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A Body Language Expert Decodes Donald Trump's Lurking in the Presidential Debate

Oct 10 2016 1:05 PM
A Body Language Expert Decodes Donald Trump's Lurking in the Presidential Debate

Screenshot via ABC News

As the dust settles from the second presidential debate, we ask the question on everyone’s lips: "Why did Trump lurk behind Hillary Clinton so much?"

Is any word as instantly creepy as the word "lurk"? Registered sex offenders lurk, behind twitching net curtains while electronic ankle tags hum softly in the background. People with permanently moist lips are inveterate lurkers. There's no good way to lurk, just like there's no good way to break up with someone. Lurking is one of those things, like sinister clowns or leather shoes worn without socks, that's always going to make you shudder.

On balance, it's fair to say that lurking wasn't part of the presidential image that Donald Trump hoped to convey in the second presidential debate on Sunday. But as he prowled the stage, occasionally dead-stopping to stare, dead-eyed, at the back of Clinton's head, the internet collectively winced.

"Heyyyyy Donald. Can you not lurk behind Hillary Clinton like THAT DUDE in a bar who's trying to see how drunk you are?" asked one Twitter user. "Mr. Trump is a gentleman and respects woman? Then WHY did he continuously lurk behind Hillary Clinton like a mad psychopath," came another august response. Asked for her views post-debate, Clinton described Trump as "very present," like persistent eczema or a handsy boss.

"Crowding someone's space, or lurking, is commonly used by bullies as a tactic to make someone cower and feel defensive," explains body language expert Robin Kermode. "As Clinton's speaking he's moving around in the background, pulling the audience's focus away from her."

Kermode argues that all of Trump's physical mannerisms are designed to intimidate and menace his opponent. He isn't the hapless bro in a crowded bar, too intimidated to approach anyone: he's lurking with intent, like a fighter. "He's moving around like a boxer, which is something they do because it makes them harder to punch," Kermode says. "It's quite sneaky, actually."

Read more: We Asked High School Debate Coaches to Grade Trump and Clinton's Performances

Looming behind Clinton as she speaks, Trump's facial expressions communicate distaste. "Every time she says something," Kermode explains, "he flicks his neck, thrusts his jaw forward and pulls his head back. He also holds his lips tightly together. This tells me he is not a calm man."

When asked to sum up Trump's approach in one word, Kermode responds with two: "Playground bully. Really, it's classic schoolboy bully stuff." Kermode cites an instance when Trump threatens Clinton with an investigation into her use of a private email server. "He goes, 'I didn't think I was going to say this, but I'm going to say it,' then he turns away from her. That's exactly what bullies do in playground fights before they come back with a punch."

Donald Trump, still lurking. Screencap via Twitter

As he does so, Trump visibly inhales. "It's almost as if he's taking in air, right before a punch. Like all bullies, his chin is too high. It's what animals do when they're looking for a fight: They lift their chin." Then, right on cue, Trump lands the blow: He'll appoint a special prosecutor to look into Clinton's email affairs.

Even the way Trump holds the microphone attracts Kermode's attention. "He's holding the microphone very lightly, but his body language is threatening—it's a passive aggressive hold, really."

I ask about Trump's locker room defence (where he disavowed earlier boasts about "grabbing women by the pussy.") "Every time he says the phrase 'locker room chat,' he closes his eyes," Kermode comments. "He's obviously politically embarrassed about it, and is trying hard to be genuine and polite, but his chin is still too high and clenched."

Read more: HR Experts Say: No, Trump, Women Should Not Get a New Job if They Are Harassed

Yesterday's debate—the most acrimonious one of the campaign trail yet—commenced with Trump and Clinton refusing to shake hands. As the candidates approach each other on stage, Kermode observes more micro-aggressions on Trump's part. "There's this little movement he does that's quite hidden, but it's designed to be aggressive and to affect her. He walks towards her, and then with his left shoulder and left foot he leans in slightly. It's as if to say, 'Don't you dare.'"

Kermode argues that Clinton responds appropriately to Trump's hulking physical presence. "She's right not to show emotion, because she can't be seen to be cowed by a bully. Her only options are to not react, or to laugh." The smartest move? "To have a bit of a twinkle in her eye," Kermode responds. "It makes him look ridiculous."

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Kermode tells me he'd advise against any client adopting a Trump-like approach, especially someone running for public office. "This sort of cartoony, gendered behavior is going to alienate half of the audience—at least. You want a strong leader, but they need to be seen to respect the person they're speaking to.

"For Trump to use bully tactics that make him look like a thug begs the question—do we want a thug running the world?"

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