InternationalVolume 12 Issue # 20

The awkward body language of Donald Trump

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.