Opinion

Trump's tweets are American literature

Like them or not, the president's tweets belong not only to American history but to our common literary heritage

Barack Obama recently published the first of what we are told will be at least two volumes of presidential memoirs. Though I have a high opinion of some of his early speeches — especially the autobiographical address given at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 — it seems to me unlikely that A Promised Land will number among the handful of books written by American presidents that are read (as opposed to purchased) by a large number of people even immediately after publication. Instead like so many modern political memoirs before and since, it will gather dust on shelves and, eventually, in the outdoor free boxes of second-hand bookstores.

A book that I think has a better chance of being read and enjoyed is an edition of Donald Trump's tweets. Cheap cash-ins like Sh*t My President Says have been appearing for years now, but what I have in mind is a more serious and I daresay scholarly undertaking. It would include copious notes, providing as much context as possible (e.g., who Rick Gates was, descriptions of embedded video content, the exact wording of the warning messages appended by Twitter). It would also have a lengthy appendix containing deleted tweets and a thorough index that would allow readers to follow Trump's great themes — illegal immigration, Obama's birth certificate, Diet Coke, "the losers and haters" — over the course of more than a decade. It would sport handsome gold boards and a white dust jacket with champagne lettering. Each volume — I envision at least four — would cost around $50. (A cheaper one-volume paperback selection that retained some of the editorial apparatus would appear later.)

Such a massive undertaking, which technically cannot be completed until he stops tweeting, will be necessary one day because Trump's tweets have an inherent documentary interest in a way that those of his immediate predecessor do not. For Obama, Twitter was an impersonal branding exercise, a medium engaged with third or fourth-hand through communication staff charged with sharing the same workshopped updates that would appear on Facebook, in campaign ads, and on the White House website.

For Trump, Twitter was a natural extension of himself — and of the office of the presidency. It was through this medium that he communicated his firing of various Cabinet officials, announced major changes in American policy such as the ban on transsexuals serving in the military, and even threatened foreign leaders. (The extent to which his tweets constituted official government actions have long been and will probably continue to be the subject of debate among legal scholars.)

But even this misses the point, which is that with his tweets Trump has made a permanent contribution to American literature. This was true even before he announced his intention of running for office (all the way back in 2012 he was calling himself "the best 140 character writer in the world"). How many phrases of Obama's are as memorable as "A very stable genius" or "Many such cases"? How many new words did he add to the lexicon?

It is worth considering exactly which formal qualities make Trump's tweets memorable. One is their syntax, which is at times remarkably complex. It is hard to think of any other writer with an even remotely comparable audience attempting a sentence of more than 60 words, roping double appositives inside relative clauses with ease:

Very few contemporary authors use punctuation more artfully than Trump, especially dashes (actually hyphens, sometimes two or three in a row) and parentheses. He often employs the former to create a kind of miniature periodic effect, as in the famous tweet about vaccines or this one about terrorism:

Parentheses for Trump are sometimes the building blocks of complex sentences, but the single most common use to which he puts them is the seemingly redundant qualification or definition ("bad people (with bad intentions"); "Diet Coke (soda)"; checkout counter (front desk)"). Deliberate tautology is a well-established rhetorical technique — see both of Hamlet's best-known soliloquies — but Trump strips it to its barest essence, pretending that readers might need to be told what one of the world's most popular consumer products is. It is not clear why he does this, but I think the simplest explanation is that it is memorable. Sometimes he accomplishes the same result (clarification that is purely ornamental) without punctuation:

"Both bald and golden eagles" is hilarious because it knowingly appropriates the same journalistic pseudo-expertise he is attacking. If the media and the entire scientific establishment can (as he sees it) pretend that "‘global warming'" is real, Trump can ask readers to assume that he is the kind of person who knows a great deal about eagles — not only the number of species, which he casually acknowledges, but the overlapping threats posed to them by green energy. Here and in a hundred other places his self-parodying faux-erudition reminds me of the catechism episode in Ulysses.

Another striking surface-level feature of Trump's tweets is his use of initial capital letters with certain nouns ("denigrating this luxury Avenue"; "I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!"), which harkens back to the 18th century every bit as much as his periodic sentences. Their appearance alongside so many non-standard spellings, what might politely be described as unnecessary apostrophes, and occasional descents into all caps only heightens the impression that we are reading a novel by Defoe.

But the most memorable formal quality in Trump's tweets is not his syntax or his punctuation or even his half-conscious manipulation of various rhetorical tropes, but his choice of images. A good recent example was sent to me by a speechwriter for a Republican senator:

The genius of this is the bathos of calling a mathematical proportion "devastating," which is worthy of P.G. Wodehouse. It is almost but not quite an example of what philosophers of language would call a "category mistake" (e.g., "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously"). Trump's language has always relied upon such juxtapositions. September 11 is simply an occasion for him to extend his magnanimity; a terrorist attack at the office of a French magazine is an invitation for him to lecture about basic business principles. The automatically updated vote totals appearing on cable television on the morning after the election are, meanwhile, a series of MOAB-like assaults. We are invited to see the "ballot dumps" themselves, delicately, almost impossibly precise in their order and array, raining down upon a hopelessly embattled Trump in the Oval Office like precision missiles, each more wounding somehow than the one before it. Examples like this could be multiplied infinitely, alongside a list of his nicknames ("Lyin' Ted," "Liddle' Bob Corker," "Crazy Bernie," "Shifty Schiff," "Wacky and Deranged Omarosa," "Leakin' James Comey"), many of which have the force of Homeric epithets.

Unlike Obama's memoirs, or even hastily assembled collections of his speeches, Trump's tweets are, for obvious reasons, unlikely to be well received by critics. I also think that it is vanishingly unlikely that they will in fact end up being published in anything like the manner I have proposed.

This is unfortunate, not just because Trump's Twitter account deserves the scrutiny of future historians every bit as much as, say, Eisenhower's telegrams, but because it is impossible to imagine the story of English usage in the 21st century being written without it. No writer in our language since the translators of the 1611 Bible has commanded a wider audience than this president. His tweets belong, like the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration of Independence, not only to American history but to our common literary heritage.

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