My Say: Trump, Davos and moral foundations

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 5, 2018 - February 11, 2018.
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At the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, US President Donald Trump delivered a special address. He was arguably the most anticipated, and certainly the most polarising, speaker at the meeting.

When it was announced that Trump would be speaking at Davos, I found myself unable to gauge how the Davos crowd would receive him. It was typically a gathering of globalists, who would naturally reject Trump’s nativist “America First” perspectives. It was also typically perceived as a gathering of the elite, who represent the type of people many of Trump’s voters abhor. How would he juggle between these two perceptions of Davos and what sort of reaction will he receive?

On the one hand, one could certainly expect a lukewarm, cold even, reception from delegates of countries that Trump had berated. There were also some, certainly Americans, who showed their protest by donning “Not My President” T-shirts.

Lest one forgets, the majority of delegates to Davos are businesspeople. Many of them would have seen the share prices of their companies, particularly those listed in the US, rise substantially since he took office. Moreover, with the recent passing of tax reform (read: tax cuts) regulations in the US as well as the cutting of a whole series of regulatory red tape, these businesses look likely to gain even more under Trump.

On the other hand, there are businesspeople who claim they can separate their corporate selves from their personal selves. Their corporate selves may appreciate the Trump effect on their businesses but their personal selves may deplore some of the controversial comments he has made, especially on societal issues. I myself am sceptical about such claims but let us suppose these people exist. And then, there are those wealthy Americans who are Republicans and who donated to the Trump campaign, and are therefore fervent supporters of the president.

It is fair to say that Trump’s presence at Davos — where he hosted a dinner for 15 European chief executives and held bilateral meetings with leaders from, among others, the UK, Switzerland, Israel and Rwanda — lent an unusual 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 turned out, Trump’s special address, which was webcast live by the World Economic Forum, was a 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 corporations that have invested in or relocated operations to the US. In short, I thought it rather anti-climactic.

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 this comment: “As president of the United States, I will always put America first, just like the leaders of other countries should put theirs first. But America first does not mean America alone.”

This, in my view, was perhaps the most important part of Trump’s speech, winning him “protection” from both his voter base and global leaders, especially corporate leaders, who he hoped to woo, or further woo, to invest in the US. The second sentence in that comment was simply his way of shrugging off the nativist America first view and therefore, he would welcome global corporations and leaders, particularly for business. It was a statement that directly addressed the Davos globalists.

His first sentence was the more interesting one, addressed to his voter base, those who would see him “drain the swamp”. The first sentence propped up his campaign logic, that he would place America first and “make America great again”. Indeed, that very statement, written in the way it was, was to simply normalise his “America First” slogan. After all, the logic follows, shouldn’t other global leaders also put their countries first? If you had to create jobs, shouldn’t you create them for your citizens first rather than for those who are not?

I have my reservations about this view but I do see why Trump’s America first — or really, the idea of nation first at the expense of other nations — 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 foundations, which states that there are typically six categories, maybe more, of morals to which people subscribe. Interpreted in the best way, these are harm, oppression, fairness, authority, loyalty and divinity.

The book’s most interesting finding is how the Democrats and Republicans of the US differ on the moral foundations that they care about. In surveys carried out across a wide range of demographics, Haidt consistently found that the Democrats care most about harm, oppression and fairness and little about authority, loyalty and divinity. However, the Republicans care equally about all six morals. Thus, going by this theory, the Republicans actually have a broader spectrum of morality than the Democrats.

This split between the two may also be true elsewhere in the world, maybe even in Malaysia. If the reader is keen, he can actually take the surveys on www.yourmorals.org and figure out if he is closer to the Republicans or the Democrats in his 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 ours, works is intellectually dishonest and lazy; indeed, believing that morality is universal due to some predestined set of principles ignores the fact that the moral sphere across the world is significantly influenced by the social, geographic and cultural conditions of where one lives.

Thus, Trump’s rhetoric, abhorrent to some and the source of uncertainty in Davos, may simply be one that is familiar to billions.

Nicholas Khaw is an economist with the Khazanah Research and Investment Strategy Division

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