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Bonnie Greer on why body language speaks volumes in the Clinton and Trump debates

Trump vs. Clinton - Credit: Archant

You don’t need to listen to Clinton and Trump debate one another. All you need to know, you can learn from their body language, Bonnie Greer writes

I knew right away that the best way to watch the debate between former First Lady, former two-term Senator from New York and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and reality television star and ‘billionaire’ real estate mogul Donald John Trump, was with the sound down.

Because it simply wasn’t going to matter what they said.

Nothing Donald Trump could say would make me feel that he was less than an Extinction Event for the USA and the world.

Nothing that Hillary Clinton could say would make me feel that she was not qualified and able from Day One to become Commander–in-Chief of the largest and most powerful military on earth and keeper of an Armageddon-making arsenal of nuclear weapons.

That’s why I decided that the best way to watch the debate the first time was with the sound down.

That was how I missed Trump’s sniffing (‘I had a defective mic, it could pick up breathing’); and Hillary’s whoop of pleasure when she asked Trump: ‘Should I be accused of EVERYTHING wrong in the world’ and Trump snarled: ‘Why not?’

These gems I heard later when I watched again.

It was what I SAW the first time – even before the debate began – that spoke volumes: There was Clinton coming through the car park of the venue for the debate, dressed in a red pantsuit. This spelled to me: ‘I’m Coming To Take Care Of Business’.

Trump was pictured leaving Trump Tower tie-less, his shirt hanging out, surrounded by his ‘people’. Most of them, incidentally, were a bit shorter than he was. There he was: Alpha Male emerging from his lair. For most people, this would be intimidating in and of itself.

Which was the Trump intention.

Rough and tough, straight-talking and gruff, Donald Trump made sure that all eyes, all talk centred around him: Which Trump would show up? Will Trump stay on message? and so on…

His job is to keep the noise of the ‘Trump Train’, a seemingly unstoppable behemoth, mowing down everything in its path. As one of his supporters yelled to a journalist when asked what she would be listening for at the debate: ‘I don’t care what he says!’

‘He talks just like I do!’

‘He says what I want to say!’

It’s all about what he makes his supporters feel.

That’s what wrestlers do. Make you feel.

A book making the rounds of some pundits and pollsters in the US is a series of essays by the French philosopher Roland Barthes. Mythologies looks at modern culture.

Now contrary to what many Europeans believe, Americans can and do read quite seriously. The British do, too, but the difference is that Americans talk about it.

Being dual-national, I’m on both sides of this, so will go no further than to say that the essay that everyone is talking about focuses on wrestling…… like this first debate and maybe the two after.

Trump, who owns (or did own) several casinos, is a wrestling aficionado. He was even inducted into the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) which deals with professional wrestling.

Some call it mainly entertainment and not anything you’d see at the Olympics, but that Trump is held in high regard is telling.

Dismissed as ‘Don Voyage’ at the beginning of the Republican primary season, when he was up against almost twenty seasoned politicians, he saw them all off. Trump has taken the tenets of WWE and applied them to the political arena.

So, therefore, what he says makes no difference. He can and does change it. What matters is what he exudes…….. strength and menace.

When he strode out onstage, he immediately put his hand into the small of Clinton’s back, and pulled her into his space. This was the Alpha Male ‘Welcome to MY world!’

He leaned over the podium during the debate; he made faces.

Clinton on the other hand was still. She held her head up high; radioed energy; and focus. She smiled a lot; drank no water and did not have the back-and-forth that Trump had.

The camera gave us two-shots so that we could see Trump reacting – mainly grimacing. It was easy to imagine this man in the Oval Office, his hand hovering over the nuclear button as he yelled down the phone – maybe to the Head Manager of one his hotels, who knows? North Korea? His cleaner? All the same if this man gets mad. That was the message.

He looked threatening because that’s what he’s done to get over. And at 70 years old, he will not change.

His demeanour – not what he said or did not say – was one of the reasons that he lost the debate. And lost it he did, no matter what his spinners put out in the world. The donations to HillaryClinton.Com spiked afterwards. His did not. The stock market breathed a sigh of relief.

There are two more debates to come and I’ll predict two things:

One, that Trump will try and attack Clinton through her husband, former President Bill Clinton; Trump likes doing early morning phone-ins to friendly radio and television. They’ll be his press and surrogates as he continues his winning policy of spending OPM – Other People’s Money.

And two; that suddenly a spate of emails will appear (already threatened by Wikileaks), that will attempt to throw Clinton off course. This will be what is known in the US as the dreaded ‘October Surprise’, the thing/event that can flip the script of a Presidential campaign.

Clinton is a boxer – the traditional method in Presidential debates – and she’ll continue to probe, dance, find her opening and then deliver the K.O. Just like she has done in the first debate.

Trump will stay the pro wrestler: revving up his audience, milking their screams and howls; hulking around the stage; looking for a way to effect a throw-down end in the first two minutes.

That’s why watching Clinton and Trump together without sound is key. With the highest unfavourables of any two presidential candidates in history, it won’t be their policies you buy – but whether you can see them behind that big desk at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, sitting next to those nuclear codes.

Bonnie Greer is a writer, critic and broadcaster; her latest play, The Hotel Cerise, is inspired by The Cherry Orchard and is set in an African American summer resort in Michigan, USA. It will have its world premiere at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, where it is running from October 20 to November 12.

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