Yesterday I woke up to two major Trump stories of the day: the fact that the president had seemingly accidentally tweeted out a half thought ending in “covfefe” only to delete it six hours later and news that President Donald Trump may soon announce his decision on whether or not to back out of the Paris Climate Agreement.
It is weird that the president would start a tweet, misspell a word and then send out the tweet. And then do nothing to cover it up for six hours. It is not normal. It is also ridiculous to pretend that this is not strange. But those facts shouldn’t make covfefe the leading story of the day. Even though Trump has not announced his final decision on the Paris climate agreement, according to CNN, two senior U.S. officials familiar with the president’s plan have recently said that he is likely to keep his campaign promises and back out of the deal.
This kind of reversal of Obama-era climate change policy could have huge ramifications for the climate, the economy and U.S. diplomacy. While some experts have said that this deal doesn’t go as far as it needs to, others have positioned it as a final effort, without which the fight against climate change would quickly become one we can’t win. At the very least, it is a vital step in the right direction in the fight to save the planet, and as former President Barack Obama put it, the “best chance we have.”
The good news is that Trump’s actions may be tempered by other forces in the country to reduce emissions in accordance to the Paris agreement regardless of his decision: California, for example, has pledged to implement its own environmental restrictions to pick up the slack for Trump’s decision. Several industries are also making the move towards more sustainable sources of power, and big energy companies like Exxon that came out in support of the Paris agreement are still sticking to their commitment, with nearly two-thirds of shareholders voting that Exxon incorporate the limits in the Paris agreement into their business model, despite whatever decision Trump might make.
The deal is also a huge achievement for the number of countries that signed on, 192, which is every country except Syria and Nicaragua. And backing out of this deal will be the second time that the U.S. has negotiated, signed but then turned its back on a major international climate agreement — the first being when George W. Bush rejected the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. And while some countries like China and members of the E.U. have signaled that they will stay committed to the pact and have already begun efforts to reduce emissions significantly, this kind of reversal by the U.S. will weaken its position as a global leader and will increase mistrust of the country in future international deals.
And yet, despite the importance of his decision, coverage has been split and has been heavily leaning towards the covfefe debacle. Everyone wants to know what it means, what this indicates about Trump and the checks on his communication and just how to react to the leader of the free world being so bad at Twitter. And of course then came Sean Spicer’s attempt at clearing up this mishap, claiming that “The president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant,” which just drew more ire from everyone from the press to their audiences.
Within hours there were stories titled, “‘Covfefe’ tells you all you need to know about Donald Trump,” not just from websites known for their clickbait, but also from websites like CNN. But while that is a tempting narrative, what will tell you everything about Trump is his actions. And it’s his actions that we are at the risk of not covering while we remain fixated on gaffes and typos.
After the election, the news industry went through hundreds of think pieces reflecting on how Trump tricked publications into writing about him by saying or doing things that were so ridiculous that they had to be covered. And in the midst of making videos about his vocabulary, his insults or his hair, we forgot the important stories, or at least we buried them underneath the more fun, less important fluff pieces that focused on his stunts.
It feels good to laugh at the president, to feel like he really must be so unintelligent to tweet something like “covfefe” out to the world. That we are so much better than him because at least we have spellcheck. That his greatest flaw is that he is unpresidential. That yes, he may have won the election and is making sweeping changes to policy that affects our lives, but we can still feel superior instead of defeated or powerless because at the end of the day, when it’s 3 a.m and we’re all alone, at least we can spell.
And if we had infinite attention and time, then it would make sense to write extensively about his mishap for the simple reason that it is hilarious and strange and honestly, who doesn’t want to participate in the madness of covfefe? But we don’t have infinite time or attention, or even very much of it — and every time we write an article about Melania slapping away his hand, or a typo in his tweets, or how he shoved someone, we miss the mark by a little bit more. And in laughing at the president, we fail to hold him accountable for the less public, more complicated decisions he is taking, and we dilute the conversation so he continues to get away with making decisions that the country may not agree with.
Laughter can be important because it can undermine the legitimacy of someone in power, but there is a flipside to that. In the midst of laughing at him, we cannot forget that we need to take Trump seriously because he is in power and he is making decisions that will dramatically change the world we live in.
Contact Rhea Karuturi at rheakaru ‘at’ stanford.edu.