President Kennedy began his famous inaugural address with a line about a torch:

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans. . . .

And he closed it with another image about lighting up the world:

The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it – and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. . . .

President Trump combined the two tropes to begin his first address to Congress with a slightly mixed metaphor:

Each American generation passes the torch of truth, liberty and justice — in an unbroken chain all the way down to the present.  That torch is now in our hands. And we will use it to light up the world. 

You might be tempted to argue that a torch can’t make a chain, but nonetheless, a rhetorical nod to Trump’s speechwriters for the nod to Kennedy.  Nicely done.

Indeed, Mr. Trump’s address continued in the same vein, praising the light, rather than cursing the darkness as he had during his inaugural and campaign.  It represented a remarkable shift in tone from his earlier combativeness.

Did his body language match up to the newly jolly rhetoric?

In a word, almost.

Following are five quick body language takeaways on the matching up of rhetoric and body language in Mr. Trump’s address.

First of all, the hair and the tie signaled a change.  The bright red tie was gone, replaced by a relatively subdued black and white patterned number.  And Mr. Trump’s hair was also unusually restrained as well, slicked down and lacking its usual exuberance.  Visual impressions are extremely important, and Mr. Trump’s was of a pivot toward a calmer mien.

Second, Mr. Trump got his hand gestures (more) under control.  Trump characteristically puts his first finger and thumb in a circle at the end of a phrase to mark his own approval with what he has just said.  When he’s ad-libbing and tossing out zinger after zinger, we see the gesture after almost every phrase.  This time, the gesture showed up much less frequently.  Clearly, he was less emotionally engaged than usual with his material.

Third, the anger was (mostly) gone.  The biggest change from previous editions of Trump, New Trump jettisoned the anger of his previous performances.  As a result, he was far less charismatic, because it’s focused, strong emotions that gen up charisma.  By contrast, Carryn Owens, the widow of U.S. Navy Special Operator, Senior Chief William “Ryan” Owens, was the subject of 60 seconds of unforgettable TV as she visibly wept at the tribute to her husband, killed in Mr. Trump’s first military operation.  Her focused grief was charismatic.  Mr. Trump’s restraint was not so much.

Fourth, it’s still not a good idea to point.  The weakest moments in Trump’s speech were when he pointed at the Democrats with what is known as the admonishing forefinger as he told them to heal the partisanship and stop the bickering.  I was brought up that it always takes two to tango, so I suspect pointing at one half of the fight and telling them to stop will be ineffectual.

Finally, New Trump is attempting to be less confrontational while still maintaining his tough guy image.  The body language expression of this difficult balance came early in the talk when he mentioned the hate crimes against Jewish community centers and the Indian-Americans in Kansas.  He tilted his head to show that he was listening sympathetically, while simultaneously lifting his chin – a more confrontational stance.  Can he have it both ways?  We will see how both pro-Trump Americans and anti-Trump Americans receive this New Trump.

The speech showed a remarkable shift in Mr. Trump’s tone from anger to a much less confrontational demeanor.  Is it the beginning of a New Trump Era?  Time and the White House will tell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Comments

  1. I thought Trump faced the Republicans when making “positive” comments but when he was in admonishing or deprecating mode, he side-glanced toward Democrats before turning briefly toward them and moving his hand to indicate the Democrats as one would do when introducing someone, thus clearly showing they were whom he was referring to with the comment. Then he turned back to the Republicans.

    Body movements, facial expressions tell the truth no matter what words are spoken.

    1. Hi, Marian — thanks for your comment. I think you’re right. All the admonishment was to the Democrats and all the good stuff to the Republicans.

  2. Great observations! I was pleased to see that Trump was capable of taking direction and following up. I believe he was on the world stage, with all leaders of other countries listening carefully and observing him. It was important that he leave the negative rhetoric behind for this most important of speeches. I think most Americans are breathing a sigh of relief!

    1. Thanks, Donna — you’re right. The quick polls had about 2/3rds of the country positive on the speech, which is of course much higher than his approval ratings. So it was a home run for Team Trump. One of those moments when a speech is important for a host of reasons.

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