July 20, 2016
While covering the Republican National Convention on Monday night, political commentator Joy Reid would not let her NBC colleagues go easy on prospective–First-Lady Melania Trump for plagiarizing First Lady Michelle Obama’s 2008 DNC speech.
“I doubt that we would dismiss the idea that Michelle Obama had anything to do with it,” said Reid. Turning to Ms. Trump, she chided, “She’s an adult woman. She’s grown-up. … She gave the speech. So I think you have to give her responsibility.”
At the 2008 convention, Ms. Obama said, “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.”
At the RNC convention this week, Ms. Trump said, “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.”
That’s just one example of Ms. Trump’s appropriation from Ms. Obama’s speech.
At a moment when it seems that not only Republican politicos but also many media outlets are calling for us all to cut Ms. Trump slack on plagiarizing portions of her speech, Reid pointed out a simple truth: “Michelle Obama wouldn’t have gotten a pass.”
Black Twitter has refused—check out #FamousMelaniaTrumpQuotes, which hilariously attributes all kinds of quotations to Ms. Trump (e.g., “I freed a thousand slaves I could have freed a thousand more if only the knew they were slaves” tweeted actor Jesse Williams; “My daddy Alabama. Mama, Louisiana. You mix that Negro with some Creole get a Texas Bama,” Imani Gandy). Other outlets quickly followed, pointing out how unsurprising it is that a famous, powerful white woman would rip off the ideas of a Black woman—appropriating the work of Black people is as American as apple pie. As Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper explained in Cosmopolitan, “Melania Trump, and generations of white women … rely upon black women’s labor to help them look good, sound good, and gain influence, while treating that labor as wholly expendable.”
But worse, Ms. Trump used Ms. Obama’s words in support of a campaign and a party that has actively worked against the rights of people of color, in particular Black women. Writes Cooper, “[The GOP] is known for using buzzwords like ‘welfare’ and ‘food stamps,’ words that conjure visions of poor black women with too many children, to appeal to the biases of their base. The GOP’s stances against Planned Parenthood, the Affordable Care Act, regulation of big banks and corporations, and the social safety net have disproportionately bad impacts on the lives of black women.”
In short: Ms. Trump stole a speech from a Black woman in order to support a campaign that hates Black women.
No one should give Ms. Trump a pass. If she’s responsible enough to live in the White House in January, then she’s responsible enough to own up to this plagiarism. Either she didn’t write her speech—employing a ghostwriting to do her work for her—or she plagiarized the speech of the first Black First Lady in the history of the United States. Either way, Ms. Trump looks bad.
The New York Times suggested on Tuesday night that the mistake lies at the feet of Ms. Trump, who was given a speech written by speechwriters Matthew Scully and John McConnell. “Ms. Trump had decided she was uncomfortable with the text, and began tearing it apart, leaving a small fraction of the original.” And shortly after the Times story broke, Meredith McIver, a co-author on many of Mr. Trump’s books, released a statement on Trump corporate letterhead taking responsibility for the lifted passages. She apologized for “chaos” and “hysteria” that she caused, and called her plagiarism a mistake. The Trumps apparently refused her offer of resignation.
McIver might have fallen on her sword for Ms. Trump, but Ms. Trump is responsible for the words she spoke. Indeed, Ms. Trump is the one who pointed out to McIver the passages from Ms. Obama’s speech that she admired—according to McIver herself.
But rather than owning up to Ms. Trump’s wrongdoing, the Trump camp has doubled down on Ms. Trump’s innocence, of the capital-I variety. They’re arguing that Ms. Trump is being unfairly attacked as though she were helpless and naïve.
In fact, what’s coming out of the Trump camp is even worse: They’re casting Ms. Trump as the defenseless victim of a catfight. Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort managed to find a way to blame Hillary Clinton (because of course he did): “We’ve noted that the Clinton campaign was the first to get it out there and try to say there was something untoward about the speech that Melania Trump gave. As far as we’re concerned: When Ms. Clinton is threatened by a female, the first thing she does is try to destroy them.”
Manafort was wrong about Ms. Clinton’s campaign leaking a plagiarism rumor, of course. Indeed, his words appear to be an outright lie. Journalist Jarrett Hill, and Black journalist to be more precise, first exposed Melania’s plagiarism on Twitter, in a series of tweets that quickly went viral.
But Manafort’s words do something far worse: They cast our first woman presidential nominee as a woman-hater. He uses a line so tired that it almost sounds believable. He attempted to protect Ms. Trump by inciting hatred against another woman. And it likely worked.
Only one of the three women named in this calamity deserves disrespect at the moment—the one who refuses to apologize or own up to her mistakes. The one who refuses to acknowledge that she stole another woman’s words. The one who refuses to say she is borrowing the words of hope and dignity of a Black woman to contribute a platform of hate.