President Barack Obama had just wrapped up a meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron when they took a detour, visiting a school in South London where they rolled up their sleeves and engaged a pair of students in a table tennis doubles match.
The version of ping-pong diplomacy in 2011 didn’t result in a victory at the table — Obama later said the students “whipped us.” But the informal photo op served a political purpose — presenting the two leaders as close partners in touch with the day-to-day lives of ordinary Britons.
Such cultural moments have long been a staple of foreign trips for U.S. presidents determined to promote America’s democratic values and openness to the world. George W. Bush shared fish and chips with Tony Blair at the Dun Cow pub in 2003, and Bill Clinton went sightseeing and dined with Blair at a local restaurant in 1997.
Not so much for President Trump, who has pursued a radically different approach on his trips abroad, including to Britain over the past week. Hewing to a formal itinerary limited to working sessions with Prime Minister Theresa May and a tea ceremony with Queen Elizabeth II, Trump has studiously avoided interacting with the public at large.
Aides have said the schedule was intentionally designed to keep the president far away from the mass protests in London that greeted his arrival. In an interview with a British tabloid, Trump trashed May and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, and he has struck a combative tone with U.S. allies since taking office.
But Trump also has largely eschewed public events during his previous foreign trips, and this weekend he is cloistered at his private golf resort in Turnberry, Scotland. By comparison, during his 2011 trip, Obama drank a pint of beer at a local pub in Moneygall, Ireland, where he had traced his maternal ancestral roots, and delivered an outdoor speech at Trinity College in Dublin.
“Most presidents, when they go abroad, are trying to win hearts and minds for the United States’s democratic ways, so they are always in salesman mode,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian. “Trump is trying to smash institutions and orchestrate a grand realignment of power politics. He’s not interested in selling [other countries] on how marvelous their culture is.”
Past presidents have employed various tactics on foreign trips to interact with the public for different ends. They have delivered speeches at universities, held town hall meetings, toured historical sites and met with civil society groups to promote human rights.
Former Bush aides recall the 43rd president attending church in Beijing, taking a safari in Botswana, dining in a Tokyo restaurant with former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and viewing a cultural dance in the Eastern European country of Georgia.
“Every place we went, we always tried to do something to get him out and give him the local cultural experience,” said one former Bush aide who helped coordinate his trips.
The aim was to “dispel some of the America-centric perception that foreigners had of us and to show respect to local culture,” said the former aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his current job did not permit him to speak on the record.
On his first foreign trip last year, to Saudi Arabia, Trump and his aides — including then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — were treated to a traditional ardah sword dance, producing images of Trump swaying along awkwardly with his hosts.
But the ceremony — limited to men and held before a banquet dinner with King Salman at Murabba Palace in Riyadh — was not the kind of broadly inclusive event an ordinary Saudi would expect to participate in.
Although Bush took part in an ardah dance in 2008, he also met with entrepreneurs, including women. On his trip, Trump delegated a meeting with female entrepreneurs to his daughter Ivanka, who is a senior White House adviser.
Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman under Obama, said the aim of getting the boss into the public was to “show another side of the president as more relatable with the goal of wanting the U.S. to be popular abroad. It helps us advance our priorities and convince foreign governments to support initiatives we have.”
Vietor noted that Trump, a real estate promoter and reality television star before entering the White House, has the ability to “charm people.”
“If he just tried, he might win over a lot of people,” Vietor said.
Unlike his predecessors, however, Trump has not sought to expand his base of support; rather, he has focused on maintaining the intensity of his most devoted followers. To that end, Trump has used foreign trips to bully allies to spend more on mutual defense treaties, harangue them on trade imbalances and criticize them over immigration policies he views as too lenient.
“It’s very hard to have the London opera company embrace you after you say the mayor’s an idiot,” Brinkley said.
Trump campaigned as a populist against the ruling “elite,” but on his foreign trips he has clearly reveled in the trappings of extravagant state visits. He has called his visit to Beijing, where Chinese President Xi Jinping greeted him with a military pageant and a private performance of the Peking opera in the Forbidden City, one of the most rewarding days of his presidency.
“He treated me better than anybody’s ever been treated in the history of China,” Trump boasted of Xi. Trump also played golf with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a country club in Tokyo and joined French President Emmanuel Macron at a military parade in Paris on Bastille Day last year, returning home to direct the Pentagon to put on its own show on Veterans Day.
On the flip side, Trump acknowledged that the London protests, including a balloon depicting the president as a diaper-wearing infant that flew above Parliament Square, had persuaded him to spend most of his trip to Britain outside the city.
“I guess when they put out blimps to make me feel unwelcome, no reason for me to go to London,” Trump told the Sun newspaper. “I used to love London as a city. I haven’t been there in a long time. But when they make you feel unwelcome, why would I stay there?”
The protests followed him to Scotland as well, where a Greenpeace hang glider buzzed overhead and protesters chanted “No Trump! No KKK! No racist U.S.A.!” on Saturday as Trump played golf.
Brinkley, the historian, suggested that Trump was more similar to authoritarian leaders, such as China’s Xi, who can “control the environment” around them.
Trump’s decision not to mix with the public “makes him seem like the arrogant American that looks down his nose at all foreigners,” Brinkley said. “He’s not pandering to the Europeans; he’s using foreign trips to feed the base more red meat.”