Like any fad on the internet, it starts as silliness, and then turns to overdone, and then the anti-fad people take over…
So, let’s talk about the “fad” that’s been bashing Melania Trump’s plagiarized speech (which I’ve certainly partaken in), and why it’s not about 50-some words that were copied.
So, let’s start here: Melania Trump did not write the speech…or plagiarize, or anything else. She had speechwriters.
This isn’t a bad thing, or an evil thing, or a duplicitous thing. Politicians use speech-writers all the time, and it’s even more of an important thing when it comes to non-politicians who have to give a political speech. There’s nothing wrong or shameful in this.
ABC News and the New York Times have both reported that Melania Trump’s speech began with two longtime GOP speechwriters, Matthew Scully and John McConnell, who say they didn’t include the plagiarized passages. The speech was changed in the weeks after that first draft, and while we don’t know by whom exactly, but even if it included Ms. Trump, it likely also involved other staff members.
This also doesn’t exclude that others haven’t used similar words before. As an example, Barack Obama did include a line from then-Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick in one of his speeches (pointed out by the Clinton campaign, no less). However, incidents like these are not as comparable, because using a single sentence (as Obama did) is very different than using nearly two paragraphs, with nearly the exact same phrasing, and the exact same order. CNBC said the odds of those identical passages are 1 in 4,835,703,278,458,516,698,824,704. In other words, long enough that you could have won the billion-dollar Powerball lottery, as well as me choosing to copy-and-paste that number rather than type it myself and risk getting a digit wrong. And I type for a side-living.
Also different, the responses, where then-Senator Obama immediately agreed, he used words and idea from a friend of his and credited him, whereas the Trump campaign has denied in many ways, either that the similarity existed at all, or that it was intentional, or…anything except ‘fessing up. That’s a different problem that doesn’t need expansion upon in the moment.
(EDIT: Since I posted this early Wednesday morning, a Trump Staffer, Meredith McIver, admitted to having written the speech with input from Melania on things she wanted to include. I admire her for coming out and giving an honest apology and explanation for what happened, and the Trump campaign is now admitting the plagiarizing happened, which is positive. However, it doesn’t change the thrust of this article, nor that the Trump campaign spent 36 hours denying and attempting to pivot rather than addressing the issue honestly)
These are not the points I’m trying to make.
What I’m trying to point out is that the Trump-hired staff had a hand in this. And they didn’t stop it.
Look, if I had been listening to the speech live, I wouldn’t have known it matched up with Michelle Obama’s speech. If one journalist, Jarrett Hill (or someone else eventually), hadn’t had noticed it and put it out there, and it then catch like wildfire, I’d have no idea this happened. But professionals would know this. There are tools made specifically for this job. Free, online tools like DupliChecker. Every speechwriter, every writer who does things for profit, they know tools like this and use them.
What’s even crazier is that this was a softball speech. A layup. This wasn’t a political speech, there were no difficult topics to be addressed here. No policy to carefully word. If there was anything touchy, maybe you talk about Melania being Donald’s third wife, but even that could be easily turned into a positive, talking about how welcoming his family has been.
The Trump campaign isn’t wrong when they say that the values expressed in the speech are common. They’re common to the point of predictable. And any speechwriter involved in one of the final drafts who caught onto this plagiarism could, in maybe 10 minutes, shift around the order and the phrasing and it still would have come off as completely genuine, and so banal that it wouldn’t have even mattered if the values actually were in her family or not (and I’m going to be fair, I assume they were. They aren’t uncommon values.).
You see, in tennis, they have a term for this: An unforced error. Errors happen, especially in the heat of the moment, when things are flying at you 100 miles an hour or the pressure is on. That doesn’t excuse them, but they can happen to anyone. An unforced error, however, is one that comes from carelessness, or worse. They are the worst kind.
Which brings us to the big point: Who the hell let this slip by, and who the hell hired them?
This is the defining downfall of the illusion of Trump being a successful businessman.
Trump’s detractors have rightly pointed out many failures under the Trump name, such as:
- Four different bankruptcies.
- Businesses that have been sued, like Trump University’s infamous fraud case.
- Non-bankruptcy failures, like Trump Vodka, Trump Airlines, and Trump Magazine, wisely started as the internet began killing print media in the mid-2000’s.
- Projects he licensed his name to that never got off the ground, like the lawsuit-embroiled Trump Ocean Resort Baja.
But it’s also honest to say that many of the decisions that led to their ruin were not made by Trump himself, but by those who ran those businesses. And whether you’re talking about the general manager of a casino who continues to allow debt to accrue, or the person who talked Trump into putting his name on a mortgage company mere months before the housing bubble burst in 2007, someone made a bunch of crap decisions
And those people were either hired by, or trusted advisors to, Donald. For a man who claims his name, as a brand, is worth billions of dollars, he sure slaps it on a lot of bad things.
The choices to work with and trust these people are all on Donald. And that is the problem with him as a possible President I’m making here (Yes, there are others, but I’m trying to stay focused).
Being a President isn’t just about making the decisions yourself. The President chooses his staff. He chooses a Vice-President (who does actually do stuff). He appoints judges, even further than the Supreme Court…but yes, he appoints judges-for-life to the Supreme Court.
Donald Trump hired a person who convinced him that selling steaks exclusively at an electronic gadget store was a good idea.
Trump does not make good hiring decisions, and it’s carried into this campaign. He let go of his friend Corey Lewandowski (reluctantly) as his campaign manager, but only after a chorus of complaints (legal and otherwise) forced his hand. He hasn’t hired the infrastructure his campaign still needs.
And he, or someone he hired, hired whatever hack of a writer just helped embarrass his wife and himself on national television.
It’s just the latest, and most humiliating, sign of a long trend.
That’s why this plagiarism scandal isn’t just about words. It’s a symptom of a man who continues to tell us the most bold-faced lie on the planet: That he is a good businessman.