Editor’s note: This post is part of a summer-long series, The Sociology of Trump. Every Friday RI Future will feature an essay written by a Brown University sociology student on an aspect of Trumpism. Read the introduction: Culture, power, and social change in the time of Trump.
The place of truth in the time of Trump has been a dominant theme in our public discourse, just as it has been in the papers of this series. Truth is not only about evidence and facticity, however. Truthfulness, at least, is also about communication and intention. Note how often media refrain from charging politicians with lying. Their defense? Journalists can declare that they don’t know whether the politician intends to deceive, or is just confused, or changes their mind, or forgets what they said previously or what the facts are. Mia Chapman offers a new way to engage this challenge. We don’t only communicate with our words, but we also signal meanings, sometimes even more sincerely, with our body language. In this, as Mia reminds us, Trump seems like an open book whose leitmotif is narcissism and domination. – Michael Kennedy, professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs, Brown University.
Thus far 2017 has been characterized by endless attempts to reorient oneself, to find footing is this increasingly unfamiliar political arena in which each day seems like a scramble to keep up with an endless deluge of executive orders, white house leaks, cabinet appointments, and natural disasters. Underlying this inundation of information are a slew of interrelated key questions: Are Donald Trump’s achievements the result of careful planning or an unintentional stumble into brilliance? Are his words a reflection of his own ideas or are they instead the repeated musing of high-ranking advisors, rendering Trump the Pinocchio to Steve Bannon or Jared Kushner’s Gepetto? These questions seem impossible to parse because of a great ideological schism in which each diametrically opposed side is convinced of their own irrevocable validity; for some, Trump’s speeches are an inaccuracy-riddled proliferation of hetero-, cis-, white, male agendas, while others find themselves enthralled by Trump’s vehement utterances promising a new political era of unprecedented social, governmental, and economic reform. Furthermore, Trump’s speeches are characterized by entrenched misdirection and unsubstantiated innuendo making them inaccessible and misleading. With no concrete evidence from the Trump administration itself, neither side can sway their opponents, and thus a new tactic of analysis of body language is needed to uncover Trump’s true opinions.
Exploration of the conditions, consequences, and motivations behind his trademark handshakes and behavior towards women encourages a sociological analysis of the ways in which his actions not only synergize with but also antagonize his rhetoric. Understanding the nonverbal message that accompanies the verbal adds a potentially revealing layer of meaning.
One countlessly repeated example of Trump’s unique body language is evidenced by his dominating and aggressive handshakes, which are doled out to constituents and opponents alike. Traditionally, handshakes are a reciprocal action signifying mutual respect and trust, though Trump employs a unique grip-and-yank tactic which screams animosity rather than solidarity. This phenomenon was first noted during a meeting between Presidents Trump and Obama in early November, which hinted at an underlying distrust not portrayed in either man’s words; on the surface the shake was perfectly perfunctory, though a deeper analysis highlights telling details.
After the meeting Trump was repeatedly cited praising Obama, ‘I have now gotten to know President Obama. I really like him… I take his recommendations very seriously.’’ However, Trump’s enactment of an early iteration of his trademark shake broadcasted a distrust-fueled struggle for authority rather than an open-minded attempt at partisan collaboration. For example, by leaning in and pulling Obama towards himself, Trump forces Obama to occupy the submissive role in the encounter. Furthermore, both men’s’ facial expressions betray an unvoiced animosity, as both have their jaws clenched and lips pursed, denoting displeasure and unease.
However, this subtle form of manipulation was not reserved solely for Trump’s opponents; it laid claim to his supreme court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, and even his own running mate, Mike Pence. In both of these encounters, Trump demonstrates a need for recognition of his power, something he would never say so plainly in his speeches or tweets. With Gorsuch, Trump first shakes in the traditional up and down motion, but quickly changes tactics and jerks Gorsuch’s hand towards himself, presumably in an attempt to disorient his nominee into submission. Gorsuch attempts to maintain composure with pursed lips, though he cannot help but glance with disbelief at his hand as Trump throws in a few taps and one final yank for good measure.
These encounters were only the first of many increasingly odd handshakes, though none are more well known than the infamous encounter between Trump and the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. Remembered not only for its length, almost twenty seconds, this handshake entered the national forefront thanks to the slew of befuddled and bemused emotions that flash across Abe’s face. Again, the comedic surface level analysis is underscored by a darker interpretation of Trump’s body language during the event. Starting with an open palmed invitation, a sign of humility, Trump then reverses direction by shifting closer to get a better grip and employing the usual power signifiers, even tacking on a few added pats which also enforce a patronizing dominance. In response, Abe’s hand goes limp, a sign he wants the contact to end, and once released, Abe subtly sighs, rolls his eyes, and moves as far away from Trump as his chair allows, a definitive indication of his unease and desire to leave.
With Abe’s interaction fresh in their memories, heads of state like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to come prepared for the interaction, though both achieved mixed results. Trudeau enacted his own power signifier by placing his hand on Trump’s shoulder, implying a similar sentiment to Trump’s taps, an unbalanced hierarchy of power in which the patter diminishes the patted. Furthermore, Trudeau kept an easy-going smile plastered on his face so as not to betray any unease or shock resulting from the jarring yanks.
In Netanyahu’s case, he managed to escape any yanks though Trump still managed to get the last word by patting Netanyahu’s back as he turned back to his podium. No matter what was said in any of these meetings between Trump and his guests, Trump’s handshakes both figuratively and literally portray a desire to forcibly obtain the upper hand.
Similar to his uniquely insecure and violent handshakes, Trump’s observable behavior towards women broadcasts a sinister pattern of objectification, intimidation, and disrespect that extends across party and state lines. Trump is more than simply a locker-room-talking womanizer; he has already reinstated a policy known as the global gag rule, which blocks US federal funding for non-governmental organizations that provide abortion counseling or referrals and his pledge to defund Planned Parenthood would severely limit many women’s’ access to vital healthcare resources. His body language only further exaggerates this low regard which is crucially left out of his video for women’s history month and other speeches concerning the female population.
For example, during the later stages of the 2016 election, Trump and Clinton engaged in a now infamous two-person debate in which Trump stalked behind Clinton, never explicitly interrupting her but all the same physically imposing a disrespectful intimidation. Although it is possible Trump innocuously meandered behind his opponent, it is far more likely the tactic was employed to undermine and distract from Clinton’s words. Trump’s actions display a narcissistic disregard for any modicum of traditional political civility in favor of a disrespectful, self-serving affect.
Trump’s treatment of his own wife, Melania, only further indicates his egotistical dismissal of the opposite gender. On inauguration day, the vast discrepancies between the way Donald treated Melania and Barack treated Michelle were staggering.
Before the ceremony, the Obamas’ meet the Trumps’ on the front steps of the White House; without bothering to wait for his wife, Trump exits the car and greets the Obamas, only acknowledging Melania’s presence after Michelle extends her hand to greet the new First Lady. Furthermore, after the photo op, Trump quickly exits the scene and abandons Melania with the Obamas. Although this could be explained as the result of Trump’s nerves or excitement, it is more likely another iteration of his narcissistic desire to prove his authority by being the first to leave the room.
Further proof of this is evidenced by Trump’s objectification of Melania. Only engaging with her for contrived photo ops, Melania is seemingly in the public eye solely when forced to be paraded about for important events. Considering she is rarely photographed and goes for weeks untracked, Melania obviously prefers to remain hidden from view in New York. Again, Trump’s inflated self-image allows him to blatantly disregard any obligations of respect or empathy, instead acting as if Melania’s only job or driving desire would be to serve at his beck and call.
The final example of Trump’s body language around women comes from a meeting between himself and Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel. This encounter elicited a two-part misogynistic display which began with an uncharacteristically average handshake, though Trump could not resist a few patronizing pats on the back.
However, the truly disrespectful event came later in the oval office; seated, Merkel and Trump pose for photo ops as the journalists repeatedly ask for a handshake. Merkel then makes the fatal mistake of assuming authority by initiating the interaction, saying, “They want to have a handshake” which Trump promptly ignores. Merkel, obviously uncomfortable, then sits back in her chair as Trump rigidly remains faced away from Merkel and towards the cameras. Again, this could’ve been a simple misunderstanding or mishearing; however it is more likely the result of Trump’s wounded ego and inferior view of women. Just as the adage goes, actions speak louder than words, or in Trump terms, handshakes are more honest than congressional addresses.
Body Language and Truth
With the widespread prevalence of fake news, alternative facts and the like, many young Americans feel an oppressive and omnipresent inability to distinguish truth from fiction. These individuals still feel a raw betrayal of trust by political experts who, placated by the sway of the expected, projected an unquestionable win for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. However, like so many other Americans, these experts underestimated the deep distrust harbored by a vast amount of the population towards the social, political, and economic systems which govern their lives. A similar sentiment is also present in the the Brexit decision which reveals a people who no longer believe in the traditional model of capitalism.
This new brand of dark utopianism revolves around an emotionally driven desire for change fueled by fear, rage, hatred, and distrust. However, C. Wright Mills’ theory of the sociological imagination can come to the rescue; encouraging a fully intersectional consideration of one’s personal experience in comparison to the wider society as a whole, the sociological imagination requires that one applies abstract thought to form and resolve complex philosophical questions, such as the questions posed in the introductory paragraph of this piece.
One way to distinguish between truth and fiction in the Trump era is to analyze the administration through different lenses, taking into consideration not only the words Trump projects, but also the actions that accompany these speeches. Trump’s truths are identified by locating instances in which his words and actions corroborate each other. Conversely, lies are easily noticeable when Trump’s speeches directly contradict one another. Trump’s flippant disregard for constituents and opponents alike suggests a narcissistic affect in which a concern for oneself always will always outweigh the concern for others.
Again using the sociological imagination, the next crucial step will be uncovering if this trait renders Trump ineligible for the position of United States President.