Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron are often viewed as the yin and yang of modern Western politics. The American president is the gauche reactionary nativist; the French president is the refined cosmopolitan internationalist. That they're both heading to Davos this week only heightens the sense among many observers that the two men are rivals for the soul of Western civilization.
But a recent bit of Davos-related news shows how Macron and Trump share some uncomfortable similarities.
This week, Macron and his administration are hosting over 100 corporate CEOs and other executives from around the world, before they all move on to the elite global enclave in Switzerland. Google, Facebook, Coca-Cola, JPMorgan, Bank of America, Rolls Royce, HSBC, UPS, Cisco, and more will be attending.
The purpose of the stopover? To convince these international power brokers to bring more investment and jobs to France. One Macron aide even described the setup as "speed dating" between the executives and French ministers. Hopes are high that concrete deals will be announced soon after.
Already you should be able to spot surface-level similarities. Trump courts business leaders as a way to staff his government and run his economic policy. He celebrates his "deals" with the likes of Carrier and Sprint to create jobs.
But the similarities also run far deeper: right into the bedrock of Trump and Macron's economic policy strategies.
Trump did not sell himself as such. During his campaign he railed against global elites and promised to turn the GOP into a workers' party. His hostility to international trade, to immigration, to climate regulation, and to other policies championed by Macron was supposed to be evidence of Trump’s concern for the "forgotten man" and his hatred of what his campaign advisers would term "Wall Street globalists."
So much for that. Trump and the Republicans in Congress recently passed a sweeping national tax overhaul, massively cutting the rates paid by major corporations and other businesses, slashing inheritance taxes, and more. Twenty to 25 percent of the bill's benefits will wind up in the pockets of the top 1 percent in its first decade. After that, most of the breaks the GOP threw in for the non-rich will sunset, giving the top 1 percent four-fifths of all the benefits from then on.
Meanwhile, Macron pushed a budget that would reduce France's wealth tax by a whopping 70 percent, while taxing capital gains at a flat rate of 30 percent instead of the country's previous progressive system. Estimates suggest 44 percent of the money freed up by these cuts will go to France's own top 1 percent, with its top 100 taxpayers receiving an average of one million euros each.
The striking similarities between these two plans — and especially the similarities in justification — was not lost on French economist and inequality critic Thomas Piketty. "In each case the argument is presumed to be irrefutable," Piketty observed. "The bulk of taxpayers are neither free nor mobile and have no other option than to treat the rich with respect, otherwise the rich will up and leave the country and they will no longer be able to share in their benefits (jobs, investments, and other wonderful ideas which ordinary people cannot easily access)." Macron refers to this as "celebrating those who succeed," while Trump and the GOP crow about unleashing "job creators." But the basic idea is the same.
Nor do Trump and Macron's economic similarities stop at taxes.
In his first year since taking office, Trump and the GOP fought or overturned a whole slew of regulations that protect workers. Their targets included rules that expanded and strengthened overtime pay; that ensured workers get the tips customers give them; that prevented workplace violations like wage theft and unsafe conditions; and that stopped companies from neutering their workers' ability to sue them.
Meanwhile, Macron wants to make it legally easier for French employers to lay off workers or shutter factories, and to cap the damages employers can face in court for taking those steps. He also wants to allow owners to negotiate with unions on a business-to-business basis, rather than on a sector-wide basis, thus diluting workers' bargaining position somewhat.
In Macron's defense, he's said he wants France to move towards the "flexicurity" model of some Nordic countries. The idea is to make it easy for employers to hire and fire, and also provide generous unemployment benefits to provide financial security for workers as they move from job to job. The problem is that it's not clear where Macron will get the money. He's not only cutting the country's taxes, he's devoted to lowering overall spending.
Trump, for his part, seems happy to throw in with Republicans' plans to gut American public investment across the board.
That both Macron and Trump are attending Davos is more symbolic than they realize. Macron may be the sophisticate with whom everyone wants to talk, and Trump may be the party crasher throwing stink bombs. But both men ultimately view economic growth as a matter of courting and appeasing the powerhouses of private capitalism. The idea of government as an alternative investor and wealth creator — one democratically controlled by the people rather than the elite — is entirely absent from both their philosophies.
After panicking over Trump's win and the possible victory of Macron's rival, rightwing nationalist Marine Le Pen, the Davos crowd seems to think things are looking up. But outside of elite environs, both Trump and Macron share one more similarity: They're remarkably unpopular with ordinary voters.