Update: The Elephant in the Room It’s time we talked openly about Donald Trump’s mental health. Rosemary K.M. Sword and Philip Zimbardo Ph.D. 2/26/17 (Psychology Today)
Would you shake hands with a someone who groped women? Someone who disrespects judges and a free press? Someone who lies and bullies the vulnerable? I’ve been thinking about this civil act of shaking hands for the past month of the Trump presidency.
I didn’t watch the address to Congress last week (I went to a talk about loons instead) but the TV replay showed lots of handshaking. Commentaries noted how ‘presidential’ Trump was without his customary campaign-style histrionics.
Handshaking is a custom that may have originated in ancient times to show a peaceful intent; the open hand having no weapon. According to Wikipedia, “The handshake is commonly done upon meeting, greeting, parting, offering congratulations, expressing gratitude, or completing an agreement. In sports or other competitive activities, it is also done as a sign of good sportsmanship. Its purpose is to convey trust, respect, balance, and equality. If it is done to form an agreement, the agreement is not official until the hands are parted.” Handshake
My gut feeling faced with the prospects of shaking hands with the President is one of revulsion. But that feeling is in deep conflict with the norms of what I grew up with and internalized as civilized behavior: At an all-boys Episcopal prep school one stands when a woman enters the room, says “sir” and “ma’am,” and shakes hands with a firm grip and eye-to-eye contact. You say, please, and you say, thank you and excuse me, and you respect your elders.
A lot of those norms got tested in the cultural cauldron of the ‘60s. I read Nietzsche's The Genealogy of Morals which examines where societal rules and moral norms come from and their purpose in maintaining social order and the authority of the status quo. I think it was Reed College history prof Owen Ulph who posited that, when the system is corrupt, the social contract with the state is broken and rules no longer apply. Hold that thought, then read Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke and write one’s own life essay on what it means to live a civil life in a time of change.
Unlike Will Rogers, I’ve met and known of a number of people I didn’t like. But I’ve never felt the moral and physical revulsion as I feel with the President. I’ve shaken hands with people I’ve disagreed with, feeling, despite disagreements, we still lived in the same moral universe. From all he’s said, says and done, President Trump and I live in different moral universes.
So, no handshake. But I think about— and worry about— what it means when I cannot maintain one of the most basic norms of civil greeting and tradition. What would a handshake between President Trump and me mean?
For me, the handshake conveys the currency of trust. I’ve shaken hands with people I’ve trusted my life to, my children to, my finances to. With elected officials, bureaucrats and business associates, the handshake’s currency of trust means I will do my part of the relationship and you will do yours. It may very well be a social contract whose rules and norms maintain the status quo, but that is what the currency of trust provides. With no social contract, there is no trust, no handshake. With no trust and no handshake, there is no social contract.
That’s not a comfortable feeling but that’s as far as I’ve come thus far in the current presidency, notwithstanding Trump’s last attempt to appear ‘presidential.’ I never felt this way, despite anger and disappointment, when Nixon, Reagan and Bush 2 began their presidencies. The shorter the term of Trump and his tribe the better.
Would you shake hands with President Trump?
-- Mike Sato