What Experts Think Trump & Don Jr.'s Body Language Reveal About Their Father-Son Dynamic

by Morgan Brinlee
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Since Donald Trump stepped into politics, his eldest son has quickly become one of his most vocal surrogates. Indeed, Donald Trump Jr. can often be found holding court for his father at fundraisers and campaign rallies. But what of the pair's relationship? Experts tell Bustle the body language between Trump and Don Jr. reveals the two may potentially be engaged in a father-son power play.

According to The Washington Post, the relationship between Trump and Don Jr. has at times been distant. The paper claimed Don Jr. stopped speaking to his father when a very public divorce ended Trump's marriage to his mother. A short stint in Colorado after college was, according to the paper, Don Jr. creating physical distance between himself and his father.

Over time, however, Don Jr. found his way back to both his father and his father's company, eventually taking a job at the Trump Organization, the paper reported. What's more, when his father moved on to politics, Don Jr. followed, becoming a regular speaker for not only his father but the Republican Party as well, The New York Times has reported.

Experts have told Bustle that Don Jr. exhibits body language similar to his father, mimicking his gestures and posture as if trying to emulate or live up to his namesake. And it's exactly these kinds of insights that reveal why body language is important. "In the realm of emotion, words are often less trustworthy than nonverbal signs," David Givens, director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies, tells Bustle, adding that such nonverbal cues are often involuntarily.

Still, interpreting body language can be difficult, and the polished nature of politics makes the task even more challenging. "It's important to remember that even body language can be scripted," Laura Dudley, director of Applied Behavior Analysis Programs at Northeastern University, tells Bustle.

Here's how body language experts decoded Trump and Don Jr.'s body language:

Smiles In Selfies Don't Always Signal Ease

In November, Don Jr. shared a selfie he'd snapped with his father while riding in Marine One earlier in the year. In it, the president can be seen with a large smile, something body language expert and author of SNAP: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, and Charisma Patti Wood was quick to notice. "I'd say the most dramatic thing that's kind of interesting to me here is how big his smile is," she tells Bustle of Trump. "I don't always see him smile that large and authentically."

But Wood says it's impossible to know what's motivated Trump's smile, in fact it might have nothing to do with his son's presence. "If you look at his hands... that's called log cabin, that interlacing and placement," Wood says of the way Trump placed his hands. "It's typically a protective gesture and it keeps a person out or away." She also notes that Trump does not appear to display any of the normal intimate gestures a parent might display toward a child when taking a selfie, such as a reaching out to touch or opening their body window. "There's a protection there to not get too close, not get too intimate, which is interesting to me," she says.

According to Wood, Don Jr. has also positioned himself in such as way as to blocking any potential father-son intimacy. "Trump Jr. has a protective arm block. It's not relaxed," she says, noting how Don Jr. has positioned his arm. "Because it's held with tension it's perceived as a block or a wall and that again cuts away the intimacy of father son."

Dudley, however, has a different interpretation. She tells Bustle that Trump's hands are "folded and pointed down in a relaxed manner," noting that "both men are smiling and leaning in towards one another, as one does in a selfie." But while Trump appears relaxed, Dudley says Don Jr. "looks a bit awkward, with what seems like a forced smile on his face." Of course, Dudley notes that Don Jr.'s awkwardness may simply be a result of his role as photographer. And indeed, much has been written about the awkwardness of taking a selfie.

Shaking Hands But No Eye Contact

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In a photograph snapped at the opening of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. back in 2016, Trump and his son reach across Ivanka Trump to shake hands. While Trump appears to pull his son's hand toward him, he also seems to be distracted by the crowd and thus not giving Don Jr. his full attention. Still, experts say their hand positioning is meaningful. "Don Jr.'s hand is facing down while Trump's is facing up," Dudley says. "When one person positions his hand on top of the other person's hand in a handshake, this is sometimes seen as an expression of power."

Wood also noted the position of Trump and Don Jr.'s hands. "It's really interesting because Trump likes to have a handshake where he's on top in the alpha place," she says, wondering if the president later forced a turn in the handshake to position his hand on top. (A video of this handshake revealed he didn't.) "It could be Trump Jr. offering a child hand," Wood says, noting that children often put their hand out palm down so the parent's hand is then placed so it is "supportive underneath."

But while Trump has allowed his son to literally have the upper hand in this handshake, it's clear by the discoloration of his hand that this is no relaxed, light grip. "The white-knuckle strength of Trump's grip is a display of masculine vigor, emotional intensity, and physical force," Givens tells Bustle. He argues that Trump's handshakes are often an attempt at displaying control.

Hug It Out

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As one of his father's top campaign surrogates, Don Jr. often introduces his father at rallies and events. Here the two can be seen hugging as Don Jr. hands off the podium to Trump.

"The hug is a commonly used emotion cue of emotional caring," Givens says, noting that "Trump obviously cares deeply for his son."

However, experts also note that how people hug can say a lot about them. "What's interesting here is that [Don Jr.] is doing a hug that shows his strength and power and desire to be seen as alpha," Wood says, pointing to how he brings his arms up and over his father's.

But there may be other reasons for Don Jr.'s arms being on top. "Oftentimes the person who initiates the hug places his arms on top," Dudley says. "At times, when two people are in close proximity to one another and go in for the hug, it is random where the arms end up. That may have been the case in this photo."

Wood cautions that the setting may have also influenced the hug. She notes the flat, splayed out nature of Trump's hand as well as the way his body does not curve around his son's as being potentially indicative of the president not fully reciprocating the intimacy of the hug — potentially due to a desire to appear formal and presidential in front of an audience or, as Wood notes, perhaps the photo was merely snapped a second before Trump curved and wrapped his body in an intimate hug.

The Broken Zipper Position

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In this photo, Trump appears to be exchanging a few words with his son while standing in the audience at an event. According to Dudley, the way Don Jr. is standing — with his arms brought together and hands gripped in front of his lower half in what is knows as the "broken zipper position" — could provide some clues as to how he feels.

"The theory as to why one stands in this position is that it may make the person feel more secure," Dudley says. Individuals who assume the "broken zipper position" are, according to experts behind the Body Language Project, thought to be feeling either exposed or insecure in that moment.

Like Father, Like Son

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The body language experts Bustle spoke with were quick to notice how, in a photograph of Trump and his son shaking hands at a 2016 presidential debate, Don Jr. appears to have pulled in his father's hand to rest close to his belly, mimicking a well-known Trump move.

"Pulling another person into one's own personal space has been interpreted as a power play by some, and as communicating insecurity by others," Dudley says. She noted that neither Trump appeared to be smiling, "which may indicate that they are unhappy, but it may also reflect a solemn occasion." What's more, she notes that the way Don Jr. appears to be looking directly into Trump's eyes could signal that he's searching his father's face for a reaction.

Wood also commented on the men's facial expressions, noting that Trump appeared to be displaying "a subtle anger underneath [his] facial expression." Of course, as Wood notes, it's impossible to know from a photograph if that subtle anger Trump appears to be feeling is a reaction to his son or something else entirely.


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In this photograph of Trump sharing the stage at a campaign event with two of his sons, the president appears to be smiling while reaching out to display or draw attention to both of his children. But one of the first things that may grab your attention in this photo is actually Trump's expression — the pursed lip smile, the squinted or scrunched eyes. "It's a sense of 'look what I have' or 'look at this,'" Wood says of Trump's facial expression. "It's not necessarily a smile of pride, but similar to that in its energy."

According to Dudley, Trump's oldest son appears to be mirroring his father's facial expression, giving the same scrunched eyed, pursed lip smile. "'Mirroring' is when we do the same as another person, and it communicates a bond with that person," she says. "Some research suggests that a subordinate will sometimes mirror the behavior of a person in authority." This mirroring could explain why some experts have previously told Bustle that Don Jr.'s body language appears to emulate that of his father.

That being said, Wood notes that there may be more drama in readings on Trump and Don Jr.'s body language because there appears to be "an energetic pull back and forth" between them. She credits this to their close proximity and the fact that "they're wrestling with that father-son dynamic of who's got power."

Dudley also notes that in a majority of the photos, the pair exhibit gestures that suggest there's "an affection" between them while also implying "there may simultaneously be a potential power play between the two."

But these experts caution that reading body language from a photograph can be especially challenging and warn against considering any such interpretation as being written in stone. As Dudley points out, a picture can't always tell the whole story. "It must be remembered that each of these photos represent a single point in time, and therefore do not paint a full picture of their relationship," she says.