Before The Laugh, there was The Handshake.
In May 2017, ahead of a Nato summit in Belgium, President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron shook hands—and neither would let go. For six seconds, an eternity in handshaking, the two men gripped hands, each wanting to assert his manual superiority. The handshake quickly became a meme, a gif, even the object of a “handshake tracker” in the British press that analyzed Trump’s handshake style. (“Stage #1: The clasp.” “Stage #2: The yank.” “Stage #3: The release.”)
The moment was a silly one, a bathetic expression of competitive dominance-signaling, that nonetheless revealed something real: People confident in their own power don’t often feel the need to demonstrate it so theatrically—and for all Trump’s attempts to showcase his might, global confidence in his ability to handle international affairs is low and sinking, according to the Pew Research Center. Tellingly, whereas Macron later revealed an ironic awareness of the absurdity of The Handshake, Trump did not. The world was laughing with Macron, at Trump.
Audibly so. At the United Nations General Assembly in September, when Trump said, as he had many times before to friendlier audiences, that “in less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country,” the delegates in the room erupted in guffaws. “Didn’t expect that reaction,” the president said, “but that’s okay.”
Except it’s not, really. Because the joke is not just on Trump but on America, and on the allies trying to find their place in a world where the United States can no longer be relied on in the ways it once was.