by Jessica Hautsch
If you were to gather together a group of writing instructors and ask them to list authors whose prose they might use as model texts in the classroom, it is very possible that the last person they would suggest would be Donald J. Trump. In fact, it is probably more likely that Trump wouldn’t even make the list. Despite Trump’s claims that he has “all the best words,” he does not have a reputation for being much of an orator, and his twitter typos and misspellings (remember “covefe” and “hamberders”?) have been a constant source of consternation and opportunity to ridicule for his political opponents. Trump is rarely associated with literariness, and he is not necessarily a writer that most professors would urge their students to emulate in the classroom.
And yet in my Literary Analysis and Critical Thinking class I do precisely that, using Trump’s tweets to talk about genre, style, tone, and literature.
In his “Metrical Analysis of Trump Insult Haiku,” Josh Marshall argues that many of Trump’s tweets (before Twitter doubled its character limit) followed a “metrical progression.” He suggests that there is a formal pattern to Trump’s twitter “insult haikus”: “Single clause declarative sentence, single clause declarative sentence, primary adjective/term of derision.” For example, a tweet from February 28, 2016 reads, “Lightweight Senator Marco Rubio is polling very poorly in Florida. [Single Clause declarative sentence] The people can’t stand him for missing so many votes [single clause declarative sentence] – poor work ethic! [term of derision].” In his post, Marshall list numerous tweets that follow the same pattern and that might be used as model texts.
The structural consistency of these tweets makes them easy to parody. And after one of the presidential debates, Twitter-user Antonio French, made the literary connection, tweeting that “Trump’s foreign policy answers sounds like a book report from a teenage who hasn’t read the book. Oh, the grapes! They had so much wrath!” Of course, French’s concept was memed, and spread throughout the twitterverse as other users began composing their own #trumpbookreports in the president’s voice, tone, and style, including Jack Shepard of Buzzfeed who created the account @LitCritTrump, mimicking the formula of the “Trump Insult Haiku” and applying it not to Trump’s political rivals but to literary classics and their characters. A Trump style review of the Odyssey, Shepard posits, might sound something like this: “Odysseus took 20 years to travel 600 miles. Would not want him captain of my boat. BAD SAILOR.” According to Shepard, “Loser Hamlet can’t even avenge his father’s death. The problem is, he is a choker, and once a choker, always a choker! Mr. Meltdown” and “Remember that Ahab is a very weak as a captain. Can’t even catch a whale after years and years of trying. Poor work ethic!”
The literary nature of these tweets renders them an excellent fit for a literature course, and for the past few semesters, I used #trumpbookreport to discuss the characters in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glenn Ross with my students. The play’s thematic treatment of masculinity effectively aligns with Trump’s preoccupation with appearing strong—and the real estate connection is also fortunate. The masculine toxicity and capitalistic greed that permeates the play renders most of the characters aggressively unlikable (to put it mildly), so it does not feel too mean-spirited to subject them to Trumpian insults.
I begin the lesson by distributing some examples of Trump tweets to my students, urging them to consider not just what Trump is saying, but how he is saying it. First, we decipher the pattern of the tweets, the formula observed by Marshall. We also discuss the fact that he has an almost Homeric fondness for epithets: “lying Ted,” “crooked Hillary,” “Low-energy Jeb,” “Little Marco,” etc. And we analyze the aggressive, contemptuous, and derisive tone that Trump tends to use on Twitter. Once students understand Trump’s rhetorical strategies, we then look at #trumpbookreports generated by Twitter users so that students can see the way in which the genre parodies Trump’s style and tone.
After we have analyzed some models, students are then tasked to create their own #trumpbookreports for the character in Mamet’s play. Sites like prankmenot.com allow users to compose fake tweets that can be attributed to anyone, real or fictional. One of the advantages of using a site like this is that they limit the number of characters, which adds an additional authenticity and requires students to be rhetorically creative and concise.
Students have a lot of fun fashioning their tweets and using them to analyze and criticize the characters. Writing tweets challenges students to provide insights into characters in a relatively short amount of space, relying on pithy insults, like “Failing Levene claims he can’t close deals because of bad luck and poor leads. Truth is he sucks. TERRIBLE SALESMAN!” and “Pathetic Aaranow can’t close a deal. Stupidly falls right into Moss’s blackmail. STAND UP FOR YOURSELF!” Lingk, especially seems to inspire Trump’s ire, as one student wrote: “Spineless Lingk cancels his deal because his wife told him to. Can’t stand up to her or Roma. No balls!” In fact, the only character who received any Trump love was Blake, the played by Alec Baldwin in the film adaptation (who of, course, would go on to impersonate Trump on Saturday Night Live): “Winning Blake has a nice watch and car. He knows what it takes to sell real estate. Brass balls! #Realmensellrealestate.”
This exercise requires students pay attention to genre and style. Writings tweets requires students to understand the rhetorical and formal conventions of a genre not generally encountered in the classroom. Writing in the concise format of twitter is very different from writing an essay, and writing in the style of Donald Trump even more so. Students must think about how to succinctly and effectively convey their analysis and assessment of characters in compliance with a limited character count. They can play around with the conventions of the genre, including elements like hashtags, the @ sign, and twitter handles. They might also experiment with rhetorical characteristics that are linked specifically to Trump, like capitalizations, misspellings, and quotation mark use. Parodying Trump’s tweets encourages students to consider the formal and stylistic elements of the genre, a skill that can be transferred to the generic analysis of other texts.
This assignment asks both students and instructors to rethink composition in the digital age. By drawing on the participatory meme culture of Web 2.0, we can encourage students to engage with literary texts in a way that is both interpretative and relevant (though hashtags are, by nature, ephemeral—and #Trumpbookreport has received little attention since 2016 when it went viral), to consider genre, tone, and style. Donald J. Trump might not be high on anyone’s list of rhetorical mentor texts, but parodying his tweets invites students to engage in sophisticated literary and rhetorical analysis.