The sonneteers of social media are a-moan about the Twitter update that now grants each user 280 characters to play with, up from 140. Relaxing the platform’s formal constraints tweaks the rules of the game and maims the soul of wit, which is brevity, which is a sentence construction I would never have dreamed of posting under the old regime, when one counted one’s clauses like my Depression-raised grandparents thumbing coupons at the grocery store.
But attitudes about plenitude and scarcity rarely arise in a vacuum. These perceptions take shape in historical context; in 2017, that means they are likely forming under the malignant shadow of Donald J. Trump.
With @realDonaldTrump exuding a steady flow of angry nonsense from the White House, Twitter doesn’t just represent a social networking service. It is a weapon. News of its roomier entry field feels a bit like news that a tyrant’s cudgel has been swapped out for a bigger cudgel.
In fact, though, the consequences of the shift are subtler, if no less insidious: President Trump’s tweets have started to make sense.
Behold the evidence:
On behalf of @FLOTUS Melania and I, THANK YOU for an unforgettable afternoon and evening at the Forbidden City in Beijing, President Xi and Madame Peng Liyuan. We are looking forward to rejoining you tomorrow morning! https://t.co/ma0F7SHbVU— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 8, 2017
The North Korean regime has pursued its nuclear & ballistic missile programs in defiance of every assurance, agreement, & commmitment it has made to the U.S. and its allies. It's broken all of those commitments... pic.twitter.com/xJ4jUpA8d8— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 8, 2017
Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for. Don’t forget, Republicans won 4 out of 4 House seats, and with the economy doing record numbers, we will continue to win, even bigger than before!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 8, 2017
The character counts on the above tweets clock in at 217, 213, and 215, respectively. It turns out that more space in which to spread out and unwind his thoughts has helped the president communicate. This shouldn’t surprise us as Trump does not seem like the most disciplined cogitator. On the stump, free of word limits and teleprompters, he can get snarled in digression and incoherence. But on Twitter, twice as many letters allows POTUS to meander without losing the thread, to squeeze in some of the redundancies that he believes emphasize his points, and to intensify his language with the verys and completelys that prop up his spoken rhetoric.
This is a bummer. Trump’s truncation-abetted stupidity on his favorite website can seem useful in retrospect—actionable proof of unfitness for office—and it could also be sort of wonderful, like walking outside to find a winged elephant floundering in your birdbath. His rambling was dark comedy. It was delicious junk food. Now the president is serving up tweets that are both bad for you and, in their lack of goofy distractions, unpleasant to read.
As of Thursday, Trump has also posted some anodyne messages that both hew to Twitter’s bygone stringency and read like normal English.
In the coming months and years ahead I look forward to building an even STRONGER relationship between the United States and China. 🇺🇸🇨🇳 pic.twitter.com/mK3SB7t3EV— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 9, 2017
What could this mean? Maybe the raver-in-chief’s handlers are viewing Twitter’s update as an occasion to rethink their approach to moderating his social media use. Maybe they’re about to start editing him more comprehensively. Or maybe Trump is capable, now and then, of crafting a brief and clear couple of sentences the way you sometimes experience lucid moments in a nightmare. Even before the word-count expansion, he sometimes wrote tweets that didn’t require a special decoder ring.
On the other hand, remember this crazy word lasagna (114 characters)?
I always felt I would be running and winning against Bernie Sanders, not Crooked H, without cheating, I was right.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 3, 2017
Trump must have felt pressure to prune his dumb claim—something about how he’d always suspected that, without Clinton’s devious interference, he would have run against Sanders, and now he continues to believe that. The statement sputters along in characteristic staccato bursts that never quite connect to each other.
Or consider this tweet at a lean 111 characters:
CHAIN MIGRATION must end now! Some people come in, and they bring their whole family with them, who can be truly evil. NOT ACCEPTABLE! pic.twitter.com/PQGeTTdRtX— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 1, 2017
Somehow Trump is both convoluted and totally unsubtle. Immigrants are OK, his circular phrasing suggests, but their families are occasionally the worst, and all of this is very bad. (What’s he got against Melania’s parents?) The need to drive home the ghastliness of the situation within limited Twitter acreage produces a pure id-like ejaculation: NOT ACCEPTABLE! You see similar endings on other tweets from the Before Times, such as when the president reassured Dreamers that “no action!” would boot them from the country. Also, England “need[ed] to be proactive!” about terror.
For all of those (DACA) that are concerned about your status during the 6 month period, you have nothing to worry about - No action!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 7, 2017
Another attack in London by a loser terrorist.These are sick and demented people who were in the sights of Scotland Yard. Must be proactive!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 15, 2017
In the plus-size tweets, though, Trump’s percussive mindlessness (“sad!”) has elongated into political cant (“The North Korean regime has pursued its nuclear & ballistic missile programs in defiance of every assurance…”). The dense core of his insatiable self-regard (“I was right”) has unfolded into chattiness (“…then will be headed to China where I very much look forward to…”). In this new social media order, will we consume presidential Twitter differently, as a series of legible messages rather than a geyser of ranty gobbledygook? Lulled by Trump’s ability to color within slightly wider lines, will we forget that he is stupid and desperate and mean?
One second, I’m composing a tweet.
Also, I did find one counterexample:
The U.S., under my administration, is completely rebuilding its military, and they're spending hundreds of billions of dollars to the newest and finest military equipment anywhere in the world, being built right now. I want peace through strength! pic.twitter.com/2YXkIvRIFi— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 8, 2017
The syntactical wormhole lurking in this 210-character post—and notice its simplistic kicker, our old friend, too!—could swallow hundreds of tons of American military equipment. It’s possible that @realDonaldTrump: the Extended Edition will just be more of the same.