Donald Trump: Sights and Sounds

This blog was originally published on Forbes as Donald Trump: Sights And Sounds on Tuesday, May 30, 2017.

The most avid news junkie would be hard pressed to recount the words of the speeches Donald Trump made during his just-concluded whirlwind international tour; yet even the most casual observer would very likely be able to rattle off specific details of the visual impressions he made: his awkward sword dancing and bow and curtsy in Saudi Arabia, his rebuffed reaches for his wife’s hand in both Israel and Italy, and in Brussels, his shove past the Prime Minister of Montenegro, as well as his aggressive first and second handshakes with the French president.

Are the sights of Trump’s visual behavior more powerful than the sounds of his voice and words? The idea was first generated by a 1967 UCLA study and has since become a social meme known as the “7%-38%-55% Rule” which ranks the relative impact of words, voice, and body language — in ascending order.

James Fallows, the veteran political correspondent of The Atlantic, fully appreciates the power of visual imagery. In anticipation of the debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012, Mr. Fallows wrote, “the easiest way to judge ‘victory’ in many debates is to watch with the sound turned off.”

He repeated this idea in anticipation of the first presidential debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton, writing, “The most accurate way to predict reaction to a debate is to watch it with the sound turned off.”

Prophetically, the most salient moments of that debate and of the two others that followed, were visual images (memorialized by the impressions created by Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live): Trump’s constant pouting and scowling in the first, his stalking around the stage in the second, and his repeated sniffing and snorting in the third. The New York Times tested Mr. Fallows’ theory by assigning political correspondent Jonathan Mahler to watch the first debate with the sound off. He reported, “Like Donald Trump, I was restless and fidgety throughout,” and then concluded, “I think Hillary won.”

In a postmortem of Trump’s foreign tour, Frank Bruni of the New York Times wrote, “He prefers television to reading, images to pesky words. Shouldn’t we return the favor when appraising him?”

Will America appraise Trump by his sights or his sounds? In the unforgettable words of former President George H. W. Bush, “Read my lips!”

This blog was originally published on Forbes as Donald Trump: Sights And Sounds on Tuesday, May 30, 2017.

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