It is possible to view the history of presidential politics in McLuhanian terms, via the changing technologies that leaders have used to communicate. William Jennings Bryan stood at the edge of a train car and bellowed orations to his devoted followers as he traveled across the country. Franklin D. Roosevelt used the intimacy of radio and his flair for the dramatic to transmit “real news,” as he once put it, directly to the people. And Donald Trump watches TV while thumbing out tweets to the “haters” and “losers.”
Trump has tweeted 6,152 times since he was inaugurated, each message a fragment of presidential id. His timeline, which swerves predictably from seething to gloating, is not just an end run around the press but a splintered stream of consciousness unmatched in presidential history, an unfiltered look at the forces that animate a president obsessed with how he is viewed by others.
His tweets are messy, reactive, often petty, and occasionally cruel. The world has grown accustomed to this aspect of the Trump presidency, and the regularity with which he self-publishes flapdoodle conspiracies, casual sexism, schoolyard insults, tin-can patriotism, and outright lies. When a steady stream of exclamation points is not enough, the president opts for all caps instead, as when he tweeted at Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last summer: “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”
His tweets contain hundreds of references to “fake news” and more than 150 instances of “witch hunt.” The emoji he has used most as president is 🇺🇸. It remains an open question, as of this writing, whether a tweet can start a war.
But in the annals of Trumpian tweeting, nothing compares to what appeared on his feed at 12:06 a.m. on May 31, 2017: “Despite the constant negative press covfefe”
Seconds passed, then minutes, then an hour, then six hours, with no word from the White House on whether Trump was okay, or even alive. Surely it was a typo, or a tweet published errantly—but what if it was the sign of something more sinister? The speculation was furious, and so was the snark. (No meme was left unsummoned, from “Stop trying to make covfefe happen” to “Hold my covfefe” to “Ask your doctor if covfefe is right for you” to “#covfefe: when you get tricked into emailing the nuclear password to that Nigerian prince.”) When the president tweeted again, at 6:09 a.m. on May 31, 2017, it was to say this: “Who can figure out the true meaning of ‘covfefe’ ??? Enjoy!”
At a White House briefing that afternoon, Sean Spicer, the press secretary at the time, had this exchange with reporters:
There have been more consequential presidential tweets, and someday there may even be a weirder one. But Covfefe remains the tweet that best illustrates Trump’s most preternatural gift: He knows how to captivate people, how to command and divert the attention of the masses. And long after the president’s tweets are stripped of meaning by the passage of time and the rotting of the internet, his severest critics will still have to grapple with the short distance between politics and entertainment in America, and the man who for years toyed so masterfully with a nation’s attention.