This post was featured on High Altitude History.
Historians have a reputation for obsessing over details. We write tomes about events that may not even span a year. Take, for example, Heather Ann Thompson’s recently published book Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy, which contains nearly 600 pages of analysis about an event that technically lasted for five days. What many consider overwrought minutiae, historians consider the essential meat of history. Put simply, historians believe that understanding anything requires context, and lots of it.
President Donald Trump has taken a different approach to communicating ideas. Trump has earned the nickname “Tweeter-in-Chief” with his daily use of Twitter, which limits each tweet to 140 characters; he makes announcements, gives political commentary, and responds to his critics. Trump considers Twitter a direct line of communication between himself and the public, free from the critical and contextual oversight of the media. The President seems to prefer the brevity and autonomy that Twitter offers. During an interview, he stated that “I get very dishonest media, very dishonest press. And [Twitter’s] my only way that I can counteract.” As Caitlyn Dewey of the Washington Post recently pointed out, Twitter also caters to the President’s penchant for exclamation points: a punctuation choice that prioritizes emotional declaratives over developed, logical conclusions.
Given these two conflicting approaches to sharing knowledge, why would historians engage with Twitter? Twitter has become my social media platform of choice. It has allowed me to connect with a bevy of historians across the world. These #twitterstorians share powerful, pithy ideas and engage in fascinating public dialogues that have enriched my thinking. Historians have, perhaps surprisingly, proven that Twitter can provide a fruitful intellectual forum. Political historian Kevin M. Kruse, for example, produced an extensive thread on the contemporary relevance of McCarthyism. Similarly, historian Joanne Freeman analyzed the danger of Trump’s tweet condemning the judicial branch by outlining the historical significance of the separation of powers. As Shakespeare wisely wrote, “brevity is the soul of wit,” meaning that succinct language is something to aspire toward, not denounce. However, Twitter has not rendered the crucial context of history obsolete. If anything, Twitter’s new centrality in political discourse has highlighted the dangers of vague language and the necessity of deep historical analysis.
Trump’s Twitter rhetoric suggests a lack of understanding of United States history, and his unfiltered snippets, largely devoid of context, have resulted in far more confusion than clarity. The persistent repetition of the phrase “AMERICA FIRST!” (most notably in his inaugural address) echoes anti-Semitic isolationists in the 1940s who accused American Jews of propelling the United States into World War II. His championing of “forgotten men” draws parallels to white resistance to granting African Americans the vote in the 1960s, as well as to the New Deal’s neglect of blacks during the 1930s. By professing himself “the law and order candidate,” Trump imitates Richard Nixon’s political tactics that preyed on white fears of predominantly black urban neighborhoods. His monolithic treatment of Muslims echoes America’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, as do his vague references to the possibility of a Muslim Registry. By villainizing Syrian refugees, he nods to Americans’ reluctance to allow Jewish refugees into the country in the 1930s. Finally, Trump’s justification for his executive order that banned citizens based on their nation of origin recalls the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, as well as the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Trump himself has done little to denounce these comparisons, aside from repeatedly calling the media dishonest.
Twitter can provide a fascinating forum for sharing ideas. But the President’s ahistorical statements allude to reprehensible moments in the United States’ past. At best, Trump’s tweeting suggests an ignorance of some of the darkest moments of American history. At worst, his tweets reveal an attempt to resuscitate racist and exclusionary ways of thinking. Without explaining his sentiments in depth and disavowing their historical connections to bigotry, President Trump is complicit in emboldening growing white supremacist movements in the United States such as the Alt-Right (which he recently defended on Twitter). Without clarification, and, importantly, a recognition of historical context, Trump’s curt language calls into question exactly which era in America’s past he considers “great.”