Earlier this week on Twitter, Donald Trump took credit for a surge in the Consumer Confidence Index, and with characteristic humility, concluded the tweet with "Thanks Donald!"
The U.S. Consumer Confidence Index for December surged nearly four points to 113.7, THE HIGHEST LEVEL IN MORE THAN 15 YEARS! Thanks Donald!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 28, 2016
The "Thanks Donald!" capper led many to muse about whether Trump was referring to himself in the second person, the third person, or perhaps both.
The president-elect is thanking himself in the second person on Twitter for something he didn't do.
This is fine. https://t.co/COcH9hP7xa
— Ankit Panda (@nktpnd) December 28, 2016
— James Fallows (@JamesFallows) December 28, 2016
— Benjamin Dreyer ✏️ (@BCDreyer) December 28, 2016
Since English only marks grammatical person on pronouns, it's not surprising that there is confusion over what is happening with the proper name "Donald" in "Thanks, Donald!" We associate proper names with third-person reference ("Donald Trump is the president-elect"), but a name can also be used as a vocative expression associated with second-person address ("Pleased to meet you, Donald Trump"). For more on how proper names and noun phrases in general get used as vocatives in English, see two conference papers from Arnold Zwicky: "Hey, Whatsyourname!" (CLS 10, 1974) and "Isolated NPs" (Semantics Fest 5, 2004).
The use of one's own name in third-person reference is called illeism. Arnold Zwicky's 2007 Language Log post, "Illeism and its relatives" rounds up many examples, including from politicians like Bob Dole, a notorious illeist. But what Trump is doing in tweeting "Thanks, Donald!" isn't exactly illeism, since the vocative construction implies second-person address rather than third-person reference. We can call this a form of vocative self-address, wherein Trump treats himself as an addressee and uses his own name as a vocative to create something of an imagined interior dialogue.
Vocative self-address can be found in classical literature, for instance in Idyll XI by the bucolic poet Theocritus. The Cyclops Polyphemus addresses himself using the Greek rhetorical device of apostrophe:
ὦ Κύκλωψ Κύκλωψ, πᾷ τὰς φρένας ἐκπεπότασαι
O Cyclops, Cyclops, where be your wits gone flying?
(transl. by J.M. Edmonds)
Or in a more modern rendering:
Cyclops, Cyclops, have you lost your mind?
(transl. by Diane Arnson Svarlien)
Shakespeare used it too, as when the Earl of Kent is speaking to himself in King Lear:
If but as well I other accents borrow,
That can my speech diffuse, my good intent
May carry through itself to that full issue
For which I razed my likeness. Now, banished Kent,
If thou canst serve where thou dost stand condemned,
So may it come thy master, whom thou lovest,
Shall find thee full of labors.
(See Vocative Constructions in the Language of Shakespeare by Beatrix Busse for more.)
In these literary examples, a character uses a construction associated with second-person address to turn an interior monologue into a kind of dialogue. People in real life can do that too, for instance when chastising oneself with one's own name. Stephen Colbert used to do that in a jokey way on his old Comedy Central show, The Colbert Report. At the very end of this clip, for instance, you can hear him say, "Get it together, Colbert! Get it together!" (As noted by Mr. Verb, when Colbert was addressing himself, he would lapse into the original family pronunciation of his last name, "COLE-bert," rather than "cole-BEAR.")
Trump's vocative self-address is hardly chastising, of course, as he is flagrantly patting himself on the back. But this form of address has also been used performatively to laud oneself, or at least a persona based on oneself. Take, for instance, Bo Diddley, aka Ellas McDaniel, who frequently indulged in illeism in such classic songs as "Bo Diddley," "Diddley Daddy," "Hey, Bo Diddley," and "Bo Diddley's A Gunslinger." In the lyrics, he tended to name-drop himself in third-person reference, but he also used a second-person vocative style. His first hit, "Bo Diddley," starts with him talking about Bo Diddley in the third person: "Bo Diddley bought his babe a diamond ring." But at the end, he is addressing "Bo Diddley" (or at least saying his name) with an apparent vocative:
Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley, have you heard?
My pretty baby said she wasn't for it.
(Some transcriptions of the lyrics have that final line as "My pretty baby said she was a bird," but I think that's a mishearing of McDaniel's dialectal pronunciation of "wasn't for it.")
Here it's difficult to tell, though, whether Bo is in fact recounting reported dialogue, with someone else asking, "Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley, have you heard?" In any case, as Jonathan Lighter pointed out on the American Dialect Society mailing list when we were discussing Bo Diddley-style illeism, the narrative form of these songs is a complex matter: "There's Diddley, then there's the unnamed narrator of the song, then there's 'Diddley,' a possibly fictitious character in the song."
A more obvious precursor to Trump's "Thanks, Donald!" (and one that was frequently pointed out on Twitter) is the "Thanks, Obama!" meme. While "Thanks, Obama!" started out as a sarcastic expression among conservatives blaming Obama for societal problems, it was quickly turned around by Obama supporters who ridiculed such scapegoating by using "Thanks, Obama!" to pretend to complain about various petty issues. (For more, see Know Your Meme and our treatment in "Among the New Words," American Speech, Vol. 91, No. 2, pp. 214-15.)
Obama himself got in on the "Thanks, Obama!" action at least twice. In February 2015, he took part in a light-hearted video for Buzzfeed, "Things Everybody Does But Doesn’t Talk About, Featuring President Obama" (part of his effort to get more young people to enroll on healthcare.gov). Buzzfeed had previously played with the "Thanks, Obama!" meme in the satirical post, "26 Ways President Obama Has Completely Ruined The Country." In it, Obama was blamed for "SOMEHOW allowing cookies to get bigger than the glasses they are meant to be dunked in." In the Feb. 2015 video, Obama himself tries to dunk a cookie in a glass of milk and says "Thanks, Obama!" when he fails.
Then in September 2016, stumping for Hillary Clinton in Philadelphia, Obama had this to say (according to the official transcript):
THE PRESIDENT: So, now, let's face it — Republicans don’t like to hear good news right now. (Laughter.) But it's important just to understand this is a big deal. More Americans are working, more have health insurance. Incomes are rising. Poverty is falling.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Gas is two dollars!
THE PRESIDENT: And gas is two dollars a gallon. I didn't even — thank you for reminding me. (Laughter.) Thanks, Obama. (Laughter and applause.)
Perhaps Trump heard Obama's appropriation of the "Thanks, Obama!" meme and thought he'd try it out for himself. But it's fair to say that "Thanks, Donald!" lacks the layers of irony built into Obama's simultaneously self-effacing and self-congratulatory usage. Trump has never been big on irony, of course.