Reading President Trump's Facial Expressions

What his most typical facial expressions tell us about his emotions.

Posted Oct 11, 2020 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

I am tired of studying Donald Trump’s facial expressions, but I can’t help myself.

People keep asking me for my scientific opinion of Trump’s facial expressions. That’s a tall order. I do anatomically-based behavioral coding using the Facial Action Coding System (FACS, Ekman & Friesen, 1978), which is a time-intensive process. Decades of research with FACS have told us some valuable things about emotion, intended action, pain, deception, and personality (Rosenberg & Ekman, 2020). Often the coding effort is worthwhile, as such analysis can pay off by uncovering information a person might not share in their words. But Donald Trump doesn’t hold back. Things most folks people would conceal roll right out of his mouth. What could possibly be gleaned from analyzing his facial movements for subtle clues? 

A great deal, actually.

Despite my skepticism, I couldn’t help coding Trump’s face when I encountered it in the endless barrage of photos and videos over the past four years. I began to notice patterns to his facial behavior, certain configurations that occurred regularly in his public appearances (I have no idea what his face does off-camera), which might reveal something about the president that he does not know he is sharing with us.

I’ll focus on a few of Trump’s frequent facial patterns that I find most compelling:

  • the Horizontal Lip Stretch
  • Disdain for others
  • Odd Smiles

Here are some descriptions of the expressions and science-based reflections on what they may suggest about the man (I demonstrate key examples in the photo panel; I don't have permissions to publish Trump's photos):

Erika Rosenberg, Ph.D.
Three of Donald Trump's most common facial expressions (as modeled by the author)
Source: Erika Rosenberg, Ph.D.

The Horizontal Lip Stretch

Trump often contracts the risorious muscle, which stretches the lower lip horizontally on both sides (this is FACS action unit, or "AU," 20). I have seen him do this especially at the end of sentences or in pauses during speech. Sometimes he engages depressor labii to pull the lower lip down, as well (FACS AU 16). 

I have seen this action on Trump’s face when he is making a bold claim, but more often immediately after saying something of which he might not be certain. He does this lip stretch in nearly every public speaking context – with reporters, in debates, in speeches — often in pauses between words and sometimes while talking. I do not think he is doing this lip stretch intentionally; based on anatomy and timing they appear to be spontaneous actions (Guo et al., 2018; Namba et al., 2017).

What might this action mean? In humans, the horizontal lip stretch action is a key component of the facial expression of fear (in chimps, it is part of the threat display; Bard et al, 2011; Ekman et al., 1987; Waller et al., 2008). Does this mean Trump is frightened every time this appears? Probably not. When an emotion-relevant action occurs frequently in someone’s behavioral repertoire, it may be a marker of felt emotion, it may be a habit, or it may convey something about their emotional traits (Rosenberg et al., 1998). We cannot know simply from the facial expression itself; we must consult other sources of emotional information, including the contexts in which they appear, to infer meaning.

Here are a few specific examples of when I have seen the horizontal lip stretch on Donald Trump:

1. At a press conference on March 15, 2020, Trump spoke to the press and public about the coronavirus early in the pandemic. He tried to reassure viewers that most of us would not be affected, that COVID is no worse than the flu, and that there was no need to panic. Right after that statement of reassurance, he showed the horizontal lip stretch. He also shrugged one shoulder, which can occur when a person speaks with uncertainty or lack of confidence in what they are saying (Ekman, 2009).

To reassure the audience that everything is fine and then show a micro-expression of fear is a red flag. When I train interrogators, I tell them to consider such incongruities as places to probe more deeply in subsequent interviewing. Thanks to the audio recordings of Trump's conversations with Bob Woodward one month earlier – at which he explained to Woodward the unprecedented dangers of COVID-19 — we now know that Trump was lying about COVID in the March 15 press conference.

2. The presidential debate of September 29, 2020, included numerous examples of the horizontal lip stretch. Here are a couple worth sharing:

  • Trump belittled Joe Biden for wearing a mask all the time. He then said that he had a mask too, pulled it out of his pocket to show viewers, and then said, “When needed, I wear masks,” and then immediately showed a lip stretch (at around the 31-second mark). 
  • In response to Biden’s accusation that Trump allowed thousands of people to die in the pandemic and that he needed to get a lot smarter in his approach to it, Trump said, “Did you use the word smart?” He showed the lip stretch while saying the word “smart,” and then this facial action occurred recurred numerous times in this exchange, usually at pauses in speech. 

3.  Another example of the lip stretch can be found in the video of Trump’s arrival to the White House after leaving the hospital on October 5, 2020, less than one week into his COVID diagnosis. Trump, wearing a mask, walked from the helicopter to the White House stairs, and climbed the stairs. He stood on the landing facing the lawn for a photo op and then took off his mask. Immediately after removing the mask, we see that lip stretch, along with heavy breathing. This occurs around the 1:10 mark, and then again several times over the next minute. Several more occur during this silent photo op.

Disdain for Others

There are several different ways in which Donald Trump’s head position, gaze, posture, and facial movements reflect an air of superiority or dismissiveness of those beneath him. It is difficult to know whether these postures are deliberate actions or not. He often speaks, listens, or enters a room with his head tilted upward a bit, and he is quite literally looking down his nose. This is a power move, used to assert superiority over others (Wiktower et al., 2020). At other times, Trump shows the more widely recognized facial display of contempt, by tightening the corner of one lip (Ekman & Heider, 1988). The frequency and context of these displays convey a sense of condescension: They say, “I am better than you." Trump often puffs out his chest as well. This action of inflating one’s size relative to another is a display of dominance across many species (de Waal & Waal, 2007) and of prestige in humans (Wiktower et al, 2020). This behavior seems deliberate when Trump uses it, as it is often preceded by a pause (a reflection?) and then a readjustment of posture to inflate.

Trump reveals this disregard in other nonverbal behaviors, as well. Consider his notorious pushing past the Prime Minister of Montenegro, Dusko Markovic, at a NATO Meeting in 2017, so that he could get in front of him for the photo op. Trump grabbed the Prime Minister’s shoulder, moved him aside, chest high, and took a place in front of him. Keeping his own face forward, Trump never made eye contact with the Prime Minister. This is all about dominance.

Odd Smiles

Donald Trump’s public facial repertoire includes several odd smiles. I discuss two remarkable categories of smiling here. One marked by its presence, the other by its absence.

The Miserable Smile/Controlled Smile. One of Trump’s most common public smiles involves contraction of zygomaticus major, the large muscle that pulls the lip corners up diagonally (this is what we typically think of as producing the ‘smile’ shape to the mouth; it is FACS AU12) and mentalis, the muscle that pulls up the chin boss and the lower lip (FACS AU17). When these two actions combine, they form a flattened smile, with the chin flattened and puckered. Ekman and Friesen (1981) called this smile the "miserable smile" based on their observation that it occurs when someone has to grin and bear it. Another interpretation of this smile is that it is a controlled smile, as mentalis flattens the curvature of the lower lip, controlling the intensity of the smile.

There is nothing wrong with someone showing this smile. Many people smile this way in certain social situations. I have observed that I do it when I am politely smiling at a stranger walking by. Such controlled smiles tend to occur when people are self-conscious of their behavior (Keltner, 1995). At the very least, these smiles can reflect some kind of discomfort in smiling. The thing that is remarkable about this smile in discussing Donald Trump is that it is one of the most common types of smiles he shows publicly.

Few true enjoyment smiles. By contrast, Donald Trump rarely looks happy. Smiles that occur when someone is really enjoying themselves involve not only zygomaticus major, AU12, but also constriction of the muscles around the eyes (orbicularis oculi ) especially in the lateral area that create crow’s feet (FACS AU6; Ekman et al., 1990). Even in contexts when he should be most happy—in the midst of adulation from his base during a rally—we see posturing, but not joy. I have never seen him laugh. Perhaps he laughs and enjoys himself on the golf course—I hope it is so!—but I am not privy to close-up shots of his face in the midst of a golf game.

Taken together, what does this all mean? As I implied earlier, facial expressions and other displays of emotion do not tell us their causes: We need to consult context. Considered across their many contexts and repeated display, Trump’s facial repertoire suggests these things to me about the 45th President of the United States:

  • He has a great deal of fear under the surface.
  • He tries to position himself as superior to others, whether he truly sees himself that way or not.
  • He is rarely happy.

And that is my scientific opinion.


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