John McLaughlin teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He was deputy director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004, serving as acting director in 2004.
President Trump’s Boy Scout Jamboree speech gave me the creeps, and I don’t think I’m alone.
Part of this was an emotional reaction to watching a captive audience of 40,000 young people, children really, who’d been told to be polite and welcoming, and who were excited because the most powerful man in the world’s most powerful country was coming to talk to them. A moment pregnant with possibilities — a potential teaching moment.
Then the jarring spectacle of the kids cheering and applauding as Trump blasted through a speech full of derision toward others, self-obsession, political spin, and incoherent rambling about cocktail society and high finance in New York City. I suspect it was the excitement of the occasion that spurred the applause rather than actual endorsement of what Trump said. Still, it evoked the sort of cheering for obvious nonsense — or worse — that we’ve witnessed in dictatorships around the world.
The kids were being used. If my child had been there, I’d be mad as hell. I suspect widespread reaction like this is behind the apology issued by a Boy Scouts of America leader three days after the speech.
The real power of the American presidency lies in its ability to inspire — especially young people who are in awe of the office, its majesty, history and symbolism. There was no inspiration here, only mockery, spin and manipulation.
Deconstructing Trump’s performance further, there were at least two things going on that caused so many people to recoil.
First, the president has the power to model the behaviors that make for good citizenship in a democracy. Much of this has to do with how we treat one another. Instead, here was a president who continued to attack the election opponent he had defeated eight months earlier, spurred these young people to boo his predecessor, and put his health secretary on notice that failure to win a Senate vote on “killing” Obamacare would lead to his firing — another big applause line.
Second, a president speaking to a young audience of future voters has the power to reinforce the tenets of effective democracy. Among these is a commitment to a free press, with whatever flaws it has and whatever annoyance it brings to those holding power. Rather, the Scouts were subjected to Trump’s familiar rant on “fake news,” falsely telling the audience that the media would not report on and show the size of the crowd. We policy and political wonks have grown accustomed to and discounted this nonsense. But what are young people to think?
Implicit in Trump’s “fake news” message is that only he can be trusted to tell the truth. This is the sort of subtext you often see from authoritarian leaders, as is the constant repetition of a theme — until the populace becomes numb, no longer objects, and begins to accept it.
Are we getting to that point with “fake news”? Did he plant the seed with these children?
And when many of them go on a school trip to Washington, will they be looking for what Trump calls the “swamp,” the “cesspool” or the “sewer” in the town that bears our first president’s name? How many of the best and brightest would want to work there or devote their lives to public service?
Another tenet of a healthy democracy is a degree of respect and acceptance between government and opposition, no matter how deep their policy differences. In immature or faltering democracies, the winners typically punish and seek to crush their opponents. How else to interpret Trump’s criticism of the Justice Department on the morning of his Boy Scout speech for not pursuing “crimes” he ascribes to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton? It is seemingly not enough to have won the presidency fair and square — he reveals a need to vanquish his opponent. A great lesson for budding citizens and future voters.
To a degree, we adults have become accustomed to this sort of behavior — “Let Trump be Trump,” his supporters say. This was the first time we’ve seen him be Trump in front of a captive audience of children. So it restores a bit of the shock many felt at some of his early campaign antics and to which many have become inured.
In this sense, Trump may have done us a favor by making all of this new again — reminding us of what is neither presidential nor acceptable in the nation’s leader.