Saturday, January 20, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Trump's handshake diplomacy

There were moments last week when it was hard to tell if President Donald Trump was in the midst of a high-profile diplomatic mission or engaged in an international arm-wrestling competition.

It is the most basic gesture of human social interaction. The simple handshake. How tough should this be? And yet Trump has managed to turn the age-old political exercise of the grip and grin into moments of high drama and slapstick comedy.

It became obvious during the earliest days of his administration that the president of the United States was pressing the flesh challenged. During a visit with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Trump failed to offer his hand in friendship to one of the nation's steadfast allies, who looked on as if she had been invited for cocktails but everybody else was staying for dinner.

But when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the White House, Trump held on for dear life, cranking the Japanese leader's arm as if he was playing the slots at one of his casinos. And great Asian eye-rolling (caught on camera) ensued.

And at the announcement of the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, Trump's vise-like handshake with the nominee came off as if the president was trying to reel in a giant carp.

Prime Minster Justin Trudeau's deft maneuver to escape from the Trump claw clamp quickly became the stuff of Canadian media fascination, with repeated slow motion video analyzing the technique as if the young leader had scored the winning goal to claim the Stanley Cup. Good form, eh?

Perhaps it's because Trump spent most of his life as the overlord of a vast real estate empire that he never bothered to learn the proper handshake.

This is hardly a mystery. Simply embrace the other person's hand with a firm but not aggressive grip. Look them in the eye. And after two or three perfunctory pumps, you are done. Of course, you can always go the route of former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco and add the biceps squeeze with your left hand while asking the other party if they have been working out lately.

It's entirely possible that the famously germaphobic Trump is simply using the handshake as a weapon of mass overcompensation.

And it is becoming abundantly evident the presidential handshake is taking on the aura of preening rams butting heads to establish one's dominance over the other. At this rate, you have to suspect by the time Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet their first physical interaction is going to look like Mongo punching out a horse in "Blazing Saddles." Oh, the Henry Kissingeresque diplomacy of it all.

As he jetted off to the Middle East and Europe, word must of gotten around that the president likes to introduce himself as the Steven Seagal of handshakers.

So by the time Trump arrived to meet the new president of France, Emmanuel Macron was ready for the confrontation. At a NATO meeting in Brussels, Macron firmly clasped the soft, small delicate presidential hand of Trump in a death grip and didn't let go.

The moment lingered with both men, jaws clenched, waiting for the other to blink until a grimacing Trump finally extricated himself from the French five digit pincer movement.

A remarkably candid Macron made no secret of his handshaking strategy to confront the bombastic American. "My handshake with him, it's not innocent," the 39-year-old president told French journalists. "It's not the alpha and the omega of politics, but a moment of truth. One must show we won't make little concessions, even symbolic ones."

This could become a trend, world leaders endeavoring to bring tears to Trump's eyes as they crush his hand to demonstrate their independence from American influence. International conferences could be reduced to Moe Howard-like head slaps to kick things off at G-7 summit meetings. By the end of four years, Trump might find himself resorting to flaccid fist-bumps, air kisses in the general direction of Queen Elizabeth, or perhaps a casual wave.

The president's obsession with treating the ceremonial handshake as something out of Rocky staring down Apollo Creed, might explain why First Lady Melania Trump appeared to be so publicly averse to holding hands with her husband, fearful he might squeeze the blood out of her hand to show her who's the boss.

Maybe it's time to replace "Hail To The Chief" with the kiddo "Handshake Song."

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