Update posted below (August 9, 2017, 11:33 a.m., EST)
Watching Seth Meyer’s bit on August 3rd, 2017, titled “A Closer Look/Trump in Crisis” this image struck me, because the posture, pose, and gestures of the President of the United States suggest a man in fear. It’s a surprisingly vulnerable image: Trump overlaps his hands, clasping himself above the opposite wrists. He has created a “STOP” cross-roads sign with his upper body. The flattened sheen of hair covering his bald spot, the matte fabric of his suit all render this image most interesting in terms of presidential self-presentation. This is the look of anxiety and retreat. Seth Meyers, by the way, typically holds his hands in this interlocked position, fingers relaxed, shoulders very slightly rolled forward. The format of his monologue requires that he sit behind a desk (Samantha Bee rejected this structure, and stands in front of her live audience). From his time on SNL, he adopted this pose, although he uses it to emphasize his gestures and movements. He usually conveys a kind of performance-nervousness until the first minute or so of his monologue is completed, but his routine always starts with this somewhat prim, slightly nervous pose.
Compare the angles of Meyers’s shoulder roll (Meyers often twists his body slightly, away from the upper left corner of the “screen,” perhaps to avoid the invisible area of the image the viewers will see?) with President Trump’s; Mr. Trump is curled in, bent slightly from his stomach — it’s a near-sitting fetal position, one of great anxiety and nervousness. Those hands, though, are the giveaway — there’s no reason for that position except nervousness and anxiety.
This is a habitual sitting posture for Trump since his election to the highest, most powerful office in the nation. Here he is on February 8, 2017, in an image from Associated Press (photographer Pablo Martinez Monsivais). The first line of the AP story is “Less than a month into his tenure, Donald Trump’s White House is beset by a crush of crises.”
On January 27, 2017, he was photographed at his desk on Air Force One, the presidential plane. He is far more relaxed, even deigning to be photographed without his suit jacket. Trump’s “Desk Portraits” have been a decades-long tradition, and he typically includes signifiers of “busyness” — here, a lonely single sheet of paper. There are three jarring aspects of his posture and manner: the mouth being pulled back towards the teeth and jaw (do it yourself and ask, what emotional state do I attach to this movement? – unease, concern, a wincing at what lies ahead of you, even disgust). In a column on LinkedIn, Peter McLaughlin calls this a version of “Disappearing Lips”; “One sees this especially with politicians who are in stressful situations especially when they’ve been accused of misconduct. Part of his brain is actually tightening and pulling back his lips as if to prevent him from speaking the truth.” (Republican House leader Paul Ryan is probably the politician best known for this facial gesture.)
Writer Mr. McLaughlin categorizes the “hugging one’s self” (in McLaughlin’s example, a woman hugging her arms around her torso, but it includes any self-hugging positions, like Trump’s hand self-clasping) as a self-comforting gesture. Mr. Trump’s hands are clasped and it would appear he is consciously attempting to relax the right hand (to our left) — interestingly, one hand displays marked veins and roughness, denoting a “clenched hand” while the other hand is loosely held, the muscles relaxed, and its surface is smooth and unmarked. Key here is the tension evident in the handhold — many leaders are photographed at desks, hands lightly clasped together, but relaxed.
Finally, along with the wincing mouth and clasped hands is the pronounced Trumpian sloping inward of the shoulders (his daughter has similar posture). This is not a confident, forthright look. Peter Fradet classifies the hand clasping, by the way, as a self-pacifying gesture, performed when a person is uncomfortable, nervous, and even fearful.
And in the image below, from the same shoot on Air Force One, we see Mr. Trump in a more confident position. For this blog, Style of Resistance, let’s note that extremely roomy cut on that shirt. The armholes are cut to hang several inches below, there are inches of spare fabric to the sides. His collar, a bit tight on his neck, holds still while the rest of the shirt blouses about his body. Even the cuffs of the shirt are cut quite roomy, doing little to hold the fabric against his body. The lighting is far more forgiving of the uneven color, texture, and surface area of his hair (any photograph in which the camera is placed slightly above Mr. Trump, looking down, reveals the oddity of the plane of the crest of his hair).
Trump’s ideal self-presentation would be these two images below. To the left, an image from 2001. Note the interlaced fingers of the hand and the elaborate signifiers of “busyness”. The image to the right is a promotional photograph of Mr. Trump from The Apprentice. Here, the stage-managed posture — and one savvy photographer — poses Trump with his interlaced hands pulled apart in what Trump believes is a “power triangle” hand pose. Nearly every body language guide, from the most banal to the most carefully worded, classifies this pose as a self-conscious power pose. In other words, most humans do not present their hands like this without deliberation and forethought. Think about the implications of this: Mr. Trump’s habitual pose is to clasp his hands, tightening the muscles of his fingers and hands, and usually place that bundle of nerves atop a pile of papers (or, in the case of the second image from January 2017 on Air Force One, atop a single sheet of paper). A skilled photographer whose job it was to render this man into the posturing image of corporate power needed for the quasi-reality television show, The Apprentice, pulled those hands apart, steepled them uniformly, and asked the subject of the portrait to hold the pose. You’ll note Mr. Trump is, at the meeting of his thumbs, beginning to cave his fingers back in. Back towards his habitual single sheet of paper — his preferred signifier of ability and “work”.
He learned a lot from The Apprentice people. On January 18, 2017, in an effort to convey his power and busyness as the President, he tweeted out this image:
Within a few minutes, really, New York Magazine published a terrific analysis of the image, “Is Donald Trump Writing His Inaugural Address From a Maralago Receptionist’s Desk?” The answer was a lawsuit-proof, sure looks like it. Much ridiculed was the fact he is holding a thick Sharpie permanent marker, and that legal pad, curled up so viewers can not see what is written, or not written, on the paper. But of course Mr. Trump thought he had mastered the representation of “desk power”: you sit behind a wood-topped desk, you lean forward, furrow your brow and look “serious”, and you have paper around you. His hands, though, are occupied with actions, and so the clasping, holding one’s self, and nervous collapsed steeple are absent for once.
What does all this mean? First, it’s hard to escape the idea — even from an amateur point of view — that Mr. Trump’s body language displays a high level of anxiety, discomfort, and self-protectiveness. It’s impossible to tell if this has heightened since the election but it’s clear that when left to his own devices, outside of the stage-managed setting of a studio shot, Mr. Trump relapses to his habitual self-comforting gestures. He performs “power poses” effectively, as evident during the debates in particular, but these poses, gestures, and postures do not come naturally. There’s an undercurrent here of deep, long-standing unease. In an odd way, photographs of Mr. Trump from his public life since the 1980s attest that he has — at least in his bodily self-presentation — been a bundle of nerves always worried about being uncloaked and unmasked.
Update: note the President’s self-hugging, self-comforting gesture in this screen shot from the linked video, as he announces a threat to North Korea on August 8th.
link to New York Times video: Here