By Guy Somerset
"In politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way." So said American President Franklin D. Roosevelt and in the three-quarters of a century since his words were spoken not much has changed on the political scene of the United States.
It was a maxim which came to mind following the brouhaha over a speech made by Melania Trump during the week of the Republican Party National Convention. While her appearance was initially met with admiration and in some cases enthusiasm, within hours allegations were made that some portions of what she said had been copied from Michelle Obama.
In the text of her approximately 1400-word speech was a general match of 63 words and from these 23 words were an identical match appearing in the same sequence; overall the similarity accounted for a little over 6% of the total. In other words, around 93% of the address was entirely original.
However, this was more than enough for everyone from amateur activists to authoritarian anchors to get their panties into a knot. It all began shortly afterward on Monday evening when an unemployed former television reporter sitting in a coffee shop (beginning a narrative not at all suspicious) happened to notice the resemblances with a talk given by current-First Lady Michelle Obama eight years ago.
To any normal person this casual recognition seems extraordinarily implausible on its face, given the abject generalities spoken by Mrs. Obama and Melania Trump. Not to disparage either in any way, but the phrases used were so perfunctory as to be political boiler-plate...."You work hard for what you want in life"... "Your word is your bond"...."The only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams"..."Hang in there Kitty"...Okay, okay, I think I read that last one on a poster featuring a cat dangling from a tree limb by its two front paws.
This being so, none of the phrases in either address were worthy of comparison with...well, the Gettysburg Address. It was more or less inspirational gobbledygook which might have been as suited to a high school commencement as to a national forum of political thinkers. They were words directed to the lowest common denominator (with our denominators apparently being much lower now than they stood in 1863).
Yet, setting aside the inferior linguistic qualities of an otherwise fine "personality performance" is the dubious oversight which is claimed to have occurred.
Consider that Donald Trump is nothing if not a master showman and is as much a media phenomenon as a political persona. He began his current incarnation not on the rubber-chicken dinner circuit which is the origin of the vast majority of candidates, but was born of the ratings successes of a program in which he auditioned applicants to become an apprentice in business. His fortune is estimated at $4.5 billion.
Is it credible an individual known for micro-managing his vast conglomerate would cavalierly neglect to have the signature speech of his wife, the moment she was introduced to a television audience of over 23 million voters, meticulously reviewed for the slightest factual or grammatical error? This is brought into even starker relief when we consider Melania (to her credit) is a non-native English speaker. Would not her intensely protective husband seek to ensure she be guarded from even the minutest embarrassment?
Moreover, the speechwriter allegedly assigned to Mrs. Trump was no literary light. She was not a best-selling novelist. She was not an intellectual pillar. She was not a clever or insightful columnist. On the contrary, she is a non-fiction ghostwriter and former ballerina who holds a basic degree in English Literature.
This is on its face an astonishingly unlikely choice for drafting the début speech for the premier Trump (excepting the candidate himself). As another President, Lyndon B. Johnson, was fond of saying, "That dog won't hunt."
Additionally damning is that the original draft of her speech evidently did not contain the offending passages. This means that someone in the campaign deliberately added them to the content. These two paragraphs were specifically included at the last minute.
To be sure, the words were massaged. They were diluted. Rearranged to the point they only hinted at plagiarism rather than were proof of it, but certainly there was a strong enough correlation that even the most rudimentary computer software would have recognized the similarity. In fact, it is reported even a Google search of the text in quotation marks would have discovered the error.
If it was an error; which it almost assuredly was not.
Instead of 13 million Republican viewers that night, with perhaps another 10 million unaffiliated casual viewers, a hysterical reaction by an easily duped (or more probably complicit) media ensured that by the middle of the week there was almost no one in America who was not aware that: A) Melania Trump gave a speech, B) It might have been copied from one given by Michelle Obama, and C) Millions of people who heretofore hadn't given the slightest damn about the election now had something to argue about...and in America getting people to the polls is all about giving them something to argue about.
Of course, it helps that Melania Trump happens to be an exceptionally beautiful woman with flair of the exotic. Likewise, people who had never thought about "Donald Trump's wife" will have given quite a bit of private contemplation to "Model Melania" and the contrast between four years of admiring her and four years of witnessing Hillary Clinton will certainly cause some cads to alter their ballots. Appearance is Politics 101 and if you don't believe that ask Richard M. Nixon or John F. Kennedy. In a close election, whether it be 1960 or 2016, a winning smile and an ideal figure matters more than any policy position.
Finally, there is the fact that no one was held accountable. This, from a man whose signature phrase is "You're fired!"
To review: A neophyte with almost no political experience was given one of the most crucial tasks in the current campaign. Her performance is at a level of competence which would get most partisan operatives dismissed if not dragged into a back alley for a good cuff in the gut.
Amazingly, a man known for routinely sacking anyone who so much as looks at him cross-eyed takes this unexpected opportunity to publicly display his magnanimity. (Which itself is even more evidence of a ploy by ostentatiously transforming the hardened financial tycoon into a genteel patriarch with a new phrase which he delivered only days later, "People make innocent mistakes.")
Still this colossal "blunder" had the result of making a perfunctory speech into a nationwide scandal in a country that thrives on scandals. Millions who had no idea a convention was taking place, much less the identity of a candidate's wife, and quite possibly were cluelessthat it was even a presidential election year suddenly became aware of an exceedingly attractive woman who for the low price of a vote they get to ogle for the next half-decade.
All of which is not to mention the other tens of millions, in particular women coincidentally polling poorly for Trump, who might feel some sympathy for the way Melania was "attacked" in the press and by those mean 'ol Democrats! Voilà, a formerly intimidating siren is inducted into the sorority of the sisterhood of the wronged. If you want to get people interested, you get them invested. And emotional investments pay the best dividends at the ballot box.
In regard to the Democratic National Convention a week later there appeared a similar scene when Khizr Khan and his wife presented an appeal for immigration largely based on the fact their son was killed while on a tour of duty with the American military in Iraq. It was an overwhelmingly compelling tribute, which was one reason it should have immediately been questionable. All the more so when Khan appeared on (almost literally) every single political news program within hours of the DNC gathering.
One of the first signs that everything is not what it seems in politics is when the scene is simply too perfect. Khan was the epitome of the undernourished though meek immigrant filled with a righteous indignation. His wife was the frumpily stoic mother-figure filled with patient resolve. In other words both of them were strait out of Central Casting and couldn't have fit the bill better had a Hollywood agent chosen them for their task.
More suspicious was when Khan stated he wasn't even aware he would be appearing on stage (before a live of audience of tens of millions of viewers) until not only that day but a few moments before taking the podium. Is this plausible to anyone? Unfortunately, it seems so. Not to professional speechwriters, not to honest political pundits and not to normal people with ordinary common sense; but apparently to some gullible voters and venal news anchors this highly dubious story was credible.
Then it emerged that Khan Sr. was no mere member of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. On the contrary, he is a corporate lawyer with deep ties to the regime in Saudi Arabia who has been intimately involved in payouts to the Clinton campaign for years. Moreover, it emerged Khan Sr. is one of the worst abusers of the EB5 visa program (which favors unthreatened wealthy applicants over genuine refugees fleeing from warzones or famine). Most damning, Khizr Khan on more than one occasion has opined the United States Constitution must be "subordinated to the Sharia (Islamic) law."
Obviously Khan Sr. is much more than a grieving father. Yet it is essential to note that sorrow over the loss of a son is in no way mutually exclusive of holding beliefs antithetical to foundational American principles. Neither is such a palpably lamentable tragedy any guarantee that the person speaking is not emotionally manipulating his audience for his own personal profit or to the detriment of his listeners.
Those Trumps, Those Khans...(depending on your politics) they're just like you and me...
Thus, everyone profits. Republicans earn greater awareness for their gathering a full three days before their candidate's prime-time acceptance of the party's nomination and Melania has a higher Q rating. Democrats get to express outrage over the "disrespect" given a corporate lobbyist with clearly anti-liberal viewpoints. Media has something to obsess over other than rampant illegal immigrant violence, the statistically-resistant real-life dismal economy and increasing chaos occurring in American streets.
The best sort of political story is the one where everybody wins except the voter. That poor slob actually believes what he is seeing on his television is the way the world really works. It's all one big act, and he thinks he isn't a part of it simply because he doesn't know he's just an extra. That is no accident either.
Vital to note is this analysis is by no means a "conspiracy theory" or some esoteric analysis of the minutiae of these incidents. The actuality of what occurred in each of these examples was quite obvious to those who have worked extensively in the political arena and especially for those with experience in speechwriting. No particular intelligence is needed to comprehend what happened, only an understanding of the fakery of realpolitik.
To sum it up, best perhaps the last lines should be left to the master manipulator himself, President Abraham Lincoln who is often quoted as having said, "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time."
Guy Somerset writes from somewhere in America.