Trump Time Capsule #44: Melania Channels Michelle

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Donald Trump welcoming Melania onto the stage this evening. (Aaron Bernstein / Reuters)

The, umm, overlaps between Melania Trump’s speech about her husband this evening, and Michelle Obama’s speech about her husband eight years ago, don’t “matter” in any cosmic sense. Anyone with experience in politics, or life, has to cut Melania Trump some slack for the performance she put on. Speaking publicly in what is not your first language, or even your third or fourth, is very hard. A candidate’s spouse is not the candidate. While Melania Trump willingly took on the role of being Donald Trump’s wife, she didn’t necessarily sign on for being a national political spokesperson, or reading (without plagiarism-checking) what the candidate’s staffers served up.

Still. In the world of national politics, three things about this episode make the Trump campaign look seriously bad.

Number one: political speechwriters (I was once one) can’t be prideful about much. But avoiding outright plagiarism is one of those few stubborn points of pride. Sure, some sentiments are so tired and familiar that you can type them in your sleep. “I see an America ….!” But that’s just lazy and unimaginative writing; it’s cliche, rather than plagiarism. Telling your candidate’s “personal” story in phrases that come from another person’s life (as Melania Trump apparently just did) is something else. It’s something you just don’t do. Or if you do succumb, and you’re caught, you have to know that there will be trouble. Cf: younger Joe Biden’s “borrowing” from the UK politician Neil Kinnock’s speeches, which led to his dropping out of the 1988 presidential race and hurt him badly for years.

To put it more plainly: I was never the world’s greatest speechwriter. But I understood from beginning to end that if I ever came up with something that was obviously plagiarized, that would be it, and I’d be looking for a new job.

Number two: personal phoniness, on two levels. One is the surface level: a spouse purporting to describe her adored husband, in words some other wife had used to describe her spouse. The other is the follow-up, with Melania’s remarks to Matt Lauer of Today that she had written the speech by herself.

Number three: startling incompetence.  What kind of crappy campaign organization is so incompetent as to let the candidate’s wife, give her debut speech before a national audience, with passages that are trivially easy to match to a preceding speech? Here’s a way to answer. No one has ever studied the political organizations I worked for, candidate Jimmy Carter’s campaign team in 1976 or his White House team after that, as examples of airtight management. But even we were smart enough never to let anything remotely like this happen to us, let alone with the most important speech of the potential-first-lady’s career.


The cynical line about Donald Trump has been: due to a variety of unforeseeable circumstances, he ended up getting the Republican nomination. But nonetheless the reality that he knows nothing about policy or politics, and has taken no steps toward campaign success in normal terms, will soon catch up with him. And this entirely needless blunder, on a very big rollout night, is another indication.

Signs of successful adjustment? There are exactly two:

  1. Trump and Melania, in their respective ways, could sincerely (if as lightly-as-possible) embrace, admit, and apologize for their error. We all make mistakes. Trump would probably be enhanced by admitting this one.
  2. Forthwith identify and fire the staffer who was responsible for this unacceptable screwup — “unacceptable” in that people who do this cannot last in big-times politics.

Will we see one or the other? Who knows. But this was a genuinely bad mistake — simply as a matter of campaign management major figures cannot indulge in easily provable plagiarism — and the important question is how Trump world responds.