"The Daily Show" appeared to score a coup in the aftermath of the second night of the Republican National Convention on Tuesday night: Another incident of a Trump family member duplicating writing from somewhere else.
It checks out. A transcript of Donald Trump Jr.'s speech reads:
Our schools used to be an elevator to the middle class, now they're stalled on the ground floor. They're like Soviet-era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers, for the teachers and the administrators and not the students. You know why other countries do better on K through 12? They let parents choose where to send their own children to school.
That mirrors this essay from the American Conservative, written by F.H. Buckley. That essay reads, in part:
What should be an elevator to the upper class is stalled on the ground floor. Part of the fault for this may be laid at the feet of the system’s entrenched interests: the teachers’ unions and the higher-education professoriate. Our schools and universities are like the old Soviet department stores whose mission was to serve the interests of the sales clerks and not the customers.
Given that the Trump campaign spent most of the day Tuesday rebutting accusations that Melania Trump had duplicated passages from Michelle Obama's 2008 convention speech, the duplication seemed particularly egregious. But that wasn't the full story.
First, there was this tweet from the author of the American Conservative piece.
Except it wasn't stealing...
— Frank Buckley (@fbuckley) July 20, 2016
And then apparent confirmation from Business Insider: Buckley worked as a speechwriter for Trump's effort. He told Vox that he was the principal speechwriter for Trump. Not plagiarism, then, but a re-purposing of language and ideas from the same author.
This is what's sometimes known as "self-plagiarism," something that falls into a bit of an ethical gray area. There exist some guidelines to the practice, which acknowledge the subjectivity at stake. "Editors should use their discretion when deciding how much overlap of methods text is acceptable," the Committee on Publication Ethics writes, "considering factors such as whether authors have been transparent and stated that the methods have already been described in detail elsewhere and provided a citation." And so on. One 2015 paper analyzing the ethics of plagiarism would call this self-plagiarism "text recycling."
For clarification, let's use a real-world example. The author Jonah Lehrer nearly destroyed his own career when it was revealed that he had repurposed old material in a variety of ways. He was writing for media outlets that were paying him for original thoughts, and those outlets were not pleased with paying for used goods.
So it's not plagiarism. It's more like when Kramer sold his best stories to J. Peterman.
— Nick Confessore (@nickconfessore) July 20, 2016
For Trump, the situation is a bit different, but not entirely. If Trump was paying Buckley, Trump would be justified in being similarly annoyed. Even if not, the attention drawn to the campaign by Melania Trump's speech makes this more problematic. Had Buckley realized that reusing his old metaphor might be newly sensitive, which he should have, it would bear mentioning to the principal.
As it did with the Melania incident, the Trump campaign quickly moved to blame Donald Trump's general-election opponent for raising questions.
1/2 Nice try Clinton machine – Francis Buckley is a friend of Don Jr.’s and worked with him on the speech.
— Jason Miller (@JasonMillerinDC) July 20, 2016
Given that this originated with "The Daily Show," that's a stretch — a bit of making hay while the sun shines. (Note: That expression is not original to me.)
Regardless: Scandal sidestepped, at least for the Trumps. But there's still an interesting detail to note: The change between the essay's call for an elevator to the upper class and Trump's reminiscing for a time when the educational elevator got you a few floors lower.
Perhaps Trump, a regular at his father's Manhattan apartment tower, knows how few people get to ride the elevator all the way to the penthouse.