As we’ve previously documented, the pettier a conflict, the further Donald Trump and those around him will go to defend it in the most nonsensical ways possible. When Melania Trump apparently plagiarized first lady Michelle Obama in a speech at yesterday’s Republican National Convention, for example, she could probably have brushed it aside with a quiet non-statement. But in its trademark fashion, the campaign has responded with a series of increasingly belligerent justifications, proceeding from merely vague to downright bewildering.
Some would (and do) argue that this is a brilliant form of misdirection, taking attention away from the virulent xenophobia that was on display yesterday at the convention. But unlike blatantly ugly sound bites, plagiarism is lazy and unethical behavior that the campaign can’t spin as bluntly pragmatic or bravely iconoclastic or "politically incorrect." A mortal sin at least shows motivation and initiative. A venial one is just sad.
And it’s only gotten worse.
It’s not plagiarism, it’s just plagiarism
The campaign’s first response to Trump’s alleged plagiarism, from senior communications advisor Jason Miller, was essentially the political speechwriter’s version of "but everything’s a remix."
"In writing her beautiful speech, Melania’s team of writers took notes on her life’s inspirations, and in some instances included fragments that reflected her own thinking. Melania’s immigrant experience and love for America shone through in her speech, which made it such a success."
Leaving aside the notion that Melania Trump takes life inspiration from the wife of her husband’s archenemy Barack Obama, this is the literal definition of plagiarism: drawing ideas and language from outside sources and claiming them as your own. Still, it’s about as good as the campaign got — an implicit admission that yes, something bad happened, but it wasn’t a big deal.
It’s not plagiarism, it’s just the same words in the same order
The next morning on CNN, Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort decided that this was too soft. Claiming the whole thing was a controversy manufactured by Clinton, he said that the idea Melania Trump had copied from Obama was "crazy."
"There was a process, certainly, of collaboration. Certainly, there's no feeling on her part that she did it. What she did was use words that are common words."
You know what else are common words? "To," "be," "or," "not," "to," and "be."
Here’s the main portion of the speech that was allegedly plagiarized, from Trump:
My parents impressed on me the values: that you work hard for what you want in life. That your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise. That you treat people with respect. They taught me to show the values and morals in my daily life. That is the lesson that I continue to pass along to our son.
And we need to pass those lessons on to the many generations to follow. Because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.
And Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you're going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don't know them, and even if you don't agree with them.
And Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values, and pass them on to the next generation. Because we want our children — and all children in this nation — to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.
The campaign is right that both speeches touch on common themes like the importance of family. That is not the point. The fact that there are lots of young adult books about magic doesn’t mean I get to rewrite Harry Potter.
It’s not plagiarism, unless you literally invented English
Following up on Manafort’s theme, Trump aide Katrina Pierson basically told The Hill that if you want to complain about plagiarism, you’d better not use an existing language, you big copycat.
"These are values, Republican values by the way, of hard work, determination, family values, dedication and respect, and that's Melania Trump. This concept that Michelle Obama invented the English language is absurd."
On the one hand, this isn’t even hyperbole so much as a complete non sequitur designed to willfully confuse the issue. On the other, I fully support every political party being required to develop its own conlang for the span of each election.
Pierson went on point out that then-first lady Laura Bush had mentioned similar topics as Obama in a 2004 speech, but what The Hill dug up was a couple of indirect lines scattered through the piece. Again, this is the difference between saying "four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation" and "America was founded in 1776."
It’s not plagiarism, it’s My Little Pony
It’s not just members of the Trump campaign getting in on this. Again on CNN, RNC chief strategist Sean Spicer said that really, Melania Trump could have been plagiarizing My Little Pony for all we know.
"Melania Trump said ‘[We want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is] 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.’ [...] I mean, if we want to take a bunch of phrases and run them through Google and see who else has said them, I could come up with a list in five minutes."
Granted, Twilight Sparkle was talking about an actual lucid dreamscape that apparently featured "vicious living cake." And it’s the same false equivalence we’ve been hearing for the past day. But honestly, this is the absolute worst of these excuses for one reason: it made me realize that if the convention speeches are basically going to be fiction anyway, I’d rather hear scripts from children’s TV shows than a blow-by-blow account of Benghazi. And as surreal as things have gotten so far, that’s probably not on the table.