A Media Strategist Breaks Down Donald Trump's Inauguration Day Body Language

January 20th 2017

Joel Silberman

As a media strategist, I observed Donald Trump's rise to the presidency with a professional interest. I've watched closely to see if he would make the much anticipated "pivot" from profane to presidential.

It hasn't happened. President-elect Trump's rhetoric has matched that of presidential candidate Donald Trump.

But I did observe some changes in his body language.

The very first change I noticed was when he walked on to the stage in New York to give his victory speech on election night.

On that night, for the first time, he looked terrified. His body lacked its swagger. His shoulders lost their boastful confidence.

My guess was that his advisors had put fear into him. Given the alarmist reports about the stock market that surfaced as he overtook Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, one could imagine someone briefing the President-elect on the gravity of the words he was about to deliver. If he made any mistake, the market drop would be completely on him.

So it was reasonable that he appeared to be clinging to the teleprompter that night in ways he never had before. And, that his body language was subdued with what appeared to be fear.

But that moment was simply that – a moment. Soon, he would be back to his tweeting; bullying anyone who dared to question his legitimacy.

That insecurity is what I watched for as Donald Trump officially became President Trump.

The first hint of discomfort I noticed today was President Elect’s body posture as he left the car going into the church this morning.

His shoulders looked heavy, his head was slightly more in front of his shoulders than I had observed in the past.

That posture was a bit better on the exit from the church service.

But the most telling moment for me was when he arrived at the White House.

He looked cautious and fearful. And it was painful to watch when contrasted with the ease of President and Mrs. Obama. The President Elect looked as if his body was being dragged into the White House with dread.

Next thing that struck me was the way they walked through the halls of the Capitol on their way to the ceremonial stands.

When the President-elect walked alone through those same halls his body looked afraid. Then when he reached the camera he gave them his Apprentice persona – the tough CEO who says. “You’re fired.” That persona is what he maintained throughout the ceremony. I have seen that look – not smiling and deliberately intimidating. The problem was one didn’t feel as though he was really present and listening. He looked like he was simply waiting to speak.

And then there was the smirk. I saw the smirk when he started to take the oath. I’m not sure it was apparent, as I have not heard anyone comment on it. But to me it was as if to say – “sure, I’ll swear because words don’t matter.”

And then there was the speech.

trump at inaugural

It was short on soaring rhetoric and long on pugilistic bombast that had propelled him to the presidency. If the motto of show business is "give the people what they want," President Trump delivered.

As for his body language during the speech, President Trump used his body as a punctuation mark.

In acting, we call that indicating; when every gesture mirrors every syllable. To me it was a tell for how he clung to the teleprompter for every word. President Trump didn’t trust the Apprentice persona here. Words mattered.

When it was over one could almost see the sigh of relief. He made it. He was the President.

While decoding the President-elect's physical performance can be a fascinating exercise for both media strategists and amateurs alike, neither his body language nor his words are what matter important now. In the long run of history, it's the president's action that will define his legacy. 

Joel Silberman is a media critic and strategist as well as the author of the upcoming book "Politics Is Theater With Real Bullets."