While vacationing at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, on Tuesday, President Donald Trump took some time in between threatening to attack North Korea with “fire and fury” and hitting the links to be briefed by the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and Opioid Crisis. Oh, sorry: “Opiod” Crisis.
That’s right. As a few viewers, including HuffPost’s Nick Wing, noticed, the event description posted before the White House livestream featured a glaring spelling error. One of the key words of the whole slide ― “opioid” ― had been misspelled.
Some also called the White House out for misspelling “combating,” so it’s worth noting that the word is correctly spelled with just one “t.” And the mistake in “opioid” is a common one; the unusual “ioi” sequence trips up a lot of us. Just search “opiod” on Twitter.
Still, the typo was embarrassing. There were only 18 words on the slide, and that’s if you include “Next Up” and “The White House,” as well as the White House logo.
At this point, Trump’s own slapdash spelling, often showcased on his personal Twitter, no longer raises an eyebrow. After a spate of notorious misspellings ― “unpresidented,” “honered,” “tapp,” “hear by” ― the public became accustomed to his typo habit, and his insistence on using Twitter as a filter-free channel to the American people. The latter issue, quite frankly, poses such significant national security and social justice concerns that the typos that slip through hardly seem worthy of commentary.
But we’re not just talking about a president who types haphazardly. Trump himself didn’t make that livestream slide. His administration has seen a slew of egregious typos in official communications ― tweets, documents, graphics, even Trump’s inauguration poster, which proclaimed, “no challenge is to great.”
The New York Post cataloged a running list of administration typos, last updated in July. A few lowlights: A White House guide to underreported terrorist attacks in the U.S. misspelled “attacker” and “Denmark.” A May press release promised Trump would “promote the possibility of lasting peach” in the Middle East. The White House Snapchat referred to “Secretary of Educatuon Betsy DeVos” in April.
The Department of Education itself tweeted a tribute to W.E.B. Du Bois during Black History Month that, quite unfortunately, misspelled the iconic black scholar and activist’s name.
Typos happen to the best of us, and they even slip past eagle-eyed editors on occasion. Any journalist can attest to that. But the high rate of easily avoided errors coming from the White House over the past eight months ― many of which could have been caught by spell check ― hints at a systemic problem.
Seth Masket, who worked in the White House Office of Correspondence in the ’90s, wrote in Pacific Standard in June that because the White House “is a venerable and highly professionalized organization with a great deal of institutional memory,” the sudden flood of typos is alarming. When he worked for the White House, each piece of official communication went through at least four rounds of edits before being finalized. “It’s actually difficult to produce errors like this under normal conditions,” he wrote.
Masket suggested a few possible causes behind the typo epidemic, like a rogue communications staffer or looser standards. “Maybe there just aren’t enough political staffers to do the job right, or maybe people who do the typesetting have quit and not been replaced,” he speculated. “This would be consistent with what we’ve seen in many other areas of this administration.”
It’s one thing to see standards slip, or understaffed departments suffer in quality output. But this issue has now persisted so long that it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Trump and other key decision-makers don’t think the typo problem is a problem ― or, still worse, the Trump administration hasn’t been able to hire enough competent communications staff to fix it.
It may seem elitist to complain of such petty errors. Still, it’s actually a function of Trump’s privilege, as a white man from a wealthy background, that he’s been able to succeed in business and politics despite that. It’s unlikely that President Barack Obama would have been given a pass for shoddy grammar and spelling, and his academic achievements were often called into question by conservatives despite his impeccable academic record and dexterity with the written and spoken word alike.
The anti-elitist defense of these constant errors clashes with Trump’s own frequent boast that he knows how to hire the “best people,” both in business and government. The claim has frequently come back to haunt him since the election, with a White House staff in constant disarray and rumors that qualified picks aren’t interested in associating themselves with the Trump administration. Elitist or not, by no definition would a communications team comprising the “best people” in their field repeatedly put out official documents and graphics riddled with astonishingly obvious errors.
When it comes to the incompetence and even anti-competence of the Trump administration, we hardly need a canary in the coal mine ― but that’s what the spelling-challenged communications office continues to be. Though its missteps may be relatively low-stakes, they are highly visible evidence of a blatant lack of professionalism and failure to improve on low performance. Perhaps most disconcertingly, it’s incontrovertible proof that the institutional memory and experienced political staff that many hoped would keep the Trump administration functional simply aren’t enough. Instead, he’s bringing them down to his level.
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