There was something odd about the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering in Davos this year, and it wasn’t only that the typical Davos-attendee (pro-trade, pro-global) felt he was under attack because of the wave of populism that crashed through the US and the UK in 2016.
There was also the odd moment when the President of the world’s largest Communist country gave the big opening speech on the need for globalisation and open borders, while the Leader of the Free World talked about protectionism and walls back home in Washington.
But what was really strange, for me, was chief executives and business leaders who until October warned against a Trump presidency now suddenly praising his economic prowess. There was a hint of caution, but over-arching support for some of his policies and “America First” attitude.
Then came my hour-long interview with George Soros.
I have been interviewing Soros for many years. The first time was probably eight years ago when he wanted to talk about the open society and the rule of law, but all I wanted to talk about was market moves and how he “broke” the Bank of England by betting against the pound.
As the political landscape has changed, so have our interviews. And this time, I was listening more than usual. Although I may not agree with everything Soros says, it was refreshing to have a newsmaker speak his mind about Trump. He pulled no punches. He wasn’t afraid.
He believes Trump is a threat to our democracy, our freedom of speech. He called him a con man and a crook, only out for his and his family’s interest.
Soros thinks the US institutions will be tested this year and so will the rule of law. In a few words, he is concerned that the US under President Trump is becoming more like Turkey and Russia by the day.
Globalisation has had far-reaching political and economic consequences; it is right to think of new alternatives, to enable the distribution of wealth and to question our current model. We need to understand why so many people feel left behind, and why the middle class is so angry. But I worry the people in charge of our companies are afraid to speak up. And this is not about giving President Trump a chance, this is about people in power being afraid of the President retaliating.
Trump has changed the way the US does “policy” with tweets, and that is a form of intimidation. He names and shames companies who are looking to open new plants outside of US borders. Let’s remember the market cap of Toyota fell by $1.4bn in five minutes when Trump tweeted about the carmaker not giving enough jobs to Americans.
Soros says the only way of doing business with President Trump is to flatter him – is that the way world leaders will treat him over the next four years?
In private, within the walls of the Congress Center in Davos, a handful of chief executives admitted to me they were concerned about Trump’s tweets. They didn’t want their company to be singled out, and are taking reputation management advice on how to deal with a possible tweet, or worse, pre-empt a tweet (read into that: being in favour with Mr President). Trump may end up being great for the American economy, but if it’s at the expense of free thought by using bullying tactics, the US will lose more than it can imagine.
No-one should be allowed to get away with bullying. You stand up and you fight back.
I was reminded of that by a remarkable 86 year old man called George Soros.
These views are not necessarily shared by Bloomberg.