To say 2020 has been a whirlwind of a year would be an understatement. After enduring a global pandemic, the arrival of murder hornets, Australian and West Coast wildfires, and so on, it appears the world can’t catch a break. For the United States in particular, politics has added fuel to the fire. The seemingly exhausting nature of the country’s current political environment is one that cannot be ignored, as the election in November is quickly approaching. The future Commander in Chief of the nation is in the hands of voters from two extremely divided political parties, the Democrats and Republicans. However, the outcome of the recent presidential debate lacked the information needed for voters to make an important decision: who they want to take the Oval Office.
On September 29th, the first presidential debate for the 2020 election took place at the Sheila and Eric Samson Pavilion in Clevland, Ohio. Assuming the election will be a close race, this has certainly been the most anticipated debate in American history. Republican nominee and current President of the United States, Donald Trump, and Democratic nominee and former Vice President under the Obama Administration, Joe Biden, battled it out face-to-face on the debate stage with Fox News Sunday anchor, Chris Wallace, as the moderator. Although the set topics included the coronavirus pandemic, economy, systemic racism, and healthcare, anything but those subjects were addressed. This may not have given voters much to work with, however, linguists, psychologists, and body language experts had a field day analyzing the candidates’ performances. Let’s discuss the verbal and nonverbal cues that made this debate, in the words of body language expert, Patti Woods, “painful to watch.”
The policies Trump and Biden represent are not the only factors that distinguish these candidates. Both nominees exemplified different behavioral approaches regarding how they answered Wallace’s questions and responded to their opponent. Some experts believe Trump’s strategy was based on anger. Woods told The Independent, “Anger is the strongest persuasive emotion… His choice to be on the attack, nonverbally he did that very specifically by looking at Biden when he was interrupting and talking over him and turning his upper body toward him.” She also claimed the painful aspect of the debate was Trump’s bully-like behavior, which is not typically seen during debates of such stature as those held for elected officials. Trump’s interjections are also an example of Face-Threatening Action. Brian Larson, an associate professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, told Inverse, “It’s (Face-Threatening Action) a specific type of interruption intended to diminish social power.” The purpose of these interruptions is to not only accelerate the pace of the debate, but to cause Biden to retract, clarify, and correct statements. Other experts believed Trump’s demeanor made him look like a strong leader. Lillian Glass, a body language expert, told Boston Globe, “His body movements matched his emotions and what he had to say… there was not a lot of levity.”
Biden, on the other hand, had a much more welcoming and laid-back approach according to experts. Woods stated that Biden’s decision to look at the camera and address the audience with a smile could be seen as self-control. Other experts, like Chris Ulrich, a behavioral body language expert, believed his direct statements toward the camera was his attempt to make a connection to voters and establish a “transference of power” (Boston Globe). Larson noticed Biden’s language was casual. For instance, when the debate started, Biden greeted President Trump by saying, “How you doing, man?” This happened again when Trump interrupted Chris Wallace and Biden exclaimed, “Will you shut up, man?” According to Larson, Biden’s informal language helped abate the perceived power dynamics that were present due to Trump’s interjections and his role as President. Glass thought Biden’s decision to directly speak to the viewers was inappropriate. She believes debaters should be looking at their opponent or the moderator. Based on this notion, Biden’s actions could have displeased many viewers.
So, based on body language alone, which presidential candidate won the first debate? Well, every expert has their own opinion and interpretation of what occurred. According to Glass, Trump won the debate. Trump’s disposition was in sync with his body language. In moments when he needed to be serious, his physical stance and gestures correlated with his verbal statements. Although it reads as aggressive and obnoxious, Trump was unwavering in his decisions to argue, interrupt, and defend. Glass felt Biden failed to present himself as a leader because his gestures were more rehearsed. In moments when Trump refuted him, for instance, when the Green New Deal was discussed, Biden would smile during confrontation and used coached motions like pinching his thumb and finger to demonstrate a point. However, Woods suggests that Biden won the debate. Unlike Trump, Biden established a connection with voters by making direct eye contact with the camera. He explained his policies and plans to the American people, the 328 million citizens responsible for electing the 46th President of the United States of America. Because Trump was constantly interrupting Biden, along with his lack of rapport with viewers, he was perceived as a bully.
Now that America’s disappointment in the first presidential debate is common knowledge, and considering all divisive information has arisen in the meantime, it will be interesting to see how effective Trump and Biden’s communication skills will be during the final debate this Thursday, October 22nd, 2020.