Politics & Policy

Trump’s Handshakes and the Personalization of Politics

French President Macron and President Trump during Bastille Day celebrations in Paris, July 14, 2017. (Photo: Christophe Archambault/Pool/via Reuters)
The obsessive interest in the president’s personal interactions with other world leaders says a lot about our political culture. Most of it is not encouraging.

The Bastille Day parade is truly something to behold. Even the United States, boasting the largest military in the world, could not have dreamed this up: a long, protracted procession of thousands of soldiers and vehicles of war down one of the great boulevards of the world, all presided over by the president of the French republic himself. It’s a spectacle of the highest order.

But this year, something has managed to overshadow all that heraldry. This is the handshake between President Trump, visiting Paris for the occasion, and Emmanuel Macron, the recently elected French president. Trump has already achieved notoriety for his awkward handshakes, but this one is truly something to behold.

First Macron and Trump, both facing the same direction, take the other’s hand. As the French leader comes around to face his counterpart, Trump taps Macron’s hand, then his chest, shifting the handshake to a vertical one in the process. There is some shaking in both directions. Trump then draws in Macron’s wife, Brigitte, for a hug, while still grasping her husband’s hand. Kisses are exchanged. By this point Trump is shaking the hands of both Macrons. In the final act, Macron taps Trump on the shoulder; Trump lets Brigitte’s hand loose and briefly clasps Macron’s hand in both of his before breaking the hold. The whole thing takes 28 seconds. It has sent the Internet into a tizzy.

Why, though? Why do we care so deeply about the manner in which these two world leaders interact? Trump’s conduct toward his fellow heads of state, both in one-on-one meetings and in larger groups, has become a topic of great interest over the last few months: His handshakes with Justin Trudeau, Angela Merkel, and Shinzo Abe have also attracted great attention, as did his unceremonial brushing aside of the Montenegrin prime minister at the NATO summit in November. Now more than ever before, our political culture seems to have a pathological fixation with the peculiar personalities of our politicians.

This is part, I believe, of an increasing tendency on both sides of the partisan divide to view our leaders as something more than leaders. They are not mere advocates for a particular point of view; they are crusading warriors, imbued with a sense of the heroic, Gawains bent on reclaiming our rightful territory from the usurpers. This accords with the dominant mode of understanding American politics that has emerged from the 2016 election: not as discordant factions of a single unified polity negotiating a way forward, but as two distinct tribes rushing headlong into civilizational battle — Richard the Lionheart and Saladin rather than Jimmy Carter and Robert Byrd.

The dynamic we read into these interactions — between Trump and Macron, or Trudeau, or Merkel, or Abe — is effectively a medieval one. Here, politics is viewed as the interaction of two men, face to face, each representing opposed interests. The layered complexities and minutiae of their interactions are taken to determine policy for years to come. So the United States’s exit from the Paris climate accord can be traced back to Trump’s dissatisfaction with Macron’s power-play handshake, which temporarily sullied his opinion of France and the French. So Justin Trudeau’s stiff-torsoed, tense-jawed handshake comes to stand for the steadfastness of liberal democracy in the face of Trumpist authoritarianism. So the extended weirdness of Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Oval Office heralds some transformation in the American relationship with Japan, though nobody can tell quite what that transformation might entail.

But if this represents the medievalization of politics on one hand, it also represents its reality-TV-ization on the other. Each handshake, each tap on the shoulder or rub on the back, presents a new opportunity to spend hours poring over the footage, playing it in slow-motion or in reverse, performing biblical hermeneutics on Macron’s body language, the tensions of his torso under his suit, the minute flexing of the muscles in his wrist at the crucial moment. Statecraft becomes the lowbrow drama of Big Brother.

Here, politics is viewed as the interaction of two men, face to face, each representing opposed interests.

There’s a reason for this, of course: We like Big Brother, where the smallness of the stakes accentuates the bitterness of the conflict, and accordingly the sheer captivating quality of the drama; we like choosing our favorite characters in Game of Thrones and rooting for them to sit on the Iron Throne. Politics, especially for a certain class of obsessives, increasingly resembles the world of sports. Observers and commentators pick their team — typically for geographic, cultural, or familial reasons — and support it to the death, coming to view the other side as the enemy and the entire game as zero-sum. Our obsession with the interactions of leaders on the world stage often makes those interactions seem like little more than the great sporting battles of our time. Maybe the best analog for Trump–Macron is Federer–Nadal.

There’s much that has gone into this, of course. The psychological importance of the executive would not be possible without the executive’s actual accrual of vast powers over the past few decades, which has seen the legislature sacrifice both its lawmaking powers and its prominence in the public mind. Whereas American politics was once largely a legislative affair, now it centers on the Oval Office. The Obama administration’s liberal use of the executive order is emblematic of this trend, but it would be too simplistic to lay all the blame for our current state of affairs at Obama’s foot: Similar things occurred under George W. Bush, and are occurring under Trump now.

Moreover, the past ten years or so has seen a general move toward monarchism in American thought on both sides of the aisle. From neo-reactionaries yearning for the restoration of the Stuart line to Vox­-reading center-lefties who see the very existence of the political process as a problem to solve, the world of political thought is far more comfortable with quasi-monarchist solutions than it was very recently.

All of this has consequences, and primary among them is a narrowing of our understanding of how politics should work. No one should be surprised when those — on the left and the right alike — who prefer executive authority above all else come to exhibit a remarkable preoccupation with the often very odd ways the wielders of that authority conduct themselves.

So this is where all roads point: to an intense fascination with the weird quirks of Trump’s handshaking style. I have little doubt that his next audience with a foreign leader will meet with precisely the same scrutiny. Perhaps we should take a step back and ask what really matters.


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