‘Painful to watch’: Body language expert explains the first Trump-Biden debate

Joe Biden exerted self-control to call the president out on his lies, but his domineering presence overwhelmed the debate

Alex Woodward
New York
Wednesday 30 September 2020 16:18 BST
Trump clashes with moderator minutes into Biden debate: 'I guess I'm debating you now'

Ahead of the first debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, debate organisers followed health guidelines and restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic to limit size of the in-studio audience and restrict the candidates’ interactions, including forbidding the traditional handshake between candidates before the start of the debate.

But a chaotic event – driven by Donald Trump’s constant interruptions and false claims, and moderator Chris Wallace’s failure to stop them – gave body language experts plenty of material to review. This was a moment scrutinised by election analysts carefully studying the candidates, who say as much with their gestures, facial expressions and other nuances than with their remarks and how they say them, and how that impacts the people they’re addressing.

“Extraordinarily painful to watch,” said body language expert and motivational speaker Patti Wood, author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language & Charisma.

“Anger is the strongest persuasive emotion,” she said. “It will be interesting – because Trump started angry and stayed angry – how that he’s perceived. … 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. He was engaging with Biden in a battle.”

Viewers scan for credibility, likeability, attractiveness and power – the last three compose charisma, said Ms Wood, who has analysed debates for more than 20 years.

Voters who see the president’s domineering as a strength are likely to perceive him as “the alpha candidate,” she said. “If that is what the viewer wants, that’s who won.”

In terms of credibility and likeability, the former vice president defeated the president.

“He smiled more, he was warmer in his responses, and did an excellent job at looking straight into the camera, reaching out to the public,” she said. “What he chose to do is not go out of control … He did call Trump on it, but he didn’t raise his voice.”

Moderator Chris Wallace enabled the president’s rule-breaking interruptions, continuing the president’s chaotic debate behaviour that defined his 2016 debate performances, now clashing against a historically calmer Biden. It wasn’t until more than an hour into the debate that Mr Wallace reminded the president that he had defied debate rules that his campaign had agreed to.

“It can be seen as rude, as abusive, as childish, or it can be seen as dominance,” Ms Wood said. “Biden chose to address the audience, and he used for a good 30 minutes of the debate to smile and laugh and use what some people would call self-control. Other people would see it as lack of power.”

Within the televised picture, both men were framed in stark contrast on opposing sides of the screen, with the president gripping his lectern and filling the screen with his bulk. 

His presence contrasted with Mr Biden, who would smile, laugh, and, crucially, call out the president’s lies or tell him flatly “shut the hell up, man.”

“If I was speech coach, I would’ve said ‘louder,’” Ms Wood said.

He often looked down at his lectern as Mr Trump spoke, which “could be interpreted as submission to the attack,” she said. “Other people will say it was self control.”

Mr Biden also held a pen, an “old school” trick to remain in control during a debate, Ms Wood said. It gave him a “weapon” to spar with the president, standing in stark contrast as an erratic and unaccountable presence to a more-collected Biden.

“He kept going, though – it didn’t stop him,” Ms Wood said. “He just keeps getting louder, if not stopped, and it appears to work … That’s why Wallace should be called out on that.”

The president relied on remarks and statements he has said for months during his campaign rallies and White House briefings, where he is emboldened by negative reaction from the press and encouragement from his supporters, fuelling his speeches, and now informing his debates.

“I didn’t see him losing steam,” Ms Wood said.

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