“Do you want to have a handshake?”
Donald Trump’s hands—particularly their size and where he puts them—have dominated the news cycle since the debates. But as the demands of basic diplomacy are stressed in his meetings with world leaders, Trump’s handshakes are a different kind of reveal.
Earlier this year, Trump pumped the arm of Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe harder than Rex Tillerson on an Arctic Exxon oil well. So much so that the soft-spoken PM’s hand practically went limp as he fake-laughingly pleaded for release after 19 seconds.
During a similar press moment with Justin Trudeau, Trump offered Trudeau his palm, and after the dreamy Canadian leader failed to wither it with his magical blue eyes, he eventually relented.
Trump’s aggressive handshaking is so well-documented, that there’s even a self-defense class dedicated to fighting it off.
Which makes Trump’s embarrassing resistance to Angela Merkel during her recent visit to the White House is so painfully revealing.
As the Chancellor of Germany, Merkel is one of—if not the most—powerful political figure in the world. If you’re going to make sure you shake a hand with a global dignitary, she’s the one you want to grip. Sure, Trump has disagreed with Merkel and Germany’s refugee policy a number of times, but if talking-trash and disliking someone (and they disliking him) were key in Trump’s criteria for withholding a handshake, he would keep his mitt in his pockets 99 percent of the time.
But politicians shake hands.That’s one of the biggest parts of the job. That’s why there were thousands of cameras waiting for Merkel and Trump to do so. Merkel knows that, so she asked Trump, “Do you want to have a handshake?”
To which Trump responded with the gesticulator equivalent to crickets.
He literally can’t grasp the importance of this moment. Not only was that move disrespectful to Merkel, it’s a much larger, and culturally broader, example of a powerful woman getting blown off by a powerful man. Or a powerful woman being degraded by a powerful man’s inability to share a common gesture of respect.
Merkel endured this kind of sexist nonsense with President George W. Bush just over a decade ago, only he went the other way, when he creepily placed his hands on her shoulders for a comforting rub. She responded as any rational person would. And it made headlines.
Unlike Bush, who now has the Non-Creepy Seal of Approval from Michelle Obama, Trump’s inability to connect with women is widely documented. This bigotry manifests itself in his inability to shake the hand of a world leader—not because he disagrees with her politics, but because it appears he’s most confident touching women in essentially two ways: 1) vaguely sexual and/or suggestive and 2) without their consent.
But it’s also a reminder that this happens to powerful women outside of the political stage. Perhaps recognizing Trump’s latest move (or lack of move) as a form of high-level sexism, it will shed light on the subtler ways we treat men and women differently, world leader or work colleague.