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Melania Trump’s Speech Debacle, a Revived Colbert and Reboot Culture

On Melania Trump and Stephen Colbert
Photo by Anthony Behar/AP

The Melania Trump speech fiasco, among other things, feels indicative of this particular reboot-obsessed era.

At times, it seems like our culture works overtime to stamp out originality and encourage conformity. Every blockbuster movie seems like almost every other blockbuster movie, and too many “new” TV shows feel like programs you’ve seen a dozen times before. People who lift jokes from other people get book deals, and entire media ecosystems revolve around stringing together words, video and pictures lifted from social media.

It’s not that it can’t be done well; I’ve laughed at my share of inspired GIF listicles. And some of those overly familiar movies and TV shows can be enjoyable now and then, in their own modest ways. But it’s hard not to wonder, at times, if we’re living in the kind of played-out, mentally exhausted society in which imitation isn’t just a form of flattery (or laziness), it’s the most common form of communication.

And so we come to Melania Trump’s convention speech, parts of which were lifted from a speech by Michelle Obama. Despite feeling somewhat inured to our copycat culture, this was big, this was different. However it happened — and the political media will be chewing on that question all day — it went far beyond mere imitation. It was plagiarism, plain and simple.

But the fact that the speech was partly cribbed feels of a piece with the hollowness of the Trump campaign in general. “If he’s simply breathed audibly into the microphone, the same amount of information would have been conveyed,” John Oliver recently said on “Last Week Tonight” of a Donald Trump post-Brexit statement. There are Trump policy positions of a sort — building a wall, doing everything and anything to keep out foreigners — but there is a curious vagueness at the core of the man’s campaign, despite the fact that it feels like he’s been talking non-stop for the better part of a year. Even his appearance last night was all about the flash and bombast, nothing more. 

On the stump, his speeches are rehashes of paranoia and preening. There are always “those people” and shadowy forces Trump is “hearing about,” frequently unnamed villains who are taking away our freedom and committing other foul deeds. If you try to grasp at a hard, cold fact within a Trump speech, you are more than likely come away empty-handed. In his rambling indictments, he does what many of the speakers did at Monday night’s RNC convention: He drops words like “freedom” and “safe” and “great” and “America” into speeches that are loud and xenophobic but contain almost no substance and an occasionally alarming lack of specificity.

The point of those kinds of speeches, which we’re sure to get plenty more of this week, is to produce a feeling of vague unease, anger or free-floating panic, or maybe all three at once. Don’t ask questions about how Trump will fix anything — trust him, it’s going to be great, it’s going to be amazing, it’s going to be the best freedom ever.

Even before Melania’s speech was revealed to contain those purloined passages, it was hard not to arrive at the conclusion that it was genially content-free. It felt as though it had been written by someone who was trying to pad out an essay in order to hit an agreed-upon word count. The speech was full of blocky adjectives and nouns — “kind,” “good,” “family,” “work” — but there was no detail, no stories told on a human scale. If it was meant to get us to understand her or empathize with her spouse, well, it didn’t quite hit the target. If someone had told me she’d come up with it by filling in a Spousal Speech Mad Libs, I’d have believed it.

In stark contrast, one of the few times the night came alive is when Stephen Colbert revived his “Colbert Report” persona. The return of the pompous “Colbert” was not just another instance of reboot culture run amok; it was a welcome return to a character that had lost none of its punch since Colbert put it into storage when he ended his run on Comedy Central. It’s weird that a fictional political blowhard is more galvanizing than the real one running for president, but in this era in which it’s hard for satire to gain purchase because reality is so bizarre, we need those razor-sharp, take-no-prisoners “Colbert” jabs more than ever. 

Colbert needed a couple blasts from the past to launch him back into fighting form, and if the point was to make viewers more eager to see what the “Late Show” host does next, mission accomplished. Some aspects of Colbert’s Monday show were conventional, but his scene with Jon Stewart pulsed with an enormous amount of antic electricity — the kind of contained but explosive energy more typically seen these days on Oliver’s show or on Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal.” Colbert, clearly in his element on Monday, wasn’t just reviving an old bit, he was locking into an reliably productive combative stance — one that might launch him, at least temporarily, back into the very small club of must-see late-night hosts.

Colbert’s shenanigans were a welcome respite after hours of speeches that ran the gamut from bombastic to mean-spirited to enervated. Weirdly enough, Melania’s speech was something of an oasis in that sea of sweaty, shouty fear-mongering; she was vague, but at least her words were somewhat positive. Except there was no there there, and a number of those words weren’t hers.

On cable TV, as Monday night melted into Tuesday morning, a few commentators theorized about sabotage from within the Trump campaign. But what if it’s just that no one thought it would matter? That’s not hard to conceive of in a campaign where “truthiness” has often mattered much more than the truth. This is why the return of “Colbert” was greeted with something like relief in many quarters: Who better to parody this bizarro campaign than the man who foresaw it a decade ago? 

As for Melania’s purloined speech, the Trump camp issued a statement that was the verbal equivalent of a shrug. So what if Melania’s speech “included fragments that reflected her own thinking.” What fragments, from whom? Why bother asking? In any case, it was not Melania’s “feeling,” according to a campaign official, that she’d lifted material. Pipe down, whiny media types — the whole speech felt truthy, didn’t it? 

The key to the brief Trump campaign statement, which completely sidestepped the issues of plagiarism, was in the kicker. All we really needed to know is that Melania’s speech was “a success.” 

You have to give the speech this: In a sea of uninspired remakes, it woke people up, even if it was for the wrong reasons. It was an average, cobbled-together rehash that actually got the public’s attention. You have to wonder what the campaign will do for a sequel.