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.

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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

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A bemused George Kent, senior State Department official in Ukraine

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A saddened Marie Yovanovitch, former ambassador to Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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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?

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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.”

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Now’s the Time to Showcase the Uppermost 1%

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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.

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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.

Mr. Sunshine, Julian Castro, Declares Presidential Bid

Memo to Joe Biden, should you decide to enter the race. When it comes to big, flashing, electric smiles, you’ve now got some competition. Meet Julian Castro: formerly the mayor of San Antonio as well as a Housing and Urban Development secretary in Barack Obama’s administration. Is Castro really the second coming of Biden, however? I don’t think so. Easy laughter isn’t part of the package. And many of Castro’s smiles—no matter how joyous—contain a whiff of some additional emotion, too.

For starters, there are only two emotions where Castro stands out. He shows above average amounts of happiness (especially the strongest two flavors of it—sparkling-eyed joy, and minus that look the pleasure signaled by large grins). And the same is true of contempt. What does that combination of happiness and contempt suggest? In a word, it would be confidence. As for where the smirks emerge, look for the tension that appears along the left corner of Castro’s mouth in the photo on the left here, and next at how his upper lip raises and curls a bit in the photo to its right.

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Now, joyful smirking is already a little odd.  Tom Brady and Vladimir Putin both smirk when they smile, but rarely while offering a big, glowing smile. Happiness is about, in effect, hugging others and embracing opportunity. Contempt is laced with scorn and dismissal.  Contempt could be thought of as the equivalent of strong-arming somebody trying to tackle you in a football game.

That fairly uneasy, even unnatural combination plays out in this next smile of Castro’s. The happiness is more subdued here, but again the upper lip flares with contempt (and disgust). Is there some chance that another side of Castro exists beyond being Mr. Sunshine? Could he be vaguely imperial, a little aloof, with some modicum of darkness creeping in after all?

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I think that could be true, but we’ll have to wait and see how this all plays out on the campaign trail. For now, Castro is presenting himself as the Hispanic Obama, a quick learner who represents the next generation in an ever more multicultural society. Education is his big issue, something that helped propel him to Stanford and Harvard. And as for rising fast, well, his mother ran (unsuccessfully) for a seat on San Antonio’s City Council when she was 23, and he got there by the age of 26. If elected to the White House, Castro would become our country’s third youngest president ever.

Youth is at the heart of Castro’s sunshine appeal. His grandmother, orphaned by the Mexican Revolution, crossed the border at a young age. Relatives in San Antonio took in her and a sister. Castro has called his recently released autobiography An Unlikely Journey: Waking Up from My American Dream.  Noting how details like his grandmother’s diabetes, depression and even a suicide attempt get passed over as quickly as his mother’s alcoholism and his parents’ separation, a reviewer in The New York Times characterized An Unlikely Journey as offering “little in the way of introspection.”

What exactly is Castro waking up from? Can he beat Donald Trump, as promised, by not making the error of trying to “out-gutter” him? Who knows for sure.

Castro’s expansive, frequent smijuliale limits evidence of sadness, anger and fear to levels well below what’s customary in the famous people I’ve analyzed over the years. So time will have to tell which version voters perceive. Might whatever is in the shadows of Castro’s personality fortify him, helping him demonstrate empathy and emotional depth? Or might everything except “sunshine” (happiness) get treated instead as merely a nuisance to be kept out of view (even from himself) as much as humanly possible?

Elizabeth Warren Heads to Iowa to Begin 2020 Presidential Race Campaigning

Imagine the horses going around the track at the Kentucky Derby not once, but 40 or 50 times, and you begin to approach the exhausting insanity known as the “horse race” for the White House. The earliest incumbent to file for re-election ever is Donald Trump: five hours after taking office. But on the Democratic side, first in this time around is Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Iowa doesn’t hold its caucuses for a year still, and the initial Democratic presidential debate isn’t until June in California. But as January promises to be a crowded month for Democratic candidates to enter the race, I figured I might as well already start emotionally handicapping the race now. In other words, what do Warren’s non-verbal body language (facial expressions especially) suggest about her personality and how she might fare on the campaign trail?

I expected fist-pumping and finger-pointing from Warren, and saw it. As a strong, (to some) even strident liberal, Warren could be expected to be eager to rally against, and identify, situations in which citizens-as-consumers aren’t being treated fairly.

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I also expected to find plenty of disgust as well as contempt. As a reformer, Warren not surprisingly scores above average for those two emotions. There are corporations she doesn’t trust or respect, and as far as she’s concerned unethical actions being undertaken that simply “stink.” Note the raised upper lip that accompanies her smile. But an upside-down smile, an expression signaling disgust, sadness and anger, won’t to my mind earn her supporters or helpful media coverage for her “brand.”  Being a passionate advocate for broad change is a plus for Warren; coming across as a sour-puss isn’t.

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What I didn’t expect from Warren, however, and got was plenty of surprise and an above average amount of fear. Eyebrows raised in alarm and a mouth pulling slightly wide in fear play well only to the extent they signal the danger the country is in, as opposed to a shaky messenger.

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Frankly, Warren looks less confident than other notable people I’ve analyzed. Maybe the gaffe about being baited by Donald Trump into taking an ancestry DNA test to verify that she’s part Native American will prove to be a one-time misstep. But with a huge Democratic field of candidates likely, including as many as three other prominent female Senators, there won’t be much room for making errors over the next, nearly two-year stretch.