Is plagiarism in politicians’ speeches symptomatic of a political class running out of ideas?

Despite all the media attention in recent days focusing on Theresa May’s conference speech, you might have missed the news that sections of it seemed to bare a striking resemblance to another speech, given by another leader: Jed Bartlet, Aaron Sorkin’s fictionalised President of the United States (POTUS) from The West Wing.

When a terrorist attack strikes in the American TV series, the President rallies his people in a spirit of defiance, using language beautifully crafted by his team of genius speechwriters, to lift the spirits of those he addresses in such a dark time for the nation:

“Every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we’re reminded that that capacity may well be limitless.”

Inspiring words indeed.

Seeking similarly to rally the spirits of her people in such a dark time for our nation, Theresa May’s rhetoric was eerily similar:

“And it is when tested the most that we reach deep within ourselves and find that our capacity to rise to the challenge before us may well be limitless.”

Have your spirits been lifted? Our Prime Minister will certainly hope so; her speech at the Conservative Party Conference seemed an almost exquisitely appropriate metaphor, not only for her grip on authority (judged by most pundits to be dead in all but name: her presence at Downing Street proceeds, with each day, only on the sufferance of her party), but also for the general atmosphere of despair that seems to have seized her party.

Comparisons have been drawn between this incident and Donald Trump’s alleged plagiarising of the climactic speech from Legally Blonde. Asked to give the commencement speech for Liberty University in May, the President seemed to borrow quite a few lines from a speech by protagonist Elle Woods.

Woods said: “…[as] we take our next steps into the world, it is with passion, courage of conviction and most importantly [with] faith in yourself. We did it” (sic.).

Trump, expressing a sentiment that was somehow almost identical, said: “You must go forth into the world… [show] passion, courage in your conviction, [and] most importantly be true to yourself. I did it” (sic.). It seems we could spend a great deal of time comparing and contrasting one blonde to another.

However, perhaps a more constructive conversation is this: have our leaders really so completely run out of ideas, and have the standards of our public discourse really dropped so low, that is becomes acceptable and necessary to plagiarise their speeches from those of fictionalised characters?

In this era of post-truth politics, perhaps Woods is real, and Trump is not; perhaps she has more to contribute to America’s national discussion than he does – a theory I suspect most people could get behind.

We could, equally, make a rather painful contrast between Ms Woods’ uplifting statement “We did it”, and Trump’s rather snide, brutish, exclusive statement “I did it.”

Perhaps in this age of Brexit and climate crisis, we increasingly prefer the fictional over the real. The comforting illusion of dignity, honour and worthiness presented on our screens by fictionalised plots poses a stark comparison to the image Trump offers us.

The West Wing seems like an artifact from another age now; an age when leaders aspired to inspire; a task of which they were not immediately assumed to be incapable. Here in 2017, however, we are living a rather different society. We long, dream, hope and beg for statesmanship, for dignity in high office, for competence and worthiness in our leaders. In the meantime, it seems we must attune ourselves to the likes of Theresa May.

Image: Jim Mattis via Flickr

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