January 26, 2017

Trump’s Captives: On the Pathological White House Body Language

President Trump met with leaders of Congress from both parties on Monday at the White House. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times

Captives. Given his awesome self-absorption, his penchant for intimidation, and now, having more power than anyone else in the world, that’s what Donald Trump turns people into. Your typical Obama photo involved a give-and-take, with eye contact and bodies aligned so it wasn’t always obvious who had more heft. Instead, get ready for years of photos of people held held hostage, of Trump as the Wizard of Oz.

We tweeted a a couple other photos of Trump’s first White House meetings focusing on the power dynamic and bodies in space. The picture above, however, is probably the most interesting. It shows the CEO-in-Chief circled by the congressional leadership. If you need a title, it’s “Captive Audience.” And it’s no surprise that the two most captive are Schumer and Pelosi, the leaders of the opposition. I think it’s fair to characterize the  attention of the Democrat heads as slavish. And variation on a theme, also notice how the African-American member of the household staff lends Trump his mirth like his job depended on it(!).

What’s most telling about the photo, however, is how the rapture declines as one scans from the center to the periphery, the fawning evaporating as people are further from Trump’s view. As another example of the physical dynamics, look at this photo from the inaugural luncheon at the Capitol as the new president is feted with a toast:

 A toast was made to Mr. Trump during an inaugural luncheon in Statuary Hall at the Capitol. Al Drago/The New York Times

Again, what you see (as Trump looks outward, soaking up the attention of the audience) is the absence of joy or admiration on the dais, even in the face of his new vice-president or his wife.

Surely those that log the most time with Trump know how to quickly adopt or let go of the “yes man” face. If you look at Pence and Paul Ryan in the White House photo, both in Trump’s view, but not fully, you can see their expressions are somewhere in between. In fact, what you see at the periphery in both pictures (especially Democrat Steny Hoyer, second-from-the-left, and Republican Cornyn, second-from-the-right in the White House photo) are people actually staring, as if they are taking Trump’s measure — or inspecting an alien. It seems ambivalence, even in those closest to Trump, is the ultimate price of that much overall neuroticism and bombast.

I mentioned our tweets on the same dynamics. Here we break it down in terms of physics:

In these two instances, we note some media pushback. This is Trump’s first official White House meeting, a gathering with American CEO’s. If the photos are small, both pictures capture Trump’s top advisors not paying attention.

It’s not that Bannon, staring at a writing pad, or Kushner in the back, fixed like a zombie, are being rude, however. That would only be the case if the meeting was earnest. Instead, very much in character, Trump’s people are merely accomplices in the reading of the riot act.

*I’d like to thank Nina Berman’s class on visual culture at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism for the chance to discuss the White House photo.

(photo 1: Doug Mills/The New York Times. caption: President Trump met with leaders of Congress from both parties on Monday at the White House, January 23, 2017. photo 2: Al Drago/The New York Times. caption: A toast was made to Mr. Trump during an inaugural luncheon in Statuary Hall at the Capitol.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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