On Monday night, Melania Trump stood onstage at the Republican National Convention and 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.” In 2008, Michelle Obama stood onstage at the Democratic National Convention and said, “Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values. Like, you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond, that you do what you say you’re going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect.”
Earlier this week, Slate published a story headlined “141 Things Donald Trump Has Said and Done That Make Him Unfit to Be President.” If we added in “his wife plagiarized Michelle Obama at the Republican convention,” it would probably rank below “Said he would force the military to commit war crimes,” “Proposed to create a database to track Muslims in the U.S.,” “Called Mexican immigrants rapists,” and roughly 130 or so other entries. But that doesn’t mean the Trump campaign’s plagiarism is trivial.
Or that we shouldn’t care.
Or that it’s some ingenious Trumpian fake-out that we shouldn’t fall for.
Or that the media is falling down on the job.
Or that it’s making us forget the stakes of the election.
Here’s what those arguments basically add up to: We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. (I grabbed that from The American President—owe you one, Aaron Sorkin.) Yes, Donald Trump is terrifying. Yes, we should be extremely wary of normalizing his behavior, and of losing sight of the hate and rhetoric at the core of his candidacy and on display throughout Monday night’s RNC program.
But come on, stern-faced finger-waggers of America. The wannabe first lady of the United States told a massive prime-time audience “that you work hard for what you want in life,” a phrase one of her speechwriters seems to have copied wholesale from the current first lady, the wife of the man Trump calls “the worst president in U.S. history.” It is astonishing that this happened here, on our home planet. It is amazing and unfathomable and world-historically ironic. It is a moment to be cherished forever, not waved away like some D-grade campaign gaffe. The RNC’s chief strategist is defending Melania Trump by quoting from My Little Pony!
If you’re too high-minded to care about a little light prose theft, you’re missing the story of a campaign crack-up. In a just world, the Trump-istas would’ve turned on one another on account of, to pick one example at random, the hypothetical rapist-repelling wall that Mexico is going to pay for. But “heads are going to roll” when heads are going to roll.
The notion that videos and stories and follow-up stories and analysis and tweets and memes about word-is-bond–ghazi will distract from the “real issues” at hand in this election is infantilizing and wrong. People are capable of thinking multiple thoughts each day, and of reading multiple articles. It’s ludicrous to suggest that coverage of any individual story will totally drown out other campaign news. As I write this, the most-read story on Slate is Will Saletan’s piece arguing that Rudy Giuliani’s speech, not Melania Trump’s, was the most damning of the evening. Readers of this website were somehow not too distracted to click on it.
As compared with, say, the mechanics of how the anti-Trumpers got squashed on the convention floor, the plagiarism story is simple, resonant, and easy to understand. And it seems self-defeating, if your goal is to make the case that Trump is unfit to be president, to shoo voters away from a salacious item that happens to demonstrate Trump’s unfitness. James Fallows made that case in a series of eight tweets that can be distilled into these two:
It’s not just that the Trump campaign allowed this to happen. It’s that, when it became undeniable that Melania Trump had plagiarized Michelle Obama, Trump’s operatives and surrogates denied it, vociferously and repeatedly. You could make a reasonable argument that the plagiarism itself was amusing but ultimately pointless. The cover-up has been much worse than the crime. It’s true that we shouldn’t normalize Trump’s racism. It’s also true that we need to pay attention to how the Trump operation disdains the truth. If they’re willing to lie about something as dumb as this, when the cost of coming clean is relatively low, then what do you think they’ll tell us about the “real issues”?