At first after the convention broke for the night on Monday, everyone on the cable news networks agreed that Melania Trump’s speech was good. An hour later everyone was talking about how much her apparent plagiarism from Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech would hurt the Trump campaign.
Trump supporters offered the only defense they can: These sentiments about the value of hard work are so anodyne that anyone could have uttered them, that they could have been original to both speakers because they weren’t particularly original thoughts to begin with.
That defense won’t stand. The similarities are simply too strong.
Writers know that it’s unlikely to hit on someone else’s words as closely as Melania Trump’s speech copied Michelle Obama’s. As my friend Terry Teachout once pointed out to me, highlighting as few as seven words of your own writing and searching them in Google surrounded by quotation marks is likely to produce exactly one hit: your work. And I’m not talking about elaborate sentences; I’m talking about boring fragments like “And I’m not talking about elaborate sentences.” That search returned no hits when I searched it and will return exactly one after this column is published.
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Whoever wrote Melania Trump’s speech pretty clearly looked at Michelle Obama’s speech, changed a few words and presented them as Melania’s own. This is absolutely stunning incompetence. Probably.
I saw several conspiracy theories circulating. Perhaps Donald Trump benefited from the distraction as people focused on the speech rather than talking about the attempted rebellion over the rules that was quashed Monday. Others suggested that this was an act of sabotage by a Republican who doesn’t want Trump to win.
In general, however, one should never credit conspiracy with something that can be adequately explained by incompetence. It fits with the way the Trump campaign has been run – disorganized and understaffed. A team of those establishment insiders that Trump so likes to revile would probably have caught this and fixed it. Instead, his wife was humiliated in her first major speech.
For further evidence of that incompetence, note how the campaign has compounded this error by refusing to simply admit what happened and move on. Melania Trump is not running for president, and she probably didn’t write the speech. To be sure, she made the spin control more difficult by giving a TV interview that suggested she had. But any marginally competent campaign would have said, “A campaign staffer contributed several lines to her speech; those lines appear to have been plagiarized; and now that person is an ex-campaign-staffer.” That’s a boring story, and the media would have noted it and moved on.
Instead, the Trumps pushed the unlikely line that this was simply a surprising coincidence. Since journalists know just how unlikely that is, they are going to keep talking about it. Which costs Donald Trump a day of the convention coverage that is supposed to be giving him a badly needed boost in the polls.
This convention was supposed to be the event that established Donald Trump as someone who had what it takes to win the presidency and to serve in that most demanding of offices. So far, it has only established him as someone who doesn’t really understand what it takes to do either job.