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Abstract and Figures

Adapted from Hall, Goldstein, and Ingram (2016) for a volume on language in the Trump era, this chapter attributes the success of Trump’s candidacy in the 2016 Republican primary to its value as comedic entertainment. The chapter builds on Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1984) notion of the“grotesque body” to examine the ways that Trump’s unconventional political style, particularly his use of humor and gesture to critique the political system and caricature his opponents, brought momentum to his campaign by creating spectacle. By reducing a target perceived as an opponent to an essentialized action of the body, Trump’s bodily parodies and pantomimes deliver the message that he rejects progressive social expectations regarding how minority groups should be represented. Five highly mediatized caricatures are analyzed in detail (two of which did not appear in the original publication): the Wrist-Flailing Reporter, the Food- Shoveling Governor, the Border-Crossing Mexican, the Choking Presidential Candidate, and the Wobbling Democratic Nominee. Across these depictions, Trump displays his antagonism to political correctness (and hence to the political establishment) by embodying discourses of disability, class, immigration, race, and gender.
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[97–123] 14.6.2020
6 Trumps Comedic Gestures as Political
Donna M. Goldstein, Kira Hall, and Matthew Bruce
6.1 Introduction
This chapter, adapted from Hall, Goldstein, and Ingram (2016),
argues that
Trumps campaign to become the Republican nominee was successful because
it was, in a word, entertaining not just for his alleged white rural working-
class voting bloc,
but also for the public at large, even those who strongly
opposed his candidacy. Whether understood as pleasing or offensive, Trumps
ongoing show was compelling. Our analysis refrains from dening segments of
the population as economically, socially, or psychologically vulnerable to
Trumps messaging and instead explores why we are all vulnerable. Many
good analyses offer insights on Trumps popular appeal, and we draw on some
of these discussions here. But we believe it is important to consider the specics
of Trumps entertainment value that is, how Trumps comedic media appear-
ances over the course of the Republican primary season, and indeed continuing
into his presidential term, built momentum in a celebrity and mediatized
Specically, we consider how Trump elevated his entertainment value by
crafting comedic representations of his political opponents as well as himself.
These representations take the form of a kind of bodily performance primarily
discussed by scholars studying embodied communication. Characterized by
several interrelated terms that include bodily quoting (Keevallik 2010), transmo-
dal stylizations (Goodwin and Alim 2010), full-body enactments (Mittelberg
2013), gestural reenactments (Sidnell 2006), pantomime (Streeck 2008a),
demonstrations (Clark 1996), and ventriloquizing (Tannen 2010), these perfor-
mances involve the dramaturgical replaying of an actual or imagined event,
action, or behavior (cf. Goffman 1974), often by assuming anothersalleged
subjectivity. Trumps impersonations of political opponents are most clearly seen
in his campaign rallies. Through the use of gestural methods, Trump reduces
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others to laughable portrayals while elevating himself. During the Republican
primaries, some of Trumps more notorious gestural enactments (as we call them
here) included contorted wrist and facial movements when rebuking a disabled
reporter (Trump 2015a); downward hand chops and sidewise throat slices to
convey how ISIS has treated American citizens (Trump 2015b); and a slumped
Many of these enactments were repeated across multiple campaign speeches and
became emblems of the political persona that Trump presented to his electorate.
The mediasconicted response to the social meaning of these bodily displays,
together with Trumps easy deniability of what he intended by them, suggests
that comedic gesture may accomplish ideological work that exceeds even what
can be conveyed in the already protected category of verbal humor.
The electoral allure of Trumpsgrotesque body”–to borrow a phrase used
by Mikhail Bakhtin (1984) to describe the subversive humor of the medieval
marketplace suggests that scholarship on society as well as gesture may benet
from a deeper consideration of comedic entertainment as an effective persuasive
strategy at this transitional moment in US political history. Trumps enactments
received unprecedented attention during the campaign by inspiring countless
news discussions, video compilations, and comedy skits, many of which we
reviewed for the writing of this chapter. Together we observed twenty-seven
hours of video data to make the claims expressed here, with nineteen of those
hours coming from campaign speeches delivered in sixteen different locations.
We argue that Trumps humor worked because it incorporates that central
Bakhtinian trope of vulgarity. In Trump we nd a Rabelaisian character that
deploys bawdy humor to entertain his audience. He provides carnivalesque
moments as he pokes fun at other candidates, at their bodies, at their uids, at
their stiffness. Like Rabelais, Trump understood that crude humor has the power
to bring down the princely classes aka, the political establishment as well as
anyone who opposed him. He used it to advance the antipolitics politicsthat
has been building in the US public sphere since at least the early 1990s. Viewers
stayed amazed by Trumps expressions of physical disgust regarding the embo-
diment of others, whether in reaction to Megyn Kellys menstruation, Hillary
Clintons toilet behaviors, or Marco Rubios sweating. By reducing his oppo-
nents to exaggerated bodily behaviors and habits, Trump assumed the position
of a Rabelaisian clown, bringing down the old guard by exposing the grotesque
body beneath. This strategy is key to understanding the political effectiveness of
Trumps gestural enactments in the 2016 presidential campaign and beyond.
6.2 Trumps Gestures as Comedic Entertainment
Trumps gestures during the Republican primaries deviated from the gestural
rules and constraints that have dominated the American political arena by
98 Donna M. Goldstein, Kira Hall, and Matthew Bruce Ingram
[97–123] 14.6.2020
bringing to politics a bodily style more prominently seen in entertainment
venues. Consider Trumps use of the pistol hand during his stump speeches.
In a speech in Raleigh, North Carolina, Trump abruptly interrupts a woman as
she asks, I was wondering what you would say to President Obama ...with
the reply, Youre red!(Trump 2015b). The performative has a vulgar
emphasis on the [f] as he throws his index nger forward (see Figure 6.1) to
make the shape of a gun. The crowd gets the allusion to Trumps role as an
entertainer and irrupts explosively into cheers, whistles, and screams.
Trumps use of this gesture can be traced back to his boardroom executive
persona on The Apprentice (see Figure 6.2), and before that to his involvement
with professional wrestling, an entertainment genre in which competitors craft
a persona through a particular move that is packaged for fan consumption
through staged comedic routines of violence. When Trump used the pistol hand
on The Apprentice to re unworthy contestants (where producers called it the
Cobra; Grynbaum and Parker 2016), it conveyed arrogance, sovereign power,
and commanding force. Trump is the kind of guy who will never admit to his
own failures and rarely gives others a second chance. In his Raleigh stump
speech, Trump brings this meaning to the realm of competitive politics. The
gesture is understood through the iconicity of its production (that is, its physical
resemblance to what it stands for), where swiftness and precision accompany
a gun shape in the striking down of an unworthy opponent. Yet the gesture is
Figure 6.1 Trumps Pistol Hand gesture. AP Photo/Ted Richardson.
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also playful: When Trump thrusts his hand forward to mimic the ring of a gun,
he converts the sovereign force behind the performative youre redinto
comedic appeal. He brings a childs pantomime of shooting an enemy the use
of hands to imitate the action of killing to the ring of an adult in an
entrepreneurial battle. The repeated image of a grown man using the panto-
mime of a childs gun-hand to dismiss contestants (Bang! Youre dead)
functions as comedy. Celebrity businessman and politician are brought together
in a playful image of executive power.
A comparison between this highly emblematic gesture and those normatively
used by presidential candidates reveals the semiotic limitations of politics-as-
usual. Trumps pistol hand is depictive, a show move, ashy. Typical gestures
used by presidential candidates are didactic and emphatic, used as accompani-
ments to speech to promote clarity. Jürgen Streeck (2008b) observed in his
analysis of gestures used in the 2004 Democratic presidential primary that
candidates avoid pictorially oriented depictive gestures (also called iconics in
McNeills [1992] taxonomy). He notes that even as early as the rst century ce,
the Roman orator Quintilian was critical of these gestures, viewing them as
theatrical and lacking rhetorical gravitas. Instead, presidential candidates tend to
Figure 6.2 Trumps Pistol Hand gesture, The Apprentice 2006. AP Photo/
Stuart Ramson.
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14.6.2020 1:11AM
use interactive or pragmatic gestures (Bavelas et al. 1992, Kendon 2004), hand
movements such as beats or points that do not depict the social world but rather
accentuate or illustrate the rhetorical structure of a speech. Pragmatic gestures are
now the subject of a growing body of research on political style, which includes
analyses of Barack Obamas precision-grip (Lempert 2011) and Howard Deans
indexical point (Streeck 2008b). But the depictive gestures deployed by Trump
especially the type that caricatures opponents by embodying a behavior or activity
associated with them rarely surface in the same literature. How do we explain
the success of Trumps divergence from what appears to be normative gestural
behavior for politicians seeking the Oval Ofce?
We make sense of Trumps gestural repertoire by viewing it as part of
a comedic political style that accrues entertainment value as it opposes the
usual bodily habits expected of US presidential candidates (cf. Jamieson and
Taussig 2017 on Trumps rhetorical signature). When used in coordination with
verbal strategies similarly designed to lampoon opponents, Trumps enact-
ments craft stereotyped and reductive characterizations of identity categories
essentialized representations that simultaneously cast their members as
problematic citizens, whether Democrat, disabled, lower class, Mexican,
Black, or female. These depictive gestures operate across a range of contexts
to signal that he challenges what is widely viewed by Trumps base as the
political establishments debilitating rhetoric of political correctness. When
Trump promises to tell the truth(e.g. Muslims are terrorists; some women are
uglier than others; Mexicans are rapists), he aligns himself with an increasingly
well-organized right-wing opposition to political correctness, rejecting rheto-
rical caution regarding minority religions, genders, and ethnicities. Yet as
entertainment, his gestures intensify the force of his words, attracting and
holding the attention of the wider public as they dominate the news cycle.
6.3 Trumps Gestures as Political Ideology
Depictive enactments are formed by incorporating bodily knowledge of the
social world, abstracting qualities exhibited by the targeted object such as
height, weight, shape, and speed (LeBaron and Streeck 2000, Mittelberg and
Waugh 2014, Streeck 2008a). Because this incorporation is selective, such
bodily acts may produce a kind of social meaning that is ideological (see also
Bucholtz and Hall 2016). For instance, Trumps use of a ring squad gesture
(see Figure 6.3) does not merely resemble the action of execution; it also unites
moral and material worlds to critique Obama as losing ground, being weak in
confronting terrorism, and making poor deals. When imitating a ring squad in
a campaign speech in Greensboro, North Carolina (Trump 2016a), Trump
registered a critique against the US government for exchanging ve
Guantanamo prisoners for Sergeant Bergdahl, a US army soldier captured in
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Afghanistan and thought by some to be guilty of desertion if not treason. In the
old days,Trump says, you know what would have happened to him, right?;
then he pauses to enact the sideways ring of a rie as if part of a ring squad.
When performing this same routine in a campaign speech in Doral, Florida
(Trump 2015c), he repeats the gesture twice before professing his love for the
Second Amendment. The gesture materializes both a time period and a moral
position that preceded political correctness, when corporal punishment for
betrayal was acceptable practice. In this way, gestural enactments have much
in common with what linguistic anthropologists and sociolinguists such as
Niko Besnier (1993) and Deborah Tannen (1986) have identied for reported
speech: They are citations disguised as quotes that leakthe citers own
imagining of social life and the ideologies that constitute it. Even the most
conventionalized of depictive gestures map broader societal discourses onto
movements of the body, transforming these discourses into an action.
For many viewers, the exaggerated displays that we outline in this chapter
recall a moment-to-moment reality television star whose character role is built
on spontaneity. Linguist Jennifer Sclafani has observed that Trump is turning
political discourse into reality TV,noting in particular the way he uses large
gestures to remind viewers of his big personality(cited in Atkin 2015; see
also Sclafani 2018). Sclafani is not alone in noticing an iconic relationship
Figure 6.3 Trumps Firing Squad gesture. Johny Louis/Film Magic via Getty
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between Trumps gestures and Trumps personality: Certainly, widely circulat-
ing metacommentary on the meaning of Trumps gestures play off this reading
(Taylor-Coleman and Bressanin 2016, Bloomberg Politics 2016, Civiello 2016,
Rozzo 2016). Donald Trump has done for presidential campaigns what Jerry
Springer did for tabloid talk shows: he has inserted a level of lowbrow drama,
humor, and violence into the genre through exaggerated appeals to the body.
Trumps body matters to advocates as well as opponents. To advocates,
Trumps gestures suggest a man who is spontaneous and real instead of
scripted. He is an unplanned man, even an honest man, who tells it how he
sees it. To opponents, Trumps gestures suggest a man who is vulgar if not
offensive. They reveal a different sort of spontaneity: a buffoon, even a fake,
who only poses as a politician.
Trump exploits both kinds of attention when he uses bodily performance to
characterize the less competent behaviors of political opponents. This strategy
is an important one for an entertainer new to politics; above all, it enables
Trump to reposition the job experience of his opponents as a drawback instead
of a qualication. Tellingly, the most common enactments used by Trump for
established politicians involve the performance of small or restricted gestural
space. Although gesture scholars often discuss gestural space (the personal
space appropriated in the execution of gesturing) as a matter of individual,
cultural, and contextual concerns (McNeill 1992, Sweetser and Sizemore
2008), Trumps essentializing poses, repeated multiple times across campaign
speeches, make it clear that gestural space can also be a matter of ideology
(Hoenes del Pinal 2011, Lakoff 1992). They include the performance of
a hunched body reading from a script for Hillary Clinton (see Figure 6.4),
a stiff upper body for Mitt Romney (see Figure 6.5), and a huddled sleeping
body for Jeb Bush (see Figure 6.6).
With depictions like these, Trump uses gestural space to drive home his
critique of the political establishment. The discourse goes something like this:
Politicians are people who do not act, who are not business people, and who do
not know real risk. When mapped onto a restricted torso, an elite political class
materializes as bookish, stiff, lackluster, and perhaps most critically to
Trumps identity as an entertainer boring. The mimicked gestural spaces of
his opponents contrast sharply with the gestural space Trump inhabits in his
own persona. Excessive gestural space is often negatively associated with
recurring representations of social groups (e.g. the amboyant gay man, the
sassy Black woman), but Trump uses gestural excess to convey the impression
he is a new kind of politician, unconstrained by petty rules and competent at
accomplishing daunting tasks. His performance of a large gestural space
thereby becomes acceptable, if not politically desirable. In effect, Trump has
expanded the space allowed for political gesture (at least for outsider politicians
like himself).
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Figure 6.4 Script-Reading Hillary. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren.
Figure 6.5 Stiff Mitt Romney. AP Photo/Chris OMeara.
104 Donna M. Goldstein, Kira Hall, and Matthew Bruce Ingram
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Trumps gestural enactments function similarly to nicknames, crafting
a reductive representation of the referent that purportedly captures some
essential truth. In the early anthropological literature, nicknames were dis-
cussed as part of the brick and mortar of local social systems (Pitt-Rivers
[1954]1961, Cohen 1977, Gilmore 1982, McDowell 1981). But nicknames
also form part of an oblique naming system that belongs to comedic insult and
can be understood as a play upon form: that is, as a joke, or rather, the
punchline of a joke(Blok 2001: 157). In other words, the purpose of
a nickname is not just to mock but also to entertain. In the new political process
orchestrated by a comedic billionaire, the public watched as Trump rolled out
nicknames for each successive opponent. The gestural enactments were initi-
ally coarticulated with verbal nicknames such as Low-energy Jeb(Trump
2015d) but later took on their own independence as detachables (cf. Spitulnik
Figure 6.6 Low-Energy Jeb. AP Photo/Alan Diaz.
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1996) that could recall the verbal nickname independently of speech. In
Bakhtinian perspective, this naming process accomplishes something impor-
tant: Nicknames connect the subject to the grotesque body, thus becoming
comic and provoking hilarity. By mocking the subject and making the named
person look foolish, nicknames give special powers to the provider. After all,
the one who is the master of nicknaming is the person declaring the public
6.4 Trumps Gestures as Political Weapon
We turn now to ve widely mediatized gestural enactments that display
Trumps antagonism to political correctness by invoking discourses of disabil-
ity, class, immigration, race, and gender, respectively. As we would expect for
nicknames waged in the modality of gesture, these enactments reduce a target
perceived as an opponent to an action of the body: the Wrist-Flailing Reporter,
the Food-Shoveling Governor, the Border-Crossing Mexican, the Choking
Presidential Candidate, and the Wobbling Democratic Nominee. Trumps
bodily parodies deliver the message that he rejects progressive social expecta-
tions regarding how minority groups should be represented. In each case, the
media responded by moving away from an initial critical stance to a discussion
of the meaning conveyed by Trumps body.
6.4.1 The Wrist-Flailing Reporter
One of the most cited of Trumps gestural spectacles involves a full-body
enactment of the Washington Post reporter Serge Kovaleski. Trump quoted
Kovaleski on the campaign trail as saying fourteen years earlier that Muslims
were celebrating in response to 9/11 (Trump 2015e), an allegation Kovaleski
denied. At a rally in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (Trump 2015a), Trump
responded to this denial by framing Kovaleski as one of many incompetent
dopestogether with the president, politicians, and journalists. The theme of
the speech is thus about incompetence. As with the ring squad example,
Trumps speech is particularly focused on the ineptitude wrought by political
correctness, which in his view keeps politicians from speaking the truth and
doing the right thing. But Kovaleski also happens to be aficted by a muscular
condition that involves contracture of the body muscles and joints. In his full-
bodied depiction of Kovaleski (AP Television 2016), Trump transforms
a discourse of incompetence into the action of ailing, limp wrists (see
Figure 6.7ac) and produces a multimodal image depictive of disability.
(Owing to space constraints, the images included in Excerpts 13 capture
only a single frame of the extended depictive gestures used in these enactments;
Trump also uses a number of pragmatic gestures that we do not notate in the
106 Donna M. Goldstein, Kira Hall, and Matthew Bruce Ingram
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transcripts. In addition, we have selected a few transcription conventions to
represent the sound of Trumps speech, among them underlining for emphasis
[e.g. years] and letter repetition for vowel lengthening [e.g. smaaall]).
Excerpt 1 The Wrist-Flailing Reporter
Figure 6.7a Wrist-Flailing Reporter. AP Television.
Figure 6.7b Wrist-Flailing Reporter. AP Television.
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Writtenby a nice reporter. Now the poorguy, you gotta see this guy. ((Mimics Kovaleskis
voice and actions.)) [Uhaaaaaaaaaaaa I dont know what I said uhaaaaaa!]
[I dont
Hes going like [Idont remember uh doh, maybe thatswhat
((He returns to his own voice, shouting.)) This is fourteen years ago he
still They didnt do a retraction? Fourteen years ago, they did no retraction.
In this excerpt, a perceived opponent is represented by a ailing body
(uncontrolled, limp-wristed movements), facial contortions (rounded o-lip),
and incoherent speech (loud elongated vocalizations produced in the back of
the throat). The depiction thus produces a recognizable emblem in US popular
culture of physical and mental disability. Gestures may sometimes be used in
place of speech to displace responsibility for taboo topics (see, e.g. Brookes
2011 discussion of a three-nger gesture used in South Africa for HIV), but
the highly negative public response to Trumps enactment suggests that this
gesture cannot easily escape its performative associations. Yet Trump was
nevertheless able to deny this interpretation in a follow-up statement: I have
no idea who Serge Kovaleski is, what he looks like, or his level of intelligence.
I merely mimicked what I thought would be a ustered reporter trying to get out
of a statement he made long ago. I have tremendous respect for people who are
physically challenged(BBC News 2015). Trump thus retroactively charac-
terizes his act as mimicry,but he denies the public interpretation of that
mimicry as a biographically specic impersonation targeting a category of
disabled persons. Although the media response was initially condemning,
Trumps defense transformed the critique into an interpretive discussion.
Figure 6.7c Wrist-Flailing Reporter. AP Television.
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Regardless of the relationship between the performance and the object
depicted, Trump moved political discourse to a new place by highlighting
gestural ambiguity through comedic routine.
6.4.2 The Food-Shoveling Governor
A second gestural enactment that caught the attention of the media is Trumps
depiction of Ohio governor John Kasich shoveling a pancake into his mouth (see
Figures 6.8ad), which was performed at a rally in Warwick, Rhode Island
(Trump 2016b) in response to widely circulated images of Kasich eating at
a New York restaurant (e.g. Tani 2016). The depiction invites comparison with
the Wrist-Flailing Reporter, except that it draws from discourses of social class
instead of disability. (Again, the images below, taken from The Free Beacon
2016, are provided as single-frame examples of the main gestural depictions
used in the excerpt.)
Excerpt 2 The Food-Shoveling Governor
Figure 6.8a Food-Shoveling gesture. MSNBC.
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Figure 6.8b Small Bites gesture. MSNBC.
Figure 6.8c Big Pancake gesture. MSNBC.
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Now you look at Kasich, I dont think he knows what you know, did you see him? He
has a news conference [all the time when hes eating.]
((Crowd laughs.)) I have never
seen a human being eat in such a disgusting fashion. ((Crowd laughs and cheers.)) Im
always telling my young son Barron, Im saying and I always with my kids, all of
em [Id say, Children, smaaall little bites,]
small.((Crowd laughs.)) This guy
[takes a pancake]
and hes [shoving it in his mouth]
you know. ((Crowd laughs
and cheers.)) Its disgusting. Do you want that for your president? I dont think so.
((Crowd boos no!)) I dont think so. Its disgu honestly, its disgusting.
In this dramatization of Kasichs table manners, we are again confronted by
a display of discomfort with nonnormativebodies. It is well known that
Trump avoided the fray of vernacular embodiment on the campaign trail by
rarely eating with locals, even though this activity is expected of presidential
candidates. In fact, Trump is famous for eating even fast food with a knife and
a fork (e.g. Zaru 2016). Anthropologists familiar with the work of Norbert Elias
(1982) and Pierre Bourdieu (1984) on the importance of table manners to class
distinction would recognize Trumps enactment as a veiled class assault:
Figure 6.8d Food-Stufng gesture. MSNBC.
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Kasich is a slob, a lowlife, a sub-humanwho would have difculty being
presidential. Trump, in contrast, is a man who teaches his children to exhibit
good manners and eat politely in small bites.When returning to this same
routine later in the speech, Trump illustrates that even his youngest child
(named Barron) knows that Kasichs behavior is wrong: He said, Daddy,
look!I said, Dont watch. Little bites, little bites’” (Trump 2016b). Trump
performs versions of this routine in several campaign venues (e.g. Trump
2016c). Each time, as in the above excerpt, the crowds laughter, cheers, and
boos suggest alignment with Trumps perspective, even as he portrays Kasich
as eating like a pig.
We again turn to the power of entertainment to understand the rhetorical
effects of Trumps display. His stint on Kasich incorporates recognizable
techniques from impromptu stand-up comedy: He performs the voices of others
as prompts for mockery (his young son), involves the audience through call-
and-response (Did you see him?”“Do you want that for your president?), and
uses a repetitive verbal refrain to thematize a mocking stance toward his target
(disgusting). Perhaps most critically, he employs the method of abjection
(Kristeva 1982) by characterizing a fellow candidates eating habits as a kind of
corporeal horrorthat betrays untness for presidential ofce. Trump creates
the caricature of Kasich by assuming the roles of punishing father and naughty
son, with Kasich in the role of the latter. In sum, these cross-modal stylizations
provide the ground for the rhetorical call-and-response that comedic routine
relies on while also signaling the inability of Kasich to perform competently as
6.4.3 The Border-Crossing Mexican
Trump has developed a series of depictive gestures that coordinate with his
promise to build a wall at the Mexican border. These depictions work together
to construe Mexicans as bodies out of place. The huuugewall that Trump
performs in several campaign speeches (e.g. Trump 2016d) wide out-
stretched arms to illustrate width, tall upright arms to illustrate height,
a sharp L-shaped drawing pattern to illustrate strength positions Mexicans
as migrating invaders who need to be stopped. In a campaign rally in
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (Trump 2016d), Trump even performed a gestural
enactment of Mexicans as candy grabberswhen discussing outsourcing
(with ngers pulling toward the palm), again suggesting a greedy people who
put their hands in places they do not belong (Mexico has been taking your
companies like its candy from a baby, right?). With these and related
gestures, Trump expresses disdain for individuals whose lives are structured
around migration.
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A prominent media spectacle during the Republican primary season
was a video broadcast of Trump disembarking from his car, climbing
through a fence to cross over a concrete structure, and walking across
aeld to enter the back door of a stadium surrounded by protesters in San
Francisco, California (NBC Bay Area 2016). When he nally arrives at
the podium of the California GOP convention, knowing that his actions
are being followed in real-time on cable news, Trump leads his audience
in laughter by comparing his trek to crossing the border(Trump 2016e).
His darkly satirical portrayal draws its humor from the absurd image of
Trump the billionaire in the role of a border-crossing Mexican immigrant.
This enactment differs from the previous two examples in that it is
a reinterpretation of Trumps own bodily movements televised earlier.
Yet the performance has all the elements of comedy. It turns something
tragic and deadly for so many who attempt the crossing into something
funny, and even absurd (Goldstein [2003]2013). A privileged well-dressed
body is reimagined in the role of impoverished migrant: Trump-the-
immigrant crossing dangerous regions lled with protesters in order to
get to his podium.
6.4.4 The Choking Presidential Candidate
The three preceding examples reveal the rhetorical strength of Trumps
gestural enactments. A stylistics of comedy shrouded Trumps movements
in ambiguity, enabling supporters to position his actions as humor instead
of cruelty. And in each case, the media responded by putting Trumps
movements on trial, recirculating the offending videos while commenta-
tors debated Trumpstrueintentions. Sociocultural linguists using the
method of ethnography have amply shown that social meaning is never
singular. The determination of what a sign meansin the social world is
cultivated diversely across social groups as speakers engage in everyday
Our fourth example illuminates how the 2016 presidential election,
perhaps more than any other, exposed the disunity in American society
with respect to semiotic interpretation, particularly across racial lines (see
also Rosa and Bonilla 2017). This became acutely apparent in divergent
interpretations of a choking gesture performed by Trump in Rome,
New York on April 12, 2016 (Trump 2016f; see Figure 6.9a). In the
preceding month at a campaign rally in Portland, Maine (Trump 2016g),
Trump had characterized Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential can-
didate who lost to Obama in 2012, as a choke artist.This attack
surfaced shortly after Romney, in a widely publicized speech at Utahs
Hinckley Institute, identied Trump as a threat to the countrys future and
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urged Republicans to choose a different candidate. In Portland, Trump
explained his choice of the term choke artistwith characteristic hyper-
bole: Mitt is a failed candidate. He failed. He failed horribly. He failed
Figure 6.9b Choking Republican Competitors, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
2015. AP Photo/J Pat Carter.
Figure 6.9a Choking Mitt Romney, Rome, New York 2016. LesGrossman
News Video 2016.
114 Donna M. Goldstein, Kira Hall, and Matthew Bruce Ingram
14.6.2020 1:11AM
badly.The use of a choking metaphor to illustrate losing or in this
case, political death was not new to Trump. He had used it at a 2015
Oklahoma City rally (Trump 2015f; that time accompanied by a choking
gesture) when characterizing his Republican competitors as losers(see
Figure 6.9b).
But for audiences who had been attentive to the death of Eric Garner
at the hands of New York City police in 2014, there was something
newly sinister about Trumps use of this gesture at his campaign rally in
New York. Garner, a Black cigarette salesman, was killed on the street in
2014 by a police ofcer who used an illegal chokehold and ignored
Garners pleas. Garnersnal words, I cant breathe,repeated eleven
times in the video recording that later emerged from a friends mobile
phone (The Guardian 2014), came to stand for the incident. The expres-
sion was thus well known to New Yorkers by the time Trumps rally took
place. In fact, the global network Black Lives Matter had adopted
Garnersnal words as a slogan against police violence and as a call
to action. Yet in spite of the phrases notoriety, Trump introduced it into
his New York routine when describing how Romney had choked like
a dogin the previous election. Wrapping his hands around his neck,
sticking out his tongue, and bobbing his head, Trump added the words I
cant breathe, I cant breatheto his routine allegedly imitating what an
imaginary Romney would have said when losing the election to candidate
Obama. Many progressive viewers, and especially African Americans,
understood the gesture as a thinly veiled attempt to attract New York
supporters who would hear the racist dog whistle connecting Romneys
choking to Garners choking (Roland 2017; see also Goldstein and Hall
2017, Maskovsky 2017). Here again, the ambiguity of a comedic gestural
form incited debate regarding the formstruemeaning (e.g. The Young
Turks 2016). For some audiences, the performance benignly positioned
Trump as a winner, as someone who, unlike Romney, doesntloseor
choke.For others, the performance was a mocking reference to
Garners death, calling out to racist supporters behind the disguise of
political theater.
6.4.5 The Wobbling Democratic Nominee
The nal gestural enactment we analyze in this chapter, performed by
Trump just ve weeks before the national election, was perhaps his most
effective. Exploiting stereotypes surrounding aging women (see also
Bordo 2017), the impersonation caricatured the Democratic presidential
candidate Hillary Clinton as physically weak. She has been a disaster,
Trump states at an early October campaign rally in Manheim,
Trumps Comedic Gestures as Political Weapon
14.6.2020 1:11AM
Pennsylvania (Trump 2016h). Heres a woman, she is supposed to ght
all these different things, and she cant make it 15 feet to her car. Give
meabreak.In the performance that follows (see Figure 6.10ac),
Trump teeters side to side, mocking Clinton as unable to be stable on
her feet. He continues this mimicry as he moves out from behind the
podium, slowly hunching over while walking and fading downward as if
to exit the stage. Give me a break,he says again to a cheering crowd
as he stands back up and tosses his wrists outward in dismissive gesture,
bonding with an audience who could now visualize the lack of stamina
he had projected onto Clinton throughout his campaign. Trump had been
using the gendered term staminain reference to Clinton since at least
2015 (No strength, no stamina, she cannot lead us; Trump 2015b). In
late September 2016, just one week before his Manheim performance,
Trump brought this term with him to the nationally televised First
Presidential Debate: She doesnt have the presidential look. She doesnt
have the stamina ... To be president of this country, you need tremen-
dous stamina.But it was not until Trump upgraded this evaluation to
pantomime in the Manheim rally that Trumps rhetoric fully caught the
attention of the broader public.
Excerpt 3 The Wobbling Democratic Nominee
Figure 6.10a Swooning Hillary Clinton. AP Television.
116 Donna M. Goldstein, Kira Hall, and Matthew Bruce Ingram
14.6.2020 1:11AM
As with many of these impersonations, the source of Trumps display was
a video recording that this time featured Clinton in the distance wobbling to her
van after a ceremony commemorating the fteenth anniversary of 9/11 (BBC
News 2016). Clintons physician later revealed that she had been diagnosed
Figure 6.10c Swooning Hillary Clinton. AP Television.
Figure 6.10b Swooning Hillary Clinton. AP Television.
Trumps Comedic Gestures as Political Weapon
14.6.2020 1:11AM
with pneumonia shortly before this event (Martin and Chozick 2016). Her
wobbling body or the worrisome wobble,as some commentators came to
call it (Warnke 2016) was a highly citable form, casting doubt on her ability to
be president while afrming for many the sexist stereotype that Trump had
already built into his comedic routines. In the end, Trumps performance drew
broad attention to a video that may have otherwise faded from the publics
notice, with news outlets circulating Trumps impersonation alongside the
video that inspired it. By aligning Clinton with weakness and illness (Neville-
Shepard and Nolan 2019), Trumps unsteady feet and hunching back fed the
fears of an electorate who already had doubts about electing a female president.
But even as Trump called attention to Clintons gender by connecting her to
physical weakness, the sexism behind this representation could be plausibly
denied as simply a factabout the health of a presidential contender. Five
weeks later, propelled by the gestural insults analyzed in this chapter, Donald
Trump became the forty-fth president of the United States.
6.5 Conclusion
Trumps one-upmanship form of humor reinforces his superiority to those he
critiques, a process noted by laughter theorist Henri Bergson (1921) almost
a hundred years ago. His gestural enactments produce the comedic callousness
that is central to his political persona. The emblematic gesture that accompanies
Youre Fired!lacks the power to have any effect on the status of Trumps
political competitors, making it all the more comical for its absurdity. This
explains why commentators posting about Trumps pistol hand on video sharing
platforms, such as YouTube, indicate a playful enjoyment of the gesture even
when they do not necessarily agree with its message (Not a fan of him at all. But
honestly, that was actually funny; Live Satellite News 2015). It also explains
why audiencemembers at a campaign rally in Madison, Alabama (Trump 2016i),
break into uproarious laughter when Trump res his pistol hand three times at
arandomplaneying overhead (What is that? Oh. Uh oh, its ISIS, get them
down!), and why audience members laugh in Manchester, New Hampshire
(Trump 2016j), when Trump points to another plane and suggests it might be
carrying Mexicans. These are packaged comedy routines, cliché gags, and
shticks. If Trump brags about his ability to deliver a speech without
ateleprompter(Idont really need those notes because I dontneednotes.
Arent I lucky?; Trump 2016j), it is because he knows how to exploit what is
unfolding in the world around him as a comedic prompt. Specically, he
incorporates the immediate environment into the performance of his own com-
parative competence. Trumps gestural enactments, as with parody more gen-
erally, exhibit a dualsocial meaning that points to the teller of the joke as much as
to its target (Hill 1998; cf. Hall 2005). They may denigrate a social group by
118 Donna M. Goldstein, Kira Hall, and Matthew Bruce Ingram
14.6.2020 1:11AM
linking them to stereotyped body movements, but they also point back to him as
a fun-loving guy who breaks the rules to enjoy a good joke. In short, Trumps
body becomes a spectacle that resembles stand-up comedy, where politically
correct language and sensitive topics are breached for entertaining effects.
Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign cycle, circulating videos of
the verbal and gestural enactments discussedinthischapterkeptTrumpat
the forefront of national attention. As each day of the campaign passed,
news consumers wanted to know: Who did Trump offend this time? The
question we pursue in this chapter is a relatively uncharted area for gesture
studies: How do Trumps bodily acts keep supporters as well as adversaries
coming back for more? Scholars working on conversational interaction
provide one possible answer by illustrating how gestural enactments elicit
heightened displays of attention, build a form of shared common ground,
enlist coparticipation, and provoke laughter (Sidnell 2006, Thompson and
Suzuki 2014). This body of research offers empirical support to Bergsons
early characterization of gesture as something explosive, which awakens
our sensibility when on the point of being lulled to sleep and, by thus
rousing us up, prevents our taking matters seriously(1921: 144). Perhaps
it is true that Trump has become Americas newest guilty pleasure
(Grossman 2015), dominating newsrooms, comedy sketches, social
media, classrooms, and everyday conversation. Through these bodily per-
formances, Trump creates a spectacle to be consumed. It does not matter
whether the spectacle is respected, simply tolerated, or even abhorred, the
outcome remains the same: We keep on watching.
1. We have adapted this chapter from an essay published by HAU: Journal of
Ethnographic Theory shortly before the 2016 presidential election (Hall,
Goldstein, and Ingram 2016). Some sections of this chapter are taken directly from
the original publication, but we include a new analysis of two additional gestural
enactments performed by Trump during the primaries that we believe respectively
embody discourses of race and gender: a choking gesture to caricature Mitt Romney
and a wobbling gesture to caricature Hillary Clinton.
2. Although scholars, journalists, pollsters, and the media have repeatedly referred to
Trumpswhite rural working-class voting bloc,there is more complexity to
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Trumps Comedic Gestures as Political Weapon
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... This strand of research has paid attention both to the speaking body and to what is spoken about the body. Research on the first of these dimensions has highlighted how the combination of linguistic and bodily acts such as gesture, gaze, proxemics, and pitch may produce certain forms of hegemonic masculinities (Goldstein, Hall, and Ingram 2020) as well as genderqueer (Corwin 2017), intersex (King 2016), drag queen (Calder 2019), transmasculine (Zimman 2017), and gay subculture identities (Barrett 2017). The body may even contribute to transgressive forms of sexual citizenship, as demonstrated by Milani (2015) and Provencher and Peterson (2018). ...
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This landmark study examines the role of gestures in relation to speech and thought. Leading scholars, including psychologists, linguists and anthropologists, offer state-of-the-art analyses to demonstrate that gestures are not merely an embellishment of speech but are integral parts of language itself. Language and Gesture offers a wide range of theoretical approaches, with emphasis not simply on behavioural descriptions but also on the underlying processes. The book has strong cross-linguistic and cross-cultural components, examining gestures by speakers of Mayan, Australian, East Asian as well as English and other European languages. The content is diverse including chapters on gestures during aphasia and severe stuttering, the first emergence of speech-gesture combinations of children, and a section on sign language. In a rapidly growing field of study this volume opens up the agenda for research into a new approach to understanding language, thought and society.
Talking Donald Trump examines the language of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign from the perspective of sociocultural linguistics. This book offers an insight into the many stages of Trump’s political career, from his initial campaign for the Republican nomination, up to his presidency. Drawing from speeches, debates, and interviews, as well as parodies and public reactions to his language, Sclafani explores how Trump’s language has produced such polarized reactions among the electorate. In analysing the linguistic construction of Donald Trump’s political identity, Sclafani’s incisive study sheds light on the discursive construction of political identity and the conflicting language ideologies associated with the discourse of leadership in modern US society. Talking Donald Trump provides a crucial contemporary example of the interaction between sociolinguistics and political science, and is key reading for advanced students and researchers in the fields of sociolinguistics, language and politics, communication studies and rhetoric.
This article explains Donald Trump’s brutal political effectiveness in terms of his white nationalist appeal. It locates the intellectual, popular, and policy imperatives of Trumpism in a new form of racial politics that I am calling white nationalist postracialism. This is a paradoxical politics of twenty-first-century white racial resentment whose proponents seek to do two contradictory things: to reclaim the nation for white Americans while also denying an ideological investment in white supremacy. The article shows how Trump’s excoriation of political correctness, his nostalgia for the post–WWII industrial economy, his use of hand gestures, and his public speaking about race work together to telegraph a white nationalist message to his followers without making them feel that he is, or they are, racist. I end the article by explaining why I think that Donald Trump’s embrace of many white nationalist ideological precepts—if not quite yet of white nationalism as a fully realized political project—makes good political sense in the twenty-first-century United States.
The article takes its cue from the statement in the original essay, “Trump’s body matters,” and considers examples of how different kinds of bodies were demonstrated to matter in candidate Trump’s campaign discourse. With his “Make America Great Again” slogan in mind, the article tacks back and forth between Trump’s campaign discourse on black, brown, and female bodies and various forms of violence and discipline exercised in America’s racialized past, which threaten to return under the new administration. It is argued that questions of racialization and belonging are central to defining how bodies matter in the America that Trump proposes.
In the buildup to the extraordinarily divisive 2016 US presidential election, much discussion focused on an often-ignored group—the “white working class,” which was identified early on as a key constituency of Donald Trump. During the election, many pollsters and journalists defined working class as a group comprising people who lack a four-year college degree. This definition, however, lumps together an extraordinarily broad range of groups with diverse histories as well as social and class positionings, contributing to confused media discussion around class during the election. Unpacking what this definition masks is critical to understanding the changing class landscape of the United States and to promoting public discussion of the causes of growing inequality and its socially and politically destabilizing effects.