If Donald and Melania Trump were students in one of my writing classes at Columbia University, they’d be facing charges of violating academic integrity. More specifically, they’d both be accused of—and no doubt found responsible for—plagiarism. (Donald would also be brought up for fabrication and impersonation.) As a result, they’d receive Fs in my class and likely be suspended or expelled.
Instead, the Trump campaign continues to shrug off any suggestion of impropriety.
Melania has said the speech she delivered on the opening night of the 2016 Republican National Convention was one she wrote herself, “with a [sic] little help as possible.”
That her speech borrowed extensively from Michelle Obama’s at the 2008 Democratic National Convention is now well known, thanks to Jarrett Hill, the first to surface the similarities. The Trump campaign has offered many explanations—none convincing—of what happened.
The words in question are simply “common,” campaign chairman Paul Manafort told CNN.
RNC chief strategist Sean Spicer said Melania’s words were hardly different from those uttered by John Legend and Kid Rock, not to mention Twilight Sparkle from “My Little Pony.” Spicer doesn’t seem to understand what plagiarism entails.
Under scrutiny are some 70 words in three passages, Spicer noted, implying that we shouldn’t fret over such a small number in a 2,000-word speech. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie echoed this sentiment, suggesting 93 percent originality is sufficient.
Sorry, it’s not.
A lot of the words are “common,” yes.
But what really matters is how the words are strung together, how the sentences are constructed—the syntax, as English teachers say. This is where plagiarism often becomes not just apparent but undeniable.
How a writer puts words together to form phrases and sentences is unique, especially in a language as flexible as English. Turns of phrase can function like fingerprints, a fact that helped authorities catch the Unabomber in 1996. That same year, a literary sleuth used the same approach to expose the once-anonymous author of Primary Colors, Joe Klein.
Melania’s crime isn’t so much reiterating ideas that others had articulated before, but rather saying the same ideas in exactly the same words with nearly identical syntax. What she did, in fact, is the same thing I’ve watched lazy undergraduates do for years: make slight alterations here and there to someone else’s words and then present them afresh, as their own.
In academia, this is sometimes called “patchwriting,” and it’s a big no-no, a form of plagiarism—more sophisticated and harder to detect than the simple cut-and-paste, but no less unacceptable. It reveals, among other things, a lack of critical thinking.
Melania took Michelle’s “the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams” and simplified it slightly, deleting “the height of” and changing “the reach of your dreams” to “the strength of your dreams.”
The hope in such a desperate move is that by changing the odd word or phrase, the writer can outwit Google searches and plagiarism-detection software. It often works. But it’s harder to hide when 23 million people are watching.
As I like to tell my undergraduates, it’s never been easier to cheat in college classes, given the technological tools and gadgets at our disposal —but it’s also never been easier to get caught. Whatever my students can find online, I can probably find, too.
Locating a transcript of Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech takes mere seconds, a fact that should give pause to any would-be speechwriter looking to crib a killer line or two. Indeed, what tipped off Hill was a single phrase in Melania’s speech—the “willingness to work for” one’s dreams—which immediately brought to mind Michelle’s words.
Minutes later, Google and YouTube confirmed his suspicions.
Make no mistake: Phrases and sentences can be stolen, just like cars or computers. The theft is no less real just because words are intangible. School principals have been suspended without pay and forced out for delivering David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” graduation speech as if they had written it themselves. Politicians, in both the United States and abroad, have variously resigned, not sought reelection and had their university degrees revoked for plagiarism.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, is the man behind the brand of the Trump Institute, which provided its students dozens of pages of plagiarized instructional materials, presenting them as original. And, despite continuous claims to the contrary, he didn’t really write The Art of the Deal (hence the fabrication charge). The half-truths and deceptions go back decades and seem to know no end. A quarter century ago, Donald impersonated a (fictitious) Trump publicist in a lengthy interview with Sue Carswell of People magazine.
And Melania appears to have a fabrication issue of her own, claiming to be a university graduate. She’s no more that than Barack Obama is a Kenyan. In 2012, Donald Trump offered to donate $5 million to a charity of President Obama’s choosing if the latter would release his college and graduate-school transcripts as well as his passport records; Obama declined. Maybe we should crowd-source to offer Melania $5 million if she can produce credible evidence that she has, in fact, earned a degree from a university in Slovenia?
The lesson here is that integrity, truthfulness and transparency matter a great deal. There’s no room in the academy for plagiarists or fabricators, and there shouldn’t be in the White House either.
Justin Snider is an advising dean at Columbia University, where he teaches undergraduate writing, and a contributing editor at The Hechinger Report.