On Monday night, Melania Trump sent a signal to Trump’s digital troll army. And no one in the press even noticed.
They were too preoccupied, you see, with a handful of lines that Melania’s speech obviously cribbed from one given by Michelle Obama at the 2008 Democratic Party convention.
How could Trump’s team be so stupid? journalists were asking themselves. This was a layup gotcha moment. If a hard-luck freelancer hadn’t been the one to catch it, then Team Blue would surely have noticed. Did team Trump really think they wouldn’t get caught?
Of course not. In fact the Trump campaign counted on getting caught for their plagiarism. That’s why they cribbed from, of all people, Michelle Obama. Because here’s the ugly truth: Only writers care about the actual act of plagiarism. The mere act of plagiarism will send reporters into a feeding frenzy, but the general public couldn’t give less of a damn. The public cares about plagiarism if the source of the stolen content is significant (like, oh say, biting from Mussolini). But even then, it’s not like they care a lot.
By selecting Michelle Obama’s speech as the source of their theft, the Trump campaign ensured that news coverage would focus on the act of theft (which no one but journalists cares about), and not the actual source of stolen content. This was a calculated and successful gambit to control the media narrative for the critical first day of the RNC. It directed news coverage for that all-important first day, and helped steer the tone for the days to follow. In doing so, it distracted media attention away from potentially damaging stories and gave the Trump campaign one crucial day to correct mistakes learned on the first night of the convention. All the while the media was busy chasing errant clichés.
As is often the case in politics, you won’t find a smoking gun to prove any particular reading of the situation. However, later in her speech, Melania made another odd reference. “He will never, ever give up,” she said of her husband. “And most importantly, he will never, ever let you down.”
This line, I believe, is the key to understanding Melania’s speech, and by extensions “her” plagiarism.
The line is what is known in internet argot as a “Rick Roll.” That is, the playful insertion of a reference to 80s pop milquetoast Rick Astley in unexpected places. The meme originated on the 4chan message boards, which has (along with its spinoffs) served as a fertile recruiting ground for Trump’s troll army. The channers and their surrogates in the blogosphere have made much of Trump’s powers of persuasion, and there are rumors that some have even infiltrated the campaign at high levels of influence. It’s possible—indeed, in my opinion, very likely—that the Rick Roll constituted a wink at those in the know, communicating sub rosa that this was a speech with both exoteric and esoteric messaging, and that therefore its words had been carefully selected from start to finish. It was an act of reassuring the faithful that the Trump campaign was acting consciously, was not careless, stupid, or thieving. It was a secret handshake, an acknowledgement and quiet thank-you.
I don’t believe Melania was aware of any of this. Nor do I think that Trump is a closeted /pol lurker. But there are people in any campaign whose job it is to understand every facet of its base of support. The chan culture (in particular the ultra-edgy 8chan) has been a tireless fighter on behalf of the man they literally call their God Emperor. If that doesn’t earn you a wink, what does?