It’s been said the best way to judge a presidential debate is to watch with the sound off. So I did.
It was liberating! Stress that accrued throughout the day—as I fretted for the fate of our republic—dissolved into the calming silence of a muted television. During the pre-debate runup, graphics swooped weightlessly across the screen, untethered to those urgent string sections. Teams of analysts flapped their gums, but no inanities reached my ears. So serene.
And then the candidates took the stage. Clinton covered more ground as they marched toward each other, racing across the carpet with her robotic, arm-pumping gait.
Once installed behind their lecterns, Trump leaned forward and gripped the sides of his as though he wished to pry its top off, while Clinton placed her hands gently before her on the flat surface. His suit jacket easily filled the full width of his split-screen half. Her narrower, flame-red-clad frame left open space at her sides.
As they started to speak, their hands rose and flitted. Her gestures rarely ventured beyond the silhouette of her torso. She often swept her hands inward, toward her heart. To emphasize a point, she’d indicate delicately with her right hand, as though placing a peach on a shoulder-level shelf. She sometimes offered tiny shrugs, while lifting her lower lip, in a manner that suggested she’d contemplated both sides of a thorny question and found no easy answer.
His gesticulating was far more kinetic, his hands chopping down from ear level toward the lectern, his arms swinging side to side. He forever seemed to be forcefully sweeping something off a table. He nodded decisively with each syllable, conveying certainty in what he said. When answering a question, he’d lean toward his mic, letting one shoulder drop, torqueing his upper body. His eyes and his whole posture repeatedly gravitated toward his rival, and it appeared he wished to challenge her. She’d observe him coolly, blinking, expressionless. On occasion she’d break into an incredulous smile, and once she laughed like a socialite who’d heard something naughty.
In 2008, political commentator Jeff Greenfield posited a theory in Slate about two types of presidential candidates. First there are the Daffy Ducks: “He fumes, he clenches his fists, his eyes bulge, and his entire body tenses with fury.” Then there are the Bugs Bunnies: “at ease, laid back, secure, confident.” Greenfield argues that the public always votes for the candidate more like Bugs.
If you watched with the sound off, Clinton was the Bugs tonight. When she spoke, she almost never bothered to look Trump’s way, even as he interrupted her, which he seemed to do a lot. Instead, she addressed the people at home. She didn’t seem to care much about her rival. The one time she did interact with him in a physical way, she shimmied with glee—shivering her shoulders, delighting in mockery.
Meanwhile, Trump would listen with head tilted, lips pursed, eyes narrowed to slits—a sinister bearing that made him look angry, resentful, fuming like someone who’d been bested.
Is that what happened?