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.

Chief of Staff John Kelly Joins Those Cast Aside

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Our Commander in Chief of insults, Donald Trump, might as well have called them Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb for the way their fates have converged. After all, at the very same time John Kelly decided/agreed/was forced to resign by year’s end, the ghost of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson re-emerged to criticize Trump and be called, in turn, “dumb as a rock” and “lazy as hell.” Such is life in the orbit of Trump, who can reduce even a retired U.S. Marine Corps general like Kelly to expressions of anguish not so far removed from Mantegna’s painting of St. Sebastian.

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Let me turn autobiographical for a moment, and recall my working (briefly) in a P.R. shop aiding real estate magnets in mid-town Manhattan. (Trump wasn’t among its clients.) Turn-over there was horrendous (exceeding 200%), and the stress great enough that my neck soon became so stiff I had to kneel and face my alarm clock, straight on, in the mornings to turn it off because I couldn’t bend or move my head sideways one iota. When I mentioned my predicament to a colleague at work, her reply: “Oh, everyone gets sick their second week here.” Welcome to hell.

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Now back to Trump: whatever the ultimate attrition rate proves to be among his senior-level aides, it’s sure to be of historic proportions. Already at an earlier point in his administration, the Donald was shedding cabinet level officials at a rate 20% higher than Bill Clinton’s chaotic White House and on pace to have, across all White House staff regardless of level, the greatest turn-over rate of any president ever. Why is Trump’s White House (in Kelly’s words) such a “miserable place” to work? A new article in The Wall Street Journal, “The Dark Triad and the Evolution of Jerks,” might shed some light. Here’s what psychology professor Glenn Geher wrote, with the linkage to Trump just waiting to be made (or so it seems to me).

Apparently, about 10% of the population scores high on what’s been dubbed the Dark Triad: narcissism, Machiavellian manipulation (of others for one’s own gain), and psychopathic disregard of everybody else. Stressful, harsh or unstable child-parent relationships are thought to be the root cause of the Dark Triad, which could point the finger for Trump’s behavior back to moments like learning not to stand in front of the door of a tenant’s apartment—just in case a bullet came flying his way. That was back in the day when the Donald would join his real estate magnet father, Fred, in going around trying to collect rent monies in Queens.

How do Dark Triad folks tend to behave? For one thing, they incessantly cut people out of their lives. (See the photo below of a White House gathering, of which only Vice President Mike Pence remains in place.) For another, even the slightest “transgression” against them leads to their enacting revenge. Does that sound like anyone we know living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? Add in habits like aggression and deceit, and a Dark Triad person becomes a truly dark star. Finally, as to Michael Cohen’s payments to Stormy Daniels, on Trump’s behalf, a Dark Triad type also tends to specialize in pursuing brief sexual encounters. As I said, does that sound like the victim of a “witch hunt” to you?

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George H. W. Bush’s Funeral – The Words and So Much More

With shorter life spans and the absence of airplanes to ease the logistics, having five living U.S. presidents together for an event never happened in American history until the dedication of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in 1991. Then it was Reagan, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush, along with Jimmy Carter as the one Democratic president in attendance. Now for George H. W. Bush’s funeral, Donald Trump found himself in the front pew alongside three former Democratic presidents he’s disparaged as illegitimate (Barrack Obama), as guilty of assaulting women (Bill Clinton), and as the supposedly second most worst president ever (Jimmy Carter), behind Obama. Did that make for a fun greeting between them all when Donald and Melania joined the other presidents and their spouses for the service at the Washington National Cathedral?

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Hardly, as everyone’s facial expressions made evident then and in the immediate aftermath of Donald joining the group. Barrack Obama managed an aggrieved smile, with an upwardly pushed chin expressing disgust, anger and sadness at least as prominent as the happiness conveyed on enjoying the sitting (truly sitting) president’s presence. After a smile for Melania Trump, Michelle Obama became far grimmer and more subdued, eyes lowered, than before the Trumps crashed the party. Most notable of all, though, was how Bill Clinton only slightly turned his head Donald’s way, with neither man making any attempt to exchange a handshake—while Hillary Clinton stared straight ahead, eyes wide and lips firmly set in anger. As for the Donald, well, he soon crossed his arm and was pouting as usual: a man without friends.

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George W. Bush making his way down the cathedral’s main aisle led to still more interesting body language. The Donald (mouth agape with a modicum of surprise) had hardly stood up to greet Bush ’43 before W. had moved on to greeting the Obamas. Michelle and Jimmy Carter gave the grieving son the biggest, most reassuring smiles among those assembled there in the front pew. (Hillary didn’t get the memo to be cordial, and barely managed a smile.)

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Next it was on to the formal remarks. For the first time since LBJ’s funeral when Nixon was in office, the current president wasn’t invited to eulogize a predecessor. That’s probably a good thing given how Donald’s most memorable words as his own dad’s funeral had been to say his father’s greatest achievement in life had been his “fantastic son.” Instead, George W. Bush and family showed us what true grief looks like in remembering the man he called “the best father a son or daughter could have.” Eyes closed, head down, eyebrows knitted together in concentrating on not totally “losing it,” W. nearly crumpled in sorrow. Family members in the opposite front pew from the former presidents weren’t far behind. Want to know what sadness looks like? Note the puffy eyelids, the wince across the cheeks, and the corners of the mouth drooping among the expressions from those assembled there.

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Was George H. W. Bush as decent a man as his son recalled him being? Largely so, I’d say.  Sure, there were shortcomings from invoking Willie Horton to nominating Clarence Thomas to joining Reagan in being a slow train in addressing the AIDS epidemic that was the leading killer of young men in America by the time that Bush ’41 left office.  But the sadness George H. W. Bush often showed in life was more in the reflective, pondering mode—a mode that the impulsive Donald Trump isn’t even vaguely familiar with. It’s as if Trump feels sadness in that he wants his greater glory to be more widely, even universally acknowledged. So he feels disappointed when that’s not the case. In contrast, Bush ’41 came as humbly close as someone who achieves the Oval Office could ever most likely come to not wanting any attention bestowed on himself at all.

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The Low-Down on the Trump-Acosta News Conference Duel

It’s now been a week since the mid-term elections and, a few recounts aside, the dust has largely settled. What I can’t get out of my mind, however, is the confrontation between the President and CNN’s Jim Acosta during a rare formal East Room news conference the day after the voting. If Rembrandt, that master of depicting emotions, were alive today, what rich material he would have to work from!

Given that Acosta had his press pass to the White House suspended afterwards, the first question has to be: is Acosta really guilty of “placing his hands on” the female intern seeking to take the microphone away from him? That charge is, after all, the basis for press secretary Sarah Huckabee denying Acosta access to doing his job. While video shows Acosta’s outstretched left arm appearing to press down enough on the intern’s own outstretched arm for her arm to momentarily bend and give way, Acosta is at the same time saying “Pardon me, ma’am,” hardly the makings of Huckabee decrying CNN’s “outrageous disregard” for everyone working in the Trump administration.

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Is the young intern angry with Acosta after failing to retrieve the mic from him? Absolutely; notice her taut, lower eyelids and grimacing mouth.

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Is Acosta on edge himself? Absolutely; notice his grimacing gulp as Trump alternatively mocks and lambasts him.

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The fellow reporter who stands up for Acosta isn’t any more at ease himself. Notice his starkly open eyes and raised eyebrows, indicating fear.

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Trump himself winds up jabbing finger at Acosta, berating Acosta for being a “rude, terrible person” and CNN for again being the “enemy of the people” whenever it reports “fake news, which CNN does a lot.”

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But actually, Trump is fearful as well. Notice how his mouth pulls wide just when Acosta starts in with “I’d like to challenge you on one of the statements you made.”

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With the news conference broadcast live worldwide, there’s also the rich emotional theater of how the other media figures in the East Room were reacting. There we’re really in Rembrandt territory. The Dutch artist’s famous Nightwatch painting meets its contemporary rival in scenes like these:

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For Trump, raised on the mantra of “Be a killer, be a winner” by his aggressive real estate kingpin of a father, ugly emotional territory feels like home. But for many others along for the bumpy ride, unease rules the day.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (“MbS”) Becomes Mr. Bone Saw

Brazenly trying to play the entire world for suckers, the government of Saudi Arabia now insists that Washington Post journalist-in-exile Jamal Khashoggi died in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey  after “discussions” there “led to a brawl” resulting in Khashoggi’s death. Could there be any, hmm . . . problems with this story? For one thing, how likely was Khashoggi to fight the 15 men newly flown in from Saudi Arabia on two private jets to meet him upon arriving to get papers so he could marry his Turkish fiancée? Isn’t 15-to-1 pretty bad odds? Especially when one man allegedly present is the desert kingdom’s top forensic doctor, carrying along for the occasion a bone saw.

Torture. Death. Dismemberment. Followed by over two weeks of evasion. That’s the far more plausible narrative. Who is Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, who routinely goes by his initials?

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Two-faced would be an apt description. Sure, there’s the big smile. This same guy has been lauded from Washington, D.C. to Silicon Valley as the modernizer our biggest Arab ally desperately needs. Saudi women finally allowed to drive. The country’s oil wealth to be shrewdly leveraged through a series of investments overseas. But along with that smile, note the asymmetrically raised left upper lip (a sign of contempt) and how often this young, power-behind-the-throne narrows his eyes in anger, as in to “hit out” or order a “hit” on a journalist criticizing his native government.  That’s the BMS who had an uncooperative Lebanese prime minister “kidnapped” until he resigned from office, and who plunged into the ghastly civil war in Yemen.

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Now the “preliminary results” of the Saudi investigation into what happened in Istanbul have resulted in 18 arrests and some fairly senior-level firings. Who else but BMS is of course best to lead the investigation from this point onward? At least the Saudi crown prince will be in good company. “I want to find out what happened” our president, Donald Trump, avowed early on in this saga. Never mind that the left corner of Trump’s mouth edged sideways, betraying fear, as he made this avowal, only to also shut his eyes from the spectacle of seeing anything.

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An otherwise beaming-for-the-prince, Mike Pompeo, has in his duties as our Secretary of State asserted that extraterritorial murders like Khashoggi’s apparent fate are “not consistent” with American values. The concern expressed by Pompeo’s knitted eyebrows was oh-so reassuring. Likewise, that same expression from Trump in previously suggesting the murder could have been carried out by “rogue killers” who just happened to choose the consulate instead of a dive bar in which to take part in a brawl. One thing is for certain: life sure become interesting when people insist their left hand doesn’t know what their right hand is doing.

Trump Administration Jeopardy

Trump Jeopardy Logo

Donald Trump promised to “hire the best people” for his administration, while he would also “drain the swamp.” How’s that working out? Some of his associates are solid and plenty of others are questionable or worse—even at times by Trump’s own admission. Tensions within the White House have already been documented by books like Wolf’s Fire and Fury, Omarosa’s Unhinged and now Bob Woodward’s Fear. To give you the round-up, let’s play Trump Administration Jeopardy.

Donald’s Family for 100

2597Ivanka Trump

Dual Front Covers (800)

A two-year, labor-of-love effort is finally ready to launch. Famous Faces Decoded: A Guidebook for Reading Others and its shorter supplement, Decoding Faces: Applications in Your Life, went live as of September 12, 2018. Available via Amazon, Famous Faces Decoded covers seven emotions how they get expressed, what they mean, and top 10 lists of the celebrities who show them most often, including illustrative stories. There’s also a vital epilogue about what people may show if lying. Decoding Faces provides advice on how to best handle situations where these emotions arise on the job or in your personal life.

Trump Administration Jeopardy

Trump Jeopardy Logo

Donald Trump promised to “hire the best people” for his administration, while he would also “drain the swamp.” How’s that working out? Some of his associates are solid and plenty of others are questionable or worse—even at times by Trump’s own admission. Tensions within the White House have already been documented by books like Wolf’s Fire and Fury, Omarosa’s Unhinged and now Bob Woodward’s Fear. To give you the round-up, let’s play Trump Administration Jeopardy.

Donald’s Emotions for 300

2594Trump Anger.jpg

Dual Front Covers (800).jpg

A two-year, labor-of-love effort is finally ready to launch. Famous Faces Decoded: A Guidebook for Reading Others and its shorter supplement, Decoding Faces: Applications in Your Life, went live as of September 12, 2018. Available via Amazon, Famous Faces Decoded covers seven emotions how they get expressed, what they mean, and top 10 lists of the celebrities who show them most often, including illustrative stories. There’s also a vital epilogue about what people may show if lying. Decoding Faces provides advice on how to best handle situations where these emotions arise on the job or in your personal life.

Trump Administration Jeopardy

Trump Jeopardy Logo

Donald Trump promised to “hire the best people” for his administration, while he would also “drain the swamp.” How’s that working out? Some of his associates are solid and plenty of others are questionable or worse—even at times by Trump’s own admission. Tensions within the White House have already been documented by books like Wolf’s Fire and Fury, Omarosa’s Unhinged and now Bob Woodward’s Fear. To give you the round-up, let’s play Trump Administration Jeopardy.

Family for 400

2595Melania Trump

A two-year, labor-of-love effort is finally ready to launch. Famous Faces Decoded: A Guidebook for Reading Others and its shorter supplement, Decoding Faces: Applications in Your Life, went live as of September 12, 2018. Available via Amazon, Famous Faces Decoded covers seven emotions how they get expressed, what they mean, and top 10 lists of the celebrities who show them most often, including illustrative stories. There’s also a vital epilogue about what people may show if lying. Decoding Faces provides advice on how to best handle situations where these emotions arise on the job or in your personal life.