Melania Trump, Plagiarism, The Boss

A blog post by Susan Blum on CaMP Anthropology -circulated on the linganth listserv yesterday – fleshed out an aspect of The Melania Trump Plagiarism Fiasco – now widely commented on and hilariously lampooned – that Speech Eventers will be well acquainted with, namely the “production format” of Melania Trump’s speech at the RNC in Cleveland. Many Speech Eventers, I know, will also reminded of The Drake Ghost Writer Fiasco, which resulted in dramatically different consequences for the accused. But forget about Drake for now.

Drawing on Goffman’s balkanization of the speaker (the key to solving a “production format” of a speech event), Susan Blum explains that in the case of Melania Trump’s speech, like that of many political speeches, Ms. Trump was the animator (having performed the speech) and the principal (the one responsible for the ideas expressed), but her speech writer, Meredith McIver, was the author, “the one who composes the text.” Blum goes on to raise a number of good questions that this parsing may help to sort out:

“Whose words were uttered? Who profited from them? Who is responsible? What are the moral and ethical obligations that accompany each role? What are hearers’ expectations and beliefs about these roles?”

If we take plagiarism as a given, and chop up the speaker along Goffmanean lines, good debates will surely follow the questions proposed. However, if we switch up the order, if we first observe how commentators are themselves answering these questions, and, second, assess the adequacy of Goffman’s production format as a heuristic, neither Goffman nor any hard and fast notions of plagiarism seem up to the task of describing the case. Let’s try.

It seems that for a good many commentators, regardless of who “composed” the words, Melania Trump was still in some way at fault: she plagiarized. And for many, Michelle Obama, in some way, suffered the injury, even if it is understood that she also used speech writers. In other words, even though Ms Obama did not compose the words, Ms. Obama is responsible for their composition; even though Ms Trump did not compose the words, Ms. Trump is responsible for their plagiarism (or at least taking the brunt of the public shame).

That, in these kinds of speech events, the animator becomes responsible for the authorship of speeches is in evidence in Susan Blum’s post itself when she suggests in the last sentence that Ms. Trump might have chosen to attribute the lines to Ms. Obama. Should Ms Trump not have attributed them to Ms Obama’s speech writer? Who, indeed, is Melania Trump quoting? Who is to be attributed?

In a sense, Ms Trump’s entire speech was plagiarized, as was Ms Obama’s, presented as if they composed the text when others did the job. In another sense, that kind of plagiarism doesn’t matter in this context, or indeed is expected.

Bakhtin might help here where Goffman doesn’t, he is, at least, more forgiving to the particularities of the case (and to Ms. Trump, –er, her speech writer). In a line that will be familiar to many, Bakhtin offers a different vision of the composition of any speech:

the unique speech experience of each individual is shaped and developed in continuous and constant interaction with others’ individual utterances. This experience can be characterized to some degree as the process of assimilation–more or less creative–of others’ words (and not the words of a language). Our speech, that is, all our utterances (including our creative works), is filled with others’ words, varying degrees of otherness or varying degrees of “our-own-ness” …. These words of others carry with them their own expression, their own evaluative tone, which we assimilate, rework, and re-accentuate. — Speech Genres and Other Late Essays

I’m not here to bat for Ms. Trump (at least I hope I’m not), or her speech writer(s). But I think issues of culpability miss what is instructive about The Fiasco. Taking Bakhtin at his word, as it were, Ms Trump’s speech is a particularly stark example of what is generally the case: we always have the words of others in our mouths. Bakhtin, Ms Trump, Drake and his ghost writers, and university codes of conduct, all point towards the fact that the bar of originality (and the sin of plagiarism) are socially arranged, differ from event to event, speech practice to speech practice, and are subject to change.

All this invites a different sort of questioning, it seems to me: just what are the conventions for recognizing originality or plagiarism from situation to situation? What does it take to do “originality”? And what does it take to pull off the speaking task at hand? What kinds of speaking arrangements require high levels of conformity — or sameness — and how do these levels of sameness jive with expectations of originality? And who benefits from discrepancies?

When I go to mass (once a year) I don’t, obviously, think the priest is plagiarizing when he delivers the communion rites. With the Catholics, there’s only one way to go about that business. Communion rites serve a different function than what we normally expect of speeches. Ms. Trump’s speech suggests, dramatically so, that in Presidential nominee’s partner speeches there is a high level of sameness — a ritualistic quality — although still high expectations of “our-own-ness” when it comes to the choice of words strung together. It is telling that what is upsetting is the plagiarism, not the fact that she expressed the same values as the partner of a Democratic Presidential nominee.

The high level of sameness might be explained by the fact that, like the priest’s rites, Ms Trump’s speech is less about the “referential function,” to follow Jakobson’s model, than it is about phatic function, about rallying and uniting the parishioners, about making yourself identifiable as the nominee’s better-half, and about presenting yourself as someone who can be identified with.

Where else is this the case in political talk? And, in knowing this, what an be learned about deliberative dialogue, decision-making, and democracy in the formal United Statesian (and Canadian) political machinery?

2 thoughts on “Melania Trump, Plagiarism, The Boss

  1. Steve, I have several disconnected thoughts. Mainly I think you’re right that this case is fascinating from a Goffmanian/Bakhtinian/Blumian/Petersian point of view, so there’s a lot to talk and think about!

    I agree that there is a high degree of sameness in this kind of political speech where you don’t necessarily expect each to be full of new revelations or unique propositions. In fact, when they are, and they are still good, like Michelle Obama’s speech at the DNC yesterday, they get a lot of “wow” from the political-speech-digesting crowd. (More info about Obama’s relationship/mindmeld with her speechwriter here: For a ‘ritualistic’ political speech to also be plagiarism, it seems like there had to be the extra ingredient of perceived inauthenticity: Trump appeared to not have anything ‘authentic’ to say about her parents, so she said what Obama said about her parents. Some Republicans gave Bakhtin-esque arguments for why it wasn’t plagiarized by saying that Trump was similar to a fictional cartoon character who is a magical pony. ( If parts of Obama’s speech had been more thesaurusized before becoming Trump’s speech, it could have gotten past observers, but it seems it was too on the nose.

    But at the same time, I think it is interestingly possible to DIRECTLY quote or reference far more famous phrases without attribution, and then it’s okay. Right? There’s some kind of “we know that the speaker knows that we know what they’re quoting” going on. Not to the level of this spoof of Trump’s speech that has her quoting The Fresh Prince of Bel Air as well as Green Eggs and Ham (, of course.

    I’m thinking of Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, telling Trump “you’re no tough guy” ( quoting Lloyd Bentson telling Dan Quayle “you’re no Jack Kennedy” ( Nobody is going to say Trumka plagiarized Bentson. Perhaps the more ‘quotable’ and ‘notable’ the quote, the less a reference counts as plagiarism? Maybe that phenomenon shows a baseline of grasping that Bakhtinian idea that we get our words from other people, not dictionaries.

  2. Hi Mark, Petersian, lol. For me, I’m not sure if authenticity can serve to decide plagiarism. How do we know if the speech is given authentically? Are the signs of authenticity not cultural? Or situated? And if someone is good at pulling off the signs of authenticity proper to the situation or the culture, are they being authentic? Can you truly be authentic but fumble in communicating the appropriate signs? Authenticity is an internal state but plagiarism is an assessment of the outward signs. In any event, we know that Ms. Trump did not plagiarize Ms. Obama’s performance of the words, that’s clear enough!

    Just to be clear, my intentions in turning to Bakhtin were not to say that those parts of the speech weren’t plagiarized! But to point out how much plagiarism, or rather typification of parole, is part of all of our lives, and especially part of American political speeches. Even George Washington’s very first state of the union address was criticized as being too similar to the King’s Speech from the Throne ( see p. 412). And people will remember when Obama used a similar “Bakhtin-esque” defense when he was accused of plagiarism in the 2008 primaries (and then went on to accuse Clinton of also plagiarizing him!, demonstrating that that kind of defense is one of the truly bi-partisan sentiments in US politics). We often think of plagiarism as either/or, true or not, and its people that either do or do not plagiarize. But Bakhtin switches it up, saying that plagiarism (or typification or similitude) is true of all language-use (discourse passes through us as G. Urban would say, I think) and the identification of plagiarism is something that people do. From that perspective we can question the situations that call for greater typification and the warrants we have for accusations of plagiarism.

    So the free pass unattributed quoting of famous passages (with a metacommunicative wink) gets is a good example of that! No? Or how about the accusations of Beyonce lifting choreographies? In these cases its like paying homage, and perhaps that is precisely what Ms. Trump wanted to do! Of course, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness. ;)

    Surely, Trump’s plagiarism is the very LAST THING to worry about in US politics these days. But its occurrence might tell us something, not about her, but about this ugly business of politics.

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