Wednesday 21 August 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'Are the Irish bigger snobs than the royal family?'

While we got all po-faced about Trump's visit, the royals showed us how it's done by embracing it with gusto - and manners, writes Brendan O'Connor

Semi-detached: Donald Trump meets Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Shannon Airport. Photo: Carlos Barria
Semi-detached: Donald Trump meets Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Shannon Airport. Photo: Carlos Barria

It was hard to read Leo Varadkar as he sat opposite Donald Trump at Shannon looking bored, uncomfortable and slightly detached. He may just have been feeling the way many thoughtful people can feel in the presence of somebody as hugely extrovert and overbearing as Trump. Big alpha chimps like Trump can seem to suck up all the energy in the room, leaving more introverted types like Leo feeling drained, defeated and edgy.

It was interesting to note that as Trump spoke to the press, Leo was making a version of the 'steeple' or 'spire' gesture with his hands, which is recommended for conveying wisdom and conviction as well as power and control. Interestingly, steepling, where you put your fingers together but keep your hands apart, making a kind of a spire, is also recommended to centre or calm a person. As a practitioner of mindfulness, perhaps Leo was using steepling to hold his power, to stay calm, to not be rendered powerless by the alpha male.

Often, when people are shy or uncomfortable in situations, they can be viewed as aloof and arrogant, when the opposite is the case. And on the face of it, Leo Varadkar did look a bit aloof and almost rude while sitting with Trump. The greeting as Trump deplaned, had devolved into an awkward kind of bro-style, up-high, fist grasping. Leo seemed to grimace rather than smile. Indeed, throughout the whole encounter, or as much of it as we saw, Varadkar's smile, when he did manage one, never reached the eyes.

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But then Trump, if he does notice these things, just carries on regardless, telling everyone what great friends he and Leo are. This is a classic form of inverse bullying. It's not obviously aggressive, because it's not ostensibly threatening, but in fact it is. It is about pushing a person down, dominating, taking their power. It is friendship as an act of aggression. Friendship requires two people to acquiesce to it, but we've all met the bully like Trump who smothers you with this guff about "We're friends, aren't we?" Daring you to deny it. And with an undercurrent of, "You should be glad to be my friend. The alternative is not good for you." So, not a pleasant situation to be in for a guy like Leo.

I doubt the Queen or Prince Charles or most of the other people who had to meet Trump in the UK found him any more pleasant. But you had to admire how they handled it. Obviously centuries of breeding, and decades in the gilded cage that is the royal family, has given them impeccable instincts in this area. So they swung into action and overwhelmed Trump with pomp and ceremony and table settings and history and bunkum. And he loved it.

Presumably the royal family have spent their whole lives dealing with people they look down on, and managing to not let it show. So they were well practised pros on this occasion. Do you think they weren't thinking the same thing as the rest of us when Trump arrived at the queen's banquet like John Goodman's King Ralph in the Disney movie about a crass Yank who joins the royal household? But they got on with it, and they treated Trump according to his position as president of America, rather than as an annoying boor.

Because whether some people like it or not, Trump is president of America, and despite the denial of the Democrats and their allies in Ireland, he could be for quite some time. And whether you think he's a buffoon or not, he is, as things stand, the most powerful man in the world, and hugely important to this State. So it's not a question of visibly holding your nose for this one visit until normal service is resumed soon and Obama comes back. This is the reality for now and for the foreseeable future. And what the royals demonstrated to us last week was that manners are important in these situations, that no matter how low anyone else seems, they go high. And it works.

Look how happy Trumpy was in the UK and how relaxed he was when he came here after. And despite everyone waiting for some massive cock-up, or some appalling display of crass insulting behaviour, he didn't oblige. The best we could do was to focus on a slip about the Border situation. Astonishingly, you'd nearly say that Trump conducted himself with something approaching a bit of grace around his UK trip and the D-Day celebrations. Indeed, he looked positively mature next to some of his opponents. Macron got the digs in and Trump rose above it in Normandy. Our own President insulted Trump publicly on the eve of his visit here and even when helpful reporters pointed it out to Trump, he didn't rise to it.

The poorly attended protests against him made him look like a giant. Like, who still thinks that a giant balloon of Trump as a baby is a mature political statement, or is in any way funny? The Trump blimp got almost as much coverage as Trump himself. How many times did we hear reporters with a chuckle in their voices tell us how someone had gone and brought it from England in time for the protests here, and how the Irish Aviation Authority had given special permission for it to be blown up in Dublin? They thought it was a gas altogether.

And then there was Leo, who, putting his natural awkwardness aside, did seem quite rude and almost condescending and superior around Trump. And was then lauded by the media for his restraint.

All in all, you could look at the past week a different way to the narrative we told ourselves, and say that while Trump was reasonably polite, we did not all conduct ourselves with as much manners as we might have. We were all guilty of feeling slightly superior to Trump, as against just sucking it up and getting stuck in like the royals did.

Sean O'Rourke used an interesting word about our whole attitude to this visit last Thursday. He asked if we weren't being a bit po-faced about it all. And maybe he hit the nail on the head there. He pointed out that if Obama had been having that dinner in Doonbeg last Thursday night, ministers would have been clamouring to get to it.

As it was, that dinner sounded like an odd affair. Trump basically seems to have sat in the casual dining area in the hotel for a while with his family and staff and eaten food from the bar menu. His chief of staff had invited a smattering of Irish contacts, who also ate burgers or fish and chips at their own tables. There also seem to have been some people who weren't specifically invited but who had booked in themselves. Trump didn't mingle and drifted off after little more than an hour. From the picture we saw, it looked like a strangely depressing event.

Was this simply what Trump wanted to do? Have a casual bite without being annoyed? Or was he surprised to find himself here, like any other American tourist, eating bar food with his family? Was any effort made to invite him anywhere else for dinner? Was any effort made to make a fuss of him?

The image of Trump sitting in the casual dining area contrasted sharply with that of the delighted Trump being fussed over in England with the much-mentioned pomp and ceremony. Let's hope we don't regret that we didn't at least try to make more fuss for him, that he won't remember that the English feted him for days, while we deigned to meet him in an airport lobby, holding our collective noses.

You think a guy like Trump, even if he acts oblivious, doesn't have a sharp antennae for when he's being looked down on? And maybe the snobs, on this occasion, were not the royal family.

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