The 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.
Trump’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.