WASHINGTON, July 19, 2016 — Melania Trump gave a speech at the GOP convention yesterday that her critics conceded wasn’t bad, not compared to the other “rantings” of the day. Donald Trump’s supporters think she knocked her speech out of the ballpark.
Is that because it was plagiarized?
Politico is among the many websites that have put passages of Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech next to passages from Melania Trump’s speech, and the similarities are striking:
“From a young age, 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” (Trump).
“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” (Obama).
These parallel passages clearly share a common genesis, and it isn’t from Trump or her speechwriters; in the real world, causation doesn’t work backward in time
They contain good advice: Your word is your bond; keep your promises; treat people with respect. But that good advice has been reduced to platitudes by long familiarity and contempt. If Michelle Obama heard these from her mom, her mom probably saw them on a poster in the mall’s Hallmark shop first.
Give thy thoughts no tongue … Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar … Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice … Neither a borrower nor lender be …
Polonius gives this advice to his son, Laertes. Good advice? Excellent advice, all of it, but Polonius is a fatuous, platitudinous old man. His advice, however good, is banal. Shakespeare has presented him as a buffoon, not a font of wisdom.
But then follows this shocker: “This above all: To thine ownself be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”
Has the old fool turned wise in mid-speech? That advice transcends his earlier platitudes. It sounds original.
No, even a pig can find a truffle. Platitude layered on platitude can sound thoughtful and original, especially to the inexperienced young and the simple-minded old. But it is no more original than “two wrongs don’t make a right.”
It is clear that Trump and her speechwriters went rifling through old speeches for some good lines. They lifted these ones directly from Obama’s speech. The question is, why did they choose such unoriginal source material?
Were they afraid that if they borrowed something original, it might be seen as plagiarism? Why borrow platitudes? They are out there free for the stealing.
It’s been said that good artists copy, great artists steal. Pablo Picasso admitted, “When there’s anything to steal, I steal.”
Plagiarism is borrowing; it’s taking without changing, improving, making it your own. When you steal ideas, you make them yours. You take away the ownership rights of your source. If you’re going to use platitudes, you should steal them and make them new.
That’s hard—how do you make “your word is your bond” fresh and new—but simply repeating the banalities of your source material is just sad.
There is a fine tradition of using other people’s words and ideas in politics. It runs the gamut from plagiaristic borrowing to brilliant theft. Politicians most often do as Trump and take platitudes, because platitudes are familiar, and we love familiarity.
No one wants to see a brilliant, indie original; we want “Scream 10,” a scrappy Disney heroine and another “Star Wars” movie.
Trump should learn from the experience of three of the best and worst plagiarizers in recent politics: Joe Biden, John Walsh and Vladimir Putin.
Biden stumped the country in 1988 appropriating a speech by British politician Neil Kinnock. Biden was smart; he took from a foreigner, and who pays attention to foreign speeches? He was also stupid; he borrowed when he should have stolen.
Biden wasn’t content just to take Kinnock’s words; he took them in the context of Kinnock’s life. He turned his own ancestors into coal miners, and he made himself the first college graduate in his family.
Trump wisely avoided making herself black or changing Donald’s name to “Barack,” but she took from too recent and too well-known a source. The lessons from Biden are, go foreign, change the wording and the details and don’t get greedy. We can’t all be the children of poor sharecroppers.
John Walsh was a U.S. senator from Montana and a graduate of the U.S. Army War College, which granted him a master’s degree. The New York Times revealed in 2014 that Walsh had lifted important pieces of his 2007 master’s thesis from a variety of other sources.
A quarter of his thesis was plagiarized. It is accepted practice in academia to take widely and freely from other sources, but we must give them full credit in our text, citations and bibliography. Walsh gave no credit. His entire concluding section was lifted from a Carnegie Endowment for National Peace document. The War College lifted his degree from him in October of that year.
We can take several lessons from Walsh Give credit if you borrow, but if you want to be original, steal. Take material that’s sufficiently boring or obscure, and you might not be caught; Walsh’s plagiarism went undetected for seven years, and most embarrassing for the War College was that Walsh’s thesis advisers didn’t know the literature well enough to catch his plagiarism. Finally, if you are caught, don’t blame your behavior on PTSD. It makes you look like a jerk.
You may not know that Russian President Vladimir Putin is—in addition to being a martial-arts black belt, a noted naturalist and successful treasure hunter—an academic. He wrote a doctoral dissertation in economics at a mining institute in St. Petersburg.
Brookings Institution researchers obtained a copy of the dissertation, “Strategic Planning of the Reproduction of the Mineral Resource Base of a Region under Conditions of the Formation of Market Relations,” in 2005. They bravely read it and concluded that a large chunk of it had been taken from a textbook on strategic planning written by two professors at the University of Pittsburgh, a source not included in Putin’s bibliography.
Putin’s career was completely unaffected by that revelation.
The first lesson here is that, if your source material is in a different language, you’re even less likely to be found out as a fraud than if it comes from England; Putin’s plagiarism went undetected for almost 30 years. The second is that, if you command the military and police forces of Russia, you can shoot people in Red Square and stay popular.
Melania Trump’s speechwriters plagiarized a part of her speech. They erred in taking something too recent and too familiar. They took something not really worth taking; there are probably platitude generators on the internet. They didn’t outright steal and make the material her own. They thought small.
Donald Trump isn’t a man who seems to think small. We should have higher expectations for his speech. If he uses someone else’s material, he’ll go large and smack it across your face. That’s the Trump way.