Donald Trump and the
In 1903, Lieutenant General Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell returned home to England from the Boer War a national hero. For 217 days he had held off the Boers who’d laid siege to the South African town of Mafeking.
Historians suggest the siege should never have happened. B-P erred in selecting an isolated village deep in Boer country as the base for his cavalry. And he may have had the resources to break out and overcome the surrounding Boer forces at any time. (The Boers mightn’t have bothered with Mafeking—which was of limited strategic value—had not Lord Edward Cecil, son of the British Prime Minister, been serving as B-P’s chief staff officer.)
But trapped in Mafeking, surrounded by 8,000 Boers, things got so desperate that the English had to eat their horses. To hold off the Boers B-P used elaborate ruses. He built a fake minefield and instructed his troops to gingerly pantomime their way through imaginary barbed wire. Noticing the railroad tracks leading out of town had been left intact, he sent a heavily armored train loaded with marksmen down the tracks into the heart of the Boer encampment and back.
More importantly, B-P noticed the courage and composure of the English boys between the ages of 12 and 15 who made up the Mafeking Cadet Corps. They carried messages, assisted in hospitals, and stood guard in order to free as many grown men as possible for fighting. Baden-Powell did not form the Cadet Corps himself, but he was impressed by them.
So in 1907 he recruited 20 or 21— historians argue whether three or four Rodney brothers attended—boys from divergent social backgrounds (unheard of in Edwardian England) to attend an experimental scout camp on Brownsea Island in Dorset County. They wore khaki scarves, tied knots and earned badges. The next year B-P published Scouting for Boys, which was essentially a revised edition of his 1899 book Aids to Scouting—which was written with an adult military audience in mind—supplemented with youth training ideas borrowed from Ernest Seton’s 1906 book The Birch Bark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians. (Seton, an Englishman raised in Canada, founded the youth organization the Woodcraft Indians in Connecticut in 1902; he was later the first and only Chief Scout of the Boy Scouts of America.)
More than 100 years later, it’s remarkable that an organization as charmingly anachronistic as the Boy Scouts still exists. How did they make it through the cynical decades of the late 20th century; how have they survived to the present day? It was not one of George Orwell’s better moments when he alleged “All scoutmasters are homosexuals,” though he certainly hasn’t been the only one to regard the culture of the Boys Scouts with suspicion.
It’s easy to conflate the khaki uniforms and militaristic filigree with discredited youth movements such as the Hitlerjugend and Soviet Pioneers, groups that to some degree modeled themselves on the organization.
Still, can you argue with the 12 points of Scout Law? “A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent.”
The great literary critic Paul Fussell recognized this in his wonderful 1979 essay “The Boy Scout Handbook,” first published in the New Republic and later the cornerstone for Fussell’s essential essay collection The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations, which credited “pliability and adaptability” for the movement’s “capacity to flourish in a world dramatically different from its founder’s.”
“Like the Roman Catholic Church,” Fussell wrote, “the scout movement knows the difference between cosmetic and real change, and it happily embraces the one to avoid truck with the other.” Fussell found in the handbook some invaluable advice: Reading trash makes it impossible for anyone to be anything but a second-rate person. Learn to think. Gather knowledge.
Fussell wrote: “From its explicit ethics you can infer such propositions as ‘A scout does not tap his acquaintances’ telephones, ’ or ‘A scout does not bomb and invade a neutral country, and then lie about it.’”
Fussell had Richard Nixon—and maybe Lyndon Johnson—in mind when he wrote those words, and he heaped some scorn on “Chief Pardoner” (and the only Eagle Scout to become president) Gerald Ford for appearing in a public service announcement decked out in a scout uniform, but it’s hard to miss the irony of a man as dissolute and intemperate as Donald J. Trump addressing a group as decidedly un-ironic and dedicated to old-fashioned notions of virtues as the Boy Scouts of America.
Virtue is not something we talk about in relation to politics, unless we’ve picked up the notion as a weapon to use against our enemies. In the ’90s, serial philanderers Newt Gingrich and Bob Livingston and convicted child diddler Dennis Hastert used it as a pitchfork with which to poke the clay-footed Bill Clinton.
Now, Trump’s asking if a president might pardon himself, while threatening to fire anyone who dares question his questionable business practices. Of course, he turned the National Scout Jamboree into an occasion for selfaggrandizement.
You can bet Trump never read the Boy Scout Handbook.