Top Trumps: A Politician’s Power Play

In and amongst the World Cup commotion you may have heard that the President of the United States, Donald Trump will be visiting the United Kingdom on a working trip. Trump arrives on the eve of Friday 13, the day the superstitious fear coincidences that would be otherwise unremarkable. The media will be no doubt hoping to catch a glimpse of Trump’s power play in action as he meets with politicians, business leaders, and of course the Queen.

No other international politician do we watch with such interest at his interaction with his counterparts than the 45th President of the United States. Trump’s alpha energy disregards their personal space; it is his way or the highway, just like his policies. Last week’s meeting with Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte made headlines for Rutte’s sharp, dissenting “no” as Trump said that leaving the trade deal dispute unresolved would still be “positive”. Deaf to this interjection Trump continue to talk and swiftly tried to wrap up the conversation. Rutte, however, managed to squeeze in an additional couple of sentences emphasising the importance and strength of US-Dutch relations and kept his arm close as he went in for a handshake.

Political power play is fascinating. Whether leaders are shouting about the size of their nuclear weapons, diplomatic power struggles continue to play out on the world stage. And it doesn’t have to be a war of words:

Power can come in other forms as well – in breaking rules, in substituting speed and surprise for strength.

Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath

What has become evidently clear is that for leaders who meet with the US president, the sling and stone trumps political muscle.

Trump on Top

World leaders as of late have been coming prepared when encountering Trump and his infamous “pull and yank” handshake. Many have stepped up to the challenge and left with their political tail between their legs. Take British Prime Minister Theresa May. She’s a soon-to-be divorcee salvaging what she can of her political relationships as the Brexit ship splutters into the Atlantic. May scrambled to meet Trump shortly after his inauguration. He took her hand and guided her to the press, like an old dear out for an afternoon stroll in the park. This awkward hand-hold looked positively rosy to US-British relations today.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe fared no better who shared a 19-second handshake with Trump. The POTUS clutched his hand tight, pulled it in and gave it a condescending pat. Abe was clearly the beta to the US President’s alpha at this moment. Watch his eye roll of relief and bemusement as he’s eventually given his hand back.


Disarming Trump’s power play is a carefully thought out and well-rehearsed process. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau had done his homework when he met the president in February 2017. At the first opportunity, he braced himself on Trump’s shoulder, keeping his arm tucked close to avoid the power tug.

And for those who wish to steer clear of an arm wrestle competition, France’s President Emmanuel Macron has you covered. Kill dominance with kindness. Trump and his French counterpart’s relationship is very genial, think hugs, handshakes and kisses. In a moment that went viral, the US president even brushed “dandruff” off Macron’s shoulder to make him “perfect”. However, Macron’s muscle came not in matching Trump’s body language, but in his speech to Congress. Without mentioning Trump by name, he slammed his worldview. 

We can choose isolationism, withdrawal, and nationalism. This is an option. It can be tempting to us as a temporary remedy to our fears, […] But closing the door to the world will not stop the evolution of the world.

At the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency, he caught many guests off guard, subjecting them to a kind of power play that had been absent during the Obama terms. World leaders through trial and error are beginning to catch on and prepare accordingly. This week, Theresa May will get another crack at the whip. Will she even up the score? That’s anyone’s guess.

– Sarah Maclean

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