At 9:06 Pacific time Tuesday evening (technically 12:06 a.m. on the East Coast), President Trump, as he does sometimes, sent a tweet:
Despite the constant negative press covfefe
That was it.
Was the president OK? Did he drop his phone into some water? Did it explode mid-tweet? Were aides trying to wrestle the device away from him and someone accidentally hit “send” on the message, half-written, during the scuffle? Why did he leave it up for more than five hours before deleting it?
What is covfefe?
These were the questions the Internet collectively asked, not very seriously, as more than 125,000 users retweeted the cryptic dispatch from the most powerful person in the world.
Roads are still slick from last night's rain. Please use your wipers and drive with covfefe— Philadelphia Police (@PhillyPolice) May 31, 2017
Regular people made covfefe jokes. Famous people made covfefe jokes. Cops made covfefe jokes. Corporate PR teams made covfefe jokes. The display screens on a Eurostar train in Europe made covfefe jokes. Trump’s covfefe tweet was retweeted more than his previous five tweets — on tax cuts, healthcare, Russia, Germany, NATO and Memorial Day — combined.
And so it went.
Consider: According to the Social Security Administration’s life-expectancy calculator, the average millennial American man can expect to live for roughly 82 years. Over such a lifetime, that’s about 30,000 days, minus 10,000 of those days for sleeping. And now, approximately half of one of those days has been spent on covfefe.
Covfefe had become one of those exhausting cultural events that, from time to time, inspires a collective response so that we feel in contact with each other, or at least do not feel left out. Parker Higgins was one of them.
“Like many people I have blocked the President of the United States on Twitter because he is literally an internet troll,” Higgins, a 29-year-old artist and activist from San Francisco, wrote in a private message on Twitter, where he has changed his last name to “Higgfefe.” “So when he creates news by tweeting, I only see it by the timeline’s reaction, like how scientists observe black holes.”
Higgins, who sometimes designs T-shirts, saw the storm of covfefe jokes Tuesday night and immediately knew a Trump tweet was the source of the madness. Higgins decided to up the ante by spending “literally 25 seconds” to design a black covfefe T-shirt, with the word in white Helvetica font. It was his contribution.
“Here buy a shirt that says covfefe,” Higgins tweeted, posting a link to the design he’d uploaded to teespring.com, where the shirts could be ordered for $20. “I don’t give a [dang].”
It was a joke. Higgins said later, “I prayed people had the good sense not to buy it because it would leave me in an ethical dilemma of what to do with the proceeds.”
Except people did not have good sense. Higgins has now sold dozens of shirts.
“I’m already an ACLU donor, but maybe I’ll increase it this month,” Higgins told The Times. “Or put it in a healthcare fund or something. Who knows.”
Higgins added, “Everything’s stupid, and this is one more stupid thing.”
On Wednesday morning Trump’s covfefe tweet vanished from his account, and other news began creeping from beneath its shadow online. Ninety people were reported killed and 400 injured in a car-bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan. Reports circulated that Trump was thinking of abandoning the Paris climate accords, a global pact to fight climate change.
But the memory lingered. Morning talk show hosts talked about covfefe. News organizations churned out stories about covfefe.
The president, the man at the heart of the mystery, joined in, tweeting a new message about covfefe, but not one that offered any explanation:
Who can figure out the true meaning of "covfefe" ??? Enjoy!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 31, 2017
At a press briefing later in the day, a reporter asked White House spokesman Sean Spicer about covfefe. “The president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant,” Spicer said.
Others reporters simultaneously raised their voices in disbelief, pressing questions that Spicer ignored.
In his 1985 classic, “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,” the media theorist Neil Postman wrote that society has long braced itself to fight against the kind of “spiritual devastations of tyranny” described by George Orwell — thought police, cameras, totalitarians. He warned of another threat to society and culture.
“Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us,” Postman wrote. “But who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter?”
How do you pronounce covfefe?