Donald Trump’s speech Thursday was the most important at the Republican National Convention, but his wife’s was the definitive address at the GOP gathering.
The portion of Melania Trump’s speech plagiarized from Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention address was less an aberration than an extreme example of broader phenomenon besetting the Trump campaign: Utter lack of originality.
That Melania Trump and her speechwriters could appropriate and attribute to her own parents a set of life lessons Michelle Obama attributed to hers suggests a family and a campaign that are, among other things, less concerned about offering their own words and ideas than trying on those of others. That goes for policy as well as rhetoric.
Many people know that Trump’s call to “make America great again” is cribbed from Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign. Trump is reaching for Reagan’s 1980s tone, which itself was aimed at inspiring nostalgia for the America of the 1950s.
Trump’s call to put “America First” in foreign policy and trade is also derivative. During his 1992 primary challenge to President George W. Bush, Patrick Buchanan offered the slogan: “Make America First Again.” And Buchanan was aping the words of the isolationist “American First Committee” of Charles Lindbergh and Joe Kennedy, which sought to keep the United States out of war with Nazi Germany, a policy that was later labeled appeasement.
Trump’s declaration that he is the “law and order candidate” is a direct lift of the strong man shtick of Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign, which in turn was influenced by pressure from the third-party populist and segregationist George Wallace.
Trump borrows both the rhetorical tropes and backward-looking appeal of past Republican champions. And it’s not just the rhetoric that’s old. Trump has failed to outline new, specific proposals for how he would govern. His convention speech consisted of a litany of problems to fear – crime, terrorism, immigration, mistreatment of veterans, even long lines at airports – that he vowed to fix, with hardly a hint, let alone a plan, for how he would do so.
The primary exception is Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico. But the idea for better border structure too is borrowed from years of GOP proposals. “Complete the danged fence,” John McCain said in 2008.
Conservatism, by its nature, focuses on preserving cultural and political systems. And presidential candidates, whose main challenge is implementing proposals, not generating them, need not develop their own, original policy plans. But Trump is notable in the nakedness of his appeal—stripped of any real plans for future improvement—to an imagined past; unlike previous candidates, he dispenses with all the other stuff.
It is hard to find much empirical evidence that America was altogether better at some point in the past. Many statistics—infant mortality, life expectancy, even crime—suggest the opposite. Though he calls himself a builder of solid things, walls and buildings, Trump is appealing to an abstraction. The great America he wants to restore exists not in the 1980s or 1940s, but in the minds of his backers. It is an imaginary place protected from the list of scary things Trump invoked on Thursday.
Such appeals are not new. But in making his pitch without the pretense of new policy plans or even original slogans, Trump is attempting something quite new in America. It is almost original.