Check your U.S. voter registration status or register to vote here.

Will Elegance and Decency Return to the American Presidency Along with the Loosely Cupped Fist?

Zoe Zuniga
Aug 22 · 5 min read
Image for post
Image for post

In the late 1980s, was it the early 90s, I noticed that all politicians where using a loosely cupped fist topped with their thumb instead of pointing their index finger while making a speech. I am a-political but I notice little stuff when I glance over at some official making a speech.

Suddenly someone realized that pointing with the index finger during a speech is considered impolite in many cultures and all finger pointing was taken out of all politicians hand movement vocabulary seemingly overnight in the USA.

Little details like the lack of pointed index fingers and the substitution of the loosely cupped fist with a thumb on top are almost subliminal. But details of body language and posture are very noticeable to us as voters even if we don’t know we are noticing.

So how in the Sam Hill did Trump every get into the Oval Office with his sloppy, unstudied, never-been-coached presentation style? Or is it this lack of style that won him the presidency?

Most politicians who do well are groomed and refined and spend many hours honing themselves into decent speakers; clearly this is not the case with Trump.

Speech-making is an art that successful politicians practice in private. Professional politicians receive many hours of coaching on body language as part of their craft. Presidential candidates have speech writers who are paid well to craft the perfect words and rhetoric to win votes.

By the late 1980s the public had become sophisticated and inclined to choose politicians who were well groomed and smelled of polished training.

Suddenly cultural sensitivity was needed to get votes. People were watching body language and voice intonation. Every detail and twitch was being judged and found wanting.

All the politicians in the know had suddenly been instructed to substitute for pointing the finger by using a loosely closed fist and began to point toward the audience with their thumb against the loose fist as if they were holding a hand full of change or peas in their palm.

Television made it more important than previous eras for a president to be tall and attractive or at least not obese, until Trump that is.

In 1988 I noted that Michael Dukakis: the short-and-dark never had a chance against George H. W. Bush: the slim-tall-and-waspy. Dukakis had worked well in Massachusetts in the 1970s when politics was more radio and newspaper oriented, but he just wouldn’t do for the 1980s.

I sensed that Dukakis didn’t have the subliminal polish to take the White House and I was right that time. I thought the same was true of Trump, but I was so laughingly wrong this time.

Who started this trend toward never, ever, pointing the index finger during a speech? Which political groomer had started this novel gesture of the substitution for pointing with a loose fist covered with a thumb?

No one will admit that the loose fist suddenly replaced pointing the index finger during a speech. A few body language experts describe the thumb and loose fist as a scooping gesture as if the speaker were gathering something up. It has also been described as the cash-hand-off-gesture.

The almost pointing thumb atop a loose and gentle fist is a move that we see repeatedly in all schooled American politicians. But no one identifies it as the suppression of the natural urge to point the index finger while speaking.

Just about every American politician except for Trump uses this substitution for pointing the index finger.

The Clinton Thumb

The loosely cupped fist with the thumb on top has been referred to as the “Clinton Thumb” and been duly mocked in comedy skits. But even the mockers don’t realize that the loose fist with the thumb on top is used because pointing the index finger is taboo in the USA for public speakers.

Pointing or making a solid fist are both considered impolite or overly aggressive in speaking circles. Bill Clinton cemented this this trend toward using the loosely cupped fist and made it the norm.

In the USA being politically correct counts, or at least it used to. While in other countries people still point with the index finger and make other spontaneous gestures during speeches.

Grooming and training is not what won Trump the presidency. He had no grooming or training and didn’t care about any of it. Trump is taller than Hillary Clinton and that might have been the only subliminal push he needed to win the election. Somehow people hated Hillary more than they hated Donald and that was the bottom line.

Trump doesn’t seem to have a speech writer or any kind of handler to help him with his image. Trump points and pouts to his heart’s content and gets away with looking like a baboon at the podium.

The people who voted for Turnip, oops, I mean Trump, were tired of the studied politeness and phoniness of other politicians. They sensed that something was rotten in the White House, that corruption had been underlying democracy from the start and they were sick of the hypocrisy. Voters no longer cared about decency or polish.

“Let it rip!” the voters roared in disgust. And rip it has.

Trump is not a professional politician and has not been schooled in public speaking and does not care about common decency. Obviously Trump has no regard for who he insults with his hands or speech.

The contrast between Trump the-crude-rude-ugly-and-orange and Obama the dapper, slender, elegant, politically correct, cultured, educated, and beautifully café au late skinned is a contrast so stark it almost seems planned.

Both Obama and Trump rose to the presidency through their very contrast in style to the weakness, blandness, and indistinctness of the candidates around them.

Now, Joe Biden is not dapper or elegant or café au late, nor is he crude or rude or ugly and orange. He is an awkward, mediocre candidate with a strong brown woman at his side as his running mate. I almost wish the order where reversed with her as the presidential candidate and him as her mate, though it wouldn’t be proper for him to run for vice president again; it simply isn’t done though it is perfectly legal.

Biden will follow the rules. Biden will be schooled in how to never point with his index finger no matter how stressed or excited or enthusiastic he becomes. Biden knows how to gently cup peas and almost point with his thumb.

Biden will undergo many months of grooming in how to modulate his voice properly, stand properly, hold his head properly, walk properly, and look nothing like a baboon.

Joe Biden may never be dapper, but he will not be Trump; and that is one small step toward elegance and decency.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store