Just after midnight, Washington time, on the morning of Wednesday May 31, Donald Trump composed a short tweet. It simply read: “Despite the constant negative press covfefe.”
His words, if indeed that last one is a word (it isn’t), set the twittersphere on fire. Pundits, observers, politicians, comedians and Trump detractors and supporters immediately took to Twitter to offer their assistance in explaining #covfefe in light of the fact that even the Merriam-Webster dictionary had nothing to offer.
Most analysts agreed that Trump likely meant to write “coverage”, continuing his sustained complaints over his hostile treatment by the media. But for many Twitter posters, #covfefe provided a chance to comment on the Trump presidency. Highlights included the renaissance of the Biden and Obama meme, which first served to cultivate nostalgia for the Obama presidency in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election victory.
It was also used to poke fun at Trump’s exploits in Saudi Arabia:
… and his ritual show of signed executive orders:
Hillary Clinton, embroiled in a Twitter row with Trump after he again described her as “Crooked Hillary” on Wednesday night, seized a golden opportunity when she wrote: “People in covfefe houses shouldn’t throw covfefe.”
Residents of Covington, Kentucky, started a petition to change their town’s name to Covfefe, turning it “into the bigly-est and most beautiful must-see place from sea to shining sea.”
And so #covfefe became a meta-commentary which enabled audiences not just to laugh, but also to reflect on the larger controversies surrounding Trump’s presidency. As the media scholar Jeffrey Jones has argued, satire opens up new forms of critique – allowing us to engage with political arguments that may be otherwise impossible to articulate. It fit into larger narratives of Trump’s impulsive and uncontrollable tweeting, his poorly conceived media strategy, his less-than-stellar intellect – and his small hands.
An attempt by the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, to explain it away left correspondents baffled: “The president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant,” Spicer replied to a question about Trump’s tweet. It was symptomatic of a broader trend among the presidential staff to offer implausible explanations for the president’s actions and led to further jokes about his administration’s tenuous relationship with the truth.
But it may be Trump who had the last laugh. By Thursday morning, the tweet was taken down and replaced by a coy challenge to Twitter: “Who can figure out the true meaning of ‘covfefe’ ??? Enjoy!” In that sense, #covfefe offers us a more profound lesson about the relationship between power and language. Aside from the outstanding comedy potential, the obsession with #covfefe highlights how closely the world pays attention to everything that the US president says and does – and how desperate we are to make sense of it.
Climate of disbelief
He really does have the best words. The Twitterverse greeted “covfefe” with unfettered rapture. For that glorious interlude between midnight and 5am, we were like passengers on the Titanic who decided to say “fuck it” and rock out to the band.
Trump may have been widely ridiculed for his poor grasp of the English language, but he may nonetheless be right about having the best words. He has the best words precisely because of his power to spread them far and wide. Media scholars have long written about the ability of political elites to set the agenda and define the terms of our collective debate, and #covfefe is a stellar, if unusual, case in point.
Trump’s #covfefe moment occurred shortly before he announced his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on climate change. In the hours following the announcement of the withdrawal, searches for #covfefe tweets remained far more frequent than those for news about the US withdrawal from the climate deal.
This news is far less likely to whip up Twitter memes, but its consequences are far graver. We’ll all need a strong dose of #covfefe to swallow that decision.