Yesterday, at the Republican National Convention, Melania Trump, the wife of the presumptive Republican candidate Donald Trump, took to the stage to give a speech in support of her husband.
In a passionate address, she spoke about her immigrant experience in the United States and the morals and values that her parents tried to instill in her and she is trying to pass on to her son.
However, almost as soon as the speech was done, viewers online began to notice similarities between Melania’s speech and the 2008 speech that now-First Lady Michelle Obama gave for her husband, now-President Barack Obama, at the Democratic National Convention.
The story quickly caught fire as news outlets, both online and off, began to take up the story. Within hours, despite taking place early this morning, the hashtag #FamousMelaniaTrumpQuotes was trending on Twitter and Google News reported over 6,800 stories on the issue.
So all of this raises some serious questions: Was there plagiarism? If so, how serious was it? And, either way, what is next for the Trumps?
To answer those questions, we’re going to take a look at what happened and my take on it.
Understanding the Melania Trump Scandal
The scandal itself centers around two paragraphs in Melania’s speech. In those paragraphs, she described the values that she said her parents tried to instill in her. Those include hard work, keeping your word and treating others with dignity.
Here is the exact passage from Melania’s speech:
“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.
They taught and showed me values and morals in their daily lives. That is a 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.”
The problem for Melania is that Michelle Obama described her parents instilling those same values into her with many of the same words back in 2008.
Here is the passage from Michelle’s speech:
“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 to 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.”
As social media began to notice and highlight the similarities, news media did too. Eventually, the Trump campaign released a statement about Melania’s speech that, while never mentioning plagiarism said:
“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.”
However, this statement stood in contrast to a previous one made by Melania, who said that she wrote it with as little help as possible.
Either way, Melania has been taking the brunt of the criticism for the speech and the alleged plagiarism and the story has cast dark clouds over what was supposed to be a banner day for Melania and her husband.
So, is this criticism fair? To answer that we have to take a look at not just the facts but the context. But even under the most favorable light possible, the copying is still very worrisome and opens the door to many valid criticisms of Melania’s speech.
Did Melania Trump Plagiarize?
Plagiarism in political speeches is always tricky. Issues surrounding attribution in speeches are thorny enough, but political speeches often come with differing expectations of originality.
For example, candidates will often reuse passages and verbiage from their colleagues and allies. This is both to simplify speechwriting, but also to keep a consistent message across the entire party. Couple that with shared speechwriters and overlapping text is often just par for the course in political speeches.
Many of these issues came to the forefront in 2008 when then-candidate Barack Obama was accused of plagiarism in a speech. In that case, Obama was accused of plagiarizing his political ally and friend then-Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, using words of inspiration that mirrored Patrick’s.
Patrick defended Obama against the allegations, calling them “extravagant”, but the issue raised a lot of questions about citation and speech overlap.
But with Melania’s speech, most of those issues don’t apply. Specifically, there are three issues that make the overlapping text especially troublesome.
- It Was Meant to Be Personal: The section where the plagiarism took place is not a portion about policy or even just vague inspirational rhetoric, it was meant to be a deeply personal story for Melania and her experience coming to the United States.
- The Text Comes from a Political Opponent: Michelle Obama is as far removed from a political ally as possible. The fact is the speech the text seems to be pulled from was given at the opposing party’s national convention eight years prior.
- This Was a Grand Stage: This was not one stump speech out of hundreds or thousands, it was Melania’s first major speech and one at likely the biggest event of the campaign. If there ever is a time for a fully-original speech, this would be it.
Put in that context, the copying becomes especially egregious. To that end, the copying really does speak for itself.
A Diffchecker page provided by Javier Panzar showcases the copying very well. Several lengthy passages including “That you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say,” as well as “Because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the…” were copied verbatim.
Given that these were not merely common phrases, the chances of the copying being coincidental are very low.
However, perhaps the most damming element is that Melania Trump invoked the exact same values (hard work, word as your bond and treating people with respect) in the exact same order with much of the same language. They both also, after stating the values, spoke immediately of passing them down to future generations, also with similar language.
While these are certainly common values, there are simply too many coincidences in language, order and the values themselves to ignore. This portion of Melania’s speech, almost certainly, borrowed very heavily from Michelle Obama’s speech.
However, this does not mean that Melania personally committed plagiarism. Though there are somewhat conflicting reports on how the speech was written, it’s clear that she had at least some assistance from a speechwriter and it’s very likely that the passages at issue came from that writer.
Unfortunately though, the statement from the Trump campaign didn’t shed much light on this issue but it is possible that we will know more in the days and/or weeks ahead.
In the meantime, we’re left with a lot of questions but it’s unlikely that those questions will have a major impact on what lies ahead.
So What’s Next?
The biggest question on most people’s minds is: What impact will this have on the election?
The answer, in the end, is probably this: None.
Having watched a wide variety of plagiarism scandals unfold in the United States, one thing I’ve noticed time and time again is that they very rarely have a major impact on elections and, when they do, it’s usually because the campaign was already struggling.
While plagiarism allegations pushed now-Vice President Joe Biden out of the 1988 Presidential race, his campaign was already well behind at the time. Given his current position, it’s clear that it had little impact on his long-term political career.
Similarly, in 2014, Senator John Walsh dropped out of his race following allegations he had plagiarized his master’s thesis. However, he was appointed to the position just a year prior to replace Senator Max Baucus, who was named ambassador to China, and was seen as deeply vulnerable in the election.
In short, even when plagiarism scandals do have an impact on the election, they rarely change the outcome.
In 2008, both Barack Obama and John McCain were accused of plagiarism and neither scandal carried any real weight. Biden’s plagiarism transgressions were already old news by then, by about 20 years, and nothing changed for either campaign.
While the story is certainly a big one tonight as I’m writing this. It will likely be forgotten soon. Not only is this a story about the wife of a candidate, rather than the candidate himself, but it’s part of an especially heated election cycle.
In a few weeks, it’s most likely that this will just be another barb thrown by political opponents. But, in an election cycle such as this, an insult of “plagiarist” seems quite tame compared to other names the candidates are routinely called.
In the United States plagiarism scandals, no matter how seemingly egregious, don’t end political campaigns, let alone careers. This is definitely different in Germany, where such stories have semi-routinely ended careers, but the scandals themselves have been very different as well.
In the end, the most likely outcome of this story is that it will fall off the news cycle soon enough and other controversies will take its place
Still, for one night Americans have been talking at great length about plagiarism. While the conversation may not have been productive, the issue has reached the forefront of our national consciousness, if but for a moment.
What’s most interesting to me is that the Trump campaign did not do more to prevent this problem. Back in March, the campaign faced allegations of plagiarizing Ben Carson and in just the past few weeks, allegations that the Trump Institute, a real estate school that licensed the Trump brand, committed plagiarism in its textbooks.
To me, the most disconcerting part of this story is not that plagiarized content made it into Melania’s speech, but that the campaign learned nothing from its previous scrapes with plagiarism and failed to properly vet this speech before presenting it to the world.
With all of the tools available for finding plagiarism in 2016, candidates and campaigns need to be much more careful. There is simply no reason to think that any transgression, no matter how small, will slip under the radar.
In an election cycles as tense as this one, all candidates would do well to avoid handing their opponents free ammunition.