Donald Trump did not invent the tweet, nor the political tweet. Not even the presidential tweet. The art of the epigram, or tweet, has been around for centuries, and many masters have come and gone. Consider this gem, tweeted fully half a millenium ago, which practically defines the genre:
The history of the tweet goes way farther back than that. Over a millennium earlier, another gifted twittermeister had a nearly identical thought:
Nor is this the oldest surviving tweet. This one comes from two centuries earlier:
The turn of the 18th century was a fruitful time for the tweet. Alexander Pope’s long poems barely survive, but the tweets he set like jewels within them continue to gleam . I know you’ve heard this one:
and this one, which might have been a DM to President Trump:
Trump may have passed on the inspirational tweets of Pope, preferring the acerbic wit of Pope’s contemporary, Jonathan Swift. If this tweet had been written in he first person singular, it might have come from Trump himself:
Although all of Swift’s wisdom might not be welcome:
These tweets ushered in the Age of Enlightenment, which may have brought us the greatest tweeter of all time:
Franklin may not have invented the political tweet, but he certainly perfected it. His advice to American patriots is remembered long after the war ended.
He could be a lot more pointed, too. This one foreshadows John C. Calhoun’s warnings, fifty years later, about the tyranny of the majority.
The presidential tweet was a natural follower of the political tweet. It first reached full flower in the hands of a master—President Abraham Lincoln.
Both Roosevelts had the knack, too. Theodore Roosevelt, who actually made his living as a best-selling author both before and after his presidency, had this advice to the common man:
This advice, intended for presidents but widely applicable, is perhaps TRs most successful tweet:
The mid 20th century brought a virtual golden age of the political tweet, including the presidential tweet:
Franklin Roosevelt was a Democrat, and his tweets sometimes seem to address the 21st century GOP, enhancing his status as a political clairvoyant:
And there is this DM to Paul Ryan from both Roosevelts:
Other memorable 20th century presidential tweets include Truman’s about where the buck stops, Eisenhower’s to beware the military-industrial complex, and Kennedy’s plea to ask not what your country can do…etc. Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, was a master of the presidential tweet.
Even into the twenty first century, the presidential tweet flourished. The homespun, self-deprecating humor that sometimes bubbled up in presidential tweets from Lincoln to Reagan became a dominant theme in the opening decades.
In 2016 the nature of the presidential tweet changed. Previous presidents used Tweets to communicate directly with their constituents, humanizing their images. The humor let us see brief glimpses into the hearts of the men who occupied the Oval Office. Policy and fact did not enter into most of these tweets; this would have not been consistent with their intimate purpose.
Donald Trump has changed all that. He seems oddly unwilling, or unable, to relate to people on a human level. His tweets seem aimed at manipulation rather than revelation. They are seldom humorous, except for a ubiquitous, smarmy sarcasm, and they never self-deprecating. They are chockablock full of “alternative facts” unencumbered by even a hint of proof. This made up data is often used to defend nasty attacks on people and institutions that without them would have no foundation at all.
They are sometimes laced with a creepy paranoia which feels particularly out of place in a President of the United States and Commander in Chief.
Perhaps saddest of all, the literary quality of these neo-epigrams vanished when their purpose became propaganda. I know that this has no significance in the grand political scheme of things. The epigram—the tweet—has been an art form for millennia; I hate to see it go. In the end, cultures are remembered by the art they leave behind, often in the remains of practical objects: shards of pottery, battered cutlery, bits of personal adornment. If artificial intelligence ever scans the autistic, ADD-riven snippets of our government today, they will surely conclude that there were virtual Visigoths at our cybergate.