Opening Twitter every morning is a bit like getting on an airplane. The place is usually full of stale air, fussy babies, and people you don’t want to talk to. Ten minutes into the turbulence your mind starts entertaining thoughts of a fiery death and you’re ready for your second drink of the morning. (Make it a double, Kevin. No ice).
Making matters worse, there’s a vulgar 6’3”, 239-pound guy manspreading in first class. He’s watching Fox News videos without earbuds and coughing with his mouth open. When he hacks his phlegmy germs infect the rest of the cabin and dominate every other passenger’s conversation until his next cough. Also, he’s a racist. And he’s the president of the United States.
Donald Trump and Twitter have developed a weird symbiotic relationship over the past few years. It’s hard to tell which organism benefits more from the arrangement, but it’s impossible to imagine one existing without the other.
I admit I’m part of the problem. I follow @realdonaldtrump on Twitter. I subtweet. I troll. I feed the monster. I’m one of the passengers on this doomed flight.
Trump Twitter has become an addiction of sorts. It’s one I’m not proud of it. It reminds me of when I was a smoker, and it has approximately the same health benefits.
As with cigarettes, I started Trump Twitter socially at first, over a beer and a laugh with friends. Gradually it became part of my daily routine—with my morning coffee, in the bathroom, after a meal, in the Dunkin’ Donuts’ parking lot. I continued with the habit even after scientific studies found that reading a single Trump tweet takes approximately 15 minutes off your life expectancy.
Two years into my daily self-flagellation, I still wrestle to understand the pernicious appeal of Trump Twitter. At it’s best, Trump’s tweets are misinformed, petulant, mean spirited, dishonest, and trite. At worst, they’re subliterate and borderline incoherent. The president has a tenuous grasp on grammar, spelling, and syntax. Some of his tweets read like a perplexing jumble of subordinate and adjective clauses peppered with RANDOM acts of Capitalization, spastic punctuation!!!, and covfefe.
Despite Trump’s daily challenges to express thoughts in the only language he knows, the guy has 46.8 million followers on Twitter and finished second in the 2016 popular vote with nearly 63 million ballots. His message—whatever it is he’s trying to say— is clearly resonating with a sizable chunk of people, in addition to the Russian bots. To force my original metaphor, a lot of people got on this flight willfully.
There have been many attempts to solve the riddle of Trump Twitter over the years. But in the season of hot takes, the best explanation I’ve found is actually a literary criticism of Holden Caulfield.
In 1992, British novelist David Lodge wrote an article which was first published in the Independent on Sunday and later reprinted in The Art of Fiction, analyzing the narrative style in J.D. Salinger’s seminar novel, The Catcher in the Rye. To be clear, the article has nothing to do with the U.S. president, yet it’s the best thing I’ve read on the chemistry of Trump’s prose.
Consider Lodge’s basic description of Holden Caulfield’s first-person narrative style, which he says is written in a way that you don’t so much read as listen to.
“There’s a lot of repetition (because elegant variation in vocabulary requires careful thought) especially of slang… Holden expresses the strength of his feelings by exaggeration, the device rhetoricians call hyperbole. The syntax is simple. Sentences are typically short and uncomplicated. Many of them aren’t properly formed, lacking a finite verb. There are grammatical mistakes such as speakers often make. In longer sentences, clauses are strung together as they seem to occur to the speaker, rather than being subordinated to each other in complex structures.”
The similarities go beyond speech patterns. Both Holden and Trump are the spoiled scion of affluent New York families who live self-absorbed lives of adolescent fantasy as they wage a lonely and Quixotic battle against “phony jerks” and “fake news media,” respectively.
Lodge’s conclusion is that people love The Catcher in the Rye as a matter of style over substance. “It’s the style that makes the book interesting,” he writes. “The story it tells is episodic, inconclusive and largely made up of trivial events.”
Actually, episodic, inconclusive and trivial are also terms that could be used to describe this article I just wrote. I started with an airplane metaphor, then talked about my old smoking habit, then wandered like a lost child into an analysis of The Catcher in the Rye.
So to extract myself from this mess, let me borrow the final words from Holden himself. That’s all I’m going to tell about. I could probably tell you more, but I don’t feel like it. I really don’t. That stuff doesn’t interest me too much right now.
Or, as Trump might tweet, “FAKE NEWS. No more!”