A glad hander is a highly extroverted person, who makes a point of acting friendly in an over-the-top way. In politics, especially, the term glad-hander connotes insincerity and opportunism.
Glad-handers are also referred to as back slappers. To “glad-hand” is also a verb.
Merriam Webster claims that the first known use of “glad-hand” was back in 1903. The phrase grew out of the older expression to “give the glad hand,” which meant to extend a warm welcome to a friend. The phrase has often been used in a cynical sense.
Some political scientists have argued that in fact, most politicians in modern history have been morose and depressive. The cheery, glad-handing exterior is nothing more than a façade, aimed to hide the sadness within. If anything, some analysts say, glad-handing could be one of the ways that narcissistic politicians seek an emotional boost in the form of public affirmation.
In 2020, the reality of COVID-19 and social distancing meant that politicians had to stop glad handing. In some cases, this turned out to be a challenge. In March 2020, Fox News noted that President Trump had glad-handed a whole rope line of his supporters, as they waited to see him speak at an event in Florida.
This wasn’t just a one-time event. The Times of Israel noted that, at least as of March, Trump was continuing to hold meetings with other heads of state:
President Donald Trump is flouting his own government’s advice on how to stay safe. He continues to shake hands with supporters and visitors, hold large events and minimize the threat posed by a coronavirus outbreak that has infected more than 115,000 people and killed over 4,000 worldwide.
The Times of Israel reported that the vice president, Mike Pence, had defended Trump for shaking hands and vowed that the glad-handing would go on.
“In our line of work, you shake hands when someone wants to shake your hand,” Pence said. “And I expect the president will continue to do that. I’ll continue to do it.”
The Washington Post reported that the Democratic presidential hopeful, Joe Biden, was also struggling to adapt to the new norms of social distancing:
Joe Biden is a personal kind of politician. He’s a glad-hander, a back-slapper, a shoulder-squeezer and a hair-nuzzler — sometimes to a fault. Yet with the presidential campaign essentially in suspended animation and all of us practicing social distancing (or at least we should all be), Biden can’t interact with voters the way he’d like. So what should he do?
The Post recommended that Biden should take a break from glad-handing and turn to making video announcements from his home – an appropriate measure in the age of social distancing. The Post suggested that Biden should set out his platform in a series of friendly, accessible video announcement.