The president called the nation’s capital city a “sewer.” He informed the religiously mixed crowd that more people would say “Merry Christmas” under his watch. He spent much of the speech glorifying his election victory: “Do you remember that famous night on television? On Nov. 8th?” Trump said, as he insisted that winning the popular vote — which he failed to do — is a lot easier than his feat, winning the electoral college. He explained how he took Michigan’s electoral votes and attacked his former rival, Hillary Clinton, whom some in the audience booed. He offered his usual substance-less babble about the evils of Obamacare and quipped that he would fire Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price if a repeal-and-replace bill did not pass the Senate. “U-S-A, U-S-A,” some in the audience chanted.
Worst of all, the president twisted the meaning of the scout law. “As the scout law says, a scout is trustworthy, loyal — we could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that,” he said in an apparent reference to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Trump has recently demeaned Sessions, one of his oldest allies, because the attorney general recused himself from the Russia investigation, in accordance with Justice Department ethics guidelines. Loyalty for Trump is personal and flows in one direction — he expects it but does not give it. The loyalty that the scouts — and, for that matter, the Justice Department — stand for belongs not to a single man but to the country and its democratic system.
Sure, scout membership skews right. But those of us who did not fit that stereotype know that the organization is and should be open to all. I spent middle and high school in a small troop that met in a Mormon church but contained Jews, agnostics, a Seventh-day Adventist and various others. The boys’ politics, such as they were, stretched from extremely conservative to socialist. We went on to Harvard and community college, Silicon Valley and the Army. My scoutmasters were store owners, building contractors and, for a brief time, Oscar nominee William H. Macy. (Hey, it was L.A.) This was the 1990s, so the organization still had some growing to do. When one of our fellow scouts came out of the closet, he left the troop. But the BSA has since revised its membership policies to better reflect its mission of offering guidance to all young men.
As Trump spoke Tuesday night, former scouts on Twitter angrily invoked the complete scout law: A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. Trump neither exhibits nor extols any of these traits. He dwells on perceived slights and humiliates those who dealt them; recall when Trump forced Mitt Romney, a good, public-spirited man (and former scout), to publicly kowtow to him, just before rejecting him for any position in his administration. He is a well-documented serial liar who neglects his solemn responsibilities; Republican lawmakers have been perplexed at how little he understands health-care policy, even though he may soon sign a bill that could mean life or death for millions. Also, remember when Trump encouraged his crowds to beat protesters? And remember when he was caught on tape glorifying sexual assault?
There are three types of scouts. There are those who participate for a good reason — be that a love of the outdoors, an ambition to develop skills not taught in school, an interest in leadership or a desire for friends of skill and substance. There are those who participate because their parents force them to. And there are some bullies who abuse the organization’s mission of self-improvement, using its organized competitions and outdoor activities to show that they are better than other boys. The qualities that distinguish the best scouts are humility and self-sacrifice, values that the organization claims to prize.
Trump’s lesson for 30,000 young men was that the bullies are right and that humility and self-sacrifice are for suckers. Exulting in his election victory, attacking his political opponents and railing on about killing Obamacare, the president celebrated winning — and, specifically, his winning — above all else. His boastful speech did not model public-spiritedness; it showcased the immodesty and one-upmanship that the organization expects its boys to grow out of. Instead of addressing the crowd, the president could have learned something from its finer members, decades his junior.
“We’ll be back,” Trump told the crowd. I hope not.