I’ve had three close encounters with plagiarism in the last 23 years.
My first experience with plagiarism occurred when I was accused of it by a professor. I was a student at a private college in North Carolina and was taking a required religion class. The professor instructed us to write our term paper on any subject covered in the textbook. I, of course, chose the role of women in religion in modern times. I was very excited about getting my paper back because I knew that I had written an A paper.
I got an F.
I went directly to the professor after class and asked him why he had failed me. He said that the paper was “too good for a student to have written.” Remember, this was 1992, and colleges didn’t have Copyscape or some other plagiarism-detecting online service. The professor simply made an assumption. I took the term paper to another professor, one whose classes I had taken as electives for two semesters. His classes involved a lot of writing, some of it creative writing. He went to the religion professor and told him that I had been in his classroom for two semesters, he was very familiar with my writing, and that he knew my writing and was certain I had not copied anyone else’s work.
So I got an A.
Several years ago, I had an Etsy shop and sold art and photography. Another artist copied one of my drawings in her painting, renamed it, and sold it. That’s not plagiarism, but it’s very nearly the same thing. She copied my drawing. Everyone knew it, but she got away with it.
Recently, I came across an odd post on a Facebook page that I read regularly. I knew the quality of writing on the page on a daily basis, and I knew that the person who wrote the page’s content didn’t write that post. It was written in an entirely different style, a much more mature and polished style. I copied and pasted a paragraph into Google. The post was lifted from a Wikipedia article; the author of the article had taken the material from her own book, part of which is available on Google books. I contacted her and asked her if she had given permission for the owner of the Facebook page to use her work. She had not. She confronted the page owner in a very public way. And she was right to do so. We must never tolerate plagiarism, but we must be able to prove that plagiarism occurred before we make accusations.
Melania Trump’s speech plagiarized Michelle Obama’s speech. We don’t know yet who wrote the speech given by Melania Trump, but there is no excuse. There are numerous plagiarism-checking tools available online. People are making excuses for poor Mrs. Trump. Even though she volunteered to a reporter that she wrote the speech with a little help, talking heads are throwing a nameless, faceless speechwriter under the bus, saying that the speechwriter may have even plagiarized Mrs. Obama’s speech deliberately to make the Trumps look bad.
But this is the thing. If Michelle Obama had, in total innocence, read a speech written by a speechwriter that contained plagiarized material, there would be no silly, pathetic, embarrassing excuses made for her. I needn’t go into detail about why, because we all know.
And here’s the other thing. Donald Trump is prone to fantastic exaggeration. Everyone knows it. Everyone expects it of him. And no matter the outcome of this plagiarism situation, I believe it will not shake the faith of one single Trump supporter. I don’t believe it will matter to his base.
That is frightening and troubling, much more troubling than the plagiarism itself–the fact that the Trumps can get away with blatant illegal and immoral behavior and still command the respect, the adulation, the worship of their followers.