Last week, Donald Trump sent a letter to Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Starting with “Let’s work out a good deal!”, it’s the strangest communication between national leaders ever revealed. Ridicule from both liberals and never-Trump Republicans has spread rapidly.
But even as we point and snigger, nobody has really asked, “Why does this letter seems so strange?”
Here’s what Trump wrote
THE WHITE HOUSE, WASHINGTON
October 9, 2019
Recep Tayyip Erdogan
President of the Republic of Turkey
Dear Mr. President:
Let’s work out a good deal! You don’t want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people, and I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy — and I will. I’ve already given you a little sample with respect to Pastor Brunson.
I have worked hard to solve some of your problems. Don’t let the world down. You can make a great deal. General Mazloum is willing to negotiate with you, and he is willing to make concessions that they would never have made in the past. I am confidentially enclosing a copy of his letter to me, just received.
History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way. It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen. Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!
I will call you later.
This is a more like a series of tweets
We’re used to government communiques written in rigid, official language. Threats are veiled. Offers are subtle. There’s lots of empty praise, but that’s just decoration. And there are never, never exclamation points. That is, after all, what it means to be diplomatic.
The spoken word, even in politics, is far more emotional, malleable, and discursive, especially as practiced by Trump. But as the linguist Gretchen McCulloch points out in her popular book Because Internet, the fundamental language shift of the internet era is how social media has driven the penetration of spoken-language conventions into written discourse. Tweets and posts on Facebook and Instagram are the written version of snarky comments — with emojis to carry the snark.
Trump’s Twitter feed could be McCulloch’s exhibit A. And now his scattershot conversational tone has infected his diplomacy. These are things you’d expect Trump to say out loud, not write down:
“You don’t want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people . . .”
“I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy — and I will. I’ve already given you a little sample . . .”
“You can make a great deal.”
“Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”
In contrast to the careful communication of diplomats, this language inadvertently reveals an awful lot more than what’s in the text. It’s shocking that after Trump (obviously) dictated it, no one in the White House or the State Department had the presence of mind or the standing to keep it from going out as written: as a rambling collection of threats and pleas.
Trump’s position is weak here. He’s already given Erdogan exactly what he wanted — free license to attack our former allies, the Kurds, in Syria — and gotten nothing in return. Erdogan’s forces surged into the void left when the U.S. hastily withdrew, forcing our military to call in airstrikes on its own weapons caches and raising questions about the safety of previously secret American nukes in Turkey. Erdogan is a tough guy who won’t pass up this chance to crush the Kurdish threat to his own autocracy.
So how does Trump behave when backed into a corner? The letter alternates between pleading and threats. And in the end, it did generate a deal: Erdogan has agreed to a cease-fire to let the Kurds retreat, after which his forces will occupy Northern Syria near the Turkish border. Erdogan gets what he wants, which is to flush the Kurds out, and no sanctions. It’s a deal negotiated at gunpoint.
Social media inevitably drags formal communication in informal directions, and that’s not wholly bad. More clarity and directness in communication is a positive. But clear and direct doesn’t mean transparent and puerile. A good negotiator doesn’t give away strategic positions for nothing. And when backed into a corner, he doesn’t advertise his own weakness with random ramblings.