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The awkward body language of Donald Trump

 
Frank Bruni

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Our golden-haired leader is no silver-tongued devil, but that's O.K.
What he lacks in verbal zingers he makes up for with physical ones.
Body language — both his and that of the pitiable people around him
— is telling the story of Donald Trump's foreign adventure better than anything else. When I say "pitiable," I'm thinking about the pope, of course, and the first lady, naturally, but especially Dusko Markovic, the prime minister of Montenegro, who was the visibly stunned victim of the shove heard
round the world. Please tell me you saw it. Markovic, Trump and other
heads of state were arranging themselves for a photograph. And Markovic
had the misfortune to be standing between Trump and the front of the
pack, a lesser beauty in the bossy prom queen's path.
But not for long! Trump batted him out of the way, perhaps mistaking
him for a political reporter or picturing James Comey. Then, triumphal,
Trump straightened his suit jacket, stiffened his posture and raised his
fleshy chin. He was ready for his close-up. With Trump, struts, scowls and
pouts reveal every bit as much as what tumbles from his lips, which is a
lot less trustworthy. His words can be counterfeit. His gestures are genuine.
So it only makes sense that we lean on them for the narrative of his
post-truth presidency, whose latest, foreign chapter brimmed with more
awkward physicality than a toddlers' gymnastics class.
The shove heard round the world was preceded by the curtsy heard
round the world, when Trump did precisely what he maligned President
Obama for — well, one of the countless things he maligned President
Obama for — and approached Saudi Arabia's monarch, King Salman, in
a pose of deference. Hypocrisy, thy name is Trump, and thy knees are
bent and thy head is bowed. Thy sense of rhythm doesn't exist. Did you
see him during that Saudi dance, not so much rattling his saber as dangling
it while he wobbled, like a Weeble, from side to side? I imagined the
following dialogue balloon above his head: "When I told the king I was a
swordsman, this wasn't what I meant."
And the dialogue balloon above Pope Francis's head when he posed
with Trump in Vatican City later in the week would have said: "Forgive me,
Father, for I cannot fake delight." I've been told by Vatican insiders that the
pope never forgets that he's on camera and that the precise angle of his
eyes and curl of his lips are being captured. He stared straight ahead, his
mien as joyless as a gulag.
George Bernard Shaw wrote a play titled Arms and the Man. Someday
somebody will write a Trump biography titled Hands and the Man. From
Spy magazine's long-ago caricature of Trump as a "short-fingered vulgarian"
to that unforgettable moment during a Republican presidential debate
when he displayed his digits to try to prove the opposite — Look, Ma, big
hands! — his paws have been at center stage.
That remained true on the trip. In Israel, there was the swat heard round
the world, when, walking alongside Bibi Netanyahu across a red carpet,
he noticed that Netanyahu was holding his wife's hand and so reached
back for Melania's. To say that she withheld it would be an understatement.
To say that Twitter and comedians had a field day would be even more of
one.
After another, subsequent incident in Rome when Melania seemed to
decline the heady opportunity to hold her husband's hand, Seth Meyers,
the host of "Late Night," joked: "Former C.I.A. Director John Brennan tes- tified today that there was contact between President Trump's campaign
and Russian officials. However, still no contact between Donald and Melania."
There's so much she could still be smarting over, including the inauguration
back in January, when her husband bounded out of the car and up
the steps before her, rushing to greet the Obamas and leaving her in his
wake.
Courtesy: absent. Chivalry: dead. Her revenge came soon after, on the
inaugural stage. She let a smile at her husband drop from her face so
quickly and emphatically that it was like an announcement to the world
that she'd been wearing a mask.
But back to our president's paws, which aren't just at center stage but
also at the center of so much controversy. When Chancellor Angela Merkel
of Germany visited him in Washington in mid-March, there was debate
over whether he denied her a handshake that she'd suggested or simply
didn't hear her request.
The tension in their postures prompted observations about how much
more relaxed she and Obama always seemed, but there was another point
of comparison — a weirder one — if President George W. Bush came into
the picture. At a G8 summit meeting in St. Petersburg in 2006, he walked
up behind Merkel, who was seated, and massaged her shoulders. This
visibly surprised her. It didn't seem to amuse her much, either.
Amusement wasn't a word that popped to mind when you saw pictures
and read accounts of Trump's encounters with Emmanuel Macron, the
newly elected president of France, in Brussels. Maybe that's because
Trump was once again sowing doubt about his commitment to NATO. Or
maybe that's because he reportedly told Macron that he'd supported him,
even though his affections had clearly been for Marine Le Pen of the National
Front.
Whichever the case, Macron at one point seemed to swerve away from
Trump, despite Trump's outstretched arms, so he could embrace Merkel
instead. At another point, during a formal greeting, Macron and Trump
"grabbed each other's hands, jaws clenched, in an extended grip that
turned Mr. Trump's knuckles white," according to The Times. "Their faces
tightened," reported The Washington Post. "Trump reached in first, but
then he tried to release, twice, but Macron kept his grip."
Sacred texts have received less scrupulous analysis than Trump's foreign-
leader handshakes, his presidential-debate snorts (remember those?)
and the reactions — aghast, awe-struck, puzzled, peeved — of those who
bump up against (or happen to be married to) him.I think that's fitting, not
just because his actual speech is so honesty-challenged but also because
the analyzers are paying respect to the way he takes in information. He
prefers television to reading, images to pesky words. Shouldn't we return
the favor when appraising him?
And aren't we in the right to take note of an Israeli diplomat's physical
reaction when Trump said, in Israel, "We just got back from the Middle
East," as if Israel were in South America or something? The diplomat, Ron
Dermer, briefly buried his head in one of his hands.
Do cry for us, Montenegro.

 

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