Measuring Outcomes and Measured Feelings: The Emotional Styles of Presidents

von Kerstin Pahl

23. November 2020

It is a truism that during the 2020 US presidential election, emotions were running high. On Election Tuesday, politicians, journalists, the electorate, and a large amount of non-Americans were on pins and needles about the outcome. For some time, it was a nail-biter. But when Pennsylvania and Georgia didn’t call their results for days, it started to drag along. People of both parties took to the streets, but media coverage calmed down. Race alerts became less frequent.


“Watching the vote tallies on TV moves very slow,” Joe Biden said, while his lead margin grew at snail-speed. “And as slow as it goes it can be numbing.” And yet, the protracted counting relegated political polarization to where it seemed to belong—the ballot box, not the behaviour. “The purpose of our politics isn’t total unrelenting unending warfare,” Biden continued. “We’re certainly not agreeing on a lot of issues, but at least we can agree to be civil with one another.”

Observers watch the counting of ballots at the Allegheny County Election Division warehouse on the Northside of Pittsburgh, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020.


Biden identified the emotional waves the election inspired, from numbness to bellicosity. Democracy, he implied, with its attention to due process, can veer towards the former, although for a few days, the dull administrative task of ballot counting seemed glorious. Populism, in contrast, wants to appear quick and punchy by generously skipping essential intermediate steps. Trump declared himself the winner before any official announcement was made. When media outlets projected Biden as winner, he tweeted, “Since when does the Lamestream Media call who our next president will be?”


The seemingly endless counting of votes catalyzed antagonisms of emotions and attitudes: a measured display of feelings vs. immoderate exuberance, observant patience vs. surging ahead. Or, reversely, sluggishness vs. drive. Emotions, as it became apparent during election week, metaphorize a fierce political contest: who is to embody a new beginning in the face of the other’s stasis? Biden emphasized that with the results, Americans “chose change over more of the same.” Trump stressed that Biden had 47 years to do what he now wants to do, but never did it.

Trump, who still received a larger share of votes than previous record-holder Barack Obama in 2008, re-connotes emotional styles: moderation becomes inertness, anger equals action.


The two vastly different demeanours of Biden and Trump appear as polarization incarnate. Biden called himself the “antithesis” to the incumbent. He, too, may be an ‘old white man,’ but he is a centrist, equipped with a strong sense of etiquette. He doesn’t shout. Many find him polite and friendly. His campaign came up with “Joe’s Code,” comprising respect and compassion and, as he quotes his parents and grandparents, is a sentimental reference to his family history.

This temperance opposes the rage believed to fuel ‘Trumpism.’ “Angry White Men,” sociologist Michael Kimmel posited, had propelled someone to the top who channeled their “aggrieved entitlement” by being consistently irascible. Trump’s rivals incur insulting nicknames, as do renegade members of his family or former collaborators. His Tweets are excessively capitalized. CNN illustrated the scale showing the number of electoral votes with pictures of a benignly smiling Biden at one end and a grim, furrow-browed Trump with a sneer on his lips at the other.

His unfettered indulgence of distinct emotional expressions make Trump appear unpresidential. Being a statesman, his opponents think, calls for a different style. Informed by a tradition that reaches back to classical and Christian writings on the importance of moderation, Western leaders strive to cultivate a public air of emotional restraint, decorously peppered with just the right amount of enthusiasm and empathy. Pictures, sculptures, posters, videos, and even banknotes visualize how American presidents are mostly imagined in the twentieth and twenty-first century: collected and determined, yet sympathetic and passionate. Each is different, but they consciously join the ranks of their similar-looking predecessors. For example, Barack Obama’s Hope poster was modelled on a picture by John F. Kennedy’s and Abraham’s Lincoln’s head on the five-dollar bill.

Compared to this line, Trump looks dramatic and over-the-top.


All these descriptions, however, are not neutral. They reflect the rules by which we judge the two men’s attitudes. A 2017 Economist cover, merging a portrait of bold-looking George Washington with zipped-mouthed Donald Trump, showed what the latter’s non-standard style means: he’s the odd-one out.


Deviation has become Trump’s unique selling point to attract a following. The delight in affronting others catalyzes schadenfreude about blasé authority becoming undermined.
While unpredictable behaviour can be entertaining and satisfying, it also gestures at the disparity between laggardness and speed that became forcefully expressed in the time-consuming ballot counting: just like the correct measuring of the outcome, a measured emotional display can be coded as numbing. Trump called Biden “Sleepy Joe” to insinuate a lack of vitality. He rushed Arizona senator Martha McSally to the stage during a rally: “Martha, just come up fast. Fast. Fast. Come on. Quick. You got one minute!” His project to tackle Covid has been named Operation Warp Speed. The mercurial style wants to articulate an eagerness to act in the face of others who are just slowcoaches.


When, through the different styles, emotional expressions become associated with pace, then the drawback of a moderation of feeling is thrown into sharp relief: too much calmness turns into apathy. Trump’s disruptive performances have made the style of his opponents slip from meaning discipline to dormancy, because it stands for (reputed) political inertia. Distrust in democratic institutions, the election showed, is linked to their alleged drawing out of processes: why were mail-in-ballots, post-marked on November 3, still accepted days after election day? Why did it take so long to get results? The slowness translated into suspicious opacity. When representatives of such immobile institutions, then, sport restraint, they come to personify ossified structures.

The allegations loom large: Biden wanted “to get to work on day one.” When he is about to give a speech, he can be seen jogging onto the stage, keen to appear fresh, strong, active.


A lack of anger at the right things, Aristotle wrote more than 2,000 years ago, can show a lack of spirit. While Trump’s manners seem erratic to some, they are read as energetic by his supporters. There lies now an acute irony in the fact that the Trump administration uses the ‘lame duck period’ to push for persistence. “The president can say,” Oklahoma Republican Senator James Lankford stated on 12 November, “‘Not so fast. I’ve got questions to answer.’”


Populism is often seen to be driven by people craving an end to modern developments, but the connoting of emotional styles allows for an added ambiguity: definitions of what represents stasis and change are themselves constantly in flux.

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