In the past few days the Republican National Convention has been underway and an interesting trend has started. In a series of different people’s speeches, significant rhetorical devices and phrases have been plagiarised. Two things struck me about this turn of events: I didn’t realise that Republican delegates would be stupid enough to plagiarise speeches when the entirety of the media is watching every step you take; and also that the media’s coverage was so nearly actually good. The GOP ‘s speech-writing problem could be a consequence of two scenarios that I will touch upon, but the main point I want to elaborate is on the power of political labels.
What is the job of a speech-writer? It is to study the technique, delivery, and influence of speeches throughout history, and write something tailored for the occasion. For instance, if the occasion was an inaugural address there would be lots of references to abstract ideas like ‘hope’ and ‘freedom’, and a convention speech should be written to rouse the crowd and layout some policies for the coming years. Speech-writing is difficult as you are trying to gauge how an audience would react without being able to test it before-hand and a lot of work needs to be put in by the writers to make sure content is balanced when it comes to details and rhetoric.
This is where I believe the GOP has a series dilemma, because there are two things that could be the case. Plagiarism can happen by accident, but there is no way that the foci of so many of the speeches so far have been stolen and it all be a massive coincidence. The first possibility is that the speech-writers they have are terrible. This is not beyond the realms of possibility as many of Trump’s speeches have been off the cuff and the Trump campaign has been shown to be poorly organised. It is very possible that rather than Trump having hired professional speech-writers, he has instead opted to hire people who kiss his ass all day.
It’s worth pointing out that some of the cases of plagiarism that I will touch upon in a second are Republican delegates and not affiliated with the Trump campaign, and therefore would have had different speech-writers or penned their remarks themselves. In these situations I would just assert hat these people are blatant thieves, but I do still find it suspicious that plagiarism has sky-rocketed after the party nominated a pathological liar as its presidential nominee.
The second scenario is more speculative, but again I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true. It is no secret that not all Republicans are united behind the Trump-Pence ticket. Indeed the list of former high-ranking GOP politicians that have not attended the convention includes some pretty big names- George H.W. Bush (former president and Reagan’s VP), George W. Bush (last Republican president), Dick Cheney (last Republican VP) etc. As I said speech-writers have to be relatively intelligent people so it is not impossible that the speech-writers are deliberately sabotaging their own convention. If the people writing the speeches for Republican delegates are neo-cons, in a straight fight between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, who is closer to their ideological position? Clearly the answer is Hillary Clinton.
However the main point that I would like to make is not about plagiarism, but about the power of political labels. Let’s look at the words that have been plagiarised. Melania Trump lifted entire sections from Michelle Obama’s 2008 DNC speech, Senator Tom Cotton copied John Kerry 2004 slogan “help is on the way”, and Darryl Glenn, a Colorado Senate Candidate, copied Barack Obama’s 2004 DNC line “this is not about black America, white America, or brown America, this is about the United States of America”. The media have rightly pointed out that these are all examples of plagiarism but they haven’t taken the next step. Who are these Republicans copying? Are they copying iconic GOP politicians of old like Reagan or Eisenhower? No, they’re copying Democrats. Not only are they copying Democrats, but the crowd at the RNC reacted favourably to their remarks.
I believe that this points to the power of political labels. If a Democrat like Kerry or Obama made their speeches to a crowd populated exclusively by Republican delegates, they’d have been booed off the stage. However, when coming from a Republican they lap it up. The fact that the political labels are powerful because they play a role in preparing a group of people for the comments of a speaker. When John Kerry said “help is on the way” in 2004 he was criticising the Bush Administration’s actions regarding the War on Terror, whereas Tom Cotton was doing the opposite.
Obviously Kerry wasn’t the best man to make that case, but Cotton has co-opted this message to justify his support for increased military spending and more war. All convention speeches are designed to do is whip up the crowd and give an outward display of party unity to the wider electorate. However the fact that the language of Democrats can be appropriated by Republicans without anyone noticing any substantial difference is disheartening. If the Democrats exclusively talk in vague language without any real meaning then people will not want to vote for them, and Hillary Clinton’s record of doing this should worry Democratic activists.
Political labels are incredibly important as they give people a general idea of philosophical beliefs in a couple of words. But the problem comes when only two are ever used. Politics in the United States is a battle between two binary options, both of which are essentially redundant. The choice is between a Republican and a Democrat. Even though many people disagree with both options, this is the choice on offer. If these binary choices were put aside I believe there would be substantial progress, but by putting a (D) or an (R) before a candidate’s name many people automatically switch off.
Here’s an example: I support legalising marijuana, ending America’s military adventurism, and restricting the power of the government when it comes to civil liberties. This makes me sound like many conservative libertarians, and without mentioning political labels I can have civil conversations with these people about achieving these policy goals. However if I said that I supported the above policies and this was informed by my support of communism, the same right-wingers would start talking about gulags, the Vietnam War, and Che Guevara.
This is not a fault of the label ‘communist’ in and of itself, but because of what people perceive it to be, and this cannot be ignored. There are times when labels are incredibly useful, but there are other times when they should be avoided and people should be treated as people. In the current US discourse binary thinking is running wild, and therefore we should avoid characterising people with labels and instead hear them out.
The plagiarism at the RNC was profoundly frustrating because I know that nothing will really come of it; it you didn’t believe Trump was a liar and thief before the convention, I don’t think this will change much. However the interesting thing was the choice to plagiarise Democrats and that gives me a twisted form of hope. If people who support Donald Trump can react positively to words written by leading Democrats, I believe that by engaging in rational conversations policy can be crafted. Unfortunately there will always be people who are irrational actors, but the future of American democracy is one with less obsession over political labels.