The stale, clichéd conceptions of Donald Trump held by both Left and Right — a man either utterly useless or only rigidly, transactionally tolerable — conceal the fact that the president does possess redeeming talents that are uniquely his, and deserve praise on their own merit. One is personal friendliness and charm, particularly in smaller settings.
During the campaign, I remember a conservative pundit asking his audience to imagine meeting either Hillary or Trump, and then imagine which candidate would appear to enjoy the experience more. The answer went without saying. Trump is a man who backslaps, who laughs, who makes silly jokes (yes, even self-deprecating ones), engages in amusing small talk, and tells fun stories. It’s easy to lose sight of that these days, as most of the president’s persona is now presented to us in the form of rambling, off-the-cuff press conferences or meandering braggadocio at campaign-style rallies, neither of which is particularly compelling. Partisanship and memories of the Access Hollywood tape have similarly soured some to the point where it’s impossible to imagine anyone enjoying his presence. Yet one does not become a global celebrity of several decades’ standing without developing some skill at schmoozing, disarming, and seducing at the individual level, and this is not worth nothing in the world of politics.
Such talents are particularly valuable in the world of international diplomacy, where simple matters like returning phone calls, or a willingness to meet, often depend heavily on the personal closeness between two government leaders. Consistently good communication builds familiarity and loyalty, and with it, a perceived intimacy of interests at the highest level.
It’s a part of his job President Trump clearly relishes. In just over a year, he’s fostered close interpersonal relationships with numerous world leaders that have given his administration’s foreign policy a solid base upon which to build, even as the State Department sits stagnant. For those anxious about Trump’s supposed inclination toward global chaos, his skill at sustaining international comity at the head-of-government level has clearly proven a moderating force that has helped preserve and strengthen strategic relationships that might have otherwise faltered on the basis of Trumpian policy alone.
The list of world leaders who have formed half of a Trump “bromance” is lengthy, but such leaders seem to fit in a few categories. There are those who broadly mirror the president in terms of character and temperament and in that sense resemble his own real-life friends. Who are Bibi Netanyahu and Rodrigo Duterte if not the Roger Stone and Anthony Scaramucci of the East? Then there are ones who clearly tickle his Hollywood side — handsome, theatrical men such as Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron, whose sharp dress, charismatic speeches, and elegant wives makes them heads of state straight out of “central casting.” And then there are the leaders Trump seems to exert great effort at befriending because he perceives them to be on his same plane of influence and power, a group that includes not only Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, but curiously also Japan’s Shinzo Abe — perhaps reflecting a lingering ’80s-era view of global economics.
One of the great missed opportunities of the Obama years was that the president never seemed interested in leveraging his personal popularity around the globe — the love that won him a Nobel Peace Prize for doing nothing in particular — into any lower-level closeness with his foreign counterparts. Many world leaders seemed to like the “idea” of him, but in practice it never manifested as much. There was never a Thatcher to Obama’s Reagan, or even a Blair to his Bush.
Prompted by Fareed Zakaria in 2012 to name his best world-leader friends, Obama stiffly recited a list of rulers of objectively important countries — Germany, India, South Korea, Turkey, and Great Britain — that sounded more official than genuine. He was said to have some personal affinity for David Cameron, who shared his unjustified confidence in being able to transcend traditional partisan splits, and feigned a symbolic friendship with Canada’s Justin Trudeau — a man elected near the end of Obama’s second term, and whom he barely knew. By some accounts, Obama’s closest international pal may have been the short-lived Australian leader Kevin Rudd.
With a summit with Kim Jong-un looming, the usefulness of diplomacy through personal magnetism will soon face its most meaningful test.
As with Trump, the explanation seems as rooted in personality as anything. Even sympathetic accounts portray the 44th president as solitary and contemplative, and his background demonstrated little love of mixing and mingling, either domestically or globally. He had a famed, often ostentatious, frustration with the performative, ritualistic side of politics. This he no doubt imagined as a sign of common-man credibility, which is only fair. There is an obnoxious elitism, even anti-republicanism, that comes from enjoying things like state banquets and palaces and military parades a little too much — as Trump often seems to — but so too is there an opposite extreme. As with his dealings with Congress, Obama had a self-indulgent tendency to conclude that social aspects of the job he didn’t personally enjoy, or have any natural knack for, were institutionally overrated. The consequences of that conclusion can be judged for themselves.
Like all modern presidents, Trump views his election as a mandate of revolt against the style of his predecessor, and has demanded his presidency be viewed through the prism of his flattering celebrity brand. The report card on that front is mixed; as a supposed deal-maker extraordinaire and financial genius, he’s certainly left many wanting. His personal charisma, however, which has always been a far more visible talent, and therefore a more honest one, deserves a more generous grade. With a summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un looming — a man about whom Trump once tweeted, “I try so hard to be his friend” — the functional usefulness of diplomacy through personal magnetism will soon face its most meaningful test.