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talkingThe Trump Shrug: arms apart, hands open, palms up or facing the audience, followed by a slight raise of his shoulders. He adopts it so effortlessly that sometimes you hardly notice it happening. His bull frame hides the subtle shifts so well; the thick neck dwelling in the shadow of the perpetually hunched shoulders. Look at him from the side as he prowls the campaign stage nodding as if affirming the sense of his own existence. It would be a cheap shot to say his profile betrays a touch of the ‘March of Progress‘ but fair, I think, to say it’s the pose of a bruiser, a doer rather than a thinker.

The Shrug, when it comes, is accompanied by a curl of his bottom lip, often a flare of the right hand that brings his index finger up as he pulls the rest back into a strange parody of a ‘that way’ sign. Then come the classic New York gripes. ‘What y’gonna do?’ or ‘I’m tellin yuz… These peeeple… It’s crazy’. It probably takes immense self control to stop himself from giving his underwear a tug in the crotch.

Selective edits presented on the TV rarely convey the reality of a man who denies being a politician yet has stagecraft that is phenomenal, or as Trump would phrase it: ‘the best’. For an hour or more, he rambles unscripted around familiar landmarks: the military, jobs, China, family, guns, China, immigration, money, China, finance, and the art of making deals. Holding it together are the asides about the Clintons, Obama, and the media, all reviled by him and loathed by his audience. Seeing it in full, you understand why Trump is more of a physical force than an intellectual argument. I ask you: how many times do you see politicians shrug? I would answer: quite rarely. The shrug is what they’re told to avoid alongside pointing, hesitating, and sounding negative. None of that matters to Trump. He points, he hesitates, he blows kisses, winks, and then he drags members of the audience onto the stage so they can moan about the government. It may be cheap voodoo but the spells are powerful. With one simple trick, the boundary between audience and candidate disappears. He and they are suddenly speaking as one.

And that is when you understand the secret of his Shrug.

The Shrugs seem throwaway but that belies the deep politics. The Shrug is totemic of Republican normality. The Shrug is the homestead, the Bible, the gun, the game, the bar, the God, the hunting trip, tobacco, Playboy, Harley Davidson, V8 engines, cold beer, heterosexual love, marriage, the high school prom, the fishing trip. It affirms everything that the deeply conservative right of America holds dear. It is a shrug towards freedom, religion, nationhood, and a love for the flag. The Shrug is to say ‘Believe me: I understand… The world has gone crazy… Trust me, I’m one of you’.

This is why the Shrug is so important. The sacrament of the Shrug embodies his political spirit as succinct as a great big ‘Jeez! What’s happened to this country?’

It’s partly why critics lampoon him, demonise him, but dangerously underestimate the man. Having sat and watched his speeches, I’ve begun to wonder how he might translate this to a national campaign. He might not but, if he does, then the political mainstream have a right to feel worried. There will be people who want to vote for Bernie Sanders but would name Trump as their second choice. It makes no political sense but that’s to miss the point. Trump has something that other politicians wish they had. It is clichéd to describe it as ‘the common touch’. That’s what Bill Clinton had and Obama too. Trump has something more. It is a crude magnetism that draws or repels with equal force. His speeches broach the gap between the billionaire and the basic wage. He pulls folk into his fold where it isn’t even about the politics. It is friendship as defined by jokes, quips, sports results, family gossip, and homilies. Anecdotes replace detail. He has countless ‘good friends’ whose common wisdom bears testament to the contradictory nature of the media’s message. ‘These politicians, they don’t understand,’ as he recently said to the crowd in Iowa. He says it wherever he goes. At the same rally, he turned to gun control and the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino.

Those two sleazebags from California. The married couple. I saw the press [gestures to cameras, raises his voice a pitch]. The young married couple that did the shooting… [Normal voice] They’re not a young married couple! They’re the worst. They’re sleaze. [Walks around as the audience applaud. He looks to the side of the stage whilst pointing to cameras now to his left] They say ‘the young married couple.

Note how he points across his body as he says ‘They say’. The room is suddenly no longer divided into three: the media, the audience, and Trump. It is Trump and the audience against ‘they’, the media.

t4Trump’s campaign speeches are typically set against a crowd of supporters standing behind him. In this he’s not unusual but politicians often ignore these ‘backing groups’. It doesn’t make great TV having a politician turning their back to camera. Yet Trump does that all the time. On another Iowa stop he tells them to sit down. ‘We’re gonna make this like a family chat’ he says but doesn’t stop there. For the rest of the speech he engages with them. He turns to ask them questions and bring them into the conversation. It’s these embellishments that media overlook but the Trump supporters understand only too well. The media are there for the sound bites. The people are there for the almost inconsequential filler which contains the hidden message of the campaign; a message so often codified into a shrug that conveys distain for the establishment as well as the thoughts he dare not speak.

Except, of course, last week, he did express those thoughts and we all saw the backlash.

Yet, the backlash came from the opposite side of the political divide. That Trump endured and his popularity increased makes the ‘why’ seem only too obvious. Even if God isn’t on Trump’s side, the people who believe in God most certainly are and in increasing numbers. Since 9/11, Islam has replaced Communism as the threat most feared by America’s Christian right who have never bought the line offered by successive White Houses that the fight is with radicalised jihadists and not with the religion of Islam. When Trump praised Franklin Graham, son of Billy, just the other day, it was the same Graham who described Islam after 9/11 as ‘very evil and wicked, violent and not of the same God’. Graham also came out this week supporting Trump’s plan.

It all sounds extreme and by the standards of mainstream politics it is. By suggesting a religion test, Trump would go even further than Saudi Arabia who still refuse entry for anybody carrying an Israeli passport. Yet that is the level of the game as it’s being played, where fundamentalisms define the edges of what is permissible in free speech but Trump’s rhetoric still sits in the centre ground of the Republican fight.

The rest of the world might look on in shock, disgust, and outrage but this is the real politics of real America and, when Donald Trump shrugs, those people know exactly what he’s saying.


David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine.


5 Comments on "The Trump Shrug and why Republicans love it"

  1. David, thank you for a thought-provoking article. I don’t see how a religion test would work. Wouldn’t a fanatic who is hell-bent on killing innocent civilians in the name of his ‘god’ just tell the guy on the immigration desk what he needs to, to gain entry? The French have banned the full burkah in public places, I believe? That makes sense but maybe they should also ban the balaclava and full-face motorcycle helmets when not riding?

    Facial recognition software with CCTV is a can of worms though. So Orwellian but we have it here, today. Yikes. Soylent Green, anyone?

    • As I’ve said previously, it’s posturing and not a real plan. Terrorists would (and do) just lie. Somebody willing to kill themselves will have no qualms about a fake passport and claiming a fake god.

      The ban on covering your face in France is different and an argument well made (here) by Christopher Hitchens. I see no reason why we can’t ban anything that covers our faces and have a clause written in for cases when it’s done for safety. If you’ve ever been in the Post Office with some goon who refuses to remove his motorbike helmet, you’d know how wary it makes you feel. It isn’t a ban on the individual but a right for everybody to see each other’s faces.

      Facial recognition really doesn’t bother me so much. As I asked in my article about the Communications Data Bill. What can CCTV really tell a person about me? I’m more scared by a person having a year’s data of what websites I visited. That reveals things about my individuality, psychology, and character that’s worrying. What does *really* worry me are advances in neuroimaging. We are probably at the stage when we can detect the different electrical signals in the brain produced by showing a person a picture of Christ and we could tell if they’re Christian or atheist. The same will be true if you’re Muslim and shown a verse from the Koran. In that sense the Trump plan could world but then it would be truly Orwellian. Then we face quite new moral problems. It’s like that film ‘Unbreakable’ when Bruce Willis discovers he can touch people and sense if they’ve ever committed a crime. Do we really want that power which might make us safe or would we prefer to live in ignorance but in a state of increased danger?

  2. David, you say “It isn’t a ban on the individual but a right for everybody to see each other’s faces.”

    Why? Why doesn’t someone have the right to cover their face? What about make-up or disguise? Should it be illegal to alter your facial appearance to the extent that you hide your real identity? Should we ban beards? Where does the line get drawn, and by whom?

    As for machines being used to predict or uncover beliefs or behaviour, who programs and drives the machines and who uses the output? As it stands, voice risk analysis is used by most insurance companies to screen claimants. If you report a loss you will possibly find that it is impossible or nearly impossible to claim with a telephone interview. If the initial screen shows a potential problem you will be transferred to a specialist who has more accurate lie-detection equipment. See Some years ago I reported a loss on travel insurance after being mugged in Barcelona. I was phoning from a relative’s phone; the relative was paranoid about the cost of phone calls so I tried to keep it short and was very stressed. It was a nightmare….it was like being interrogated by the Gestapo once I was transferred to the specialists.

    It is here and now, David. Has been for years. The genie is out of the bottle, can we put it back?

    • I tend to favour freedom in most things but this is a huge philosophical point. I think Hitchens makes a very persuasive argument as it relates to France and their decision to ban the veil. There’s no point my repeating what he writes there so much better than I ever could. However, like I say, there are certain places where covering your face is not allowed and I think most people would consider it odd if a person walks down a street wearing a full mask of any kind (including helmets and balaclavas). At the very least it would be anti-social. Even the police are not allowed to cover their faces. The more you think about it, though, you begin to recognise that there are many outfits that would offend people if worn and would not be accepted. Hitchens points out that you couldn’t wear a Klu Klux Klan hat but there are many that would conflict with cultural taboos. When equality is a cornerstone of our society (or, at least, we aspire to equality) then surely anything that represents the opposite can be challenged. If a certain group of people decided to put bags over the heads of people they deem ugly, would it be allowed even if the wearers of those bags consented? What if wives put their husbands on a leash? Surely there are certain items of clothing which represent something which is socially unacceptable even if the wearers want to wear them.

      Voice stress has been measured for years and, though a little scary, is nothing like the places that brain imagery will lead. Undoubtedly it will be used everywhere as a quicker, easier, and far more accurate way of extracting information. This is the kind of moral debate we’ve never before had or needed. There’s no saying how deep down the rabbit hole the science will take us.

  3. I fear that we’re further down the rabbit hole than we care to acknowledge to ourselves. We’ve chosen not to draw lines limiting many of these intrusive activities. To some extent it’s the belief that it isn’t going to affect us personally; it’s an issue that affects ‘them’, not ‘us’. But of course you and I can become one of ‘them’ in an instant if we are suspected of something or if we upset someone with power. Most of us tend to side with the person in apparent authority. Even in a shop, if a customer is complaining, the other customers look sympathetically towards the ‘poor’ assistant (who is the de facto responsible person), who has to deal with this pesky and awkward customer.

    When you listen to the public being questioned by interviewers about things that restrict the liberty of others it is astonishing how often the public will agree that it is worth giving up that liberty for improved ‘security’. Yet in reality the real risk facing the average member of the public is much more mundane; car crash, medical event, or even being hit by lightning. Lightning strike has a probability far greater than being killed by an act of terrorism in a western country according to a report ( ) there are 24,000 deaths and 240,000 injuries worldwide caused by lightning strike each year. Which kind of puts it in perspective.

    On the Voice Risk Analysis (not voice stress…voice risk) the insurers are simply finding a way to avoid paying. I will no longer buy any insurance underwritten by AXA who treated me so badly over the mugging and I have cancelled other policies after deciding that in all probability they would either not pay out at all or the excess and loss of no claims makes any claim pointless. Of course it’s a different matter when it comes to the authorities using these techniques. You cannot opt-out of the tax system or the law! Well, I suppose you can…..

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