Photo: CNN

It’s Saturday, May 13, and I have just watched Donald Trump’s CNN “Town Hall” for the first time. I say “watched” because I had the sound completely off. As a Shakespearean and performance studies scholar—as well as a student of life—I’ve learned that the messages we perceive often come not from words and sounds but from body language and micro-muscular facial expressions. Given that hearing Mr. Trump’s voice became unbearable to me roughly six years ago, I’ve taken to watching his performances on mute to see what I can collate from his body and face, as well as from my own physical and physiological responses to what I see (heart rate, blood pressure, need to look away). There are non-verbal messages conveyed through counter-transference (how our bodies and emotions react to projections), and they’re often—if not usually—as powerful as words themselves. 

Let’s start with how he enters the stage after his introduction by CNN moderator Kaitlan Collins. He walks out slowly, ‘lumbering’ is the word many use; his jacket is buttoned tight to straining, and what appears to be a newish roll of belly fat is easily visible beneath the jacket (more on that later—not a cheap shot here, I promise). He doesn’t smile; he is visibly dour as he slightly clumsily takes to his chair, tugging at his jacket and slouching.  

His posture is bad; he slumps, shoulders sloped down through his arms, which he dangles between his legs. He tugs at his jacket again, slouches further, and does not make eye contact with Ms. Collins, or with the audience. He looks at the ground or to the sides. As she asks her first question, he avoids eye contact with her or even turning his head toward her. One can say that it’s a strategy to minimize and marginalize her, some kind of “Zen mind game,” and that’s one way to read his intention. But unintentionally, over the course of the hour, his avoidance of eye contact with her, as she maintains nearly unbroken eye contact with his face, looks like fear. At a physical level, the extreme slouching and gaze avoidance look like he’s the one who’s intimidated.  

Mr. Trump looks sedated; as he listens to questions, he appears to be screening for 1) hostility, 2) incrimination, and 3) something he can run a talking point over. My guess is that he cannot make eye contact with an interlocutor and do this screening simultaneously. He’s the same in his depositions, of which I’ve seen four. Slouch and avoid eye contact. Taken together, they signal defensiveness (obviously) but also vigilant harm avoidance, the shield thrown up by a full-body feeling of shame.  

Shame? But Trump’s shameless, right? Not when one watches him without the sound. Which brings me back to belly fat. Mr. Trump’s bizarre forward-leaning standing posture is much remarked upon. This is the effect of heel lifts in his shoes. He doesn’t stand like that when he golfs—only when wearing his Big Suit shoes. As most women know by now, if you wear heels, you have to work your back muscles harder to keep a straight posture—all of your back muscles. It’s not easy to do that while holding in your stomach. Leaning forward in his big suit has another advantage—side views show his jacket hanging forward, hiding his midsection. Same with slouching and leaning forward in his chair, with the too-long tie. The jacket hangs forward with the tie and (combined with his “accordion” handwork) hides or distracts from the roll of belly fat that would otherwise be clearly evident. The ill-fitted shoulder pads work against him when he slumps; without them, he knows his natural slouching posture makes his shoulders look sloped and ill-defined.  

To make these observations is not to fat or to body shame. Allow me to explain. As someone who has been “performing” as a professor in front of students and audiences for over 30 years, I can imaginatively inhabit Trump’s body. When I perform Shakespeare roles, however briefly, for my students, I suit my bodily subjectivity to the role. I hunch and gesture widely, as Shylock. I stand overly rigid as Othello before the Senate. I feel what shame feels like in its myriad situations. I call this “performative identification.” All actors (and effective teachers) know how crucial this is, not for “entertainment” but for delivering full meaning from texts and passages we read out loud. There are subject-positions, and we must inhabit and perform them for our students and audiences, so they will get shades of meaning that go beyond words or even tones of voice. 

I can easily inhabit Mr. Trump now, after six years of being forced to by his ubiquity. He thinks he’s a master of bodily intimidation. Although perhaps that once was true (as was so obvious in his Frankenstein’s Creature-stalking of Hillary Clinton during their debate), he is less in control now than he thinks. One look at him slouching and dragging a leg behind him to try to get level with the shorter Mr. Putin demonstrates how much his sense of himself as a performer depends on what he thinks his body is broadcasting. Standing straight behind Ms. Clinton was easy enough to do back then—he was seven years younger, and he didn’t have to speak (just stand like one of his favorite terms, “a stiff,” behind her). But these days, controlling his body language strains his efforts to speak verbal language in the moment, and something has to give. When he’s aware that every word now can be used against him in court, he’s less able to control that posture, hide that girth, sit, or stand straight.  

The more self-conscious Trump has become about his physique, the more he deflects and compensates. The huge, almost year-round, overcoat. The recent “NFT” Trump cards with his head photoshopped onto streamlined action bodies are one tell; another is the way his die-hard base photoshops his head onto superhero Gladiator-esque images. Anyone who understands, consciously or unconsciously, a malignant narcissist’s relationship to their own weakness knows how to enable their shame avoidance. The children of narcissists learn to build deflective shields that mirror what they know the narcissist needs to see. It becomes almost instinctive with those who seek a malignant narcissist’s approval—siphon off and re-route the shame. Reflect how he needs to see himself, no matter how ludicrous the denial of reality is. 

As I watched him in silence in the Town Hall, I could feel his self-consciousness about his belly: His tics have been developing for some time. The jacket tugging, the tie flapping, the drive to keep fabric a few inches off of his mid-section. Mr. Trump is excessively vain about his weight, and especially (I can only guess here) belly fat—which he sees as womanish, unmanly, and weak. I can inhabit that worry because I am a woman and (like most women) have experienced every fluctuation in my weight, or waist size, or tummy-flatness, being remarked upon, often to my face. I have, at times, worn clothing, sweaters, and jackets to camouflage a tummy, to hide a weight gain, to control excessive self-consciousness. I can see myself in Trump’s tics and feel the energy required to bracket feelings of bodily shame while trying to keep my words straight in my head and mouth.  

Trump’s facial expression during the town hall was set at a default dour. Animation began to occur only as he felt irritation or threat. Anger sent him to his routine performances of contempt—for questions, ideas, challenges, and women. The dismissive hand gestures, the eye-rolling, the smirks. These visuals became more marked during the last 15 minutes when Mr. Trump and Ms. Collins stood. Whatever safety the former president may have felt in his chair vanished as he had to stand closer to the reporter, who, to her immense credit, never once leaned back or away from him even as he widely accordioned her. At one point, he gestured dismissively, and she actually stepped in a few inches. She’s tall. He’s wearing lifts and leaning forward. She’s whippet-fit. He feels like the lumbering Creature that he is. She’s looking directly at him as she speaks, and he answers; he’s deliberately perpendicular to her and will not turn his head in her direction. Watching all this with no sound, he comes off as the frightened, defensive party on the stage. Collins looks strong and imperturbable, no matter how vacuous her questions were.  

The cutaways to the audience revealed something very different with silence. Those who laughed and clapped at Trump’s jeers against E. Jean Carroll and at his “you’re a nasty person” to Collins seemed to be a noisy minority. At each cutaway, one could see far more serious facial expressions among the audience and even, occasionally, some cringe and disapproval. They had been instructed not to boo him; being a relatively polite group, they didn’t. Many audience members may have applauded at the beginning and the end of the town hall out of a sense of what Mr. Trump so lacks: a sense of the duties of civil society and the requirements of politely greeting a guest. Although most of the audience were Republicans and Independents, they were not the cheering mob Trump usually enjoys. There were students there who seemed deliberate and looked thoughtful.  

I had more trouble identifying with Ms. Collins, but only because I’m older than she and cannot imagine being passive in the face of his contempt for her. But her body posture spoke too. Not once did she withdraw her arm when he cut her off; she didn’t retreat physically as his wild gestures got closer to her body. She looked at him steadily throughout and maintained remarkable composure, given how her CNN overlords had knee-capped her. Without the noise, the ginned-up clapping, laughter, and applause, and Mr. Trump’s bullying voice, it’s possible to pay attention to everything else speaking to me during that spectacle. And it wasn’t a narrative confirming Trump’s “evil or dark charisma” (as several pundits have taken to calling it)—quite the opposite. I literally saw the man fighting off a terror of shame on multiple levels. He looked old, grumpy, angry, stuffed into a suit that no longer fit, and self-conscious about his body. He looked weak. More importantly, his expressive compensations sought to hide what was, to my eye, fear. Fear of the young woman interviewing him; fear of his audience; fear of the cameras; fear of losing control.  

CNN was despicable for giving Trump the platform, and Ms. Collins was out of her depth. But the physical tableau of the two people on the stage broadcast, silently but eloquently, a story very different from the one Mr. Trump wanted us to take away—about strength, fitness, composure, insecurity, and self-confidence.  

This piece originally appeared in Politics/Letters Live.  

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Linda Charnes

Linda Charnes is Professor of English, European Studies, and Gender Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.