On July 24, 2017, President Donald Trump looked out at a crowd of tens of thousands of Boy Scouts, gathered for their quadrennial jamboree, and told them how glad he was to leave the partisan warfare of Washington behind. “Who the hell wants to speak about politics when I’m in front of the Boy Scouts? Right?”
Wrong. Trump proceeded to deliver a 40-minute speech to the crowd, interspersing his respectful, scripted remarks with long tangents. Perhaps the strangest was an inspirational story from the president’s own youth, about a long-ago cocktail party featuring “the hottest people in New York,” hosted by TimeWarner’s Steve Ross. “He had a lot of successful people at the party,” the president of the United States boasted to the Scouts. “And I was doing well, so I got invited to the party. I was very young.”
But most of Trump’s improvisations were baldly political. He revisited the glories of Election Night, decried “fake news,” raged against the War on Christmas, disparaged his predecessor, and questioned the loyalties of civil servants. His campaign-style speech was such a breach of tradition and decorum that the chief scout executive rushed to apologize for the “political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree.”
Over Trump’s first two years in office, that jamboree speech may be the most shocking instance of the president choosing to politicize an apolitical institution, but it faces fierce competition. Trump delivered a campaign-style stump speech in front of the CIA’s Memorial Wall. He signed the first version of his Muslim ban in the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes. He stood on the hangar deck of the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford and implored the sailors to lobby Congress in support of his agenda. He demanded that the Department of Justice protect his aides and prosecute his rivals. He visited troops in Iraq, and signed their “Make America Great Again” hats.
Other presidents have sometimes struggled to distinguish their personal interests from those of their party, or from those of the nation as a whole. Trump gives no sign that he recognizes the existence of any such distinctions. As a result, he has clashed repeatedly with judges, civil servants, and military officers who insist that their loyalty is to constitutional governance, and not to the president’s political expedience.
Like millions of other boys in America, I grew up reciting the Scout Law, a list of a dozen virtues. I understood it as an affirmation that the path to leadership lay through service, and as a recognition that there is more to life than self-gratification—ideals I aspired to uphold, even as I generally fell short.
Trump was not a scout. He is the only American president never to have devoted even a single day to the service of his country—in uniform or in public office—before ascending to the chief magistracy. But his speechwriters set down the list of virtues for him to recite to the assembled scouts. “As the Scout Law says, ‘A scout is trustworthy, loyal,’” the president began. He paused. “We could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that.” That was as far as he got.