Why was “covfefe” so funny? That nonsense word, in the unlikely event you know nothing about it, is a bit of typographical gobbledygook that came at the end of an inadvertently posted tweet by President Donald Trump just after midnight Wednesday morning. The tweet began, as many of Trump’s tweets do, as a complaint about hostile press coverage. He must have gotten distracted halfway through the word “coverage” and then somehow posted the unfinished outcry:
“Despite the constant negative press covfefe”
Trump’s clever follow-up displayed a capacity for self-ridicule that I wasn’t sure he had:
“Who can figure out the true meaning of ‘covfefe’ ??? Enjoy!”
Then Press Secretary Sean Spicer, exhibiting his boss’s talent for getting journalists to contemplate total balderdash for hours, claimed “the president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant.”
The question is: Why is covfefe so funny? Why could my wife and daughter and I not stop laughing over the breakfast table? I offer three interpretations.
First, we are a nation of morons. Even as many of us worry about young Americans graduating from high school and college with gross deficiencies in language skills and historical knowledge, we spend half the day talking about an accidentally tweeted nonword. We are, in short, doomed.
Many among the older generation will readily take this view. First, it was reality television in the late 1990s. Then something about MyFace and twittering. Today, they listen as their children and grandchildren joke about covfefe — a California man instantly reserved the custom license plate “COVFEFE” — and conclude, with logic on their side, that we are idiots.
I reject that interpretation but mainly on the grounds that I don’t want it to be true rather than because I have any evidence that it’s not.
Second, Americans choose to laugh so hard about covfefe because there is so little to laugh about. We are worried about the president emboldening foreign dictators and being controlled or blackmailed by Vladimir Putin and his attorney general rescinding habeas corpus. It’s a kind of gallows humor: Oh look, our tormenter tweeted “covfefe” before autocorrect could change it to “coffee.”
Maybe, but there’s rather too much laughter for that interpretation to convince. If the Trump presidency looked anything like the direst imaginings of the president’s keenest foes, would we really laugh ourselves to tears over “Saturday Night Live” impersonations of Spicer and those ludicrous pictures of Trump and the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia holding a glowing orb? Would we really find it that funny that a playboy real estate mogul with ridiculous hair and a taste for stupid conspiracy theories is now president of the United States? And if we don’t find that in the least bit funny, is there not something a touch wrong with us?
I won’t impute disingenuousness to Trump’s most angst-ridden critics; their fears are not irrational, and their expressions of alarm are, I assume, genuine. Instead, I’ll merely point out — and this is my third interpretation of covfefe’s delightfulness — that their ability to laugh at so many freakish aberrations and madcap gaucheries in the era of Trump’s presidency is unwitting evidence that we live in some pretty great times.
Yes, our Constitution has been stretched to the limit, many of our politicians are corrupt and dishonest, higher education is an expensive joke, we find it increasingly difficult to live together and our enemies abroad do not rest. All true. There is much to worry about. But our institutions are still strong, and we are a prosperous nation. Our governments generally keep crime in check, and the great majority of us live securely in our homes. Our shores are well defended, and people who want to achieve greatness in science or art still move to America.
A nation in peril — true peril — doesn’t have the time or inclination to laugh about “covfefe.”
Barton Swaim is author of “The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics.”