How Trump Thinks: His Tweets and the Birth of a New Political Language by Peter Oborne and Tom Roberts - review

David Sexton
Dumb thumb: a statue of Donald Trump in Luoyang, China: Getty Images/VCG

For years after its invention 11 years ago, Twitter seemed a natural ally of liberalism and even political correctness, appealing as it does to a social consensus on the topics of the day, offering virtuous things for admiration and approval and offensive things for ridicule and contempt. It has taken the rise of Donald Trump to demonstrate that the very nature of Twitter also makes it an even more brutally effective weapon for everything the politically correct, or just fair-minded, abhor.

As Peter Oborne notes in his incisive introduction to this carefully annotated, chronological anthology of Trump’s tweets: “Twitter allows a candidate to appeal at a personal level to anyone who is against anything and make him or her feel like part of a vast shared community without having to meet or even acknowledge any of its other members.”

Trump “viscerally understood the power of this new medium to simplify complex ideas, to remove nuance and subtext and, above all, to remove any boundary between assertion and fact”. He is the first politician to have grasped that it can create a world of belief impervious to reality.

There have been derisive collections of Trump’s blurts before (easy to gather, copyright free), including one arranging them as haikus and one, forthcoming, turning them into a “coloring book” — all good for a scoff. But reading through this para-scholarly presentation of his texts, apparently the idea of the publisher Neil Belton, changes your perception of them. They don’t seem merely preposterous any more.

The editors themselves say, “We were inclined to dismiss Donald Trump as a buffoon when we embarked on this study.” But their book reveals his use of Twitter has been a game-changer. By giving these yelps the context they otherwise lack, they show us how they evolved, from Trump’s initial naïve delight in the medium’s power to reach people directly to the point where he could proclaim nearly everything apart from his own utterances to be “FAKE NEWS”.

The editorial annotations patiently explain the vindictiveness, the inconsistencies, the baseless claims, the way Trump never answers challenges but instead attacks the challenger. But they also note the development of his style, arguing that it was in summer 2011 that he “discovered the unique Twitter voice that would take him to the White House six years later”, with such imperatives as: “Wake up America — China is eating our lunch.”

Sometimes they allow their disgust to appear, as when Trump claims to have had a wonderful relationship with Nelson Mandela (“the most repulsive example of Donald Trump’s ghoulish habit of claiming a strong connection with famous people when they die”). At other times, though, they fairly concede Trump has been proved right, on such matters as the outcome of the Arab Spring, or reconstruction in Afghanistan.

In an appendix they analyse Trump’s primitive style through statistics, his favourite put-downs being “bad”, “crooked”, “failing”, “failure”, “losers”, “haters”, while his most used terms of praise (“usually self-reflexive”) are “great”, “greatest” (4,400 occurrences), “big”, “amazing”, “nice” and “the best!” Waggishly, they record there are zero examples of written regrets.

What they don’t really investigate is the way the restrictions of Twitter itself have removed syntax, that fundamental ordering of language, from its users, so that everything tends towards labelling (“crooked Hillary”), a stance taken, an assertion, allegation or exclamation, never towards argument or reasoning. For if Twitter has revealed all too much about Trump, it is equally the case and hardly less interesting that Trump has revealed much about Twitter.

£10, Amazon, Buy it now