By Susan Blum
The first real glimpse American audiences got of the potential First Lady associated with presidential candidate Donald Trump exploded into a circus. As Melania Trump read a speech that had several paragraphs directly lifted from the same sort of self-introduction performed by Michelle Obama in 2008, President Obama’s former chief speechwriter recognized some of the exact wording. Chaos ensued, along with denials, protests, strange claims that the speech was not really plagiarized, claims that Melania Trump had written it herself, then admission that a “former ballerina and English major”—sexist shades echoing here—had taken the responsibility.
Along with understanding the notion of intellectual property, authorship, and citation, I think Goffman and the notion of participant roles (or production format or participation framework) helps us sort things out here. To summarize: the speechwriter is the “author,” the one who composes the text. The person giving the speech is both the “animator” and the “principal” although the “principal” is also the person seen to benefit from the speech, in this case Donald Trump. (The use of the term “surrogate” captures this distinction.) Whose words were uttered? Who profited from them? Who is responsible? What are the moral and ethical obligations that accompany each role? What are hearers’ expectations and beliefs about these roles?
Americans tend to like spontaneity as it gives evidence of an authentic self lying beneath the words that simply bubble up. Artifice, rehearsal, teleprompters, professional speechwriters—all these are seen as reducing the glimpse into the heart and soul of the speaker. Actors are masterful at portraying apparent spontaneity, as are practiced politicians.
The niceties of notions of intellectual property, citation, and providing credit for authorship, as well as the desirability of speaking authentically on her own (collapsing all participant roles) that were in some sense acknowledged when Ms. Trump initially claimed to have written her speech herself. Later, the respect for Michelle Obama was seen as explaining the error.
There is a bit of an additional irony here, as Mr. Trump has been one of the principal agents aiming to discredit Mr. Obama and to incite racist claims that he was not born in the United States. Quotation and attribution of Mrs. Obama would have had additional challenging responses at the Republican National Convention, don’t you think?