The era of Donald Trump, the Potemkin president foisted on America with the help of Russian intelligence, has not been kind to the paragraph. It’s hard to think in the framework of a well-reasoned essay when the headlines arrive like overlapping waves, pounding the surf with insanity after profanity.
Handling a North Korean nuclear crisis at a golf course. Insulting NATO allies. Revelations of collusion with foreign powers. Mike Flynn. Paul Manafort. Firing James Comey. Putin says Trump isn’t his bride. Touching glowing orbs with Saudis.
The pace of absurdity has been enough to make you hallucinate. Truly, only one medium has been up to the challenge of letting thoughtful citizens track the emergency in real time: Twitter. A telegraph for the modern era, its user interface allows for the sharing of short burst of text, links, images, and GIFs at a speed that matches the manic era of Trump.
Sometimes though, a single 140-character statement won’t suffice, and a new innovation in Twitter’s user interface lets writers “thread” tweets by replying to one’s last statement, connecting one thought to the next in an elegant, readable fashion.
I had only been introduced to this technique in late 2016. Shortly after the election – on December 11, 2016, to be precise – I started one such thread with this soon-to-be famous phrase:
<THREAD> I’m now hearing this meme that says Obama, Clinton, et al. are doing nothing, just gave up.
Guys. It’s time for some game theory.
— Eric Garland (@ericgarland) December 11, 2016
I tried explaining at breakneck pace the hows and whys of Trump-Russia in real-time, and apparently this style has caught on with many more writers. Just as the novel didn’t replace poetry or plays, the thread has become just one more form in which to reach readers.
After a seemingly endless stream of hit pieces about the aforementioned thread (editorial decisions that have aged poorly, much to my glee) I was so pleased to finally read a wonderful take on the phenomenon. Virginia Heffernan in POLITICO wrote The Rise of the Twitter Thread as an exploration of how the form itself has changed the way the Internet works when it comes to our nation full of digital Paul Reveres, riding around shouting “Mueller is coming! Mueller is coming!” Heffernan cites a variety of experienced professionals that have become newly-minted threaders, from Lawfare Blog‘s Benjamin Wittes to Professor Daniel Drezner to the research titan Dr. Caroline O.
I can’t say I didn’t enjoy such a charitable rendering of my writing style and intentions as I have used Twitter this last year:
If there’s one thread that has come to define the genre’s appeal (and its excesses), it might be Garland’s magnum opus of December 11, 2016. In 127 tweets—opening with a thrown-down “time for some game theory,” which soon became its own Twitter meme—Garland offered a winding yarn that touched on the KGB, WikiLeaks, the Iraq War and the right-wing media. Above all, he defended President Obama’s handling of Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign and insisted on the durability of the American experiment, despite the Kremlin’s meddling. Because it took the form of a bulleted essay, and brightened moods with its grandiosity, optimism and folksy wit, Garland’s thread managed to make the post-election one-liners about Drumpf and deplorables seem like small, divisive fry.
Garland told me he ad-libbed the thread in real time, hoping to soothe nerves and reinspire confidence. Critics—and yes, a Twitter thread can spawn its own critical ecosystem—argued the thread was OMG-like hysteria and sophistry (and pointed out that Garland offered no actual game theory). But his conviction that there was a patriotic divinity that would shape our ends struck when much of the country was still disoriented by Trump’s November victory—and reached tens of millions of readers. Plus, unlike the fleeting verdicts in traditional media (“This is the day Trump became president”; “Jared Kushner is a moderating presence”), Garland’s contentions have generally been borne out: The intelligence community, the judiciary, a team of faithful politicians and European leaders have refused to take Trump’s shenanigans lying down.
While I completely cop to being addicted to rhetorical excesses on Twitter, nothing makes a futurist happier than when someone notices that they nailed a forecast.
Actually, what I enjoy even more than this gracious review is that with each passing day, the headlines bear out that the rule of law may indeed prevail, with hallowed American institutions battered, but not broken by this experience. If we do bring this interminable national nightmare to a swift and just end, I am looking forward to the pace of chaos slowing, gradually giving way to paragraphs, essays, long-form analysis, and (much to my long-suffering literary agent’s relief) books. Yet even then, this new form of expression will stick around. It has accomplishes what other styles cannot.
It’s even kind of fun.
So check me out on Twitter, but also: watch this space.