July 21, 2016

Some thoughts and context on the “confusion and hysteria” Melania Trump’s plagiarism has caused


Melania Trump and Michelle Obama. Via heavy.com.

Melania Trump and Michelle Obama. Via heavy.com.

Earlier this week, Melania Trump, wife of no-longer-presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, briefly claimed the title of America’s best-known Slovene, for all the wrong reasons.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (which, given the state of current events, would be braggable), you probably know that a number of people, beginning with out-of-work TV journalist Jarrett Hill, have pointed out that Trump’s speech to the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Monday repeatedly plagiarized the remarks of Michelle Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.  Here, relive the magic:

First things first: Michelle Obama is simply wonderful, a person of rare intelligence and elegance who could power a small Siberian city on her dignity alone. It is hard, even for those of us who feel gassy at the mere suggestion that the American government exists, not to notice this.

That said, the particular lines that appear to have been cribbed from her do not amount to much. Values like “working hard for what you want,” “doing what you say you’re going to do,” and “treating people with respect” have been elaborated enough times that it’s patently bewildering to think anyone would feel the need to cop Obama’s wording to express them. One could just as easily quote Jesus, or Benjamin Franklin, or their own sainted parents. “My dad always told me, ‘If you want something, you need to work hard for it.’” (True story, by the way.) And boom. Plagiarism averted.

On Facebook, Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara called out another curious aspect of the kerfuffle:

It’s certainly difficult to make a case that Melania Trump’s plagiarism at last exposes the intellectual shortcomings of her husband’s campaign, particularly against the backdrop this convention offers of a moral freefall so acrobatic that it has, imponderably, ceded high ground to George W. Bush. This is not to say the dishonesty should not be discomfiting—of course it should—but much of what it distracts us from is of far deeper concern.

This seems all the truer for the fact that, as many have pointed out, plagiarism and political campaigning have long enjoyed a special relationship. In 2008, for example, while running for president, Senator Barack Obama publicly repeated a few lines from Deval Patrick, then governor of Massachussetts and co-chair of his campaign, prompting Senator Hillary Clinton to quip that “lifting whole passages from someone else’s speeches is not change you can believe in, it’s change you can xerox.”

The incident is one of several enumerated in pieces that have been making the rounds from a series of news organizations, including The Associated Press, CNN.com, and The Guardian. Other highlights include Dr. Ben Carson (the man who puts the bemused comma in the phrase “no, brain surgeon!”) lifting passages of his book from a website called socialismsucks.net; John Walsh, a Democratic US senator from Montana, ending a reelection campaign, having his master’s degree revoked, and having his named sanded off a commemorative plaque; and then-US Senator from Delaware Joe Biden being forced out of the 1988 presidential election after it was discovered he had borrowed tropes from British Labour MP Neil Kinnock’s unsuccessful 1987 campaign for prime minister.

As we’ve also noted recently, Donald Trump himself appears to have plagiarized at least his campaign slogan, and possibly his entire public persona, from legendary science fiction writer Octavia Butler, whose 1998 novel The Parable of the Talents is set in a post-apocalyptic America, during the rise of a homegrown fascist who successfully runs for president under the slogan “Make America Great Again.” Seriously.

Melania Trump’s plagiarism, condemnable though it is, seems far less consequential than most of this, primarily because she is not in fact a person running for political office, and did not in fact say anything that couldn’t be repurposed to sell vitamin water. There were even some upsides, including a high-profile teachable moment for educators everywhere, and the spectacle of journalist Brian Williams, himself famous for a self-serving, let’s-not-put-labels-on-this-thing relationship with the truth, being forced to talk about it on the air:

By yesterday, a presumptive actual person (and apparent registered Democrat) named Meredith McIver had released a statement in which she identified herself as “an in-house staff writer at the Trump Organization,” accepted responsibility for the incident, and apologized “for the confusion and hysteria my mistake has caused.” (In a sidenote that may one day outgrow its parentheses, Josh Israel of ThinkProgress observes that the mea culpa comes on the letterhead of, and describes its author as employed by, the Trump Organization, the family real estate concern Trump inherited from his father, rather than the Trump presidential campaign, which reflects laxity and confusion at best, and may in fact be criminal.)

The Donald, meanwhile, kept it classy by tweeting:

To which the New York TimesMaggie Haberman responded with the respectable print journalism equivalent of a heaving side-eye: “The investigation into Mrs. Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was the secretary of state lasted nearly a year.”

(McIver’s message neither accepted nor denied responsibility for the sly Rickroll the speech also contained. We did some investigating.)

It remains to be seen whether the mounting, collective stomach flu that has been the 2016 election can continue growing worse for the people of America and the world. It does, however, seem likely to continue improving the financial prospects of Papa John’s pizzerias nationwide.



Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.