Trump and Macron are more alike than they are dissimilar
The macho posturing between the two world leaders in Washington last week was deeply crass, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
President Trump doesn't even make a pretence of being normal. Oddness permeates him like the letters in a stick of rock.
That's the easy part, though. The important step is taking that to the next level by recognising how deeply weird those who oppose him also are. Take French president Emmanuel Macron, who made a much-publicised state visit to Washington this week.
Macron has been hailed as anti-Trump, a global leader with the "right" values to lead the world; a modern, progressive figure who's overcome the old left/right divisions to forge a new way that supersedes the obsolete categories. Seriously? What was evident during that visit was not how different the two men are, but how similar.
In fact, there was something repulsive about the sight of the two of them greasing up to one another in Washington, massaging one another's egos, lords of their respective universes, trailing their wives along behind them, like couples getting ready for a swingers' party somewhere in the suburbs, just as soon as the two alpha males had finished carving up the world between them. Far from opposites, Trump and Macron looked cut from exactly the same entitled cloth, and the differences between them no more than an hallucination.
In fact, it was reminiscent of nothing so much as the old anarchist slogan that there's no point voting, because the government always gets in.
Macron's background certainly couldn't be more establishment-friendly. A former merchant banker who was deeply embedded in the political elites from the start, his ideology remains nothing to write home about - globalist and neo-liberal when it comes to economics; mawkishly progressive with regard to private morality; hawkish militarily.
That this facsimile of an original thinker should be hailed as the messiah in Europe could be seen as a sign of how easily impressed public opinion is by surface details, except that he's not actually that popular. His currency as president has only remained stable in recent months because French conservatives approved of his enthusiastic push for air strikes in Syria.
The status accorded Macron is, instead, a sign of nothing except how easily impressed political and media elites are by someone who looks and sounds like them.
The sycophantic reception afforded to Macron by a certain brand of official ascendancy was typified by Congressman Joe Kennedy III, who declared: "Global leadership today requires a stern rebuke of nationalism, a vision for combating generational crises like climate change, and a willingness to fight for civil rights. Thank you Emmanuel Macron for bringing that needed message to Washington this morning."
Obviously that was meant as a rebuke to President Trump as much as a tribute to the Frenchman, but it's characteristic of the easy ride which anyone who makes the right noises about certain issues is guaranteed to get from a compliant media pack. When Macron chided his American counterpart last year for backing out of the Paris climate accord, a writer in the left wing British magazine New Statesman even compared it to the scene in Love Actually where fictional prime minister Hugh Grant delivers a put down to a lecherous, unsophisticated, but equally fictional, US president.
This is the level of adolescent obsequiousness which a loathing of Trump has unleashed in his critics towards anyone who appears even marginally more palatable.
Fawning journalists even cooed over the fact that, in their first meeting last year, Macron got his retaliation in first by subjecting the US President to his own so-called "Trump Pump" - that absurdly macho handshake which propels in the other person while simultaneously crushing the bones in their fingers.
The same New Statesman published a piece afterwards headlined: "How Emmanuel Macron's sensitive masculinity turned him into politics' Modern Man." Written by a Frenchwoman, it quoted onlookers who observed: "Each president gripped the other's hand with considerable intensity, their knuckles turning white and their jaws clenching and faces tightening."
The article then went on to explain that, according to Macron, the handshake was symbolically important. "It's not the alpha and omega of politics, but a moment of truth," he told Le Journal du Dimanche. "We have to show that we won't make small concessions, not even symbolic ones." When Trump talks like this, he is mocked, rightly, as a small-minded, small handed, petty narcissist. It's no better for being delivered in a French accent, by someone with a philosophy degree from Paris, but The Irish Times still waxed lyrical in advance of his American trip about how Macron "fixes interlocutors with his intense blue stare and builds a Cartesian argument".
Must we really pretend that the phallic one-upmanship in Washington was anything other than deeply ridiculous and demeaning? "Sensitive masculinity," indeed.
What was on display in Washington last week was old-style masculinity written large. Every now and then, women are granted this insight into the male brain, and it's genuinely alarming. It needs to be unpicked and deconstructed. Instead it's rewarded with journalistic love letters.
Melania Trump and Brigitte Macron reportedly got on famously last week. No doubt their friendship was rooted in a mutual appreciation of what it's like to be married to overbearing popinjays who think the world owes them homage. They were dragged into looking silly too, but at least they didn't spend the whole visit touching one another in the alternately flirtatious or threatening way that their strutting husbands did.
It was a relief when German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in the US last Friday for her own round of meetings. Her interactions with Trump were, according to reports, much cooler and more distant - or "professional", to give them the proper name. She didn't get what she wanted from the White House either, but at least she wasn't compelled by an excess of thwarted virility to go "mano a mano" with The Donald.
Leo Varadkar would do well to follow her example. Instead, despite having his differences with Macron over corporation tax, the Taoiseach is desperate to be bracketed in his company. That's what you get from an obsession with superficiality over substance. Leo sees himself in Macron's image, but he'd do better to think less of image at all.