I suppose it’s a sign of what things have come to when we celebrate a successfully defended handshake as a famous victory. But I’ll take it. I have never been prouder, as a Canadian, than when Justin Trudeau shrewdly countered Donald Trump’s attempts to big-dog him:
As we academics like to say, there’s a lot to unpack here.
Rupert Myers notes that Trump is the living embodiment of those books that promise to reveal the secrets of power and dominance:
The handshake is the ultimate focus of anxiety for a certain sort of self-conscious man, and there are none more obviously fixated by these self-help books than Donald Trump. Just as Trump is a poor person’s idea of what a rich person looks like, he also does a laughable impersonation of an alpha male.
From the over-long red tie and gold lift to the ridiculous photographs and the dyed comb-over, Trump has imbibed deeply from the well of bad self-help guidance to project success.
The apogee of his performance is the handshake, the “Trump Pump”; for all the catastrophes of his Presidency, we shouldn’t overlook how ridiculous the pump is, and how symbolic it is of his approach.
Let this little essay be a first, halting step in the great humanistic project of grasping the complex symbolism of the Trump administration. And grasping it, one hopes, with the same manly vigor with which Trump grasps the hands of his adversaries.
The defining feature of the TrumpPump™ usually comes a few seconds into the handshake. The sequence goes like this: Trump’s target comes in range and extends a hand; Trump grasps it, gives it a few ordinary pumps, and then suddenly yanks it away from its owner’s body. The TrumpPump™ victim loses possession of his center of gravity and is forced to lurch forward into Trump’s personal space. A win for the Big Dog.
For instance, you have probably seen Trump yanking Shinzo Abe’s hand like he’s trying to start a rusty lawnmower.
But this is not a new move. On the campaign trail, Mike Pence repeatedly looked like a Hoosier getting his arm caught in the thresher:
There is a supercut of Trump handshakes, and a little editing shows the strange invariance of this tugging maneuver.
Until he met Justin Trudeau, Trump was the Ronda Rousey of handshakes. Like Rousey’s famous armbar, the TrumpPump™ claimed one victim after another, and even if they knew it was coming, they were powerless to stop it. But like Holly Holm, Trudeau had studied his opponent’s technique, and, drawing on his experience as a boxer, used control of distance, positioning, and timing to defeat his formerly invincible opponent.
A look at Trudeau’s 2012 boxing match with Senator Patrick Brazeau — “the thrilla on the hilla” — is instructive. Brazeau is what trainers call a swarmer, a hard puncher with a smothering, high-pressure style, always trying to come inside his opponent’s range and overwhelm him with flurries of strikes. Trudeau, a 3-1 underdog going into the fight, is more of a true boxer, an out-fighter who relies on his longest strike, the jab, to keep his opponent at distance and open up opportunities for power shots. It is usually said that a swarmer beats a boxer, and indeed in the first round Trudeau was getting the worst of it as Brazeau waded in, winging hooks to the body and head. But towards the end of the first round, Trudeau was starting to time his jab and hit Brazeau as he was coming in.
Here Trudeau throws a weak pawing jab as Brazeau is telegraphing a left hook, and although Brazeau gets off first, both punches land at almost the same time. Brazeau throws with more power, but his looping punch takes longer to get to its target. Trudeau’s punch is light but straight and covers much less distance to find its mark. So Trudeau can see Brazeau loading up his left and use Brazeau’s momentum coming in to spear him on the end of his jab. Trudeau gets cuffed across the face, but Brazeau looks like a man who just walked into a patio door. Here Trudeau shows us how timing and positioning can beat power. You don’t need to put everything into your punch; if you time it right, you just put your fist where your opponent’s face will be when he comes charging in.
And this moment in the first round tells the tale of the fight as a whole. In round two, Brazeau slows down (his conditioning was clearly not up to sustaining the blitz of the first round) and Trudeau finds the timing on his jab. Now he doesn’t have to take one to land one; he’s continually cracking Brazeau with his jab and pulling his own head back to avoid counters. Remember, Brazeau’s style relies on getting inside his opponent’s reach and into the “pocket,” the close-in space where he can dig in his hooks. But after the first round, Trudeau uses his longer reach from a bladed stance to keep Brazeau stuck on the outside, where he is forced to eat shot after shot. In the clip below, Brazeau takes several hard jabs and covers up, at which point Trudeau comes inside to land a six-punch combo that ends in a thudding jab that snaps Brazeau’s head back:
So, long story short: in this fight, Trudeau used timing, distance, and positioning to beat raw aggression.
So let’s look at that handshake again:
Trump is all raw aggression. He engages you on the outside and hauls you inside, where he can control the space around your body and immobilize you. In the TrumpPump™ supercut, everyone makes the same mistake and tries to stay on the outside. But Trump is a big man, I’m guessing 260 pounds, and at distance he can easily put his considerable mass in motion to haul you in. This is what that tugging motion is about. It’s like it’s like when you yank on a frozen car door: you can get more purchase on the door if you grab the handle, stand back a little, and flail your weight around at the end of the lever (your arm) than if you stand in close and use only your arm strength to pull the door open.
So the first thing we notice is that Trudeau denies Trump distance, moving in quickly and clinching with him to smother his attack. Timing is key to managing distance: in fighting, time is space*, and if you get in on an opponent’s attack quickly you can deny him space to move. Which is what Trudeau does. With Trudeau’s left hand on Trump’s tricep, Trump can’t move back to get the space he needs to put some mustard on his tug.
Also, notice that Trudeau comes in with a boxer’s bladed stance, side-on to Trump’s chest. This gives him a big mechanical advantage, as a fighter in a bladed stance is much harder to move off his center of gravity than one that is squared up and directly facing his opponent. As you can see from the video clips above, this is another mistake almost everyone makes with Trump, coming into range squared up and open to being off-balanced.
From this bladed, side-on stance, Trudeau can extend his right arm forward while keeping it held tight across his body. You can control a limb that is tight in to the body’s center mass much more easily than one that is held away from it, and Trump is thus unable to pull Trudeau’s arm across his center line.
The moment is reminiscent of a key episode from Holly Holm’s fight with Ronda Rousey. (This is mixed martial arts, not boxing, but the same basic tactics apply.) Rousey tries to set up a Judo uchi mata throw in order to get Holm to the canvas, where she can lock in her famous armbar. Previous opponents had never had much success blocking this sequence. But as Firas Zahabi points out in his excellent analysis of the fight, Holm positioned herself by the fence to deny Rousey the space she needed to gain purchase on the throw. This also put Holm in a position where she could keep her arm in close to her body and jerk it back when Rousey briefly pulled it out. (See the first five minutes of Zahabi’s analysis but especially the part around the four-minute mark.) Without control of the arm, Rousey couldn’t get the throw and was forced to stand and box with Holm, who was by far the superior striker and ended up knocking out Rousey in the second round.
So, to recap: Trudeau uses superior positioning, timing, and control of distance to defeat Trump’s high-pressure style just as he did in defeating Brazeau’s. In this instance, anyway, boxer beats swarmer: technique and ring smarts beat size, strength, and aggression.
I imagine that readers who came here to read something about music may be disappointed to see a close analysis of a fight instead, the analysis of fights being an enthusiasm some of my readers doubtless do not share with me. But like Norman Mailer, I am fascinated by the similarities between fighting and playing music: both are places where human wills can contend through the medium of energetic bodily performance. Both, then, offer opportunities for reading the minute traces of social contention, of attack and counter, aggression and resistance; both offer the analyst a microcosm of social life more generally.
So what larger conclusions can we draw from the Trudeau/Trump bout? First, Trump is, like Rousey, a pressure fighter, a swarmer. This is a style that understands force and only force. Pressure fighters are comfortable moving forward and taking the initiative, but when they can’t, they become vulnerable. Second, the pressure style works a lot of the time, partly because it looks like it should work. Pressure fighters often give fans the impression that they are invincible: think of Rousey, Mike Tyson, or Conor McGregor. But (third) no one style will always prevail. Fighting styles are like rock-paper-scissors, where a swarmer beats a boxer, a slugger beats a swarmer, and a boxer beats a slugger. Usually, anyway. But clever fighters can win even in a bad style match-up by understanding the nature of their opponents’ game. This is what Trudeau did: he knew that Trump thinks aggression and force are the answers to everything, so he was able to make adjustments that made Trump’s aggressiveness a liability for him.
Which actually seems like it might be a pretty good strategy for dealing with Trump more generally.
*Look at that slow-mo gif of Trudeau and Brazeau again. Trudeau has less time to land a shot than Brazeau, because he is reacting to a punch that is already being thrown. But because Trudeau’s jab is straight and has less distance to travel, both attack and counter land at the same time. Trudeau economizes on space to give himself time; conversely, Brazeau takes up more space and gives up time. In fighting, as in Parsifal, time becomes space.