Two paragraphs from Melania Trump’s speech last night before the Republican National Convention were almost word for word the same as two paragraphs from Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech. This is a fact. Such verbatim quoting without attribution is called plagiarism. Plagiarism is widely recognized as a kind of cheating, indeed as a kind of theft. A plagiarist is someone who steals the words of others and makes believe that they are his or her own words. Plagiarism is a violation of common sense standards of integrity. It is also a violation of expectations that are widely shared by the major institutions of our society, including schools, professional institutions — including bar associations and business schools — and media institutions.
Melania Trump’s speech involved plagiarism. And the author of her speech was a plagiarist.
Why does this matter? After all, the plagiarism in question involved only two paragraphs. And the speech in question was not a substantial political speech by a candidate, but “only” a performance by the candidate’s wife. Right? Wrong.
The first and most important reason why this plagiarism matters is because of what it demonstrates about the ethics, or rather the lack of ethics, of the Trump campaign itself: that the campaign plays fast and loose with the truth, and consistently acts as if it can say or do whatever it wants, simply deny responsibility, and then angrily maintain that its critics are always wrong and the fault is theirs. Trump is always right. His critics are always evil. The brouhaha over this plagiarized speech is simply a blatant example of this. Just deny the obvious, defensively maintain innocence, and then blame those who point out the obvious wrong-doing, claiming that they are liars, they are evil, they are self-interested. On this logic, it’s all Hillary Clinton’s fault! In any other sphere of life such behavior would be regarded as transparently self-serving and juvenile. And yet this is the modus operandi of the Trump campaign. The campaign rests on lies and innuendoes and provocations.
The second reason the plagiarism matters is because of what it demonstrates about the campaign as an organization: that the campaign is an organization only in the loosest of senses. It has no campaign manager in a proper sense; it has little clear structure; it has devoted little time and energy to fund-raising or building an electoral ground game; and it seems entirely driven by the whims and the ego of Trump himself, and by his small coterie of advisers who, like Paul Manafort, have an established track record of unscrupulous behavior. The Trump Presidential campaign is not being run in a professional manner. It has consistently proven unable to properly plan or to anticipate the likely effects of its own activities or to demonstrate even the most rudimentary form of political responsibility of the sort that many citizens of our highly mediated electoral democracy expect. The campaign is inept, and it consistently masks its ineptitude with bravado and threats.
And this brings me to the third reason why the plagiarism is important: the extent to which the entire campaign is an extension of Trump’s ego, and thus a perverse and tacky family affair rather than a serious coalition of diverse political people. Everywhere Trump goes his adult children follow. His children are touted as his key advisers. His sons serve as important campaign spokesmen. His 34 year-old daughter Ivanka — who seems like a nice enough person, but whose entire career has involved showcasing the Trump genes and the Trump brand — is presented to the public as his chief confidant and political genius, to the absurd extent of actually being mentioned as a possible Vice Presidential candidate. Every US President and Presidential candidate in recent history has had a family. In almost every case, these families included spouses, or children, who had demonstrated real accomplishment, on their own, in business or journalism or education or medicine or the law. In no case has a family ever played such an important role in a campaign’s operations and in its public presentation as Trump’s family plays in his campaign. We are talking about a bunch of people in their thirties, who were raised with silver spoons in their mouths, and who have all risen to “success” as acolytes of their wealthy father. The situation would be laughable were it not so frightening. Some of these young people might be fine individuals. Some seem quite clearly to be arrogant punks. This is the “brain trust” behind the Trump campaign? These are the faces of the Republican party?
Finally, there is Melania herself, the woman who spoke the plagiarized words in question. It is difficult to comment on this woman given the rampant sexism in our culture. That she is Slovenian, that she is a beautiful former model, that she is a much younger woman — these are things that are not relevant to any assessment of Melania Trump’s character, personality, or accomplishments. At the same time, it is impossible to completely ignore such things, in connection to her husband, given the fact that she is being escorted across the public stage as “the next First Lady of the US.” For Donald Trump uses women, and he has a history of seeking approbation for the beautiful woman he has been able to use as “eye candy.” And Melania Trump was being showcased as a way of promoting Trump’s own masculinity, before the Republican Party and before the entire world. Her prescribed role was a simple one: to look beautiful, to say some things about the “hard work” that brought her before our eyes, and to sing the praises of Donald. What else could anyone expect from her given the role she has long played in her husband’s public performances? If she was put in a difficult or compromising position by the campaign, or furnished with plagiarized words, that is unfortunate. And ultimately the campaign is about Trump and not about her. So some of the sympathy being expressed for Melania in the media is understandable. At the same time, she is Donald Trump’s wife, the woman who represents his sense of “family values” (his previous two buxom and blonde former-model ex-wives are things of the past, having served their roles as carriers of the Trump genes). And she is 46 years old. She is a grown woman. Is she not responsible for herself and for her own words? It is claimed in her promotional materials that she is an accomplished and dedicated business woman. Perhaps she is (though apparently when she met her future husband the multi-millionaire she was a 26 year-old model). It is also claimed that she is a graduate of University in Slovenia. She is not a university graduate. And indeed, while the locution, with its capitalized “U,” seems to imply that there exists a particular university from which she graduated, there is in fact no actual university being referenced here. University in Slovenia? That would be like me listing on my CV “University in United States.” Fast and loose with the truth she is — assuming that she has had anything to do with her own narrative on her own website.
Shortly before presenting her partly-plagiarized speech — and plagiarism is kind of like pregnancy; either you plagiarize or you don’t; she did — Melania claimed that she wrote the speech herself. With all due regard for the solicitude of media pundits who prefer to think of Melania as a victim of campaign staffers, why doubt this? Is it really so difficult to imagine that the model who Donald Trump married, who claims to have graduated a university that does not exist, whose entire life has centered on the airbrushed presentation of her self, and who chose to marry an egomaniacal and narcissistic sexist whose most obvious character trait is his great wealth, would plagiarize a speech?
The Trump campaign chose to begin its reality-TV inspired, heavily scripted and produced spectacle of a convention by showcasing “Melania.” Perhaps what viewers saw and heard is a perfect representation of Trump and his campaign: all show and no substance, all mendacity and no truth, and all ego and no real concern for anyone else. Say what you want. Do what you want. Vilify others and then steal their words. Get caught and then try to shout down and bully those who notice. This is not an aberration. This is Trumpism. One can only hope that a few months from now we can laugh about this absurd reality TV show being enacted before our eyes. And yet I fear that the joke may be on us.