It stems from a story told by Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair. Nearly 30 years ago, Carter called Trump a "short-fingered vulgarian" in the defunct magazine Spy, prompting years of rebuttals from Trump himself. "To this day, I receive the occasional envelope from Trump," Carter wrote last October. "There is always a photo of him—generally a tear sheet from a magazine. On all of them he has circled his hand in gold Sharpie in a valiant effort to highlight the length of his fingers." Carter describes having received such a photo last year. "Like the other packages," Carter writes, "this one included a circled hand and the words, also written in gold Sharpie: 'See, not so short!'"
On the campaign trail on Tuesday, when most candidates would be rehashing their stump speeches, Trump instead returned to the topic of his fingers. Referring to Marco Rubio's decision to raise the issue last week, Trump said, "He said I had small hands. Actually I'm 6'3" not 6'2". They're not small are they?"
So let's put this to rest. Once and for all, let's determine, to the best of our ability, if Donald Trump's fingers are abnormally short.
To do so, we need to know:
1. How long a man's fingers are supposed to be.
2. How long Trump's fingers are.
How long should his fingers be?
I am 6'4" tall -- 193 cm for our foreign readers. The middle finger of my left hand is about 3.75 inches long -- about 9.5 cm. I took a photo.
That's a little shorter than the average middle-finger length of prisoners at San Quentin in 1902, according to the endlessly fascinating book "A Study of Post Office Criminals" from that same year.
I don't mind failing to measure up to turn-of-the-century cons, but it does beg the question of where and how one measures this length. Should I include the knuckle, for example?
A 2013 study attempting to discern the height of a person using finger length (for the deeply grim purposes of identifying a body) used the "ventral proximal crease," the line running across the middle of your palm. By that measure, my middle finger is a lengthy 5.2" long -- far longer than those long-dead crooks at San Quentin.
The study also found that the length of one's fingers only loosely correlates to height. Correlation is stronger between height and the male ring finger than other fingers, but even that correlation was loose. The researchers figured that the margin of error in an estimate of height based on finger length was about 6 centimeters -- or two inches. This scatter plot of heights versus finger lengths shows the wide variability of the measurement.
This research was conducted in India, if you were curious, but it doesn't matter anyway. We're going to use the San Quentin 4.5" measurement instead for the perfectly rigorous reason that it's more interesting.
How long are Trump's fingers?
This, actually, is the trickier part.
We have a few things working against us. Since we don't have at our disposal a photo similar to mine above showing Trump's finger next to a tape measure, we have to estimate his fingers's length from the photos we do have.
There are plenty of photos of Trump's fingers, of course, but usually taken at an angle or while bent. There's a concept in photography called foreshortening, which comes into play with someone like Trump who likes to point a lot.
You get photos like this one, where his pointer finger looks abnormally short, because the camera is (to some extent) looking down the length of it.
Remember that old illustration of the criminal pointing a gun at the observer that they use on targets at shooting ranges? This guy? The gun looks like two overlapping circles because it's pointed at you. Can't tell how long it is.
In most press photos, Trump is gesticulating or doing his standard thumbs-up pose with someone, a gesture that also tends to make his thumb look stubby. (Trump, like Bill Clinton, tends to keep his thumb fairly close to his fist when he's giving a thumbs up, making it look shorter.)
But even if he were holding his fingers out perfectly perpendicular to the camera, we need a point of reference. In the photo I took of my finger, the tape measure was the point of reference. We need something of a known length in proximity to Trump's hand, in order to evaluate length.
Something like this.
In his hand in this photo, Trump is holding a Sharpie. (Not gold.) It appears to be larger than a normal Sharpie, meaning that it is, perhaps a Sharpie Extreme. But without knowing what Sharpie it is, this doesn't do us much good.
Recognizing that the number of objects Trump's hands might be interacting with was limited in press photos, we turned to his Instagram.
Here, we have something. Donald Trump, signing his taxes, with his fingers visible and straight and adjacent to something which we know how big it is -- a piece of paper.
A standard sheet of business paper in the United States is 8.5 by 11 inches. The top edge of that sheet, then, is almost certainly 8.5 inches wide. (Trump doesn't seem like the A4 sort.) The corner extends off the page a bit, but not too badly.
We have a bit of a foreshortening problem here, too, but his hand is fairly perpendicular to the page. We want to figure out the length of that middle finger, like so.
If we assume that his finger is perfectly perpendicular to the sheet of paper, comparing the length of those two lines gives us a ratio of 2.29. Making Trump's finger 3.7 inches long, measured to the same point as when I first measured mine. This is a rough estimate, and the fact that his finger is angled suggests that it's a bit longer than that -- but it's about as long as my finger was when I measured.
Perhaps my fingers are stubby. Perhaps his aren't.
Another comparison. Here's a photo of Trump with Jesse James, from Trump's Instagram.
Notice that James sticks his fingers way out, away from his fist, and Trump doesn't. That makes James's fingers look longer -- but the red and blue bars below are the same length.
Jesse James's height, per Google? Six-foot-two.
Barring the appearance of a photo of Trump holding a ruler, this is the best we can do. Our verdict? Trump is not a "short-fingered vulgarian," for the sole reason that he is not short-fingered.
Update, Mar. 3: The issue came up at the debate.