This Past Monday, July 18, 2016, at the Republican Party’s National Convention, Melania Trump committed plagiarism when giving a speech as the wife of the Party’s presumed presidential nominee. She stole words from a 2008 speech by Michelle Obama, who back then was speaking at her Party’s convention in the same role (as wife of the nominee). True to form, the Trump campaign, like Trump himself, never apologizes or admits any wrongdoing (until forced to). And it has refused to admit anything inappropriate happened in this case. In response, many people have noted that the lying to cover up this instance plagiarism is a serious indication of how Trump has operated all his adult life, cheating, obscuring the facts, and avoiding responsibility. This scandal is therefore noteworthy and should be critically examined for what it says about a possible future Trump presidency.
Some folks on social media are passing around a link to an article by Oren Nimni that says, contrary to many other commentators, that the plagiarism scandal distracts from the larger problem that most political speeches are just hot air and that Michelle Obama’s original speech was itself a bunch of tired, worn-out conservative clichés about how if you work hard you can still make it in America. From Nimni’s self-identified radical perspective, liberals are missing the point in criticizing Melania for plagiarizing Michelle: both are complicit in reinforcing a conservative mythology about how fair and just the American system really is.
While both the Michelle and Melania speeches were filled with meaningless homilies, just like lots of political speechifying, especially at conventions, that does not mean the speech meant the same thing when Michelle originally gave it compared to when Melania revisited it 8 years later. The failure to see this makes Nimni and the others passing around his piece the latest group of bros who are doing some seriously myopic “white-mansplaining” to women who know better. The race and gender cluelessness here is profound. It leads to a failure to see some of the most important dimensions of the plagiarism scandal.
Michelle Obama was not some ordinary politician spouting conservative ideology just to rationalize the current state of affairs. Back in 2008, when she gave her speech, Michelle Obama was the first African-American wife of a presidential candidate in the entire history of the U.S. Now she has spent 8 years as our country’s only African-American first lady. When she speaks it means something entirely different than when a white person like Melania speaks, but especially when a white male politician orates about the greatness of America.
Yes, speeches by candidates for higher office most of the time tend not to be very critical of how the country has failed to achieve its commitment to individualism, freedom and fairness. If they are, they tend to re-commit us to working harder to realize those values. They continue to insist that in a free society, individuals who take care of themselves will be treated fairly. Rarely do speeches condemn the idea of a meritocracy, even if they note we have not actually fully realized it in ideal form. This is especially the case for speeches given by the spouses of candidates (who are expected to be uncontroversial while adding positive feelings to a candidacy). For wives, this is all the more the case, if for no other reason than women still are not seen favorably when upstaging their spouses. And for a non-white female spouse you can be sure that applies all the more. Speeches by candidates’ wives are the last place where we should be looking for radical critiques of the existing political order.
Yet, back in 2008, Michelle’s invocation of homilies about how the U.S. is a fair and just country for those who play by the rules, work hard and pursue their dreams was not so much a rationalization of power but a way of legitimizing her potential role as the country’s first lady who ought to be taken as seriously as any white woman. In her hands, a speech that invoked tired, worn-out truisms about the U.S. was much more radical than Nimni or his followers seem to understand. In her hands, that speech was a way of challenging power more than reinforcing it. Michelle Obama was doing important political work in showing how an African-American like herself, or her husband, deserves to be considered a legitimate political aspirant in the halls of power that have historically been dominated by whites (who were overwhelmingly male).
Therefore, Melania’s appropriation of Michelle’s words was more scandalous than Nimni and his followers understand. Here, a white woman of extreme privilege and wealth was appropriating a black woman’s words for the opposite effect: to reinforce power rather than to challenge it. In Melania’s hands, that speech meant to say “everything is fine, if you play by the white middle-class rules of work and family, you will still do well in our society: just look at me!” It was not just plagiarism, and not just the traditional practice of whites appropriating the work of blacks, it was a white person appropriating the work of a black person to achieve the opposite effect of reinforcing white privilege rather than challenging it.
The Melania/Michelle speech mashup is serious stuff. It involves issues of race and gender in ways that radicals on the left all too often miss (which explains a lot of their irrelevance to our politics today).