Donald Trump continued his ongoing tour of cherished American institutions on Monday night, delivering yet another jarringly partisan speech to an apolitical audience—this one, comprising tens of thousands still too young to vote.
During the campaign, his performance at the Al Smith dinner—where presidential candidates roast their rivals and themselves every four years—devolved into overt attacks on his opponent. Shortly after his election, he stunned CIA employees by delivering a campaign-style stump speech before the agency’s Memorial Wall. On Saturday, he surprised the crowd of uniformed personnel at the commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford by imploring them to lobby Congress in support of his agenda.
So his speech on Monday night to the 2017 Boy Scout Jamboree ought to have been unsurprising. Trump, after all, seems to have only one mode, irrespective of the setting, or the nature of the audience he’s addressing; one familiar litany of triumphs and grievances to which he constantly returns, delighting his fans and galling his critics.
But he retains the capacity to surprise.
“As the Scout Law says: ‘A Scout is trustworthy, loyal’—we could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that,” Trump said, and paused there. The assembled scouts shouted the rest of it for him: “…helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”
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.
Perhaps Trump did it out of ignorance. Ten members of his cabinet are former Scouts, including Rex Tillerson, a one-time president of the group. But Trump himself never belonged, never recited the Scout Law, never pledged to “help other people at all times.”
His closest prior association with the group appears to have come in 1989, when his charitable foundation made the smallest donation it ever gave—$7—to the Boy Scouts of America, as David Fahrenthold has reported. His son, Donald Trump Jr., turned 11 that year; $7 was then the cost of registering a new Scout.
If he’d read to the end of the Scout Law, he’d have learned that “a Scout is…reverent.” We could use some more reverence, I could tell you.