Drama, superficiality and perception are three of the fundamental pillars of this president's worldview
To ignore them is to miss the point, to see the world in a fundamentally different way than Trump does
There’s a tendency among “serious” people to dismiss the importance of the pomp, circumstance and symbolism in politics. “Focus on the policy, not the perceptions!” they shout. Who cares about the fluff!?!?!
Emmanuel Macron, for one.
The newly elected French president told a French journal Sunday that his handshake with US President Donald Trump during a meeting during the NATO gathering in Brussels last week was about much more than just an exchange of pleasantries.
“My handshake with him, it’s not innocent,” Macron said. “It’s not the alpha and the omega of politics, but a moment of truth.”
He added: “One must show that we won’t make little concessions, even symbolic ones.”
In case you forgot the handshake, here it is:
And here’s how The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker, who was in the room for the shake, described it:
“They shook hands for an extended period of time. Each president gripped the other’s hand with considerable intensity, their knuckles turning white and their jaws clenching and faces tightening.”
For those who pooh-pooh the coverage of Trump’s White House as overly dramatic, too superficial, too focused on perceptions, I say this: Drama, superficiality and perception are three of the fundamental pillars of this President’s worldview. To ignore them is to miss the point, to see the world in a fundamentally different way than Trump does.
Remember that Trump’s two major experiences in the working world are as the face of his own eponymous brand/business and as a reality TV star. In other words, Donald Trump has been playing “Donald Trump” for virtually his entire life. And Donald Trump has been shaping what it means to be “Donald Trump” for just as long.
This, excerpted from Marc Fischer and Michael Kranisch’s “Trump, Revealed,” is, um, revealing:
“What the audience saw on TV altered their perception of the mogul they had known as an immodest dealmaker who built glitzy towers, married beautiful women and slapped his name on jets and yachts.”
“‘The Apprentice’ turned Trump from an easily caricatured Richie Rich who had just weathered some difficult years into a pop-culture truth-teller, an evangelist for the American gospel of success, a decider who insisted on standards in a country that had somehow slipped into handing out trophies just for showing up.”
For Trump, perception IS reality. (In that way, he is a sort of Platonic ideal of our modern politics.) Every interaction in public is a chance to assert dominance, to show that he’s in charge, that’s he’s the boss. Trump believes that perception creates reality. If he looks like the alpha male and the powerful leader, he becomes the alpha male and the powerful leader.
Time and again – during both his campaign and the early days of his presidency – Trump has seized any opportunity to show, in usually small ways, that dominance.
His trademark hold-and-tug handshake is, without question, his favorite power move.
There’s this one with Vice President Mike Pence:
And this now-legendary grip and tug with Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch:
Trump expanded his repertoire during his trip abroad – most notably with this shove-and-preen at the expense of the Prime Minister of Montenegro.
Instead of being a “distraction” – as many media critics dismiss these episodes – these handshakes, shoves and other attempts to assert control of situations are the point of the Trump presidency.
The shaping of perceptions about him is what Trump spends most of his time on. From his tweets to his cable TV habit, it all speaks to a man absolutely obsessed with how people view him.
To cover Trump accurately then, you need to understand that how things look matters much more to him than how things are. Handshakes, seen through that lens, are a critical piece of grasping how this President not only views himself but how he chooses to interact with the rest of the world.
Agreed? Let’s shake on it.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correctly identify the Prime Minister of Montenegro.