He sang the praises of his unilateralist pursuit of national self-interest, threatened to kick off a trade war with Europe, and will in coming weeks drag World Trade Organisation boss Roberto Azevêdo to Washington for some rough-housing over the future of the already battered body.
But Davos-goers were happy to let Trump be Trump. His streams of consciousness simply washed over an audience that seemed resolved to see the brighter side of 2020.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, attending Davos for the fifth time, was one of those who noticed the cautiously improving mood.
Standard Chartered CEO Bill Winters says he is not as bullish as Trump, but pretty optimistic on the outlook. Bloomberg
Davos is always a reflection of where were at, at the moment in time, he told AFR Weekend inside the bustling Congress Centre. Last year was under the shadow of escalating trade tensions between the US and China. Theres much more quiet optimism this time.
The world isnt in a perfect place, but broadly I feel pretty good about the state of the world.
Standard Chartered CEO Bill Winters
It became more and more common to hear this over the course of the week, from more and more quarters.
Standard Chartered Bank CEO Bill Winters distilled the mood when he told CNBC that he wasnt as bullish as Trump, but he was definitely pretty optimistic.
He ticked off his cheery check-list. The trade wars were in abeyance at least, the big ones – interest rates were low; growth was returning to Europe; China might be stabilising, possibly even starting to improve.
The world isnt in a perfect place, but broadly I feel pretty good about the state of the world, he said.
But just as the sun only illuminates one side of a snow-capped mountain, so it was in Davos. There were deep, dark shadows, visible to those brave enough to seek them out. And for those who were unwilling to look, there was one WEF guest, a Swedish teenager, who wanted to force their gaze.
No political or economic structure has been able to tackle the climate emergency and create a cohesive and sustainable world. Because that world, in case you havent noticed, is currently on fire, Greta Thunberg told a panel on the climate apocalypse.
Tackling climate change
The WEF itself had noticed, making climate change the centrepiece of this years conference. And with considerable success: the issue was talked about everywhere, and all the time.
The fashion industry, which knows a trend when it sees one, held a marquee event to signal its determination to tackle climate change. Companies queued up to explain, to journalists and panel audiences, their net-zero strategies, their mitigations and adaptations, their divestments. Greenpeace activists dressed as bankers held aloft a blazing planet outside the Davos branch of Credit Suisse.
Refinitiv weighed in with a calculation that the $US75 a tonne carbon tax suggested by the IMF would, if implemented worldwide, produce a $US4 trillion ($5.85 trillion) tax bill and lop 13 per cent off corporate revenue.
Little wonder there were qualms among the generals. Barclays Bank CEO Jes Staley, for example, said there wasnt enough clarity and capability to pull out of funding fossil fuels.
And BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, only last week a climate hero for setting out his forward-leaning paradigm shift, also failed the Thunberg test.
Dont divest from energy companies and send them under, he told a Bloomberg event, because they are also some of the biggest investors in sustainable energy; what’s more they need to have the resources to recapture their carbon. Oh, and dont tax carbon – its too regressive.
Thunberg was resolute. Either you do this or youre going to have to explain to your children why youre giving up on the 1.5 degree target. Giving up without even trying, she told one of her audiences, a picture of the Australian bushfires behind her.
Australia feels the heat
Australia was definitely in the firing line: the bushfires and the quality of the Morrison governments response was another unavoidable topic.
In the middle of the week, a WEF tracker of how many times countries were mentioned in Davos-related media put Australia eighth behind only Switzerland (the host), the US, India, China and Europes three largest powers.
The controversy kept Cormann busy. Speaking on panels, and presumably also in many of his private meetings, he fluently reeled off the contested stats in which Australia meets and beats its Kyoto and Paris targets for emissions cuts, and he made the case for Australian clean coal being better than the likely alternative. He reckons he got a fair hearing.
Theres genuine interest and genuine concern, and from that point of view it was a great opportunity to be able to provide information and also to explain what Australia is doing, both in terms of our response to the bushfires but also in terms of our policies to address climate change, he said.
Perhaps hes right: by the end of the week, Australia had dropped out of the WEF media trackers top 10.
One country that remained buoyantly at the top of the charts was China. The country has a complicated relationship with Davos. Its values are at odds with those of the WEF; but theres always a big contingent of corporate players, attended by a large press corps. The very top brass are less frequent visitors, and those who do make the trip are a little stage-shy.
But Chinas rise is a regular feature of the panel discussions, and this year the issue at the front of mind was no longer the trade tensions but the tech divide.
As a symposium on improving the world, Davos is unrivalled but when the elites disperse, the grandiose plans…can melt away like the snow.
Amanda Mackenzie, head of charity Business in the Community
Do you worry about the world splitting into two internets, into two systems? Bloomberg boss John Micklethwait asked Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at one forum.
The Chinese market and the Chinese internet has already in some sense developed outside of what we have in the rest of the world, Nadella replied. So, to some degree these separations already exist, and maybe they will get amplified in the future.
If so, Davos will be there to chart that trend. The point of it, after all, is to capture the zeitgeist and get CEOs thinking.
In private, though, most of the corporate honchos admit they are mainly there for the speed-dating with clients and fellow CEOs. The earnest debates and discussions are really just window-dressing.
WEF founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab, now in his 80s, tries to drive through an annual program of activities and events that put the ponderings of the plutocrats into practice. But does it work?
As a symposium on improving the world, Davos is unrivalled but when the elites disperse, the grandiose plans … can melt away like the snow, according to Amanda Mackenzie, head of charity Business in the Community.
The challenge of Davos this year is to take the pledges that are often made about sustainability and stakeholder capitalism and ensure, for once, that they are actually acted upon.
Don’t they say that every year? The weather may have been a surprise, but everything else about Davos was, it has to be said, pretty predictable. After half a century, the forum has taken on an almost ritualistic quality. See you next year.