The Art of the Quote: Trump, Social Media, and the Uses of Literary Reference
by Tim Sommer
There’s a lot one can squeeze into a 280-character tweet – an insight that few users of the platform are harnessing to greater effect than Donald Trump. Though most of his tweets are textually self-contained, Twitter also encourages dialogical exchange. Trump frequently quotes other people’s words – either to censure their inaccuracy or to celebrate their consistency with his own point of view. There’s another type of quotation as well, however: Every once in a while, Trump is leaving behind contemporary politics when he cites uplifting aphorisms culled from the works of famous American authors. A characteristic example of this is a piece of advice featured in an August 2013 tweet: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.” The source of the statement would be difficult to locate (self-help manual? fortune cookie?) were it not for Trump’s attribution of it to Henry David Thoreau. A nineteenth-century writer perhaps best remembered for his anti-consumerism, Thoreau seems a curious provider of cues for Trump. But the self-reliance and non-conformity the quotation extols are virtues that resurface prominently in Trump’s own image of himself as a political and entrepreneurial icon.
It’s worth looking at the origin of the quotation in greater detail, however. The core of the statement is undeniably Thoreauvian, but in its original form it reads as follows:
I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.Thoreau 2008, 217
The passage appears in the concluding chapter of Thoreau’s most famous book, the 1854 Walden; or, Life in the Woods, which chronicles his “experiment” of living a hermit’s life in rural Massachusetts. There’s a striking difference between the two versions of the text. Where the original is tentative and conditional, the tweet is dominated by a sense of compulsion. There’s lexical simplification (“go” instead of “advance,” “live” instead of “endeavor to live”) as well as a grammatical shift from Thoreau’s third-person impersonal structure to Trump’s appellative use of the second person (the double imperative “go” / “live”). This is not to suggest that Trump misremembered his Thoreau, or that he deliberately tweaked the passage to drive home a more straightforward point. The quotation circulates widely in its simplified form (for instance here) and its Twitter reincarnation more likely stems from such pre-processing than from Trump’s actual reading of Walden. But quoting implies (or at least aims at conveying the impression) that the quoter is familiar with the quotee. Having a figure of Thoreau’s standing vouch for a maxim that in its digested form sounds as though it came straight from the pages of The Art of the Deal ennobles Trump’s own philosophy through the authority of tradition. It has the added advantage of making him appear well-versed in the American literary tradition – clearly a desirable asset for someone whose predecessor in office was repeatedly celebrated for the sophistication of his literary taste. If, as Gary Saul Morson has argued, “[t]he attribution of a speaker is in fact a part of the quotation” (2006, 219), in Trump’s case the Thoreau credit is as important as the actual quote.
Trump has a soft spot for other eminent nineteenth-century American writers as well – most notably Thoreau’s contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson. Judging from the frequency of his (re-)tweets, Trump seems particularly fond of the following two quotes:
Like the Thoreau post, both of these statements safely fall within Twitter’s character limit. It almost seems as though the genre of the quotation had been invented for social media, catering as it does to modern readers’ limited attention spans. But in fact the practice of excerpting and distilling is as old as the practice of writing and reading (see Regier 2010 and Knowles 2018). Brevity has always been a key component in the quotability of a statement and platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are only the latest cultural manifestations of this valuation of conciseness. As in the semi-Thoreauvian excerpt, the thematic focus of the two quotations above is again on inner potential and autonomy. Where Emerson and his contemporaries exemplified a distinctly Romantic turn towards interiority, in the radically decontextualized and dehistoricized form of the Twitter quote the trailblazing rhetoric of valuing one’s own self against all odds appears to align seamlessly with Trump’s own outlook on life.
If the Thoreau tweet only implies that Trump is familiar with what he is quoting from, in the case of Emerson he has been more explicit about the extent of his own first-hand textual knowledge. Emerson’s writings feature on an intriguing list of books that Trump has publicly claimed he has read – where they keep company with some likely suspects (Machiavelli, Ayn Rand) as well as a few surprises (Einstein, C.G. Jung). No doubt a remarkable selection for someone like Trump, whose favorite reads, according to a 2016 interview, are two of his own (co-written) titles, The Art of the Deal and Surviving at the Top. It’s in another one of Trump’s books, the 2009 Think Like a Champion: An Informal Education in Business and Life, that both of the above quotes feature as chapter epigraphs. The context in which the first of these appears illustrates the uses to which Trump puts literary quotations. The chapter the quote prefaces opens with Trump’s description of Emerson’s impact on him:
That thought by Ralph Waldo Emerson has always been an inspiration to me. It gives me energy to keep going full force because I know I still have a lot to accomplish. No matter what I may have achieved – or plan to achieve – I know it’s “a tiny matter” compared to what I am capable of doing. […] What lies within us? Hopefully, a lot of great ideas and plans for the future as well as the innate sense of our ability to achieve them. I think Emerson was alluding to this idea of hope in his statement.Trump and McIver 2009, n.pag.
The cornerstone of Trump’s exegesis is autobiographical reader response (What does the text do for him? How does it energize and speak to him?). He uses Emerson as the starting point for developing his own maxims (which, in their emphasis on direct interpellation, are structurally similar to the kind of quotation he likes to tweet). Readers of Think Like a Champion encounter Emerson once again in one of the book’s appendices, a list of “Donald J. Trump’s Recommended Reading” that includes Emerson’s Essays and Lectures among a motley collection of non-fiction writing from the sixth century BC to the present. “Emerson’s writing,” Trump’s short blurb suggests, “is lucid and thought provoking [sic], and he provides a balance of thought that can be edifying” (2009, n.pag.). The language Trump uses to reflect on Emerson’s significance is that of religious experience; its imagery is derived from the realm of private contemplation (inspiration and edification). Yet the more tangible use value of quoting Emerson obviously lies in authorizing Trump’s own views through recourse to a key figure in American intellectual history.
Emerson to a certain extent offers himself to be quoted and appropriated. Though hardly “lucid,” his style is characteristically disjointed, combining statements that are often memorable for their striking metaphorics. The texture of his writings is the result of an idiosyncratic compositional technique. Throughout his life, Emerson kept journals and notebooks in which he jotted down all kinds of ideas, opinions, and experiences. He carefully indexed these and subsequently mined them for his appearances as a lecturer and for his published essays. Emerson himself was no stranger to the practice of quotation. In the journals, he uses other people’s thoughts and words liberally and extensively. In these hotchpotch manuscript volumes, verses by Homer feature next to excerpts from Montaigne, lines of Shakespearean dialogue appear side by side with morsels of Confucian wisdom. Emerson’s reading list was at least as eclectic as Trump’s.
Though he constantly engaged in quotation, Emerson had an ambivalent relationship to the practice. In some of his most famous texts – the 1836 book Nature or the 1841 essay “The Poet” –, he laments that the language we use is corrupt, recycled rather than original. In a May 1849 journal entry (which is ironically enough bookended by quotations from Descartes, Hafez, and Mark Anthony), he writes: “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know” (1912, 20). Elsewhere, however, Emerson is more approving. In a late essay entitled “Quotation and Originality,” he argues that self-reliance is ultimately an illusion, that borrowing from others is inevitable:
Our debt to tradition through reading and conversation is so massive […] that, in a large sense, one would say, there is no pure originality. All minds quote. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote.Emerson 2010, 94.
This seems to go against the sense of autonomy praised in the quotes that Trump likes to cite (which instead preach relying on one’s own inner language, “go[ing] […] where there is no path” instead of covering linguistically well-trodden ground). Yet for Emerson, there’s a way out. If quoting is unavoidable, there are some that are better at it than others. The genius, Emerson suggests, lies in the “assimilating power” (2010, 93) of those who manage to use intertextual synthesis to create a message that is recognizably their own.
Perhaps Trump is endowed with this kind of power or perhaps he is just a sloppy fact checker, but the irony of his use of quotes is that most of the statements his tweets ascribe to Emerson are not by Emerson after all. If misattributions used to be the result of careless copying and reprinting, the phenomenon is newly flourishing through digital techniques of replication (sharing, hyperlinking, reposting). The internet, however, has made verifying quotations almost as easy as finding them. Webpages like Quote Investigator help users to track the origins of doubtful attributions. A report on the pseudo-Emersonian advice “do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail” traces the statement back to Muriel Strode, a minor American poet significantly less authoritative than Emerson. The provenance of Trump’s other favorite Emerson quote (“what lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us”) is even more telling. The detective work of Quote Investigator reveals that the sentence was originally part of a 1940 book called Meditations in Wall Street, authored by a stockbroker with a shady professional reputation. Though Meditations is sort of an anti-Art of the Deal (one of its original reviewers complained that it contained “no market theories or advice on how to get rich” [qtd. in O’Toole 2011, n.pag.]), it’s nonetheless striking that Trump, in appropriating what he thinks of as “edifying” philosophical insights to embellish his entrepreneurial prose, should end up following advice that quite literally comes from closer to home (the world of New York finance). It’s almost as if Trump were quoting himself – which, given his top-two favorite books, he might be doing just as well.
About the Author
Tim Sommer is a postdoctoral researcher affiliated with the HCA’s research training group “Authority and Trust.” His doctoral work focused on Emerson and nineteenth-century transatlantic literary culture.
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Trump, Donald J., with Meredith McIver. 2009. Think Like a Champion: An Informal Education in Business and Life. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press. <https://books.google.de/books?id=-v4lDwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&hl=de#v=onepage&q&f=false>