Like millions of other boys, I grew up reciting that creed on weekends. I had always taken it to be a list of obligations; its lessons that the path to leadership lay in serving others, and that there are ideals greater than self-interest. The Scout Oath is a pledge to “do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law,” to subordinate self gratification to the pursuit of that litany of virtues.
So when Trump paused at “loyal”—when he interjected, “we could use some more loyalty”—I was stunned. This is the president who told James Comey, “I expect loyalty.” Over the weekend, he’d inveighed against Republicans who “do very little to protect their President.” And there he was, looking out at a sea of Scouts, telling them that “Boy Scout values are American values,” apparently unaware that his own definition of loyalty—something that he himself is owed—is precisely the opposite of the definition those Scouts are taught to embrace—something that we owe to others.
I wasn’t a very good Boy Scout. Measured against the ideals of the Scout Law, I’d have fallen short, then or now. But as I listened to Donald Trump, I thought back to the opening ceremony of the Jamboree I’d attended in 1993. There were boys of all faiths, all political stripes. The Scouts occupy an increasingly complicated place in America’s shifting cultural landscape, but still provide a rare space, however flawed, in which those of radically divergent backgrounds and beliefs can interact on common ground.
We were seated by region. The opening act that year was supposed to be the Southern-rock group Alabama. When instead, Lee Greenwood took the stage, the South stood and roared its approval. In the Northeast, we turned and looked at each other: Lee who?
We’d also hoped for a presidential appearance; the chief executive of the United States is, by tradition, also the honorary president of the Boy Scouts. We had the perfect theme that year to lure Bill Clinton—“A Bridge to the Future,” a line George H.W. Bush had used during the campaign, and which Clinton would claim as his campaign theme in 1996—but he didn’t show.
“The Boy Scouts of America must not … involve Scouting in political matters,” the group’s Rules and Regulations plainly state. But a presidential visit—Clinton would come to the next Jamboree, in 1997—was about the place that scouting occupied in the civic fabric of the nation. It wasn’t about politics. Or at least, it wasn’t supposed to be.
That’s the line that Trump crossed on Monday night, the same one he crossed on the Ford, and at the CIA, and at the Al Smith dinner. It’s the interjection of partisan politics into a space where it doesn’t belong. And every time he does it, every time he goes before some nonpartisan group and speaks to its members as if they had come to attend a campaign rally, a little more of our shared civic culture gets chipped away. He’s not the first to erode such lines, but he stands apart for his persistent disregard.