About Nick: i am an economist based in malaysia. I write about development economics, while sneaking in a pop culture reference or two.

Trump, Davos and Moral Foundations

Published in The Edge Malaysia, February 2018.

At the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, the President of the United States, Donald Trump, delivered a special address. President Trump was arguably the most anticipated, and certainly the most polarizing, speaker at the Meeting.

When it was announced that President Trump would be speaking at Davos, I found myself being unable to gauge what sort of reception the Davos crowd would give to President Trump. This was Davos – a gathering typically consisting of globalists, who would naturally reject the more nativist “America First” perspectives of President Trump. On the other hand, this also was Davos – typically perceived as a gathering of elites, representing the type of group that many of Trump’s voters abhor. How would he juggle both perceptions of ‘Davos’ and what sort of reaction may he have?

On the one hand, one can certainly expect lukewarm, cold even, reception from delegates from countries who Trump labelled in a derogatory fashion. There are also, certainly Americans, some of whom eventually displayed their protests by donning “Not My President” t-shirts, who opposed President Trump.

Yet, lest one forget, the majority of the delegates to Davos are business delegates. Many of these delegates would have seen the share price of their businesses, particularly those listed in the United States, rise substantially since President Trump took office. Moreover, with the recent passing of the tax reforms – read: tax cuts – regulations in the United States as well as the cutting of whole series of regulatory red tape, these businesses look likely to gain even more under President Trump.

On the other hand, there are certainly those businesspeople who claim to be able to separate their corporate selves from their personal selves. Their corporate selves may appreciate what the Trump effect has had on their businesses, but their personal selves may deplore some of the controversial comments that President Trump has made, especially on societal issues. I am personally skeptical of this claim, but let’s suppose these people exist. And then there are those wealthy Americans who are Republican themselves and who donated to the Trump campaign, and are therefore fervent supporters of President Trump.

I think it is fair to say that President Trump’s presence at Davos – where he hosted dinner for 15 European Chief Executives, had bilateral meetings with leaders from, among others, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Israel and Rwanda – lent an unusual level of uncertainty and, indeed, anticipation to the Annual Meeting. His special address also had the additional possibility of turning into a performance or ‘showcase’!

As it turns out, President Trump’s special address, which was webcasted live by the World Economic Forum, turned out to be a very typical, “We are open for business and investment” speech. You know the type – talk a bit about some sterling numbers, say how things are getting better all the time under the administration, discuss the amount of red tape cut, and give examples of large corporates that have invested or re-located operations into the United States. In short, I thought it rather anti-climactic.

President Trump did make at least two, as I see it, relatively interesting comments, however. The first was his typical attack on the media which was met with resounding boos from the crowd – evident even on the webcast. The second was his comment that, “As President of the United States, I will always put America first, just like the leaders of other countries should put their countries first also. But ‘America First’ does not mean America alone.”

That second comment, in my view, was perhaps the most important in Trump’s speech, giving him ‘protection’ from both his voter base and the global leaders – especially corporate leaders – who he hoped to woo, or further woo, to invest in the United States. The second sentence in that comment was simply his way of shrugging off the nativist “America First” view and therefore, he would welcome, particularly for business, global corporates and global leaders as well. It was a statement directly addressed to the Davos ‘globalists.’

His first sentence is the more interesting one which was more addressed to his voter base, those who would see President Trump “Drain the Swamp.” The first sentence kept up his campaign logic that he would place America First, and that we would “Make America Great Again.” Indeed, that very statement, written in the way that it was, was a method to simply normalize his “America First” slogan. After all, the logic follows, should not other global leaders also put their countries first? If you had to create jobs, should you not create jobs for your citizens first rather than citizens who are not yours?

I personally have reservations with this view but I do see why Trump’s America First – or really, the idea of Nation First, at the expense of other nations – would is hugely appealing. Indeed, the moral logic of “America First” is brilliantly described by New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book, “The Righteous Mind.” In it, he describes his theory of moral foundation, which states that there are typically six categories, maybe more, of ‘morals’ to which people subscribe. These six, to be interpreted in the best way, are Harm, Oppression, Fairness, Authority, Loyalty and Divinity.

The most interesting finding in his book is how Democrats and Republicans in the United States differ in terms of the moral foundations that they care about. In surveys carried out across a wide range of demographics, Haidt consistently finds that Democrats care most about Harm, Oppression and Fairness, but care much less about Authority, Loyalty and Divinity. On the other hand, Republicans care equally across all six moral foundations. As such, by this theory, Republicans actually have a broader spectrum of morality than Democrats.

This split between Republicans and Democrats may also be true elsewhere in the world, maybe even in Malaysia. If the reader is keen, you can actually take their survey on www.yourmorals.org and figure out if you are closer to the Republicans or Democrats in your moral foundations. In any case, the main lesson here is that unless we take into consideration the fact that others may have a broader view of morality and the world than we do, we may never reach any form of constructive consensus.

Believing that our morality and only our morality works is intellectually dishonest and lazy; indeed, believing that morality is universal due to some pre-destined set of principles ignores the fact that the moral sphere across the world is significantly influenced by the social, geographic and cultural conditions where one lives. As such, President Trump’s rhetoric, abhorrent to some and the source of such uncertainty in Davos, may simply be one that is familiar to billions.

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