A Portrait of the Coronavirus Supposedly under “Control”

This is a photo of Donald Trump leaving the lectern at the end of Sunday’s White House press briefing. The surge of reported coronavirus cases is surely only beginning to take its toll, but here was the President assuring us that the virus is “something that we have tremendous control over.” Talk about a guy who suffers from a slow learning curve. Trump’s first public comments about the pandemic came on January 22nd on CNBC: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s—going to be just fine.” (For other misleading statements, check out the video of the comments here.)

031620-01 First COVID-19 Presser

Does everyone on the stage behind the lectern on Sunday look “fine” to you? Hardly. The crew of The Titanic probably looked happier. Two people have their eyes totally closed, as if they can’t bear to watch the carnage about to unfold. Almost everyone’s eyes are cast downward in despair. The man over Trump’s shoulder looks downright stunned. As for the president, he looks angry as if the virus is mostly just a dastardly nuisance impeding his re-election.

When else have I seen words and looks in total contradiction during a disaster? Forlorn-looking and yet reassuring U.S. generals testifying to Congress that the Iraq War was going well. Japanese officials showing fear as they urged “calm” in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daicchi nuclear disaster, initially telling local residents that staying indoors would suffice. I would feel better, actually, if Trump did show a little sadness (empathy) or fear (realism). A man so given to anger is instead showing deep-seated resistance to the news that something terrible is happening under his watch. Why, truth be told Trump isn’t even in “control” of his own brooding anger, let alone anything else.  What a hoax this situation has become. A businessman adept at financial chicanery is now a president cheating us all of even a half-hearted degree of responsible leadership.

2020 State of Disunion Address (in Decoded Photos)

Well, from the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, dispensing with the usual introduction of calling it a “high privilege and distinct honor” to present the president of the United States; to Donald Trump not shaking Pelosi’s hand; to Pelosi ultimately ripping up her copy of Trump’s campaign rally / reality show version of a State of the Union address, what a mess. Hard feelings were everywhere on display:

020620-01 State of Union

Not once did Trump mention his impeachment or Senate trial during his speech. But what are the odds that ahead of the speech a sad and angry Chief Justice John Roberts wasn’t focused on a trial where U.S. Senators (Republicans especially) ignored his instruction to remain attentively in their seats? Note Roberts’ pinched, raised inner eyebrows (sadness and fear), his firmly pressed lips (anger), and his raised chin (sadness, anger and disgust).

020620-02 State of Union

Not on the same page, by a long shot – Pelosi with eyebrows arched in surprise and eyes wide open, along with feigned smile, after being snubbed by Trump after offering a handshake; Vice President Mike Pence and Trump with eyes closed or downcast (sadness), and Trump with a mouth pressed together in anger and hinting at a smirk.

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Eric Trump with eyes narrowed in anger, the slightest of (bitter) smiles, an upper lip raised unilaterally in contempt and a mouth pressed tight in anger as he looks over at his brother, Donald Trump, Jr.

020620-04 State of Union (Schiff)

Lead U.S. House of Representatives prosecutor, Adam Schiff, with a slightly jutting lower lip (disgust and sadness), eyebrows lowered, eyelids tight and mouth taut – all signs of anger, as he sits besides his fellow prosecutor, Jerrold Nadler.

020620-05 State of Union (Rush & Melania)(2)

An ecstatic Rush Limbaugh after being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in an impromptu “ceremony” featuring First Lady Melania Trump looking uncharacteristically happy while still not being able to evade her usual look of scowling (raised upper lip, narrowed eyes). To Limbaugh’s left, a more mildly happy Second Lady Karen Pence with a worried, vertical crease between her eyebrows.

020620-06 State of Union (Pelosi Rip)

The coup de grâce of a wretched, divisive spectacle: Pelosi with a grimly set, angry mouth as she rips Trump’s speech apart quite literally, piece by piece. This moment comes after Pelosi has exhibited a long series of distorted mouth grimaces while listening to Trump’s speech. Down and out (disgust and sadness) went her lower lip, when she wasn’t smirking or pressing her lips together, ever more tightly, in a range from annoyance to outrage.

The 2010s: An Often Brutal Decade

Politically, the decade began with the Tea Party revolt against taxes, big government (Obamacare) and, yes, our country getting its first African-American president. Racism was part of the undertow. Now the decade has ended with Donald Trump being impeached, and my looking back fondly to the words that punctured Senator Joseph McCarthy’s career in 1954: the lawyer for the U.S. Army, Joseph Welch, saying “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness . . . . Have you no sense of decency?”

Substitute Trump for McCarthy, and you’ve got it in a nutshell: cruelty, recklessness . . . an unhinged mafia boss in The White House. Is it any wonder that the 2010’s also ended with a movie celebrating the epitome of a kind soul: Mister Rogers, the antithesis of twitter-carpet-bombing Trump. Did Tom Hanks fit his latest role well in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood? Not entirely. There’s too much guardedness in Hanks to pull it off entirely. His eyebrows lower more, with a vertical pinch between them. Other tendencies get in the way, too. Hanks’ eyes narrow more (angrily) than was generally true of the real-life Mister Rogers, and Hanks’ upper lip flares with a scorning disgust that, frankly, isn’t very good-neighborly.  Contrast Hanks’ look to Mister Roger’s truly joyful smile that includes more relaxation around the eyes.

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Nevertheless, Hanks’ version of Mister Rogers is preferable to another look I can’t quite get out of my mind. Toward the end of Fidelity’s recent TV spot called “Straightforward Advice,” the woman in the couple shows a big-time smirk. Yes, the 2010’s have featured a booming stock market, first under Obama and now under Trump. I’m all for prosperity, but wealth a little more equally distributed across society would certainly be nice. To me, it’s as if the woman’s assured glance over at her husband signals: “I’ve got mine.” It’s a very smug look, too befitting of a president whose thought-pattern sadly revolves around I-me-mine as our era’s sense of collectivity withers.

123019-02 Fidelity Spot Smirk

Stump the Trump: Week 1 of the Impeachment Hearings

One of Donald Trump’s many (flimsy) defenses is that he “hardly knows” the people working for him, and now testifying in front of Congress. So stumping the Chump-in-Chief is easy. Surely, you can do better at linking these photos to the names, roles, and signature facial expressions of seven major players from week 1 of the public U.S. House of Representatives’ impeachment hearings.

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A concerned William Taylor, charge d’affaires in Ukraine

111819-02 Impeachment Week 1

A bemused George Kent, senior State Department official in Ukraine

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A saddened Marie Yovanovitch, former ambassador to Ukraine

111819-04 Impeachment Week 1

A terse, on-guard Adam Schiff, Democrat, head of the House Intelligence Committee

111819-05 Impeachment Week 1

A boiling mad Devin Nunes, ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee

111819-06 Impeachment Week 1

A happy-to-fight Jim Jordan, recently added to the Committee’s Republican ranks

111819-07 Impeachment Week 1

An “I’m so shocked” Elise Stefanik, Republican who tried to use Nunes’ allotted time

111819-08 Impeachment Week 1

Bonus round: who’s the man to the right in this photo?

  1.  Roy Cohn, back from the dead
  2.  Richard Nixon’s dieting younger brother
  3.  Republican lawyer Stephen Castor

Syrian Collusion: Trump, Erdoğan & Putin

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Having recklessly given Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey the green light to invade Syria, how did Donald Trump fudge his decision? He wrote the Turkish leader a letter that began “Let’s work out a good deal!” and ended by telling Erdoğan: “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”  What glorious sophistication from our president, a man who told his biographer, Michael D’Antonio: “When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same.”  To which I say, amen.

Yesterday, Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin met to put their seal on Syria and there’s more to come. Russia is going to build Turkey a nuclear reactor for supposedly civilian purposes, as if the nuclear-weapons the U.S. has at its airbase in nominally NATO-allied Turkey isn’t already enough of a risk. As the stakes go up, what kind of man is Erdoğan? Will he answer Trump’s appeal to “get this done the right and humane way” or be the “devil” Trump’s letter also warned him not to be?

102319-02 Hailed Disparaged Chart (2)

The verdict is already known, by actions large and small: those already being enacted on the ground in Syria and in the characteristic facial expressions of Erdoğan. In doing the analysis that went into my book, Two Cheers for Democracy: How Emotions Drive Leadership Style, a clear emotional algorithm emerged. However explicit their “strongman” rule, those inclined more to dictatorship than democracy lacked happiness and were, instead, inclined to displays of anger and disgust. While Trump’s too sad to exemplify the model entirely, Putin comes close, and Erdoğan fits the model perfectly. If you’re one of those Kurds Trump faulted for not fighting alongside us on D-Day in France, don’t lose sleep trying to divine Erdoğan’s nature. The answer is written all over his face.

TwoCheers FrontCover (Blog Resize)

 

 

Two Cheers for Democracy, available now from Amazon.com.

“Why Do All Roads Lead to Putin?”

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Speaking of events in Syria, this is the question Nancy Pelosi is asking. What’s immediately noticeable here? She’s the only woman at the table, daring to stand and point her finger directly at Donald Trump in questioning his loyalty and seeking an explanation. Her upper lip is raised in disgust and anger and her right (visible) eyebrow is likewise raised, in concern (even fear). As for Trump, he’s mostly angry: his eyebrows are lowered, he’s squinting hard, and his upper lip is likewise raised. The House Speaker and the President are captured on camera holding each other in mutual disdain.

Pity the general seated next to Trump. But he’s not only sad (head lowered, eyes closed), he’s also the angriest person in the room. All of this partisan bickering has left him with tightly pursed lips.

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About the only even close to serene person in the photo is Benjamin Franklin, given his bust perched along the back wall. A savvy diplomat, Franklin could be honestly described in the way Trump’s press secretary tried to spin the meeting afterwards. Despite having called Pelosi a “third-grade politician” and former defense secretary Jim Mattis the “world’s most overrated general,” our President supposedly remained “measured, factual and decisive.” Are you kidding me? When has Trump ever been emotionally measured, or factual either? The time is long past due for a new MAGA hat with this slogan: “Make Lying Wrong Again.”

102119-03 MLWA Logo

Now’s the Time to Showcase the Uppermost 1%

062419-01 Tubman & Zuckerberg Dollars

Not only are you what you eat and where you eat, you’re also defined by your heroes. And now with Facebook’s recent announcement that it will launch its own global currency, the effort by Barack Obama to replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on a new $20 bill looks ever so quaint. Just imagine it! Wanting to honor a former slave and abolitionist, whereas Donald Trump favors Jackson: America’s first populist president, and the guy who forced the Cherokee Indians Trail of Tears removal to Oklahoma.  Too bad Trump fears Silicon Valley’s power. With the Libra cryptocurrency, isn’t it time to retire all the presidents? From the $1 bill through the $100 bill, check out the likes of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Hamilton, Jackson, Grant, and Franklin. Hardly a smile among them. Who needs that kind of downer, when it’s already enough to have to surrender cash to buy something? With Mark Zuckerberg’s example leading the way, it’s time to replace the whole lot with the RICHEST living Americans on U.S. bills instead. Should there be any exceptions? Only one: former Treasury secretary Salmon P. Chase graces the $10,000 bill. Why not depose him for current Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, who testified to Congress that a delay of six years in releasing the Tubman bill was for technical reasons. Gotta love a liar, even if Mnuchin isn’t quite as wealthy as Zuckerberg.

Something Sure Stinks (Could It Be Us?)

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It’s a truism that pets and their owners look alike. So with Alec Baldwin now denouncing Sanders as a “mouthpiece for fascism,” I thought: why not see if there’s an emotional similarity between Sanders and The Donald? The answer: often yes, but with at least one big difference. Yep, they both frown with the best of them. Yep, their lips often contort with disgust (raised or jutting downwards). Yep, they share in common upper chin thrusts that signal disgust, anger and sadness (their signature emotions). Sanders hasn’t held a press conference since March 11th, however, which does point to one difference between her and her insatiably-eager-for-attention boss. Sanders’ eyes will go wide, her eyebrows lift. She’s not always comfortable upholding such a complicated relationship with the truth. The Washington Post’s fact-checker believes Trump has now topped 10,000 lies; Sanders is learning from the best, but to date can’t quite keep up that pace.

It’s All Coming Apart at the Seams

What a split-screen day this past Wednesday was for TV viewers! Over in Hanoi, Vietnam, you had our Man of Perpetual Sorrow, Donald Trump, meeting the often strangely radiant Kim Jung-on of North Korea. “We fell in love,” Trump said of their first meeting in Singapore. I guess this once special bromance wasn’t meant to last. What immediately caught my eye in this photograph was the frightened look of the woman sitting to Jung-on’s right. Her eyebrows are slightly raised in a sign of fear and surprise, her eyes a little wide, and her mouth pulled a bit wide, too.

Come to think of it—by which I mean, come to look at it—that same expression populates the face of the man to her right, and the Great Supremely Merciless One seated to the woman’s left. Things aren’t going well.

030419-01 Trump Kim Vietnam Meeting

Now as we all wait to see what may happen next after the Failed Summit, what are the odds Jung-On isn’t wondering what the Great Impulsive Scowler, our Man of Perpetual Sorrow might do next? While Trump stares straight ahead, Jung-On is the wiser one: looking to his right, eyes wide, looking to see what he might learn just by keeping his eyes open and his wits about him.

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Closer to home, what was simultaneously on the other half of people’s split-image TV screens? None other than Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, former henchmen, former trusted confidante was in tell-all mode about his former Mafia boss known as the President. Forget for the moment, everything Cohen was saying . . . Our president is a racist, a con man and a cheat . . . telling us almost nothing we didn’t already know, at least in that respect.

Emotionally, how was Cohen holding up? Was he scared? Was he lying? Was he choking at his leash, eager to sink his teeth into some juicy revenge?

Actually, in truth Cohen was remarkably at ease for a guy spilling his guts before Trump can do it for him. Notice all the big, horizontal wrinkles across the former Enforcer’s forehead (how could you not!). Well, as often as not those weren’t a sign of fear and surprise so much as they were what’s known in the facial coding trade as “speech emphasis” grace notes, instances where you lift your eyebrows in emphasizing in dramatic fashion a point you’re making. And Cohen was making lots of them, meaning lots of wrinkles and lots of time that those wrinkles held in place far too long to be a matter of surprise. That’s because real surprise happens in about 1/10th of a second, or less.

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Frankly my dear, Cohen is way, way beyond being surprised about anything Trump concocts.

Is there a bigger story, emotionally, to tell than speech emphasis grace notes when it comes to Cohen’s testimony? Not especially. Yes, he had to wipe away a tear when recounting the stress all of this mess has put on his family. And, yes, there was a little curl of the upper lip when Cohen referenced the district attorney’s office in Manhattan investigating other bad smells emanating from the Trump Tower. (A curled upper lip is a sign of disgust, i.e. something smells really foul).

But really those touches aside, it was a pretty straightforward drama being enacted. Trump has provided all the curves, and now Cohen was trying—at long last in life—to throw the ball right straight down the middle of the plate so Congress and the American public could, ideally, swing hard at the truth about Trump instead of at his former Chief Enabler.