The US presidential candidates were trained by some of world’s top political debate coaches for the final debate last night (Oct. 19), taught how to skillfully dodge questions, attack, and defend with canned soundbites. But body language can give away what a person is feeling beyond what they are vocally expressing at a given moment, no matter how well trained they are.
At about 29 minutes into last night’s final presidential debate, an AFP photographer captured a curious moment in human body language: While the candidates were arguing about whether Russia had played a role in hacking the Democratic National Committee emails, Donald Trump pointed his right index finger towards the sky, thumb and middle finger slightly pinched together—his signature gesture—but he also pointed his left index finger to his left, where Hillary Clinton stood.
We showed a photo of Trump’s double finger-point to Lillian Glass, a body language and communications expert based in Florida, and asked her what it could possibly mean. Glass wasn’t shown the debate video footage.
“It’s like he’s very angry. It’s very interesting,” says Glass. “The first one, his finger is pointing up, and he’s saying, ‘let me tell you something’, that’s like a yell. The second one, he’s super angry. This is the ultimate anger.”
Glass says Trump’s double finger-point expressed admonishment, and emphasizes that the gesture is “very uncommon.”
“It diminishes [the person you’re talking to], and makes people very defensive. It’s kind of a condescending type of thing,” she adds.
In the video footage, you can see Trump and Clinton were talking over each other in a rather chaotic moment, while debate moderator Chris Wallace made heroic attempts to interject and regain control. It was at that point that Trump put up his “let-me-tell-you-this” right finger to assert himself physically and said “excuse me” to Wallace, then followed up by saying “Putin has outsmarted her in Syria” and pointing his ultimate-anger left finger at Clinton. The hand gesture happened in a split second, at 0:35 in the video clip below, and would easily have been missed if it wasn’t captured in a photo.
Here’s a transcript of that debate segment:
Trump: She has no idea whether it’s Russia, China, or anybody else. She has no idea. You have no idea. Our country has no idea.
Clinton: I am not quoting myself, I’m quoting 17, 17 intelli—do you doubt 17 military and civilian agencies?
Trump: Yea I doubt it, I doubt it.
Clinton: Well, he’d rather believe Vladimir Putin than the military and civilian professionals who are sworn to protect us. I find that just absolutely— [INAUDIBLE]
Trump: She doesn’t like Putin because Putin has outsmarted her every step of the way—
Wallace: Mr. Trump, Mr. Trump, I…
Trump: —excuse me—Putin has outsmarted her in Syria, he’s outsmarted her at every step of the way.
Wallace: [INAUDIBLE] I do get to ask some questions.
Glass also wrote a detailed analysis of the candidates’ expressions and gestures throughout the whole debate, published on her blog.