There is a well-known exchange between Oscar Wilde and James Whistler, whose famous portrait of his mother is an American cultural icon. Wilde, who was jealous of Whistler’s wit and humor, once told him after another sparkling speech “I wish I had said that, James.” Whistler, who was well aware of Wilde’s reputation for borrowing from the creative bounty of others, quickly replied: “Don’t worry, Oscar, you will.” Or as T.S. Eliot said: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal,” a quote which I myself just lifted from a 2005 article by Stephen Moss in the Guardian entitled “A history of plagiarism (not my own work).”
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All of which is to say that while Melania Trump’s wholesale import of an entire paragraph from a speech Michelle Obama gave in 2008, when she was First Lady-in-waiting, as Trump purports to be, is definitely embarrassing, it is nowhere near a disaster, despite the overwhelming media reaction. Unless, of course, Melania’s husband, Donald, decides to respond in way as to make it catastrophic.
There’s no doubt that the reports of the plagiarism, which surfaced moments after Melania Trump finished her speech to the Republican National Convention on Monday night, ruined what was otherwise a very successful appearance for the Slovenian-born model, who was warmly if not enthusiastically received by the audience. Republicans were definitely disappointed to learn about the literary kidnapping – the word “plagiarism” is taken from Latin for abductor – but they were probably far more miffed by Trump’s choice for inspiration, the reviled wife of the detested current president.
Melania, who had previously claimed that she wrote almost all of the speech by herself, was immediately subjected to torrents of ridicule on social media, made all the worse by the fact that her husband did not act quickly to put an end to the fiasco. Instead of admitting the mistake, apologizing for it and firing the first speechwriter that he happened to meet down the hall, Trump’s campaign not only denied the allegations but immediately went into counterattack mode. Trump’s supposedly savvy campaign manager Paul Manafort dismissed the patently obvious plagiarism as absurd and then went so far as to pin the blame on Hillary Clinton.
“This is once again an example of when a woman threatens Hillary Clinton, how she seeks out to demean her and take her down,” Manafort tweeted. And Trump’s former campaign manager, Cory Lewandowski, recently ousted by Manafort, quickly returned the favor, saying that Manafort should pay the price for the mishap.
It was another indication of Trump’s unique talent for turning incidents into scandals and scandals into major setbacks. The most immediate case in point is the infamous image that showed Clinton with piles of money and a Star of David that said she was the most corrupt politician ever. That too, by the way, was plagiarism of a sort: the image was lifted, as the Trump campaign later admitted, from a white supremacist website devoted to hating Jews and others.
Trump could and should have apologized for the image, especially after learning of the widespread outcry in the Jewish community. Although the image itself was quickly removed, Trump preferred to fight back against his critics and to dismiss their sensitivities. By doing so, he may have alienated large numbers of American Jewish voters who might have otherwise considered voting for him.
Trump’s response will also determine the long-term consequences, if any, of his wife’s brouhaha. This is not plagiarism on a scale, for example, that killed Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential run in the Democratic primaries of 1988. Biden, who was caught pilfering from British Labor leader Neil Kinnock, was forced to resign from the race, not before previous cases of literary larceny were uncovered.
Melania Trump is not running for president and she does not have an army of enemies seeking to see her fall. Were it not for her husband’s refusal to admit mistakes, the blowback to her plagiarism may have not been much stronger than the one that greeted claims that she had also lifted a line from Rick Astley’s 1980’s classic “Never Gonna Give You Up”. She probably did not know that she had inadvertently stumbled upon a once viral Internet meme known as “Rickrolling” by which seemingly innocent links transplanted into various texts around the web surreptitiously led people to the YouTube version of Astley’s immortal blockbuster.
The latest snafu will probably deepen doubts among wavering voters about Trump’s judgment and his way of handling crises. His hard-core supporters, however, immediately adopted the line that it’s all the doing of Clinton and her servile liberal media. They will easily buy into a conspiracy theory of a plot to ruin Monday’s opening day of the convention, which was successful in their eyes though it received more mixed judgments from outside observers. One of the most visible phenomena at the convention was how immersed the GOP delegates are in various conspiracy theories about the dastardly deeds of their political opponents, no matter how absurd, and how open they are to absorbing new ones.
For once, however, it was Melania who stole the show from Donald, after he had just done the same to her. Trump’s entrance onto the convention floor to introduce his wife to the delegates at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena was a spectacle to behold. With “We Are the Champions” playing in the background, despite Queen’s repeated requests to cease and desist, and with lights and mirrors lending a fantastical backdrop to the grand entrance, Trump’s minute-and-a-half in the limelight was enough to steal the show. It reminded fans of the faux-wrestling enterprise known as WWE and of similar grandiose entrances of Mark William Callaway, one of the most successful performers in the league.
Perhaps if Trump had known of the name under which Callaway enters the wrestling ring he might have reconsidered, though with Trump you never know: Callaway is popularly known as The Undertaker.