"Biden Rips Off Avenatti with 'Let's Make America America Again' Slogan"

Except that the phrase isn't originally Avenatti's -- it had been used by Ted Kennedy, Anita Hill, Rick Santorum, and (as "Let America be America again") by Langston Hughes in 1935.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

The headline I quote in this post's title is from Fox News; here's more from the body of the article:

The Trump campaign on Tuesday mocked Biden over his use of the phrase. Both Trump and Biden are in Iowa Tuesday holding dueling political events.

"No word yet on whether Biden will start borrowing 'Basta!' as well," Trump campaign deputy communications director Matt Wolking said Tuesday, referring to the hashtag Avenatti often used on Twitter.

Fox News has requested comment from the Biden campaign.

Biden last week faced criticism after it was revealed that his campaign lifted passages from numerous other sources in the initial version of its climate change plan. Citations were later added, with the campaign describing the initial version as a mistake.

Matt Margolis (PJ Media) labels this outright "plagiariz[ing]."

But the phrase wasn't Avenatti's to "rip off," nor is there anything wrong with "lift[ing]" a short line like that. As with many pithy phrases, they have been reused and likely reinvented for decades (if not more), and their original sources are often not remembered. A quick Lexis search revealed that Sen. Ted Kennedy used it on Mar. 11, 2005, in a speech on cutting child poverty; Anita Hill was quoted on Nov. 14, 1992 as having used it shortly before; Sen. Rick Santorum's campaign used it in 2011; novelist Joe Klein (author of Primary Colors) used it in a 2001 novel; and Langston Hughes had used it in a 1935 poem called "Let America Be America again," which Sen. John Kerry used in his 2004 campaign. Novelist Joe Kl

Plagiarism can be a serious offense, for instance when journalists or academics copy others' work without attribution—both because journalists and academics are supposed to be original, and because the copying is usually of a material amount.

But politicians aren't supposed to be original; they are supposed to adapt good ideas from others. I'm not terribly upset by Biden's past copying from other sources, whether as to his campaign's borrowing material for his climate plan, or even as to the copying of parts of Neil Kinnock's speech back in his 1988 Presidential campaign. (The real problem there, as I recall, was that that his use of Kinnock's words as his own end up misrepresenting aspects of his own background.)

Indeed, to the extent the Biden campaign was faulted for copying material from activists, I would think the activists should be pleased: The whole point of advocacy is to get decisionmakers to adopt your ideas, and if they even use your words, all the better. That's why lawyers don't get upset about judges' borrowing their words (with some exceptions not relevant here).

But when we're talking about a five word phrase, the claims of improper borrowing (whether labeled as "plagiariz[ing]" or as "rip[ping] off") by a politician strike me as completely unsound. It's a phrase that comes easily to people's minds, especially in the wake of President Trump's "Make America Great Again"; it wasn't original when Avenatti used it, or when Kennedy used it, or likely even when Langston Hughes used it.

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20 responses to “"Biden Rips Off Avenatti with 'Let's Make America America Again' Slogan"

  1. And in a speech to gay activists, Biden said, “four score and seven years ago, my four fathers…”

  2. The slogan doesn’t even make sense for a progressive candidate. I mean, sure, let’s go back to the way things were, thats what all libs are for right?

    1. Well, it’s better than Bernie Sanders’ motto – “Let’s make America Venezuela!”

  3. Why, when there is SO, SO, SO MUCH of actual substance for which Joe Biden can quite rightfully be criticized, so many completely idiotic policy positions he has taken, so many times he has demonstrated an appalling ignorance of the Constitution, would anyone waste time and effort on a triviality such as this?

  4. You’re missing the point. Copying a few words is okay and maybe even laudable. But Biden has a history of plagarism dating all the way back to his academic days in 1965.

    People have been finding excuses for him ever since – and his opponents have been calling them out on it with varying degrees of subtlety. This is just another in the long pattern.

  5. I don’t really care about the plagiarism. What I worry about is what Biden means when he says “Let’s make America America again”:

    Time Magazine: America Shouldn’t Tolerate ‘Biden Being Biden’


    Quote:
    The only reason Joe Biden gets away with getting handsy with women is because he has a (D) after his name…

    What can be said of people, today, looking the other way as the vice president of the United States paws woman after woman in public, with cameras flashing and their husband or parent three feet away?

  6. ” the claims of improper borrowing (whether labeled as ‘plagiariz[ing]’ or as ‘rip[ping] off’) by a politician strike me as completely unsound. It’s a phrase that comes easily to people’s minds, especially in the wake of President Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’; it wasn’t original when Avenatti used it, or when Kennedy used it, or likely even when Langston Hughes used it.”

    How about the saying “America is great now, you unpatriotic asshole.”? Does ending with an exclamation point instead of a period make a difference?

    1. Or do we take Mr. Trump at his word, that he actually intends to make America great again, of which the first stage is to make it not great? Because he’s working hard on that part, at least.

  7. ‘Let’s Make America America Again’

    A pre-industrial, agrarian, slave owning nation where only white men can vote? Like it was in Biden’s youth.

  8. Talk about the “Bottom Story of the Day”.
    Who cares?

    1. “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative”

      (Michael Kinsley’s idea of the boringest headline ever)

  9. Did Trump originate “Make America Great Again!”? No. (A quick Google told me that.) I know that Trump was accused of using dog-whistles when he used that phrase. But I do not recall him being accused of plagiarism. Giving him a (quite justifiable) pass in that regard made total sense, as outlined by EV in the OP. Bizarre to think that people are trying for a double-standard re Biden.

    On the other hand, Biden does have a well-documented history of appropriating other’s words. So, I do understand not giving him the benefit of the doubt in this area. But this particular example strikes me as rather silly . . . our first official example of Biden Derangement Syndrome???

    1. You missed the point of the article completely. EV is arguing that there is little basis for accusing politicians of plagiarism and none at all when it comes to shortish quotes. It doesn’t matter if it’s Obama, Trump or Biden. They are supposed to adopt other people’s good ideas.

      1. I didn’t misread at all. I completely agree with EV, as I stated in my original comment. I also pointed out the hypocrisy (IMO) of those who are whining about Biden in this case but were silent when Trump did much the same thing. And I ended by pointing out that, in situations where one might or might not get the benefit of the doubt, someone with a long history of bad behavior would cut against giving that person the benefit of the doubt. And I’m not just picking on Biden here . . . when Trump says something that could be interpreted as truthful or not, his decades-long history of lying cuts against giving him the benefit of the doubt. I think I made it clear (at least, I hope I did) that this situation is *not* one where Biden needs the benefit of the doubt–he did nothing wrong here at all.

        1. There’s nothing wrong with using someone else’s slogan. Now, there might be if you’re using someone else’s slogan, AND claiming that it’s original with you, but absent the claim, you’re just quoting a good idea, whether or not you remember to put quote marks around it.

          1. Yup. Agreed.

    2. ” Bizarre to think that people are trying for a double-standard re Biden.”

      Nothing bizarre about it.
      To partisans, distinguishing between the same thing done by OUR guy and done by THEIR guy is easy. When OUR guy does it, it’s OK, but not when THEIR guy does it.

  10. The media are more likely the tolerate such plagiarism from Dems, as Trump pointed out:

    “I really have to say, the media is even more biased this year than ever before. Ever. You want the proof? Michelle Obama gives a speech and everyone loves it. It’s fantastic. They think she’s absolutely great. My wife, Melania, gives the exact same speech, and people get on her case!”

    1. It was one of the genuinely funny comments Trump made in the campaign. Totally diffused his wife’s plagiarism. I don’t know the name of the man/woman who thought of that joke and wrote it; but that person deserved a huge raise.

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