Trump's hand gestures may be the reason voters give him the thumbs up

Experts say the US president's flamboyant body language keeps people captivated, whether they agree with his politics or not, writes Paula Andropoulos

25 October 2020 - 00:04 By Paula Andropoulos
'Donald Trump's body talk has proven effective at engaging audiences in a jocular fashion that detracts from the gravity of whatever terrible thing he's saying.'
'Donald Trump's body talk has proven effective at engaging audiences in a jocular fashion that detracts from the gravity of whatever terrible thing he's saying.'
Image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Did Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election because of his body talk? Ridiculous — but, on examination, ridiculously possible. A 2016 political analysis by Donna M Goldstein, Kira Hall and Matthew Bruce Ingram attributes Trump's success in the Republican primaries to his entertainment value, much of which emanates from his trademark gestures and grotesqueries.

At this point, the Trumpian persona is inextricable from its infamous physical correlates — it would be very challenging, if not outright impossible, to imitate Trump successfully without using your fingers or pursing your lips into a petulant little moue, to say nothing of donning the right wig.

But I always assumed Trump's ridiculous kinesics were detrimental to his platform.
I thought people voted for him in spite of them; I never entertained the possibility that the machinations of those ornery little hands actually propelled him to victory.

According to Goldstein et al, Trump's use of pantomime, parody, "bodily quoting" and "ventriloquising" captivated his would-be constituents from the outset of his bid for the presidency, regardless of whether or not people agreed with his politics.

No matter how absurd prospective Trump voters found (or find) the now-president's slanderous imitations of his opponents, there is something mesmerising about his impolitic behaviour, especially given the radical contrast between his rude, unbridled and dramatic orations and those of his stately, reserved counterparts, most of whom are career politicians, long-inured to the mandates of public propriety. They sit still or stand up straight. Trump bends and slumps, he points, and chops, and has even been known to pantomime slicing his throat open with the blade of his porcine paw.

While all this is very diverting, what we fail to recognise much of the time is that Trump physically acts out the things he cannot say with impunity, and then blames mainstream media for misrepresenting his miming out of context.

While I doubt that he's intelligent enough to have pre-emptively masterminded this foil to political correctness, Trump's body talk has proven effective at engaging audiences in a jocular and rambunctious fashion that both detracts from the gravity of whatever terrible thing he's saying, and entertains onlookers — whether you're laughing with him or laughing at him, he's still got you wrapped around his itty-bitty baby finger for as long as he's in the limelight.

This doesn't bode well for Trump's rivals: if you're going to take on the Donald, you cannot afford to be boring. For the average, mild-mannered Democrat, it's a herculean undertaking - they need to match the incumbent's energy without reverting to the antics of a schoolyard bully.

Body-language expert Mary Civiello has identified five signature Trumpian hand gestures. Incidentally, she thinks Trump's heavy-handed oratory style may be a consequence of his New York upbringing, as New Yorkers are known to be very expressive with their hands, in friendly and hostile encounters alike.

1. L-SHAPE AND PINCH

This is the first and perhaps the most noteworthy of the gestures that Civiello has identified. This smug, crabby, Italianate-fascist manoeuvre has become ubiquitous on TV screens and in newspapers, an alternating L and O tic that Trump uses when he's sermonising, purportedly to demonstrate his mastery of the facts. It has the effect of making you feel like you're being lectured into submission, so I understand why it has a place in Trump's metacarpal lexicon.

2. PALMS OUT

This gesture says "Whoa, Nelly." Slow down. Take heed. Approach with caution. Or it can be sarcastic, patronising. "I don't know what you guys think, but." Body language experts say this presidential favourite is multifunctional. It gives Trump time to gauge audience reactions, and it constitutes a neat little visual aid for when Trump is in the throes of fear-mongering (probably why it recurs with such frequency).

Donald Trump's palms-out gesture is multi-functional, experts say.
Donald Trump's palms-out gesture is multi-functional, experts say.
Image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

3. POINTING

Uncle Sam sees you. Is Uncle Sam accusing you of being in cahoots with those Swampy Democrats, or inviting you to join him in his bid to unite (white) America? Hard to say. But it's nice to feel seen.

'Uncle Sam sees you.'
'Uncle Sam sees you.'
Image: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

SLICING

I. Am. In. Control.

We. Must. Act. Now.

We. Are. Cutting. Funding. To. The. WHO.

Donald Trump's slicing gesture indicates a sense of being in control, says a body language expert.
Donald Trump's slicing gesture indicates a sense of being in control, says a body language expert.
Image: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

5. MISCELLANEOUS FLAILING

Used to indicate chaos, of the Democratic variety. Often followed up by chopping and/or pinching, to reassure his audience that they are in good hands.

It's the eleventh hour, Biden. Now might just be the time to liberate your elbows from your sides and break out that bit you've had on the back burner. V for victory? An occasional peace sign? A quasi-throttling leitmotif you introduce whenever you're talking about Trumpian economics? Get moving.