“Who the hell wants to speak about politics when I’m in front of the Boy Scouts?” Donald Trump asked the crowd that had gathered to hear his speech at the National Scout Jamboree in West Virginia. The question was rhetorical, instead of offering the traditional, non-partisan speech that presidents have given the group for 80 years, Trump gave a rambling nearly 40-minute speech that included some of his favorite topics: the “fake media,” the electoral college, Hillary Clinton, crowd size, and former President Barack Obama.
Trump took a few moments to humiliate one of his Cabinet members, threatening to fire him, complained that few people use the phrase “Merry Christmas,” complained about West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito, and shared his thoughts on homosociality. He rechristened Washington, DC “the sewer.” He also shared a story about a William Levitt, a millionaire who “got bored with this life of yachts and sailing” and “lost all of his money.” This vignette was ostensibly a warning or maybe it was an inspirational story, it’s hard to say. The takeaway was that Trump, “saw him at a cocktail party and it was very sad. Because the hottest people in New York were at this party,” and Trump was one of the hottest people.
The speech was, in many respects, a standard Donald Trump speech; a throwback to the speeches he gave at his rallies while on the campaign trail. The only difference on Monday night was context. As Trump rambled about loyalty and made references to Obamacare (“this horrible thing that’s really hurting us”), he did so in front of children, members of a group that despite their history and purpose is regarded as an embodiment of American good and, therefore, necessarily apolitical. There was a certain acceptance that Trump’s campaign rallies would be ugly, a spectacle of adult bitterness and anger, but as multiple reports implied, the tradition of the National Scout Jamboree was supposed to restrain the president. It has never done so before, so the expectation that this time would be different seems myopic.
Prior to the meeting, the Boy Scouts warned that “chants of certain phrases heard during the campaign (e.g. “build the wall,” “lock her up”) are considered divisive by many members of our audience, and may cause unnecessary friction between individuals and units.” Scout leadership urged “respect,” a value that was always more abstract than real, evidenced by the exchange between the president and the crowd. As some of the boys in the audience seemed to chant, “We love Trump,” the president smiled and clapped. “Just a question, did President Obama ever come to a Jamboree?” Trump asked. The Scouts responded with a loud “Nooooo!” President Obama recorded a video message for the 2010 meeting. The Scouts booed when Trump brought up Hillary Clinton.
“Boy Scout values are American values,” the president said. “And great Boy Scouts become great, great Americans.” Trump pointed to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Energy Secretary Rick Perry—both former Scouts—as examples. In a statement after the speech, the Boy Scouts of America said that they are “wholly non-partisan” and “do not promote one...political candidate or philosophy.” The short statement emphasized that the “invitation for the sitting US President to visit the National Jamboree is a long-standing tradition,” and is not an endorsement.