Trump, Scouting, my Dad, and Me

[Cross-posted to In Media Res]

I don’t know why this makes me so angry, but it does.

Maybe anger’s not the right word; I’m not angry, I don’t think. (I rarely get angry; not in my make-up, I suppose.) But I am annoyed, chagrined, bothered, upset, pissed off. And I suppose I know why too, though it’s not easy to pull it all together.

My contempt for President Trump is out in the open, for anyone who cares to look or ask. But as a scholar of politics, and as someone who is ideologically disposed to look at socio-economic trends, institutional forces, structural incentives, and so forth, the way I look at the man and his presidency mostly stays in the realm of ideas and implications. Yes, I’m a social media addict who snarks within my own self-created informational bubble, like almost everyone else: guilty! But by and large, I really don’t think my attacks on the Trump administration have been personal, and I think it’s important–and have said so, often, even if I have not always resisted the temptation–to focus on the policy shifts, the party developments, the bureaucratic staffing (or lack thereof), the norm-bending, the rule-ignoring, and the legislative maneuvering taking place in Washington DC, rather than on the words that come out of this clown’s mouth.

And yet, there he was, speaking at the 2017 National Boy Scout Jamboree:

I’ll tell you a story that’s very interesting for me. When I was young there was a man named William Levitt…..And he was a very successful man, became unbelievable–he was a home builder, became an unbelievable success, and got more and more successful….[H]e did this for 20 years, and then he was offered a lot of money for his company, and he sold his company, for a tremendous amount of money, at the time especially. This is a long time ago. Sold his company for a tremendous amount of money. And he went out and bought a big yacht, and he had a very interesting life. I won’t go any more than that, because you’re Boy Scouts so I’m not going to tell you what he did. Should I tell you? Should I tell you? You’re Boy Scouts, but you know life. You know life….

So he had a very, very interesting life, and the company that bought his company was a big conglomerate, and they didn’t know anything about building homes….So they called William Levitt up, and they said, would you like to buy back your company, and he said, yes, I would. He so badly wanted it. He got bored with this life of yachts, and sailing, and all of the things he did in the south of France and other places….You’d get bored too, believe me. Of course having a few good years like that isn’t so bad. But what happened is he bought back his company, and he bought back a lot of empty land, and he worked hard at getting zoning, and he worked hard on starting to develop, and in the end he failed, and he failed badly, lost all of his money. He went personally bankrupt, and he was now much older. And I saw him at a cocktail party. And it was very sad because the hottest people in New York were at this party. It was the party of Steve Ross–Steve Ross, who was one of the great people. He had a lot of successful people at the party. And I was doing well, so I got invited to the party. And I see sitting in the corner was a little old man, William Levitt, by himself….

He’d lost his momentum, meaning he took this period of time off, long, years, and then when he got back, he didn’t have that same momentum. In life, I always tell this to people, you have to know whether or not you continue to have the momentum. And if you don’t have it, that’s OK. Because you’re going to go on, and you’re going to learn and you’re going to do things that are great. But you have to know about the word “momentum.” But the big thing, never quit, never give up; do something you love….[O]f course I love my business, but this is a little bit different. Who thought this was going to happen? We’re, you know, having a good time. We’re doing a good job.

You and I and everyone reading this has heard dozens of sacrament meeting talks worse than this–so what’s the big deal? A stupid, rambling story about “momentum” and “never giving up”; what’s the harm in that? The harm is that this was just a small slice of a huge, even more rambling speech that attacked (sometimes humorously, sometimes implicitly, but sometimes neither) former President Obama, Trump’s 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton, the news media, and members of his own administration, and continually, continually, praised himself and his electoral win last November. The harm is that for more than 30 minutes a bunch of Boy Scouts were subject to the sleazy, stupid, self-aggrandizing ramblings of an over-his-head politician, and not to a speech that was remotely presidential.

And there’s the rub: the Boy Scouts themselves, and the idea of, let’s call it “presidentiality.” We’re all too cynical, too realistic, too grown-up, too mature, too liberal and open-minded and sophisticated for us such things, right? In our meta-meta-media environment, every sociological assessment of the Boy Scouts of America, and every nuanced criticism of presidential power, becomes part of prefabricated partisan narratives. “Big deal! You anti-Trump people are the ones who always hated Scouting anyway! And who cares if President Trump just gave a big lazy political speech? Everything’s political anyway, right, isn’t that you’ve always said? USA! USA!”

Except…I stand here, someone who thinks both that Boy Scouts of America v. Dale was rightly decided  and that the BSA has done the right thing in finally waking up and backing off from its anti-LGTB and anti-secular attitudes. I think that presidents have come to play an undemocratic and unhealthy role in warping and centralizing our political rhetoric and also that there is value to having the elected leader of the country be able to play a dignified, nonpartisan, civic role. Yes, those are a mix of perhaps incompatible ideas. But real life is filled with such mixes, and when someone comes along and crashes through all the informal, organic, inconsistent-but-still workable assumptions that hold our innumerable social and civic and even constitutional ties together, well, it’s not surprising that it pisses people off. (Not just me: see here and here and here.)

I am not a professional Scouter, but I am a lifelong member of the Boy Scouts of America. That’s the way it was–the way it had to be–in the family I grew up in, with the father I had. Jim Fox believed in Scouting, and he made it clear that he expected all seven of his sons to earn their Eagle Scout rank–which we all did. Is there something unseemly, something anti-intellectual, something illiberal in a family or a church or really any unit of people committing themselves so thoroughly to an organization which holds to such traditionalist, patriotic ideas? Yes to the last of those challenges; it would be silly to pretend that any movement that organizes boys and young men into troops, gives them uniforms, and instructs them in moral codes would be anything except, to one degree or another (your mileage will vary depending on your local leaders) anti-individualistic. But I reject the first two. Scouting absolutely isn’t for everyone, and I’m happy to see the church retreating from its too-long and too-total embrace of Boy Scouting as its youth program. (As a father of nothing but daughters, our children’s experiences have all been with the Girls Scouts in non-LDS contexts–and for those of our girls whom Scouting has fit with their personality, their experiences have been very good.) But the civic principle behind Scouting–the idea of teaching young people principles as a part of a necessary project of cultural-formation, a project that will always include a mix of inspirational ideals–is not in any way, I think, hostile to the intellectual life or modern pluralism. Like it or not, free societies will inevitably generate civil religions; that’s part of the way the great majority of human beings articulate their longings for community and meaning. I respect and support Scouting in the United States as a component of that–and am deeply disappointed and frustrated when a person who inexplicably ended up in one of the most prominent positions within that civic structure treats it as an occasion for cheap politicking and sleazy self-promotion.

Is all this about my Dad? Maybe. He wasn’t a professional Scouter either, but he might as well have been; he gave huge amounts of his time to the organization, organizing and earning and leading and teaching in it, at all levels. He had the opportunity on a couple of occasions over the years to speak to thousands of Boy Scouts, assembled together–and when he did, he didn’t let his conservative politics or, worse, his own self-estimation show. He used Scouting, for all its flaws and limitations (and he admittedly didn’t recognize many of those which seem obvious to me today), to teach and inspire and encourage and share. He wasn’t the POTUS, but he knew how to show reverence (the last, admittedly least practiced, but also possibly most important, component of the Scout Law) for those times and traditions when respect and encouragement and non-divisive fun is called for. Donald Trump knows none of those things. But why would he? He wasn’t a Scout–to which I can only say, thank goodness. The organization has enough problems as it is.


  1. As the mom of an Eagle Scout, I am sickened by Trump’s performance, and the reaction of the scouting crowd (not that it was the kids’ fault). This administration continually goes past embarrassing into horrifying. My internal patriot who actually believed what I learned in 8th grade civics class is slowly dying of despair.

  2. it's a series of tubes says:

    1. am an Eagle Scout.
    2. am supportive of some of the efforts the current administration is making (judicial appointments, reducing the role of the regulatory state)
    3. found the speech VERY unpalatable and inappropriate.

    Had to go back and Youtube Reagan’s Jan 28, 1986 speech to remind me of what a presidential address can and should be.

  3. This Eagle Scout isn’t giving a penny to Friends of Scouting, and certainly isn’t letting his son participating in Scouting, until there’s been a thorough apology from BSA leadership and repudiation of Trump’s remarks. If this never happens, so be it.

    An organization that lets a blowhard defecate all over its most important annual gathering in this way, regardless of his title, cannot offer anything to anyone. Perhaps the Church’s decision to pull back from Scouting was more inspired than any of us thought.

  4. tubes: Reagan had a fundamental understanding of the sacred importance of the mantle he wore. Trump does not and never will; the glory is his alone.

  5. As a long time Republican – I have been and continue to be mortified by the present leadership. This is just one more horrific moment in a nightmare that refuses to end.

    As a spouse of an Eagle Scout and family member to others – Shame on Scouting for not manning up and shutting him down. Where did “On My Honor” Go.


  6. I actually want to defend both the Scouts and the on-site leadership here, at least a little bit. No one who knows anything at all about the demographics of BSA’s membership and local units would be remotely surprised to learn that the majority of those who listened to President Trump’s speech very likely come from families that already lean Trump-wise; similarly, it’s quite likely that the leadership there, besides the fact that they surely were feeling the weight of hosting the sitting POTUS (even if Trump himself doesn’t seem to care one way or another) at their jamboree, were themselves pretty comfortable with Trump-leaning environments. All of that is irrelevant, I think. The man is the president; he flew in on a helicopter; he’s up on a big stage; he’s surrounded by flags; he’s got Secret Service guys all around him; he’s putting on a show, the sort of show that 13 to 16-year-old boys are almost bound to get caught up celebrating, and which mid-level leaders would be loathe to interrupt, whatever they thought about the content. I’m putting the fault for this revolting display entirely at the feet of our Man-Child-in-Chief, and no one else.

  7. Trump is a 13-year-old boy’s idea of a man, and Scouting has horrendous problems reaching non-white kids, so the reception he got is unsurprising.

    The national leadership needs to eat some [poop] on this, though.

  8. Agreed that Trump’s speech was absolutely appalling. I’m not sure, though, that BSA doesn’t share some of the blame for this debacle. We’ve had six months of a Trump presidency, and eighteen months or so of his candidacy, and it would be extremely short-sighted at BEST to expect him to actually give a coherent, uplifting, values-oriented speech (you know, what past presidents have done), or to behave in a manner that was appropriate for a youth audience.

    If the Girl Scouts, however, were to choose to invite Hillary Clinton to speak about the values of hard work and perseverance, I would buy sooooooooo many boxes of Thin Mints!

  9. BSA leadership doesn’t get a pass on this. They knew, or should have known, the kind of talk he’d give.

  10. Loursat says:

    It’s hard for me to blame the Scouting leadership. I think they’re entitled to expect that the president will treat this appearance respectfully, as a ceremonial function of his office. The way Trump behaved might have been expected, but there’s not a simple solution for the BSA. Any way they might have chosen to handle this was likely to put them in a very difficult political situation.

    Even so, hooray for the outrage on this! I don’t have a problem with making the BSA feel the heat, because it’s what all of ought to be feeling as long as Trump or his supporters are in power.

  11. it's a series of tubes says:

    Reagan had a fundamental understanding of the sacred importance of the mantle he wore

    Indeed. That was the first presidential speech I ever watched. I was eight, and I remember it well.

  12. Ergonomice says:

    Just read the whole thing. Not much issue. Lots of scout praising. Little bit of politics and culture war (small degree), and some Trump story about how you can be successful and lose because you walked away for a payout instead of sticking to what you love.

    It’s not an inspiring speech, but when Bush spoke inspiring words that we can one day hope to live up to, people called him a Nazi fool. When Trump does this speech, people call him a Nazi fool. When Reagan got folksy inspirational America, people said he was just a fool acting who will get us into we.

    But Obama will heal the planet. And Hillary accomplished soooo much.

  13. series of tubes:

    You don’t have to go back as far as Reagan. Obama addressed a Scout jamboree by videoconference in 2010, and had this to say:

    “You know, for a century, scouts just like you have served your communities and your nation in ways both large and small. During World War II, scouts played a vital role in supporting the war effort at home by running messages and selling war bonds. Some of our nation’s greatest heroes have worn the scout uniform, including 11 of the 12 men who have walked on the moon. And today, scouts across the country continue the tradition of collecting food for those in need, improving our neighborhoods, and reaching out to those less fortunate.

    That service is worth celebrating. But there’s still more to do. Even though we face a different set of challenges than we did 100 years ago, they are no less important. And in the years ahead, we are going to depend on you, the next generation of leaders, to move America forward.”

  14. Mike W. says:

    Honestly, I don’t really care about the opinions of persons who are glad the church is cutting ties with scouting. As far \as I’m concerned, that in itself says everything I needed to know.

  15. Mike W. says:

    It’s the same thing with ex-Mormons. Many of them have the same things to say about the church that some posts here might say. But I’m just generally not interested in going to a ex-Mo website to read their views. They don’t really have skin in the game anymore. And BCC, I think, very much wants to portray itself as being “in” the church, offering viewpoints of people who self-identify as Mormons. I can think of one recent exception where BCC published the views of one of their contributors who has apparently left Mormon practice and has unofficially (?) joined the Anglicans. But it’s not usual to feature the views of those who have left the church here. If you’ve left scouting, and support the church leaving scouting, where does that leave us that are still invested in it and care about it and struggle to improve it?

  16. Mike W:

    Honestly, I don’t really care about the opinions of persons who are glad the church is cutting ties with scouting. As far \as I’m concerned, that in itself says everything I needed to know

    Hmm. Sorry, I’m just running through my mind, making sure I don’t miss anything. Um, let’s see, Eagle Scout, three Eagle Palms, World Jamboree 1983, LDS Scout Encampment 1984, Young Men’s President, Scoutmaster, Cubmaster, Woodbadge, Chartered Organization Representative…I think I’m missing something, but I can’t remember. You’re right; the fact that I am of the opinion that the decision by church leadership to scale back the church’s reliance upon the BSA for their youth programs was a good one pretty much sums up my 37 years worth of involvement in Scouting. Perceptive of you there, buddy.

    If you’ve left scouting, and support the church leaving scouting, where does that leave us that are still invested in it and care about it and struggle to improve it?

    Pointing out that President Trump acted in an appalling and decidedly un-Scout-like manner while speaking from one of Scouting’s highest podiums is part of the struggle to improve it, or so I thought. But hey, opinions differ, I guess.

  17. Mike W. says:

    With all due respect, most of these ex-Mos also trot out their prior Mormon bona fides, just before they rip on the church. Not that they don’t have the right or their opinions don’t matter.

  18. Mike W., the ex-Mormon comparison just doesn’t work for me. The church hasn’t “cut ties with scouting.” Some are arguing that that’s where this is going, and they could be right, but as of right now, the church hasn’t cut ties with scouting; it has decided to stop sponsoring two programs that were mostly LDS-specific anyway, and never really fully working in a widespread manner. 14-18 year old boys can still be part of the scout troop in their ward, if they want to. Having troops that actually include boys from 12-18, including older boys that are in it because they and their families actually want to be involved, instead of because its a mandatory church program, will in some ways make us more like non-LDS troops and could even integrate us more into the mainstream of BSA. Supporting the church’s decision does not imply hostility toward scouting in any reasonable way.

  19. Mike W., I can’t get my mind around the mental contortions required to believe both these things at once:
    1. I’m a loyal Mormon who avoids ex-Mormon websites and anything resembling criticism of the church is out of place in this forum.
    2. How dare anyone support the official church policy of less involvement in Scouting???

  20. Lolz Mike W., you shameless troll.

  21. Mike W. says:

    I never said I was a loyal Mormon who avoids criticism of the church, or that it is out of place. In fact, I’ve been critical of BCC in at least one instance for being too uncritical. I made the comment that when the Deseret News hits harder than you on a church issue, that’s a problem.

    I do stand by my point that I’m less interested in hearing about the reformation efforts of Mormonism from ex-Mormons, versus the thoughts of those who are actively engaged in Mormonism.

    I wouldn’t say Venturing is mostly “LDS-specific.” Please. It involves girls and women, which certainly doesn’t fly with the LDS church. Varsity on the other hand is basically LDS-only. I could comment a lot more about where scouting in the church is going. Or rather, where I think it is going. But in my opinion it has never been a problem of programming. It’s been a problem of resources, and the lack thereof. So they will get rid of one program that they never supported with resources to replace it with another program, also lacking resources (budget) and they will get the same results they’ve gotten.

    If you really care about scouting, then engage it. If you’ve given up on scouting, then you can shot from the sidelines. But the rest of us in the trenches are going to work w/o you.

  22. never forget says:
  23. LDS Venturing was always an LDS-specific thing. We never implemented it the way it was implemented in the BSA mainstream.

  24. Thanks for posting that, Never Forget. It is a much better version of, and much needed addition to, the comments which Boy Scouts of America released on Tuesday. Good for them, and good for all the parents and leaders of Scouts who let the national leaders know how embarrassed and angered, as I was, by President Trump’s boorish performance on Monday.

    [W]e know the past few days have been overshadowed by the remarks offered by the President of the United States.

    I want to extend my sincere apologies to those in our Scouting family who were offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree. That was never our intent. The invitation for the sitting U.S. President to visit the National Jamboree is a long-standing tradition that has been extended to the leader of our nation that has had a Jamboree during his term since 1937. It is in no way an endorsement of any person, party or policies. For years, people have called upon us to take a position on political issues, and we have steadfastly remained non-partisan and refused to comment on political matters. We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program.

    While we live in a challenging time in a country divided along political lines, the focus of Scouting remains the same today as every day….In a time when differences seem to separate our country, we hope the true spirit of Scouting will empower our next generation of leaders to bring people together to do good in the world.

  25. Get your facts together, people. Some of you sound more like Trump to the ringing ears of this experienced non-LDS scouter.

    I don’t know what it says in some windy book of regulations. I do know what goes on in 6 large non-LDS troops within 10 minutes of my house and what goes on in my LDS ward scouting.

    Blazers- totally a construction of LDS.
    Varsity- totally a construction of LDS.
    Venture- same name but different program. Venture (non-LDS) involves boys and girls camping and interacting together, roughly high school age, also with male and female leaders. Rare and difficult to sustain. Not happening at the ward troop.
    Scout- all boys in the troop ages 11-17, not 12-14.
    Patrol- a group of 6-10 boys integrated across ages, not correlated with priesthood offices.
    (Usually 3 to 6 in each troop, allowing for 3 levels of boy leadership).
    Voluntary, not conscription.

    Scout master (non-LDS) not called by the bishop or the minister, but by the troop committee (most interested and involved parents of the scouts) which runs the troop, not the bishopric or ward counsel. Usually after years and years of training and experience and usually serves for many years.

    Money is raised by the boys and controlled at the troop level (some troops raise and spend upwards of $500-1000 a year for each scout) and most definitely NOT under the supervision of the church in any way. Over 95% of the money in non-LDS troops stays at the troop level.

    Don’t get me started on boy leadership. Everyone says they do it and few do very much and the LDS troop is on the far end of almost not doing it at all. And fake 14 year old eagles…


    What we Mormons have done is we have highly modified a program (non-LDS scouting) that works- into a program that doesn’t work and then complained that it doesn’t work and recently modified it even more to where it stands even less of a chance of working, in preparation for leaving it, maybe. Ridiculous. Embarrassing.

    As for the US president appearing/ not appearing at the jamboree and speaking well or hypocritically or not at all…pox on all of them and especially the media for making it into a political issue. It is not- it is a short fluffy speech, a formality. Pox on Obama for not showing up. Pox on Trump for being an ass. If your attorney did this poor of a job representing you as these politicians have, you would fire them.

    As for my political opinion- put the last 4 POTUS in jail. Together in the same cell.

  26. Maryanne says:

    Still believe Donald Trump is mentally ill, a sufferer of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Perhaps the Boy Scouts can add a merit badge concerning mental illness. Perhaps this is a good time for parents to speak individually with their sons (and daughters) about their beliefs regarding civic responsibility and service. Perhaps let them know that life is not all about making money and seeing yourself as a success. Perhaps point out how insecure the president must be to be tooting his own horn so relentlessly. Perhaps educate them on what happens to countries when they follow people willing to make any promise to fix the problems they face, even if he has no power to do that. Jesus is our Saviour. When we anointed Trump to that role, we abdicated our personal responsibility to solve our own problems.
    A friend of mine told me she feels very sorry for President Trump. He is only behaving the exact same way he did on the campaign trail. He did not deceive anyone who voted for him. He did not pretend to be one thing then pull off the mask to reveal another person underneath. The failure is ours, the voters, for expecting someone different to appear after the election. Or, for some, wanting exactly what Donald Trump has shown himself to be.

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