News Malcolm Turnbull’s body language during Trump meeting said it all
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Malcolm Turnbull’s body language during Trump meeting said it all

Both leaders address the media before heading into a gala dinner aboard the USS Intrepid in New York. ABC News.
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It’s all there in the video, painful and cringeworthy: Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull finally meets US President Donald Trump and can’t stop smiling, despite being mucked around by Trump and put on hold like some contest-winning autograph hunter.

Not to mention that eviscerating phone call between the two leaders, a one-sided conversation that Trump called “the worst ever”.

So when the PM met Donald Trump in New York on Friday in the pair’s first public appearance together, there was bound to be some awkwardness.

But what was with the PM’s terrier grin? And why did he seem to be driving his left fist into his own thigh? And why did he appear to be on the verge of dropping to one knee in deference to the king?

Here’s what the experts had to say:

Lyn Bender is a veteran psychologist and social commentator. She said Trump’s body language was unfailingly inflated with self-importance, but Mr Turnbull appeared “sycophantic and obsequious”.

She noted that where Tony Abbott, under any circumstance, managed to swagger, Mr Turnbull “looks so small, ill at ease and out of place. He looks like a bird clinging to the perch with his claws and looking insecure.’’

She described his smile as “the full rictus grin” – meaning fake, frozen, belying what you really mean.

Ms Bender also noted that where Turnbull has long “had a tendency to waffle, he now shows more hesitancy when he speaks”.

She compared Turnbull’s more humble demeanour to that of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose offer of a handshake in her own meeting with Trump was rebuffed.

“While Trump behaved in his boorish way, she sort of just shrugged it off and sat there obviously waiting for it to be over.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear she did not want to be on stage with the US President.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear she did not want to be on stage with the US President. Photo: Getty

Perhaps her most interesting analysis was that of Turnbull’s left fist pressed hard into his own thigh.

“That’s him holding on to himself, reassuring himself. ‘I’m here, I’m okay.’ It has that primitive effect as if you’re being groomed by a fellow chimp. He’s telling himself, he’s not alone.”

It has to be said that Ms Bender in her essays and opinion pieces has been consistently left-leaning. However, when Kevin Rudd gave his pitiful account of all the good things he’d achieved, on the morning after he was rolled by Julia Gillard, Bender, a Rudd supporter, was equally candid and cold-eyed in appraising the former PM’s body language at his lowest moment.

Damien Foster is a personal mentor to people working in the public sphere. He moves in circles that allow him to take as gospel that Malcolm Turnbull really is the “remarkable and decent man of values” that some believe him to be.

Mr Foster said that the awkward meeting with Trump serves as evidence that Turnbull – who once carried himself with flair and confidence – has allowed himself to be whittled down and lose his authenticity.

He said that while people will make a big deal that our PM didn’t look comfortable in dealing with Trump, the point is more that Turnbull is no longer a man who looks comfortable with himself.

“It’s reassuring in a strange kind of way. Because this is what people’s lives look like when they’re not really being themselves and the ‘warmth’ is completely shallow and contrived.”

From the perspective of national advancement, Mr Foster said: “I don’t know if it adds any value to our relationship with the US to have had this meeting. It appears to be all pageantry.”

The kind of thing that pleases a king.

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