Published: Oct. 21, 2016 By

GOP candidate’s gestures, comedic approaches forestall criticism, researchers conclude


In 1960, Richard M. Nixon’s sweat and 5-o’clock shadow may have cost him the election. In 1976, cartoonists and pundits went nuts over candidate Jimmy Carter’s big, pearly whites. In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s pompadour signaled a return to 1950s values to many voters distressed by social changes in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Now we can add to the list of influential body parts in American presidential politics the hands of Donald J. Trump, now the the president elect.

Rival Marco Rubio first put manos at center stage when he noted — with a figurative wink — how small they are for a man as large as Trump. More recently, a 2005 recording emerged in which Trump boasts of how he can “grab” women with impunity because, “when you’re a star, they let you do it.”


Donna Goldstein

But according to two University of Colorado Boulder professors and a graduate student from the University of Texas at Austin, hands have played an even more influential, if never studied, role in the rise of the most controversial major-party candidate in American history.

In “The Hands of Donald Trump: Entertainment, gesture, spectacle,” published in the October issue of HAU Journal of Ethnographic Theory, CU Boulder’s Donna M. Goldstein, professor of cultural anthropology, and Kira Hall, associate professor of linguistics and anthropology, and UT Austin PhD student Matthew Bruce Ingram write that Trump uses entertainer’s tricks to get away with more than what other less flamboyant candidates could possibly imagine.

Trump’s use of comedic entertainment, they argue, goes a long way toward explaining his success in winning the Republican nomination.  

“In Trump we find a Rabelaisian character that deploys bawdy humor to entertain his audience. He provides carnivalesque moments as he pokes fun at other candidates, at their bodies, at their fluids, at their stiffness,” they write. “Like Rabelais, Trump understands that crude humor has the power to bring down the princely classes—aka, the political establishment—as well as anyone who opposes him.”

And like any great stage performer, they note, Trump knows how to use his hands, “reduc(ing) others to laughable portrayals while elevating himself.”

Consider just a few now-infamous Trump gestures: mockingly imitating a disabled reporter; raising and aiming faux rifles and pistols; tilting his head on folded hands, eyes closed, to suggest a rival is “low energy”; impersonating Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton swooning due to pneumonia. The authors zero in on such gestural displays to make their case, having deeply analyzed 27 hours of video footage from Trump's stump speeches.

Other “showbiz” candidates have used their skills to woo voters, from Ronald Reagan to Jessie Ventura and Al Franken. But, Hall, Goldstein and Ingram argue Trump is exceptional for his extravagant hand gestures and his immersive entertainer’s approach to campaigning.

His use of a kind of ‘standup’ comedy format suspends (his audiences) from the usual stiff, staid political oratory. When people are able to be entertained, he understands that he can get away with a lot more.”

“The density of his use of comedic entertainment is unprecedented in politics,” Hall says.

“No one goes to see Trump to laugh,” Goldstein says. “But his use of a kind of ‘standup’ comedy format suspends (his audiences) from the usual stiff, staid political oratory. When people are able to be entertained, he understands that he can get away with a lot more.”

Goldstein and Hall note that Rubio’s campaign collapsed not long after it descended to Trump’s level with the unsubtle, gutter-level dig at his manhood. On the other side of the aisle, former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean’s candidacy evaporated after he was caught on camera triumphantly screaming after a primary victory.

Trump, meanwhile, has been given a pass by his supporters, and many pundits, despite a near-continuous string of pronouncements and actions that would have doomed any other candidacy. The article explores why Trump has succeeded while other candidates have failed in using such strategies.


Kira Hall

Many in the candidate’s support base find his mocking gestures and name-calling especially hilarious. But even many who don’t like Trump find him amusing.

“All I have to do is put up a slide about Donald Trump in class and the students laugh,” Hall says of her course on language and gender. “I don’t know which side they are on, but he has carved out this space for himself as an entertainer, which then seems to excuse his behavior.”

Trump’s handy delivery doesn’t just appeal to his main constituency. He’s been successful, the authors write, because he offers “carnivalesque entertainment” that is appealing, “not just for the white rural underclass, not just for conservatives, but also for the public at large, even those who strongly oppose his candidacy.”

He is not unlike “fools and clowns (that) subvert the social order through acts of parody, poking vulgar fun at the mystique of political rulers and stirring rebellion in their audiences,” they write.

“The moment he ceases to entertain — to say crazy (stuff),” Dave Eggers recently wrote in The Guardian, “he will evaporate.” Even as his handlers’ efforts to rein in his more outrageous instincts seem to have largely failed, Trump seems unsettled by the notion of toning down his patented style. He complained at one campaign rally that he would eventually “become so presidential that you people will be so bored.”

But Trump’s mesmerizing hands and spectacle-dependent campaign are no laughing matter, warn Hall, Goldstein and Ingram who disclose their biases in a paper that is otherwise based on traditional research techniques.

The candidate’s “comedic debauchery,” they write, is “the next logical chapter of a hypermediatized politics that lacks content, sells itself as entertainment, and incorporates comedic stylistics so as to immunize itself against critique.”

The disclosure of the 2005 recording of Trump’s words describing his aggressions toward women has caused more damage to Trump than anything else since he announced his candidacy in 2015, perhaps because he wasn’t in front of an audience.

“It’s interesting because that cannot be so easily excused as entertainment, or a performance,” Hall says. “It was recorded backstage when he wasn’t performing. He can say, ‘This is just locker-room talk,’ but this time it isn’t working.”

To read the full journal article, click here.