It became, rather quickly, the side-eye seen around the world. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, visiting the White House as the second foreign dignitary to witness up close the early, lurching presidency of Donald Trump, endured a 19-second handshake in front of the snapping jaws of the world’s press. In those interminable seconds—roughly as long as it took Usain Bolt to run 200 metres—Trump pumped the prime minister’s hand as if it were the lone spigot in a desert, patted it as he might the bottom of a wayward infant, and—after asking Abe what the Japanese photographers were yelling, and misunderstanding Abe’s response of “please, look at me”—stared unwaveringly into his eyes. So when the leader of the world’s third-largest economy by nominal GDP finally broke free from Trump’s literal clutches, he looked askance and scooted back in his seat, desperate for the visual solace of his aides—widening his eyes with a sigh, the universal sign for yikes.
The moment was met, among those on social media, with delight. It did not matter that no intentional impudence was confirmed by Abe or his people; the 19-second-long act was enough for the mostly liberal cliques on social media to regard Abe as a kind of shady hero. Never mind that intention was never ascribed to or confirmed by Abe, or that the pair would be later pictured hugging, when the heat of the media spotlight waned; “Shinzo Abe’s Facial Expression After Shaking Hands With Trump Will Give You Life,” wrote the progressive women’s site Bustle, as GIFs of the moment ping-ponged across Twitter and Facebook.
It happened again when Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump met for the first time, sitting for their official, formal-handshake portrait. The shake itself was far quicker—less than a fifth of the time Trump spent clasped to Abe—and Trudeau managed to dodge Trump’s trademark pat-and-pump. But when the president offered the prime minister his hand, an avuncular put-‘er-there of the sort typically reserved for tobacco-spitting coaches and their Little League charges, a relaxed Trudeau looked at it wanly, for the briefest but surest instant suggesting the reticence and sanctimony that many in the left wanted him to show. The Internet, as is its way, blew up with GIFs, memes, and jokes. (And he wasn’t alone in his moment of shade; a PMO-approved handout photo of the women-in-the-workplace roundtable featured Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland appearing to give Trump an incredulous look.)
But both moments may have been more than mere frivolities or one-off oddities. They could mark the first in a string of delicate social-media-driven power plays by world leaders—especially left-leaning ones for whom an open embrace of Trump would constitute political poison back home—to both woo the support of America’s military and economy while signalling, subtly enough that it can be disabused but amplified outside their control by the Internet, that they do not care for the man at the helm. Abe’s side-eye and Trudeau’s handshake hesitancy could be the start of politicians converting the Internet’s cants and shibboleths into a kind of political cover—the weaponizing of political optics in a fight heavily weighted against any country that isn’t the United States.
Abe and Trump may actually have quite a bit in common. Both find their ideological homes in the right, and both came to power on the strength of bold, branded economic projects. Abe has even been accused of fanning nationalist flames in the face of China. But as one of the longest-serving prime ministers in a country that has proven somewhat fickle about its leaders—and heading an economy that relies heavily on American investment—his visit to Washington needed to take into account the prevailing winds in Japan. And those were not good: an October poll found that only three per cent of people in Japan believed that Trump was the best choice to be president; another poll, this one conducted after the election, found that 37 per cent believed the U.S.-Japanese relationship will worsen, while 58 per cent believed instability will rise.
The balance is even trickier for Trudeau, held up as one of the few remaining champions of liberalism and globalism in the world. A post-election Angus-Reid poll suggested that 62 per cent Canadians were “upset” by the election of Trump—including at least 70 per cent of women and Canadians aged 18-35, the two groups that helped form Trudeau’s winning coalition in 2015. Canada is America’s primary trading partner, and while the pair do have shared interests—pipelines, for instance—there are significant philosophical differences between the two men. Trudeau cannot be seen as accepting President Trump, and will in fact feel pressured by his bread-and-butter constituents to publicly disavow him. He has already shown some prowess, too, at harnessing the tactics of the Internet: see, for instance, his subtweet of Trump and his executive order, criticizing it while retaining plausible deniability he wasn’t chastising the world’s most powerful man, but knowing full well what the social-media engine will do to the words.
Momentary flashes like these—tiny, seemingly insignificant and almost dismissible moments of resistance amid the strictures and intentionally bland standards of high-stakes diplomacy—are perfect antidotes to the officiousness of the formal event, allowing diplomacy to play out in two different venues: on the pure surface of the anodyne pressers and grip-and-grins, and in the roiling, uncontrollable, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ cauldron of social media.
The idea that politicians may be more and more willing to pursue these kinds of winks and smoke signals—the kinds of flip, risky acts that could actually threaten acts of official diplomacy—would seem a preposterous idea. But then again, this is a preposterous time, where a president rose to power in large part because of his ability to dominate media narratives with a single tweet. Trump himself clearly senses that he’s able to harness moments of social strangeness to his advantage, for better or worse—at least they’re talking about him, or distracting from the serious policy issues of the day. And besides, leader tete-a-tetes have always been optics-first wars, anyway, where body language is a far richer vein than the careful, talking-point statements. But now those optics get imbued with additional meaning—and memeing—as they take on a second life on social media, which barrels on with such fury and glee that no one takes a moment to interpret whether or not it was intentional, and distracts people just enough to ignore what really matters. If the moment gets publicly dismissed by the leader in question, it loses some of its power, sure; but the fact-averse avalanche-rolling of the Internet’s memes have never cared much for such reality checks, anyway.
But what’s the upside? Other than the fact these little moments offer world leaders a rare opportunity at trying to sneak some kind of advantage in their complicated fight for their own countries’ interests in the face of the bullish leader of the world’s most powerful nation, they offer a way for world leaders to have it both ways—and that’s a rarity in a world of divisive, partisan politics. Dichotomies are how partisan politics work, after all: divide a complicated issue into two clear digestible sides of good versus evil. So the ability to try to please all involved is a tantalizing prospect. It won’t fool everyone—but it can be a hushed act of opposition.
And if you think there’s no power to social media and optics, look no further than to the U.S. president himself for proof that appearances may have never mattered more. After Politico reported that press secretary Sean Spicer lost credibility within the administration because Melissa McCarthy—gasp, a woman—portrayed him on Saturday Night Live, the long-mediocre show decided to boldly cast women as U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions and as Trump himself; another report suggested that the president’s media habits were so fulsome and so predictable that the networks that broadcast those shows hiked the rates for those looking to purchase a commercial spot hoping to catch the eye of the president. It is no surprise that America’s first reality-TV president would care about appearances. It should be no surprise, then, that other politicians might try to harness the same kind of thing in a wildly new world of modern diplomacy.
But ultimately, though, these are gestures. It won’t lead to a long-term win, and four or eight years of this tactic is not manageable; as Trump’s policies pile up, world leaders will have to draw more public lines in the sand. People will catch up to it, and—hopefully—stop being distracted by such circuses and bread. But as presidents and prime ministers come, one by one, to kiss the garish ring of the unpredictable leader of the free world without a road map, it just might offer a kind of temporary political salvation.