Just when you thought all the charges (and counter-claims and fake news) regarding plagiarism at the national political conventions couldn’t get any sillier, they did.
Now, Donald Trump Jr. is claiming that President Barack Obama’s address at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) nicked a line from a speech that Trump Jr. had delivered at the Republican National Convention (RNC) the previous week:
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) July 28, 2016
Where is the outrage? Perhaps it’s being directed at the level of pettiness exhibited in this political squabbling over nothing.
First of all, reusing a single sentence taken from elsewhere (without credit) in the course of a much longer work may be slightly bad manners, but it doesn’t constitute “plagiarism” (unless the sentence happens to comprise, say, the entirety of an Ogen Nash poem). Second, the line in question wasn’t even original to Donald Trump Jr.
In the course of a speech delivered at the RNC on 20 July 2016, Donald Trump Jr. spoke for his father, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, in saying:
There’s so much work to do. We will not accept the current state of our country because it’s too hard to change. That’s not the America I know. We’re going to unleash the creative spirit and energy of all Americans. We’re going to make our schools the best in the world for every single American of every single ethnicity and background.
President Obama, in his own countering speech at the DNC the following week, used the same six-word sentence (except, Data-like, he eschewed the use of a contraction):
[W]hat we heard in Cleveland last week wasn’t particularly Republican — and it sure wasn’t conservative. What we heard was a deeply pessimistic vision of a country where we turn against each other, and turn away from the rest of the world. There were no serious solutions to pressing problems — just the fanning of resentment, and blame, and anger, and hate.
And that is not the America I know.
That’s it: two lengthy speeches shared six words in common.
But even if that triviality constituted plagiarism, such charges would be flowing in reverse with respect to Trump Jr., because President Obama had used that same phrase (or something very similar) multiple times prior to Trump’s use of it at the 2016 RNC.
In a 2010 speech on the economy given in Parma, Ohio, for example, President Obama said:
Instead of setting our sights higher, they’re asking us to settle for a status quo of stagnant growth and eroding competitiveness and a shrinking middle class. Cleveland, that is not the America I know. That is not the America we believe in.
In a 2012 speech about college affordability given in Ann Arbor, Michigan, President Obama said:
I want this to be a big, bold, generous country where everybody gets a fair shot, everybody is doing their fair share, everybody is playing by the same set of rules. That’s the America I know. That’s the American I want to keep.
And just a week before the 2016 Republican Convention, at a memorial service for fallen Dallas police officers, President Obama said:
We mourn fewer people today because of your brave actions. “Everyone was helping each other,” one witness said. “It wasn’t about black or white. Everyone was picking each other up and moving them away.” See, that’s the America I know.
But of course, all these pronouncements about the “America I know” (or don’t know, as the case may be) long antedates Barack Obama or Donald Trump Jr. For example, when President George W. Bush delivered some remarks at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., in September 2001, he observed:
Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear cover must be not intimidated in America. That’s not the America I know. That’s not the America I value.
And Bush’s father used the very same phrase on the campaign trail in 1992:
Now, you cut through all the patriotic posturing, all the tough talk about fighting back by closing out foreign goods, and look closely: That is not the American flag they’re waving; it is the white flag of surrender. And that is not the America that you and I know.
Heck, even Hillary Clinton herself used that phrase several weeks before Donald Trump Jr.’s RNC speech:
[M]aking Donald Trump our commander-in-chief would be a historic mistake. It would undo so much of the work that Republicans and Democrats alike have done over many decades to make America stronger and more secure. It would set back our standing in the world more than anything in recent memory. And it would fuel an ugly narrative about who we are — that we’re fearful, not confident; that we want to let others determine our future for us, instead of shaping our own destiny. That’s not the America I know and love.
As Aaron Blake wrote of the recent spate of plagiarism charges for the Washington Post:
The Trump campaign is using this [issue] to press the idea that there is a double standard. And there is a double standard — one for actual plagiarism and one for not-actual plagiarism. Melania Trump’s speechwriter admitted to inadvertent plagiarism; this stuff is simply using a common political phrase that 3 of the last 4 presidents — and potentially the next one too — have already used without copying anything. It’s dozens of lifted words versus a couple words that happen to be the same.
This is an attempt to obfuscate and/or claim that the plagiarism in Melania Trump’s speech wasn’t a big deal. And perhaps it wouldn’t have been a big deal if the Trump campaign didn’t spend 36 hours making ludicrous arguments that it wasn’t plagiarism — ludicrous arguments, kind of like Donald Trump Jr.’s