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The political psychology behind Trump’s bizarre handshakes

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

President Donald Trump’s meetings with world leaders are, at this point, the stuff of awkward legend. Trump seems to be trying so hard to establish dominance in these interactions that things invariably get weird and uncomfortable.

Here he is aggressively shaking hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (the whole thing lasted for a very long 19 seconds):

(Yosub Kim/GIPHY)

He’s had two deeply uncomfortable handshakes with French President Emmanuel Macron:

(Bloomberg via GIPHY)
(Live Satellite News)

And Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made sure to stand his ground during an aggressive Trumpshake at the White House:


The best non-handshake example of Trump’s need to dominate foreign leaders comes from a NATO summit that took place back in May — when the president literally shoved the prime minister of Montenegro out of the way to get to the front of a group photo. Note the little buttoning-up of the jacket at the end:

(NBC News)

Part of the explanation for this, no doubt, comes from specific parts of Trump’s psychology that are impossible to diagnose from afar. But it’s important not to only single out Trump when, in actuality, there’s a very long history of world leaders obsessing over appearances and shows of symbolic dominance.

When Pope Pius VII attended Napoleon’s coronation in 1804, at a time when revolutionary France was at odds with the more traditional church, the French leader set up the logistics in such a way that he had no choice but to step in dirt. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson demanded that Mexican President Victoriano Huerta hoist the US flag and give it a 21-gun salute as an apology for Mexico briefly detaining an American commercial vessel’s crew. When Huerta refused, Wilson literally invaded Mexico. US troops occupied the city of Veracruz for six months afterward.

In 2016, China hosted the G20 summit, a meeting of the world’s 20 largest economies. Every leader was allowed to walk off their plane using red-carpeted stairs save one — then-President Barack Obama, who was forced to take the comparatively dinky built-in stairs on Air Force One. The reason for Obama’s humiliation, according to China’s Public Security Bureau, was that “this is our country.”

These examples are perhaps more sophisticated than Trump’s awkward handshake, but they illustrate a general point: World leaders have, in different time periods and different political contexts, taken shows of symbolic dominance and authority very seriously. But why? Why does this kind of petty maneuvering seem to matter so much?

To find out, I asked an expert: Jonathan Renshon, a professor of international relations at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Renshon studies the psychology of foreign policy — how the way leaders and decision-makers think affects the way states interact. His new book, Fighting for Status, is about why leaders care so much about the way others perceive their countries, to the point that they’re willing to go to war over it.

Renshon thinks Trump’s weird handshakes and attention seeking are just a crude manifestation of a kind of behavior that most world leaders exhibit. Caring about this kind of thing, he tells me, is part of how they became successful politicians in the first place. But now that they’re running a country, their shenanigans are a lot higher profile — as are the stakes.

“Where a person is stationed in a photograph ... is connected to notions of who’s in charge, who people defer to,” Renshon tells me. “And there’s lots of evidence this stuff matters on an interpersonal, and now on a state, level.”

Status diplomacy meets Trump diplomacy

Psychologists have been looking at the way humans think about status for a long time. Perhaps the most enduring and well-established finding, according to Renshon, is that status really matters: People who are perceived to be more important and influential, more respected by others or higher in their social hierarchy, get all sorts of benefits.

“High status individuals benefit in real economic terms from the deference (i.e., preferential treatment) shown to them by lower-ranked individuals,” he writes in the book. “Status positions even affect how we see the world. For example, high-status individuals hear louder applause for themselves and use different language when they speak.”

While most people are acutely aware of these power dynamics — lab experiments Renshon cites in his book have found that even infants can figure out which adults are high-status — there are some people who care so much about their status that they are willing to fight to establish dominance. Donald Trump is, by his own account, one of those people: The common thread in all 12 of his books is an obsession with his status, of showing that he’s better off than the people he’s competing with.

"You hear lots of people say that a great deal is when both sides win. That is a bunch of crap,” he writes in Think Big and Kick Ass (co-authored with Bill Zanker). "In a great deal you win — not the other side. You crush the opponent and come away with something better for yourself ... to crush the other side and take the benefits [is] better than sex — and I love sex."

This attitude is pretty common among people with political authority. Renshon surveyed a group of US government officials — including high-ranking State Department officials and military officers — to get a sense of how much they cared about whether they’re perceived to be more important than others in their workplace. He found that those people — people who chose to go into public service and politics — tend to be extremely attuned to status in his experiments.

The higher you go up the political food chain, the more likely this is to be true. Prime ministers, presidents, and the like regularly have to navigate situations where attention to and concern for status is a very important trait to have.

That makes top-level diplomacy, to a certain extent, an exercise in corralling people with giant egos. Sometimes, as Renshon documents in the book, this leads to absurd fights and petty arguments — even among some of the most important figures in history.

“At the Potsdam conference in 1945, the leaders of the three great powers of the day — Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and Josef Stalin — could not agree on the order they’d enter the conference room,” he writes. “It was eventually decided that all three should enter simultaneously through separate doors.”

This is part of why Trump’s interactions with foreign heads of state and other leaders are so awkward. It’s not just that Trump is especially obsessed with being perceived as dominant — though he is. It’s that he’s dealing with other people who are acutely sensitive to status, and so care a lot about how they look in interactions with the US president.

Think about that when you look at this GIF of Trump snubbing German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s request for a handshake (which also adds a gendered dynamic):


Or how Tajik President Emomali Rahmon pulls Trump into his handshake, rather than allowing Trump to pull him forward:


In these two cases, and the above ones, they’re especially brutal because of the pained reactions these foreign leaders are having to Trump. Clearly, they’re put off by someone so obviously playing games about this stuff in public and feel like they have to react in some way while the camera is on them.

This all seems so weird because the rituals of how foreign leaders meet and greet one another in public tend to be worked out in advance by aides, like it was at Potsdam, in order to avoid potential embarrassments. But Trump doesn’t know diplomatic niceties and doesn’t follow any script. He does what makes sense to him in the moment, including weird handshakes and other shows of dominance that date back at least to his days as a real estate mogul.

What we’re seeing now is foreign leaders trying to deal with the sort of issue that’s normally worked out behind closed doors happening in front of cameras, with no warning and a president who can’t really be counted on to react predictably. It’s no surprise that their own need for their status to be respected kicks in, and they react negatively or aggressively to Trump’s provocations — yielding the GIFs we all know and love.