Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, and professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. Follow her on Twitter: @ruthbenghiat. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
Anyone who needs confirmation of the secret of a strongman — that he’s a weak man, in constant need of ego affirmation — need only look at images of the Helsinki “summit” between American President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which revealed the insecurities of both men underneath the façade of power, and Trump’s submissiveness to Putin in particular.
Ruth Ben-GhiatHere is a selection of those images captured by photo journalists. Of course, they don’t convey every moment of the meeting, but they are consistent with what we saw on air during their appearances together. There are many other such similar images — each seemingly more awkward than the last — in which the subjects tell more of a story than they may have wanted through physical cues. The meeting in Helsinki between two men expert in the art of spectacle intended to intimidate the world, proclaiming that Trump’s reorientation of America away from liberal democracy is in line with the intentions of his counterpart Putin.The images tell another story: one that gives credence to the belief that Trump’s allegiance to Putin goes way beyond ideology. We still don’t know the actual reason the summit was held, nor do we know — yet – the nature of the hold Putin has over Trump. Yet photographs suggest that this was no meeting of equals but an encounter between a supplicant (Trump) and a master (Putin), starting with Putin arriving late to their public encounter, setting it about 45 minutes back. At the same time, Putin, who is used to absolute control, had some discomfort at having their relationship scrutinized by the world’s press. He indicated this with small gestures that told a story when captured by photographers. Read MoreTrump is known for his expansive body language and his flamboyant use of hand gestures in particular: he’s used to using his large frame to advantage and dominating any space he’s in. In images of him seated with Putin and together at the podium, though, Trump seems to want to appear smaller out of a very uncharacteristic desire not to overshadow his interlocutor.Whatever their momentary alliances, strongmen know only one mode: competition. Putin reportedly had his new limousine — slightly larger than Trump’s — brought over for the occasion. Both men are performers, too, with years of practice in honing personas built on equal parts of charm and threat. Yet neither was able to hide that this summit was far from ordinary head-of-state business. Thanks to Robert Mueller’s investigation, one day soon we may come to know why that is. AWKWARD STRONGMENTrump shows Putin respect by containing his physical presence inward, a pose he commonly adopts when meeting with the press and dignitaries: here he sits with shoulders hunched, hands rigorously together, eyes downcast. Putin alternated between trying to look relaxed and even bored at Trump’s flattery; but his hand gripping the armrest in an awkward way tells us that this is not an easy moment for him either.WHO’S CONFIDENT NOW? As they approach the podium, Putin is the confident one, while Trump has none of his usual bluster. Bending forward is the classic posture of submission; here Trump hints at a possible psychological dynamic between them. PUFFED UP PUTIN. Standing together, Putin seems at ease and projects outward to the audience, his torso proud, while Trump seems tense, mouth clamped shut, chest bent forward. THE WINNING GRIP. Trump played some of his usual alpha male tricks. He tried to play host by offering Putin a seat and indulged in his favorite game of using handshakes with male leaders to exhibit dominance. Here he holds back with his body when shaking Putin’s hand, forcing the Russian President to come into his space.