By now, if you’re planning on resigning from the Trump administration, you’d better have a pretty flashy way of doing so if you want to get any attention. Last week, every member of Trump’s arts council resigned after he equivocated white supremacists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia. This morning, Daniel Kammen also resigned as the State Department’s U.S. envoy, citing similar concerns.
Each of these resignations is important in its own way, but to most readers, they’re both just droplets in a recent deluge that’s seen public departures from various presidential committees composed of some of the nation’s most powerful CEOs. So why have people paid attention? The letters. Both Kammen and the arts council wrote their resignation letters to include “secret” acrostic messages, spelled out by the first letter of each paragraph. The arts committee’s letter spelled out “RESIST” with the first letter of each paragraph, Kammen’s went even further to suggest “IMPEACH.”
Not surprisingly, these letters went viral. Twitter has always had affection for the acrostic as a form, dating back to a deranged tweet from a user named @SpreadButter that created a malformed acrostic for the word “BENGHZI” and launched a long-running meme in which “BENGHAZI” was acrosticized into completely unrelated news stories. (We’ve been here before.)
Getting your point across in, let’s say, subtle ways in an official letter does have some precedent. In 2009, then-California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger spelled out “FUCK YOU” in a veto message to legislators. As The Atlantic notes, “bureaucrats and elected officials have entire staffs devoted to writing and submitting pro forma letters.” The acrostic is an easy way to break up the rote dryness of an official communication without transforming it entirely.
Hidden messages are also in many ways the perfect mode of communication for a paranoid and conspiratorial era — one in which real fears of government surveillance mix with desperate amateur attempts to discover a network of corruption at the heart of the current administration. The acrostic is at once a way for a prisoner to communicate with the outside world, and the kind of deep textual coherence sought by the conspiracy theorists of resistance Twitter.
And, of course, they’re funny, in exactly the kind of silly, obvious way that Twitter and social networks appreciate.
Zealous anti-Trumpers looking for viral content are more than happy to signal-boost an even minorly clever dig at the president. “IMPEACH” and “RESIST” are not exactly sophisticated messages about the true nature of the Trump administration’s power — but they get the point across in 140 characters, and are catnip for people looking to do whatever small kind of social-media-based activism they can.
Is it going to work, though? We’ll have to wait and see.