On Tuesday night, Melania Trump delivered a speech that included passages lifted from Michelle Obama’s 2008 address to the Democratic National Convention. Here are ten reasons why Melania Trump’s speech matters and will continue to matter.
1) Melania Trump’s speech was the first and best opportunity to humanize Donald Trump. That opportunity was not only wasted, but the whole project of humanizing Trump has become a farce that will haunt the later attempts by Trump’s children to undo Monday night’s debacle.
2) The speech has unleashed a cycle of internal finger-pointing and blame-shifting that will consume Trump’s already dysfunctional campaign. Even more fatally, the cycle of recrimination now threatens to extend into Trump’s most intimate advice group: his family. Suppose now that Donald Trump’s children by his previous marriages succeed where Melania so humiliatingly failed. What does that unleash in Trump’s delicately blended family?
3) Since Sunday, every journalist at this convention has been collecting examples of the Trump campaign’s failures and incompetence: the quarrel with Ohio Governor John Kasich, the absent senators and governors, the no-show donors, the convention’s financial embarrassments, the floor fight over rules, the lack of a proper schedule, and the defective apps and other technology. Suddenly, there is one easy-to-understand incident that encapsulates in one grim joke all this convention’s cavalcade of derp.
4) To this point, the Hillary Clinton campaign has been unsure how to attack Donald Trump. There has been noticeable hesitation, uncertainty, and even mutually refuting contradictions in its early attacks. How can Trump both be a cynical con man and a dangerous extremist hate-monger? Now at last the script writes itself: Trump as doofus, the guy who went broke running a casino—and can’t even find someone to write an ordinarily competent speech for his wife’s big self-introduction to the American public.
5) Trump has just vividly demonstrated that his campaign—never mind the campaign, he himself—have zero skill at crisis management. Confronted with this comically absurd failure, their instinct is not only to lie, shift blame, and refuse responsibility, but to do so in laughably unbelievable ways. It’s all a big joke when the crisis in question is a plagiarized speech by a would-be first lady. It won’t be so funny when a President Trump tries to manage a truly life-and-death crisis in the same blundering, dopey, and cowardly way.
6) The incident throws a harpoon into the heart of the Trump campaign’s racial politics. Trump’s message: Non-white people are ripping off hard-working white Americans who play by the rules. “They” cheat; “we" lose. Could there be a sharper reversal of that racialized complaint than Melania Trump in her designer dress stealing Michelle Obama’s heartfelt words?
7) Everybody will now want to know more about Melania Trump. As the outstanding profile by Julia Ioffe in GQ makes clear: It’s a story full of uncomfortable secrets. They won’t now stay secret long.
8) One role of a presidential candidate’s spouse is to function as the most sought-after surrogate, especially at fundraising events. A capable spouse effectively doubles the candidate’s own campaigning hours—more than doubles them, because she or he can relieve the candidate of speaking to party loyalists, whose votes are not in question, to free time for reaching swing voters and persuadables. Melania Trump has just been removed from that board, probably for good. Ivanka can substitute, perhaps, but that image then keeps alive the memory of the most disturbing of all Trump’s disturbing moments.
9) Plagiarism draws attention to content of the passage plagiarized. In 2008, Michelle Obama summed up the values that she had learned from her parents and that she and Barack Obama now tried to instill in their children: work hard; tell the truth; keep your promises; treat others with dignity and respect. Donald Trump epically does not tell the truth, does not keep his promises, and does not treat others with dignity and respect. A plagiarized speech (and the failure to detect the plagiarism) pretty strongly confirms that the Trumps do not much care about hard work, either. "Thine own mouth condemneth thee, and not I: yea, thine own lips testify against thee.”
10) The mood of Republicans at this convention was already embattled, defensive, and pessimistic. Conventions are, among other things, important fundraising opportunities—and as Ken Vogel reports in Politico today, the state of Trump’s fundraising remains calamitous. Even Trump’s own named finance directors are not giving money. That mood of pessimism must be even grayer the day after Melania’s speech than the day before.