By Russell Johnson
I once read about a woman who tried to send an email to an accounting firm that said, “I am afraid that we will have to postpone our meeting.” But she hit ‘send’ prematurely, and all the email said was:
I am afraid”
This sort of thing happens to all of us. This week, it happened to President Trump. Shortly after midnight, Trump tweeted, “Despite the constant negative press covfefe”. Everyone immediately recognized that he was trying to type “coverage” and slipped up. He made a typo on social media and hit send before fixing it, which again is not a big deal, even for a sitting president. People had a lot of fun with “covfefe,” but it is a human mistake, maybe even an endearing mistake, for the President to make.
A day later, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked about the tweet and denied that it was a typo. “I think the president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant,” Spicer suggested. Trump’s press secretary doubled down on covfefe, as Trump did himself with a tweet yesterday morning. “Covfefe” is not a big deal. The denial is a really big deal.
It is the most glaring example of a trend that has been evident since the campaign. Donald Trump refuses to admit that he has flaws. He refuses to acknowledge that he makes mistakes. He insists that he is the best at everything. The official White House stance, which Sean Spicer is obliged to maintain, is: Donald Trump doesn’t make typos; you’re just not cool enough to know what covfefe means.
This isn’t just simple egotism, it’s national policy. As Trump has repeatedly affirmed, he wants to run America like a business. (I have written about this here.) Part of Trump’s policy is that America needs to improve our brand internationally so we can leverage our credibility to make deals with other nations and intimidate groups when necessary. This means we need to project an image of strength and unity to the world, and the public face of that national image is our president. This is why Trump is so aggravated when the media points out his errors, and when governmental agencies try to check his power. They’re hindering his ability to be the kind of strong leader who can project American strength into the global marketplace, and thereby hurting America. If Trump looks flawed, America looks flawed; and if America looks flawed, people will walk all over us in negotiations. There’s a self-fulfilling prophecy to confidence, too—if we tell ourselves we’re the best, we’ll start to believe it, and if we believe in ourselves, we’ll win.
That’s the argument for the White House’s denial, and it makes some sense. But—and I don’t want to get too slippery-slope here—the denial is deeply unsettling. Trump has adopted the “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature” rhetorical strategy, or more ominously, the “we never make mistakes” strategy. To some extent, all political leaders try to project proficiency. But whenever an ordinary man starts to deny the reality of his own human fallibility, and takes it upon himself be the savior of a nation, we get to be in dangerous territory. The fact that humans are flawed is the reason behind why America developed a democratic, federalist, limited government system so that no one with delusions of grandeur could become a tyrant. American leaders are accountable to the people because everyone has shortcomings, everyone makes mistakes, and we all have our own personal covfefes.
In conclusion, the difference between projecting strength and projecting infallibility may seem slight, but the latter carries with it massive denial, self-deception, lies, and suppression. The White House’s refusal to admit that “covfefe” was a typo is by no means as egregious as Kim Jong-Il claiming to have hit eleven hole-in-ones in his first time golfing, but it is a red flag.
And frankly, I am afraid
 This is the title of a book by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who heard a Soviet policeman say it.