Trump doesn’t get what Scout­ing is all about

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Rose­crans Bald­win Rose­crans Bald­win’s lat­est novel is “The Last Kid Left.”

About every four years, the Boy Scouts of Amer­ica con­vene for a jam­boree. The tra­di­tion stretches back to 1937, tens of thou­sands of kids gath­er­ing for a week of good cheer. Th­ese days, pic­ture Davy Crock­ett on a moun­tain bike. There are sem­i­nars on ori­en­teer­ing and skate­board­ing work­shops. Kids can bird-watch or ride zip lines. Fa­mous mu­si­cians are in­vited to per­form con­certs, the king of Swe­den is a reg­u­lar (he’s a Scout), and some­times even the pres­i­dent of the United States shows up to give a speech.

Many pres­i­dents have been Scouts of one type or an­other. Obama and Kennedy, Ford and Clin­ton. At a jam­boree, the pres­i­dent usu­ally says a few words about pub­lic ser­vice. In 1950, Tru­man en­cour­aged the Scouts to fight for world peace. In 1964, LBJ talked about space travel. In 2005, Ge­orge W. Bush gave an in­spir­ing talk about Scouts “serv­ing on the front line of Amer­ica's armies of com­pas­sion.”

And some­times the sit­ting pres­i­dent is Don­ald Trump. The Scouts are not po­lit­i­cally af­fil­i­ated. On Mon­day night, though, you would have been ex­cused for think­ing oth­er­wise. Af­ter promis­ing not to talk about pol­i­tics, Trump de­liv­ered a speech rife with it, full of his usual boast­ing and self-pity. He in­sulted the me­dia. He scolded his Cab­i­net. He told an anec­dote about run­ning into a wealthy real es­tate de­vel­oper who re­gret­ted re­tir­ing to a life of tit­il­la­tion in the south of France — which is when Trump paused, while ad­dress­ing chil­dren, to rib them for be­ing, as Scouts, prob­a­bly too up­stand­ing to com­pre­hend what he was talk­ing about.

Trump be­ing Trump, the man of no man­ners, still shocks us. But what ap­pears to have un­set­tled peo­ple more was the Scouts’ re­sponse to the event. Dur­ing Trump’s speech, the crowd cheered. They filled the air with chants of “USA! USA!” That led some in the lib­eral Twit­ter-verse to liken the jam­boree to a Hitler youth rally. Of course, knee-jerk Nazi com­par­isons are stan­dard Twit­ter or­a­tory th­ese days. But the Scouts’ re­ac­tion has a lot more to do with jam­boree cul­ture than in­doc­tri­nated Trump­ism.

The Scouts are more cul­tur­ally di­verse, more lib­eral, than many as­sume. I at­tended the last jam­boree, in 2013. I was there to re­search the “in­clu­sion is­sue” — whether or not the BSA should ac­cept LGBTQ mem­bers. As an Ea­gle Scout and a mem­ber of the Or­der of the Ar­row, the BSA’s Honor So­ci­ety, I spent three days in­ter­view­ing more than two dozen kids and adults. Not a sin­gle one had a prob­lem with the idea of gay Scouts or gay lead­ers. If any­thing, they wor­ried the BSA wouldn’t evolve fast enough to pre­vent its cor­po­rate fund­ing get­ting cut.

It can be hard to see from the out­side that Scout­ing is meant to foster to­geth­er­ness. Every troop is or­ga­nized into pa­trols, each with its own em­blem and flag. It’s in­grained in Scouts that noth­ing gets ac­com­plished with­out team­work — whether it’s for a merit badge in pub­lic health, or learn­ing how to help a friend while camp­ing. Scouts aren’t train­ing to be pa­tri­ots; they’re learn­ing to be­come cit­i­zens.

One day at the jam­boree, I saw a group of Scouts out hik­ing, chant­ing “USA! USA!” the same way Scouts cheered dur­ing Trump’s speech. Then a troop from Scot­land came up a hill, with a Scot­tish flag. One of the boys was in a kilt. And al­most in­stantly, the first Scouts switched their chant, to “Scot­land rules! Scot­land rules!”

I also heard spon­ta­neous bursts of “Drink! Drink! Drink!”, as if a scout­mas­ter was pour­ing shots. In fact, the kids were sim­ply re­mind­ing one an­other to hy­drate in the heat. That’s Scout­ing in a nut­shell: Amer­ica’s most cheerful, earnest, sober-minded frat boys and girls.

I’m sure some of the Scouts who cheered our in­sul­ter in chief were sin­cere in their ap­plause. But I’d bet more of them sim­ply got car­ried away. Ap­peal­ing to base in­stincts will elicit base re­ac­tions — es­pe­cially from teenagers sur­rounded by their friends — and Scout­ing’s not im­mune to con­form­ity. Take the uni­form: Even as it helps erase fi­nan­cial dif­fer­ences be­tween the haves and have-nots, it also leads to group-think. That doesn’t make the Scouts brown shirts, though.

If peo­ple want to con­demn the BSA, con­demn the lead­er­ship. The or­ga­ni­za­tion is ex­tremely slow to evolve — whether on the in­clu­sion is­sue, or re­quir­ing kids to be re­li­gious, or even how the BSA failed for years to re­port sex­ual preda­tors. As an alum­nus, I’m fre­quently ashamed. But when Scout­ing’s done right, it’s still a shel­ter. In my ex­pe­ri­ence, Scouts are typ­i­cally a step apart from the norm. Lonely kids. Smart kids. Dumb kids. Awk­ward kids. Scout­ing takes a child and con­nects him to some­thing big­ger than his prob­lems, whether it’s the wilder­ness, or his com­mu­nity, or sim­ply con­cern for some­one else.

The very first jam­boree, in 1935, was can­celed be­cause of a po­lio out­break. FDR had been sched­uled to at­tend. He de­liv­ered his speech in­stead via the ra­dio. “Scout­ing is es­sen­tially and clearly a pro­gram for the de­vel­op­ment of that un­selfish, co­op­er­a­tive at­ti­tude of mind,” Roo­sevelt said. It’s as close as any­thing I’ve read to grasp­ing the move­ment’s true pur­pose. If only our cur­rent pres­i­dent had been a Scout.

Some of the Scouts who cheered Trump were sin­cere in their ap­plause. But more of them sim­ply got car­ried away.

An­thony Russo For The Times

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