Although the 2016 Republican National Convention is already fading into a distant memory of a simpler time, one of the most talked about episodes was, and will likely continue to be, Melania Trump’s plagiarism scandal. Much ink has been spilled on plagiarism definitions, levels of responsibility, and potential consequences. But now that the controversy has cooled, Trump’s speech can perhaps remind us of lessons about plagiarism that extend beyond partisan gamesmanship.
As a writing and rhetoric teacher, I see my fair share of “borrowed” language in student essays, occasionally including papers in which the student’s only unique contribution is their name. But that is very rare. More often plagiarism is a sign of a student’s deep uncertainty about how to complete a complicated writing task. In Trump’s case, her act of borrowing strikes me as a textbook example of what plagiarism scholar Rebecca Moore Howard calls patchwriting—“copying from a source text and then deleting some words, altering grammatical structures, or plugging one synonym for the another.” Patchwriting is not generally an attempt to cheat, per se, but rather an active attempt to emulate a model. According to Howard, patchwriting is a practice that most—maybe all—writers use as they develop writing skills.
Sometimes, as in Trump’s case, patchwriting results in a finished product that is too much like the model being emulated. Given the visibility of Trump’s speech, the highly charged nature of the campaign, and the readily available resources for national campaign speakers to avoid such embarrassments, it was frankly a pretty dumb mistake. But patchwriting is hardly an indictment of Melania Trump’s moral character. Rather, it should clue us in to significant challenges associated with what she was asked to do.
Trump was charged with an incredibly tough task. First, she was supposed to set aside stage fright and her concerns about writing a nationally televised speech in a nonnative language. Then she was supposed to make the positive case for her husband’s candidacy by demonstrating that her values, and by extension her husband’s values, aligned with America’s values. In order to establish common ground with potential voters, she was supposed to be simultaneously charming, incisive, and utterly banal.
Given those parameters, it is not surprising her speech traded primarily in platitudes about family, patriotism, and her tough-but-caring husband’s “never-give-up attitude.” Platitudes are storehouses of community values, and the ones Trump borrowed from Obama are cornerstone values for many Americans. It should also not be surprising that Trump went looking for good models and came up with Obama’s speech. Michelle Obama is a masterful political speaker, and she provides an excellent model to emulate. In fact, Melania Trump’s repetition of bipartisan platitudes may have done as much to show Americans’ commonly shared values as any other speech in the 2016 political season.
But her example should also remind us that plagiarism and patchwriting manifest because of challenges that many struggling writers face: anxiety about high-stakes writing tasks, apprehension about language barriers, uncertainty about expectations, and general fear of failure. It is not easy to succeed under those conditions. Trump, of course, is not a college student, and we cannot overlook the obvious political implications of her speech. But strip away the trappings of the presidential campaign, and Trump is every struggling writer trying to rise to a new writing challenge and not quite succeeding. Ultimately, Trump’s plagiarized speech is a good reminder that in a highly literate culture, even for people with massive resources at their disposal, learning to write is a difficult and continuous enterprise. Temporary setbacks, and even outright failures, are a frustratingly common part of the process.
Ryan Skinnell is assistant professor of rhetoric and composition and assistant writing program administrator in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at San José State University. He is the author of the recently published book Conceding Composition: A Crooked History of Composition’s Institutional Fortunes and a coeditor of What We Wish We’d Known: Negotiating Graduate School, and his research has appeared in Composition Studies, Enculturation, JAC, Rhetoric Review, WPA: Writing Program Administration, and edited collections.
- Moore, Rebecca Howard. Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO, 1999.