Mr. Trump's vanity, with participants by turns fawning over him and propping him up as he clumsily attempts to defend the indefensible, starting with his "America First" approach. After all, this is the same crowd that kowtowed to Chinese President Xi Jinping last year, when he fraudulently positioned himself as the world's new champion of globalization and the rules-based international order.
Some of the world leaders at Davos have strong incentive to suck up to Mr. Trump. British Prime Minister Theresa May, in particular, may be eager to appease Mr. Trump, after the prospect of mass demonstrations kept him from attending the dedication ceremony for the new U.S. embassy in London. With Brexit looming – and losing support at home – Britain can't afford any further deterioration of its "special relationship" with the United States. Ms. May's government is desperate to sustain the prospect, however deluded, that Mr. Trump will offer a good trade deal to Britain.
But, as much as Mr. Trump craves a good sycophant, this does not seem a compelling reason for him to attend the WEF meeting in Davos. It is not as if there is any shortage of spineless bootlickers at home, both in Mr. Trump's cabinet and in the Republican congressional leadership. Earlier this month, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Senator David Perdue of Georgia both attempted to defend Mr. Trump's blatantly racist comments by claiming, first, that they did not recall hearing him say "shithole" and, later, by saying that he must have said "shithouse" instead. (Could one base a defence on a more meaningless distinction?)
Not everyone at Davos is prepared to take that approach. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will probably make themselves scarce when Mr. Trump is around.
Mr. Macron has so far handled Mr. Trump cleverly: He appeased Mr. Trump's inner martinet by inviting him to the Bastille Day military parade last summer, but he has also challenged Mr. Trump publicly, with everything from a bravura handshake at their first meeting to a defence of the Iran nuclear deal. As for Ms. Merkel, her taut and anguished meetings with Mr. Trump are almost as legendary as her frosty encounters with Mr. Trump's apparent hero, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
There is no telling how African leaders at Davos – many of whom have publicly denounced Mr. Trump's comments, demanding apologies and retractions – will react to the man in the flesh. Likewise, it remains uncertain whether journalists will hold their tongues respectfully or give Mr. Trump the kind of shellacking that Peter Hoekstra, the new U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, has been getting from the Dutch press. (Mr. Hoekstra is being forced to answer for his 2015 lies that the "Islamic movement" had brought chaos to the country, that Dutch politicians were being burned by Islamists and that Muslim-dominated "no-go zones" had emerged in the country.)
Given the risk that Mr. Trump will face derision and even outright mockery from some quarters, why he has decided to attend Davos remains unclear. The only reason I can discern is that he plans to play to his domestic base, by putting his economic nationalism, xenophobic immigration policies, antipathy toward the press and contempt for international institutions on full display. If his comments are met with boos or silence, he will proudly tweet that it is because he – unlike his predecessor Barack Obama – is actually defending America's interests.
Last week, Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona condemned the president for using Joseph Stalin's infamous phrase "enemies of the people" to describe the free press.
Mr. Flake (who, like many other Republicans, will retire from Congress this year) was, of course, being too literal. Coming from Stalin's lips, the phrase – backed by the full and fearsome force of the Soviet state's internal security apparatus – was a death sentence for millions.
When the same words are uttered by Mr. Trump, an object of suspicion for much of the U.S. security apparatus, they become just another part of the narrative spectacle by which he channels the loyalties and antipathies of his supporters.
For Mr. Trump, going to Davos amounts to no more – or less – than taking the show on the road.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018