Once upon a time, they were all friends
It was like Mean Girls, but a version of Mean Girls where Lindsay Lohan is actually a dangerous egomaniac intent on declaring the school a far-right breakaway state, and the Plastics are an underground resistance. There stood Justin Trudeau, Boris Johnson, Emmanuel Macron, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte and even — somewhat bizarrely — Princess Anne, mic’d up and seemingly unaware that they were being filmed by an unknown source nearby. “He was late because he scheduled a 40-minute press conference at the top," Trudeau is heard to say of Donald Trump (this was first presumed, and then later confirmed by the Canadian prime minister.)
“Is that why you were late?” Boris Johnson asks, smiling sympathetically at what looks like an exasperated Macron.
“You just watched his team’s jaws drop to the floor,” Trudeau continues after a few seconds of sound interference, seemingly referencing discussions about the G7 summit.
The world went wild for the video clip, of course — much more wild than anyone had gone about Trump’s tweets about making NATO countries pay more into the budget (he also quietly paid the UN bill he’d been withholding for similar reasons recently, by the way) and much more wild than they had gone about his rambling press conference with Macron, where he called the French PM a typical politician who gives “non-answers” before being embarrassingly cut down. Then, in his own, inelegant way, the US president managed to make it all look even more like a playground spat by responding that his former friend Trudeau was “two-faced” even if he did seem like a “nice guy”.
Poor, lonely Donald Trump. For a long time, more centrist-leaning world leaders tried their hardest to take a placatory stance toward him. Trudeau once made a point of saying he would respect American elections and work alongside Trump for the betterment of both their countries. Macron made him a guest of honor at France’s National Day and referred to him as a “friend” in 2017, among much friendly back-patting. Johnson held a joint press conference with him just a few months ago, where they warmly received each other and talked about joint trade deals. Theresa May had even held his tiny hand.
But it wasn’t going to be friends forever. Even Kim Jong-un, who once “fell in love” with the orange man in the White House, is now promising to send a “Christmas present” of missile tests to the US if Trump doesn’t get on with that promised deal to end all deals. If you can’t count on Kim, who can you count on? Ukrainian President Zelensky, perhaps, but that isn’t exactly good optics during an impeachment investigation. And it feels like Putin himself has gone very quiet.
Without a seeming care in the world, Trudeau was happy to confirm today that he was talking about the US president in that hot mic video. He could, like Johnson, have blustered through it and claimed that he barely recognized the conversation, didn’t know who was being referred to, and so on, and so on. He could have let Trump save a little face, in other words. But he didn’t. Maybe he’s not such a nice guy after all.
This is devastating new territory for Donald Trump. Though he loves to present himself as an outsider, he also likes to refer cryptically to all the closed-door deals he gets done, the informal diplomacy he manages to achieve twice as fast while everyone else is faffing about signing 700 bureaucratic documents. If he’s now not invited to the nudge-nudge-wink-wink chats after hours, what exactly is he good for? If he’s now excluded from those candid discussions, subject only to tight smiles and a locked-down strategy of exclusion, then he’s just another angry Twitter bot from a Russian control room shouting semi-coherently into the void.
For re-election, Trump wants his base to believe that he can make friends and force through deals. He’s played it on both sides of the coin so far — he’s an underdog who made it big and is now twice as respected for it; he’s an unstoppable force but also a victim of “presidential bullying”; he’s an anti-establishment real estate mogul billionaire who inherited massive wealth; he talks plainly to the people while striking fear into the hearts of old-fashioned politicians who have been laughing behind the country’s back until now, when America is Great Again. Except it turns out they only recently started laughing, because of Trump, and it’s all on video, splashed across the front pages of every newspaper in the world. Uh oh.
Donald Trump believes in that strange, stupid, self-contradictory world where he is hero and an antihero at the same time. He’s counting on his voter base to engage in that delusional fantasy with him. But it seems like everyone’s patience is wearing thin. And when you mock so many people that you become the subject of the mockery, it’s difficult to come back.