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Melania Trump and plagiarism in politics, explained

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One of the biggest stories from this week’s Republican National Convention has been news that Melania Trump, Republican nominee Donald Trump’s wife, cribbed part of her opening night speech from Michelle Obama. Plagiarism is never a good look for a political figure, and the fact that the lines were lifted from the wife of one of Trump’s biggest political targets made the news all the more awkward.

The Trump campaign made a bad situation worse by refusing to admit the obvious for more than 36 hours after the speech. The news cycle was dominated by coverage of the Trump campaign’s ever-shifting excuses for the lifted text, drawing attention away from the GOP’s preferred message about the 2011 Benghazi attack and Hillary Clinton’s email scandal.

Finally, on Wednesday, a Trump speechwriter admitted that she had accidentally included some lines from Michelle Obama’s speech in Melania Trump’s text. The big question is whether the incident will damage Trump’s image with voters.

Parts of Melania Trump’s speech sounded a lot like Michelle Obama's

On Monday night Melania was the headliner, in one of her first notable primetime speaking appearances as Trump’s adoring wife and so-called "model immigrant."

It wasn’t a particularly notable speech: She touched on the same themes of family, pride, and patriotism that generations of prospective first ladies have spoken to in past election years. But one moment stood out among the rest, not for its brilliance but for its uncanny similarity in sentence structure, paragraph structure, and language to Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic convention speech.

Here’s the moment:

Melania’s speech was written by two prominent political speechwriters, Matthew Scully and John McConnell, known for penning George W. Bush’s address to the nation after 9/11. However, according to a New York Times report, the speech Scully and McConnell wrote, drafted last month, was not the speech Melania gave Monday night:

Inside Trump Tower, it turned out, Ms. Trump had decided she was uncomfortable with the text, and began tearing it apart, leaving a small fraction of the original.

[...]

The Trump campaign declined to say who or how many senior campaign officials read or reviewed the speech. But when Ms. Trump and her staff had finished revising the speech, virtually all that remained from the original was an introduction and a passage that included the phrase "a national campaign like no other."

On Wednesday, the Trump Organization’s in-house staff writer, Meredith McIver, admitted to wrongdoing and said she had offered her resignation, which she said the Trump family rejected. McIver explained that during the brainstorming period she wrote down some of Melania’s favorite passages from Michelle Obama's speech — "A person she has always liked is Michelle Obama" — and some of those phrases made it into the final script, which she mistakenly did not check against Obama’s original speech.

The Trump campaign took a long time to admit it was plagiarism

The similarities are so blatant it’s hard to argue that a portion of the speech wasn’t cribbed from Michelle Obama’s. But the Trump campaign, as with most controversies, denied the allegations at first, coming up with many excuses in its defense.

Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson argued the speech was an incident of two people touching on the same values in the same language. The "concept that Michelle Obama invented the English language is absurd," she said. RNC chief strategist Sean Spicer invoked the My Little Pony cartoon to defend the speech, arguing that the sentences in question were common phrases, like those said by My Little Pony character Twilight Sparkle.

"Melania Trump said, 'The strength of your dreams and willingness to work for them.' Twilight Sparkle from 'My Little Pony' said, 'This is your dream. Anything you can do in your dreams, you can do now,'" Spicer said on CNN.

It’s true, of course, that clichés are rampant in political speech. Presidential candidates and their wives often touch on similar themes and common values.

But the problem wasn’t just that Melania used common phrases like "word is your bond" and "the strength of your dreams and willingness to work for them." Taken individually, any one of these shared phrases could be an innocent mistake. The problem is that Melania strung together a long sequence of these clichés in exactly the same order as they were found in Michelle Obama’s speech. The chances of that happening by accident are infinitesimal.

Trump’s campaign chair, Paul Manafort, even tried to shift blame to Hillary Clinton, claiming that the negative response to Melania’s speech is "an example of when a woman threatens Hillary Clinton, how she seeks out to demean her and take her down." And Trump delegates at the convention seemed to all chalk it up to unnecessary harping on simple political clichés.

Despite a packed RNC schedule of notable, newsworthy, and often inflammatory speakers, the news cycle on Tuesday largely revolved around the Trump campaign’s growing list of excuses.

The Trump campaign’s denials are a testament to Trump’s character

This denial, as political consultant Stuart Stevens observes, is telling of the culture of Trump’s campaign.

No matter the egregiousness of the error, misspeak, or offense, even when presented with undeniable evidence, the Trump campaign’s consistent strategy is to never surrender. Vox’s Timothy Lee explains:

This has become the Trump campaign’s standard response when it’s caught making a mistake: refuse to admit they’ve made an error no matter how obvious it might seem, and then escalate by blaming everyone except themselves for the misstep. This tactic has often produced poor results for Team Trump, magnifying what could have been minor gaffes into major scandals that consume the media’s attention for days.

Why does Trump do this? For one, as he admitted himself in a tweet Wednesday, it brings him publicity and drags out the news cycle.

Second, as scholar Roy Peter Clark explains in Poynter, stunts like these allow the campaign to pit its candidate against the institution of the media, which we know Trump supporters love to hate. The Trump campaign doesn’t care to what untruthful or unethical lengths it has to go to in order to get there:

The school of Trump (based upon the scrupulous work of professional fact-checkers) exists and thrives in a post-fact — and now post-plagiarism — world. Concern for irresponsible borrowing of texts has somehow become a problem for the elites: intellectuals and the so-called mainstream media.

History and conventional wisdom show plagiarism seriously hurts politicians. But conventional wisdom doesn’t always apply to Trump.

Conventional wisdom and past experience suggests that plagiarism can’t be taken lightly.

"The most cardinal rule of any speech-writing operation is that you cannot plagiarize," Matt Latimer, who was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, told the Times. "You lose your job."

Past cases of plagiarism have come with serious ramifications for the careers of politicians, ending some and derailing others.

  • In 1987, plagiarism allegations against now–Vice President Joe Biden put an end to his then-presidential run. The New York Times’s Maureen Dowd uncovered the similarities between a speech given by former British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock and Biden’s closing debate statement at the Iowa State Fair.

Kinnick had said:

Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? [Pointing to his wife in the audience:] Why is Glenys the first woman in her family in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? Was it because all our predecessors were thick?

Months later, Biden said essentially the same thing:

I started thinking as I was coming over here, why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university? [Pointing to his wife in the audience:] Why is it that my wife who is sitting out there in the audience is the first in her family to ever go to college? Is it because our fathers and mothers were not bright? Is it because I'm the first Biden in a thousand generations to get a college and a graduate degree that I was smarter than the rest?

  • In 2014, BuzzFeed found that Wisconsin’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mary Burke, who was vying to oust Gov. Scott Walker, was campaigning on a "jobs plan" that had been copied from three previous gubernatorial candidates. The discovery led Burke to fire her campaign consultant and led to a particularly negative news cycle just months before state elections. Burke ultimately lost to Walker that November, which she attributed to image.
  • The same year, the US Army College rescinded Democratic Sen. John Walsh's Montana masters degree for plagiarizing portions of his dissertation in 2007. The controversy pushed Walsh, who had been appointed to fill former Sen. Max Baucus’s seat, to drop his election bid.

The list goes on.

Each time, the lesson learned is the same: Plagiarism comes with serious consequences, in part because it breaks the impression of authenticity most politicians try to build.

When the originality of Burke’s jobs plan came under scrutiny, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Christian Schneider opined that plagiarism controversies often have the most impact when they reinforce preexisting weaknesses in a candidate’s validity. For Burke, a businesswoman with no experience in elected office, the cribbed jobs plan solidified "the impression that she is the pyrite candidate," Schneider wrote.

Trump, by virtue of being the Republican Party nominee, defies most conventional political wisdom. But he, too, has a stake in maintaining authenticity as a political outsider. On the campaign trail, he has gained support by claiming to be the anti-politician.

His wife’s use of a political insider’s speech doesn’t improve that image.

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