During a group photo of world leaders, he shoves aside the prime minister of a much smaller country to get into the first row, then buttons his jacket with an unironic scowl. Meeting the French president, he grabs his counterpart’s hand and yanks it toward himself, only to have the much smaller Frenchman (who had clearly been briefed) squeeze for his life in what at once became dubbed the “death grip”. Hosting the German chancellor in the Oval Office, he ignores her whispered query (“Do you want to shake hands?”) and just glowers.
To the many consequences of the improbable accession of Donald Trump to the world’s highest office, add this: More people now appreciate the role of body language in politics. But Trump is not the best subject for contemplation. “You tiny, tiny, tiny little man,” is how J.K. Rowling, of Harry Potter fame, reacted on Twitter to Mr. Trump’s shove of the Montenegrin prime minister, and that is about all that needs to be said. Anybody interested in gaining or keeping power – or simply understanding it – would do better to study the body language of Angela Merkel.
In this, as in so many other ways, Germany’s chancellor is a near-perfect opposite and foil to Mr. Trump. And when it comes to modern power, she is the model. She is in her twelfth year in office and odds-on to stay in it for another four after the election on September 24th. Behind her stretches a long line of failed challengers and rivals — men who had charged at her hard and who are still wondering what went wrong.
Much about her unique style of power was already evident at the very moment she was closing in on the office of chancellor. It occurred on German television shortly after eight in the evening of September 18, 2005. Germans had just voted, and the polls showed Ms. Merkel’s center-right bloc falling far short of expectations with a tiny lead at 35 percent. The Social Democrats led by the incumbent chancellor Gerhard Schröder were in effect tied at 34 percent. As is customary in Germany, all the parties’ leaders gathered with two journalists to take stock on air. Ms. Merkel, with much larger hair than today, was the only woman among seven men.
In the German parliamentary system, various coalition options were still open for either Mr. Schröder or Ms. Merkel to control a majority of the Bundestag. So Mr. Schröder, whom the German press called an “alpha animal”, decided to create facts on the ground. He burst out with a forceful verbal barrage, insinuating that the moderators were biased, asserting that he was the real winner and disparaging Ms. Merkel. Constantly interrupting all his interlocutors as though in some dominance ritual, he blurted out, “Do you seriously think that my party will take up an offer of coalition talks from Ms. Merkel in this situation, in which she says she wants to be chancellor?”
The other men in the round were not his primary targets, but they spent the following 40 minutes sparring with him. Ms. Merkel’s reaction was more interesting. Whenever the camera strayed from the dueling silverbacks and zoomed in on her, she had a neutral expression, or a look of mild puzzlement, but never one of anger or annoyance. Her hands mostly stayed folded on the table in front of her. She hardly spoke at all. In effect, she responded to Mr. Schröder by not reacting.
In the following hours and days, Mr. Schröder’s political career collapsed, as all of Germany wondered what demon had got into him. In at least one interview, he later had to deny that he was drunk during the debate. Meanwhile, Ms. Merkel quietly began coalition negotiations that led her to be sworn in as chancellor two months later, with the Social Democrats as her junior partners. Something had revealed itself that day on television between Mr. Schröder and Ms. Merkel. “When he entered the room, she had lost the election. When he left, she had won the chancellor’s office,” recalls Wolfgang Nowak, a former adviser to Mr. Schröder, who nowadays also has the ear of Ms. Merkel.
“Nobody is like her,” says Gregor Gysi, who was opposition leader in parliament for much of Ms. Merkel’s current term. Mr. Gysi is widely considered the wittiest speaker in German politics, and his job in the Bundestag was to needle and provoke the chancellor. But all of his attacks fell flat. Merkel never took his baits; he never got a rise out of her.
Mr. Gysi, now retired, does not contest the point. Ms. Merkel, he says, reminds him of his experience in the 1970s, when he was a lawyer in the East German dictatorship. During interrogations he could always crack the men, he says, but against a certain kind of woman he had “no chance”, provided they did not make the mistake of trying to be like men. Hillary Clinton made that mistake, Mr. Gysi says. She blew a presidential election in America against a man who is almost comical in his pseudo-virility. By contrast, Mr. Gysi says, “Merkel’s secret is that she has found a method against the men, but the men have found no method against her.”
“Merkel gets stronger by letting the men be men,” Mr. Nowak agrees. Many of these encounters resemble that televised encounter with Mr Schröder. “She let him do all his wrestling poses,” recalls Mr. Nowak. And in the end the macho always throws himself on the mat, with her left standing.
Take sex out of the equation for a moment, and her approach is reminiscent of the Japanese martial art called aikido. Its fighting style is based on channeling, rather than countering, the energy (ki) of an opponent, in such a way that the opponent overcomes himself. The underlying insight is that, as an aggressor attacks, his center of gravity is necessarily in flux and becomes unstable. A skilled fighter uses this. The result has less to do with tipping the opponent than with letting him fall.
The ultimate origin of aikido, as of Merkel’s style, is thus not strength but weakness. Morihei Ueshiba, who founded the martial art in the 1920s and 30s, was frail in his youth and so short (155cm) that he missed by one centimeter the height requirement to be drafted into the Japanese army for the Russo-Japanese war. Humiliated, he started hanging himself from tree branches and steel bars to stretch. He realized that he would never win through brawn, so he needed another method.
Physical prowess matters less for women, but Ms. Merkel, at 164cm, is also short by German standards. She has what Germans call “X legs” (knock knees) that make her appear to waddle more than walk. She takes a certain pride in her lack of athletic ability. A few years ago she fell and cracked her pelvis while cross-country skiing. Her spokesman, as part of his press briefing, said that “we assume low speeds.” She found that hilarious. Machos such as Mr. Putin have themselves photographed riding horses bare-chested and flying with cranes. Mr. Trump cannot resist rebutting suggestions that he has “small hands” with unsubtle hints that “there is no problem” elsewhere. As though aware that she is their foil, Ms. Merkel embraces, even emphasizes, her physical frailty.
That is one reason why she has over the years got the better of vain and strength-obsessed peacocks such as Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and little Napoleons such as France’s Nicolas Sarkozy. She regularly deals with neo-Ottoman sultans such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and of course with Mr. Trump, who in his narcissistic blow-hard machismo outdoes them all.
And these are but cavemen next to a KGB-trained Russian czar such as Vladimir Putin. When the Berlin Wall fell, he was a KGB officer in Dresden. He speaks fluent German, just as Ms. Merkel, who spent the first half of her life in communist East Germany, speaks fluent Russian. When they converse, they often speak German and address each other with the informal du.
For years that did not prevent Mr. Putin from trying to intimidate the chancellor with mind games. When in 2007 she visited him in Sochi, Ms. Merkel’s advisers, aware of Putin’s black Labrador Koni, had informed him in advance that she does not like dogs because she was once bitten by one. Sure enough, as Mr. Putin and Ms. Merkel sat before a fire place for photos, he had Koni brought in, who began sniffing the chancellor’s crotch. As Mr. Putin leaned back, manspreading with a smirk, Ms. Merkel became visibly uncomfortable.
The ploy backfired on Mr. Putin spectacularly. The German and foreign press was beside itself with indignation, whereas nobody got the idea that the chancellor’s vulnerability in the presence of the dog made her weak vis-à-vis Russia or its president. Instead it was Mr. Putin who looked as though he was compensating for a shortcoming. He had “to prove he’s man,” Ms. Merkel later told reporters, because “he’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.” Today, according to people who have been in their meetings, Angela Merkel is the only Western leader Mr. Putin genuinely respects.
But chancellors keep or lose power at home, so from now until September 24th it is her body language in the German campaign that matters. Here again she is the opposite of Donald Trump, but also of Emmanuel Macron in France or almost any modern politician reaching for the charismatic gesture. Ms. Merkel’s strategy is called “asymmetrical demobilization”. It means taking all the excitement out of the campaign so that voters for the other side stay home on polling day, thinking nothing much is at stake for them.
Ms. Merkel’s body language expresses this strategy perfectly. Her Social-Democratic challenger, Martin Schulz, tries desperately to whip up excitement at campaign events, with sweeping hand gestures and jabbing fingers. Ms. Merkel, meanwhile, keeps her hand movements to a minimum. Often she just defaults to her characteristic “Merkel rhombus”, which is really more of a kite formed between her hands.
She once said that she likes the gesture for its “pleasing symmetry”. Stefan Verra, a body-language coach, thinks its real message is subtler: “She manages to keep her finger tips barely touching even in stressful situations. That suggests that Merkel has a low cortisol level. And we choose those people as leaders who take longer to feel stress. So she is signaling something that she is not even aware of.”
Her body language is thus calming — to herself and her audience. The subliminal message is that politics is endlessly complex and demands expertise and subtle analysis — hers. In parliament and during debates, she often does what has been called her “dance of trust”: She sways back and forth, as though weighing alternatives, with her hands fine-tuning invisible air buttons.
Completely missing from her body language are dominance gestures. Ms. Merkel “gets on a stage, gets applause, lifts her hands for a greeting, but in that expansive gesture simultaneously ducks her head,” says Mr. Verra. She makes herself large and small at the same time. She does not lunge at an opponent but waits until her opponents fear looking weak and attack, thus initiating their undoing.
How does Angela Merkel wield power? If she gave an honest answer, she might cite Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikdo: “It’s not that I am so strong—they [are] wrestling with themselves and spending their energy on the air.”