DAVOS, Switzerland — Anthony Scaramucci was once known as the party boy of Davos, hosting a shindig at the hotel piano bar that is the center of social life during the week that the small Alpine village turns into a gathering of the global elite.
This year, the asset manager turned Trump adviser came to the World Economic Forum, as one participant put it, as an “ambassador and future interpreter.”
The global — and, at least here, mostly European — elite are freaking out over what a Trump presidency will mean. They don’t understand Trump’s words, they don’t understand his style, they don’t understand how he can say things like NATO is “obsolete” and challenge German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as he did in an explosive interview with Germany’s Bild and the London Times earlier this week.
Those gathered at Davos represent the epitome of what Donald Trump ran against — men (and a few women) in fine suits cloistered away in the Swiss Alps discussing their prescriptions for making the world a better place, while ensuring the average Joe remains far from the checkpoints that line the roads to the village center. The disdain runs both ways. At least one participant described Trump as “vulgar.”
But they still need to know what he means and fast: Upcoming elections in Germany and France are already fraught with concerns that they’ll prove to be a repeat of the US race, with a person attendees of the WEF view as a populist demagogue winning power through a combination of bluster, insular policies, and a little boost from Russia.
That’s where Scaramucci steps in — someone who has been to their soirees and understands their wit and dark humor. Someone who makes easy reference to European history in conversation and throws book recommendations (you should apparently read historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit) in with remarks on governance. Someone who uses relatively sophisticated vocabulary to say essentially the same thing as Trump: The world is about to change dramatically and there is nothing you can do about it.
“You probably like hearing it the way I’m explaining it because it sounds more sensible,” Scaramucci told a small briefing of journalists after a 30-minute session to a wider Davos crowd. “My job is to get you to see him and think about him the way we do — meaning his staff, his family members, his sons, who I have a great relationship with, his daughter.”
“We’re used to very controlled statements coming from the bully pulpit of the American presidency or the German Chancellery,” he said. “He’s so different than the other 999 politicians; that’s probably why he ascended to the American presidency. A very large group of American people want change.”
Speaking earlier to a packed room in a public session titled “Outlook for the United States,” Scaramucci said, “You guys get a little upset about the tweeting or some of the things he’s saying, but I want to say, directionally, he’s a compassionate man, he loves his children, he loves people.” Then he quoted Winston Churchill: “The best among us choose not to judge human frailty so strongly.”
When it came down to explaining Trump’s ideas, the language was more anodyne but the subject matter equally sanguine. Scaramucci, whose talk came after Davos’s star speaker, President Xi Jinping of China, used his platform to warn against protectionism and champion free trade, came out swinging: “We call these trade agreements free, but what they really are is free asymmetrically,” he said. “I respect China, I certainly respect the president of China and we want to have a phenomenal relationship with the Chinese.”
“But, if the Chinese really believe in globalism... they have to reach now towards us and allow us to create this symmetry,” he said, adding: “President Trump could be one of the last great hopes for globalism.”
Xi may have been the marquee presenter — bringing a 107-person entourage to celebrate his first time ever addressing the forum — but there is no doubt that the gathering’s main theme has been the crisis of democracy and the rise of populism and the crumbling collapse of the very system that created “Davos Man” (some discussions include: “Squeezed and Angry: How to Fix the Middle Class Crisis”; “Politics of Fear or Rebellion of the Forgotten?”; “Fixing Europe’s Disunion”; and on and on). Trump’s interviews with Bild and The Times, which came out on the eve of the forum’s launch, have only served to feed the feeling of crisis. And Scaramucci did little to assuage it.
Addressing concerns over Trump’s faith in NATO, Scaramucci said, “Today the world is dramatically different than the world we lived in before.” He said NATO should shift focus from its founding as an anti-Soviet organization (which it already has) to focus on “Islamic terrorism.” He reiterated Trump’s call for NATO countries to pay their dues: “He’s a real estate developer — he’s going to say, Hey you signed this thing, pay up. Why not live up to your obligations in that treaty? Many people have renovated our homes, we’ve certainly changed our wardrobes since the 1940s.”
“On the European Union — you want it, and I see what you want it. And we want it but the European leadership and the European elites, the bureaucrats, best pay better attention to the working-class families and the middle class,” he said.
“I see him very differently than maybe you guys see him,” Scaramucci said. “My bet is there’s an arbitrage spread between how you guys see him and how I see him, and that’s going to close.”
Speaking later to media, he appealed for trust, comparing Trump’s “disruption” of politics to technology. “Steve Jobs takes a phone and turns it into a computer.”
“Have some faith and some confidence that there are very smart people looking at it,” he said, before jumping back into more Trumpian messaging: “But not super smart, not people who think they are smarter than everyone else.”
Near the end of Scaramucci’s media briefing, Sylvie Kauffmann, a respected foreign affairs columnist with France’s Le Monde, asked what motivates Trump to speak on the EU if his ultimate goal is to appeal to the American people.
“He’s trying to make a political observation that there’s a large group of discontented people in these pluralistic democracies,” Scaramucci said. “They feel like they’ve been left out.”
“I’m a student of European history, I have a very good understanding of the wars that have been fought on this continent,” he said. The problem was that people in Brussels are “making decisions that are going to impact people in Manchester, UK; Rome, Italia, Milano,” Scaramucci said, slipping into quasi-Italian. “They may not fully understand the local markets they’re making those decisions in.”
“His political observation is not that he wants the EU to go away but that he’s basically saying it’s not being managed appropriately to serve the constituencies that it’s supposed to serve.”
Speaking after the briefing, Kauffmann said Scaramucci only added to her concern. “It’s all very fake and so far not very convincing,” she said. “He has more respect for the Russian regime than European democracy — anyway you look at it that’s disturbing coming from an American president.”
“The interpretation is — you [the EU] have political problems, but they never say that about Russia.”
Scaramucci was due to be in Davos for just 24 hours. The piano bar party — at, ironically, the Hotel Europe — was due to go ahead on Tuesday night, but it was unclear if he would be involved.
Scaramucci may no longer be the man of the hour. As he said when starting his session, “It’s my 10th year here — my first with a food taster.”