What Is It With Trump and Handshakes?
By Moustafa Bayoumi
It sounds ridiculous, but it really is beginning to look like you can read Donald Trump’s foreign policy by the bizarre ways that he shakes the hands of foreign leaders.
First there was the Abe Assault, 19 seconds of Trump trying to show the Japanese prime minister who’s the boss. (Cue Abe’s eye roll.)
Then came the Trudeau Standoff. Young Justin must have trained for the moment, because he leaned in deliberately, feet solidly on the ground, one hand firmly on Trump’s shoulder. The confident Canadian managed to disallow the president any primacy but instead forced a handshake among equals.
We can’t forget the May Grab, not quite a handshake but a wildly inappropriate clutch of British prime minister Theresa May’s hand, as if the handsy Mr Trump intentionally misunderstands the term “special relationship”.
And now there’s the Merkel Moment.
If you haven’t seen the video, German chancellor Angela Merkel and Trump are seated in the Oval Office in yellow chairs that seem color calibrated to match Trump’s yellow hair. While photographers are wildly snapping photos, someone off camera suggests a handshake which grows into a chorus of “Handshake? Handshake?” Merkel turns to Trump and asks, “Do you want to have a handshake?”
Trump says nothing, does nothing, and just stares straight ahead. He sits with that signature pout on his lips, legs splayed out, and posture bent forward. In fact, he sits like the men who take up two seats on the subway, a means of transportation I’m sure he’s never used. Merkel then offers a slight shrug and turns her head away.
Now, it’s possible that Trump simply didn’t hear Merkel, though the chorus calling for a handshake was unmistakable. But it’s also true that Trump’s lack of a handshake with Merkel is yet another reminder of the vast differences between Merkel’s Germany, widely seen as today’s valiant protector of the global liberal order, and Trump’s America, a country ruled by a populist plutocrat whose policies feature building walls on borders, barring the entry of refugees, and ending Meals on Wheels for the needy.
Trump will tell you all of these policies are absolutely necessary, but societies die when cruelty masquerades as common sense.
Trump’s idea of finding common ground with Merkel was not by searching for ways that the US and Germany could liaise on refugee resettlement. Nor was it by looking to enhance economic cooperation between the European Union and the United States. In fact, during the press conference with Merkel, Trump mistakenly said that Germany was out-negotiating the US in trade deals. Merkel gently corrected the president, explaining that the trade deals between Germany and the US are negotiated not by Germany directly but through the European Union.
Instead, Trump’s idea of finding common ground with Angela Merkel was by repeating the bizarre allegation that he too had been spied upon by Barack Obama. (The NSA had been tapping Merkel’s cellphone for years.) Put another way, Merkel came to the United States to talk about the roles of the US and Germany to each other and in the world. Trump received her to talk about himself.
We’ve seen too much of Trump already for this to be surprising, but the handshake – or lack thereof – is still revealing. The origin of the handshake, after all, is to illustrate that you come in peace, to show that you bear no weapon in your hand and want to bond with your fellow human by the mutual clutch of palms.
The equivalent of the handshake in the world of governance is diplomacy. And the agency that engages the world through diplomacy is of course the state department, now slated for an almost 30% slash of its budget under Trump’s proposed spending priorities. Meanwhile, the Department of Defense will see a massive increase of $52bn to its coffers.
It can be amusing to ridicule the strange spectacles surrounding Trump’s handshakes, but behind these weird anti-diplomatic pantomimes lies an ominous reality coming clearer into view. His is a government that not only downplays cooperation with others but also believes money is better spent preparing for war than keeping the peace. That grim reality leaves me shaking my head.
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