Donald Trump Tramples on Boy Scout Values

President Donald Trump was onstage at the quadrennial National Boy Scout
Jamboree on Monday, in Glen Jean, West Virginia, when he turned to Tom
Price, his Secretary of Health and Human Services and a former Scout,
who was standing behind him, with a question. “You going to get the
votes?” he asked. The votes in question, he’d explained to the Scouts in
attendance, were for “killing this horrible thing known as Obamacare
that’s really hurting us, folks,” in favor of a Republican bill that
would deprive an estimated twenty-two million Americans of their
health-care coverage. He didn’t ask the Scouts if any of their families
might be among that number; instead, he asked them to join him in
mocking his subordinate.

“He’d better get them,” Trump said. “He’d better get them. Ooh, he’d
better—otherwise, I’ll say, ‘Tom, you’re fired!’ ” He delivered this
line with his signature finger-pointing gesture, and basked in hoots
from the crowd. Another President might have evoked the kinds of stories
that the Scouts share over campfires, or on the trail. Trump started
with the assumption that they had spent quality time huddled in front of
a television set, watching him on “The Apprentice.” What is a merit
badge, after all, next to winning a challenge to come up with a campaign
for a Trump-branded product?

The televised image of him punishing an underling seemed to bring Trump
particular pleasure, because it had to do with the one Boy Scout value
that the President highlighted, rather than ignored, albeit in a
distorted form: loyalty. The broadest point of criticism about Trump’s
appearance at the event has been that he politicized the moment, but
that was not, or not exactly, the main problem. The Boy Scouts do have a
political meaning; otherwise, the various fights over the years to
expand the franchise, as it were, by lifting a ban on gay Scouts, in 2014,
and, a year later, on gay Scout leaders, would not have been so fraught.
It was in the name of speaking politically about that ban that President
Barack Obama skipped the jamboree, though he sent a recorded message.
(Trump elided that reason when he asked the Scouts, sarcastically,
whether Obama had shown up.) Other Presidents have spoken at the
jamboree about democratic values, at times in the form of warnings about
tyranny abroad, or about specific issues, such as drug addiction. (The
Washington Post has a good catalogue.) They were, though, more subtle
than Trump, who, after joking about firing Price, added, “He’d better
get Senator Capito to vote for it!”—a reference to Shelley Moore Capito,
Republican of West Virginia, who so far has been hesitant to jettison
the interests of her constituents to vote for her party’s miserable
health-care bill. What was different about Trump was not that he spoke
politically but that he did so in a way that was demagogic, non-inclusive, dishonest, and, at times, simply crude.

One parable that Trump presented to the boys—it was, again, more of a
reality-television recap than a campfire tale—included several of those
elements. It involved a man in the tri-state area, a builder of homes,
perhaps much like the President, who, three quarters of a century ago,
“became an unbelievable success, and got more and more successful.” The
man was named William Levitt—“Anyone ever hear of Levittown?”—and Trump
made him sound like the miller’s daughter from “Rumpelstiltskin”: “At
night he’d go to these major sites with teams of people and he’d scour
the sites for nails and sawdust and small pieces of wood. And they’d
clean the site so when the workers came in the next morning, the sites
would be spotless and clean, and he did it properly. And he did this for
twenty years, and then he was offered a lot of money for his company.”
Like magic! And, of course, with the help of the G.I. Bill’s mortgage
assistance, and while refusing to sell to black home buyers until he was
forced to after a long series of lawsuits—but Trump, whose own family of
builders had to settle discrimination suits, skipped that. What mattered
was that Levitt “sold his company for a tremendous amount of money. And
he went out and bought a big yacht. And he had a very interestinglife.”

It was at this point that the President of the United States began to
leer in front of forty thousand Boy Scouts. He hadn’t forgotten whom he
was talking to; their adolescent male status, and all that he imagined
that to mean, was, rather, the point: “You’re Boy Scouts, so I’m not
going to tell you what he did.” He spoke like a man who wanted to be
asked to post some lewd pictures: “Should I tell you? Should I tell
you? Oh, you’re Boy Scouts, but you know life.”

He never did say what happened on the yacht, which, according to
Levitt’s Times obituary, was named La Belle Simone, for his third
wife. When Levitt sold his business to I.T.T., he got sixty-two million
dollars of that company’s stock. He borrowed recklessly against it, got
involved in shaky foreign ventures with dubious partners, and lost it
all. (“There were terrible articles, and he would say, ‘Ah, Simone, it’s
yellow journalism. You can’t believe what you read. Do you trust me?’ ”
Simone Levitt told New York magazine, in 2013.) Trump acknowledged the fall, but
offered the Boy Scouts a different explanation, one that was revealed
when he, Trump, approached the sage at a cocktail party thrown by Steve
Ross, whom he seemed to assume was a stock figure for the Boy Scouts.
(“One of the great people—he came up and discovered, really founded,
Time Warner.”) It was one of the “hottest” parties, and people were
ignoring “the once great William Levitt of Levittown.” Whether this was
because, as Trump posited, there were so many other celebrities around,
or because it was around the time that Levitt was charged with wrongly
taking five million dollars from a charitable foundation, is anybody’s
guess. Trump, who, as the Washington Post pointed out, once had his
own foundation pay Donald Trump, Jr.,’s seven-dollar Boy Scout
registration fee, may not have cared. What Trump of Trump Tower wanted
to know was how Levitt had fallen so far.

“And he said, ‘Donald, I lost my momentum. I lost my momentum,’ ” Trump
said. It was, the President told the Scouts, too true. For anyone taking
a glance at Levitt’s career, it was also baffling. Momentum toward what,
with what values to guide him? Success, a word that Trump uses
frequently, was the theme of his speech, and yet he could hardly have
imagined that concept—and how it applied to the boys who were listening
to him and their place in the world—in a more bereft way: kill
Obamacare; mind your yacht; fire people who don’t deliver, because “we
could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that.” He announced, “The
Scouts believe in putting America First!”; The “fake news” media was
going to lie about their number; under the Trump Administration, “you’ll
be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again when you go shopping. Believe me.
‘Merry Christmas!’ ”

After telling the tale of William Levitt, and offering a brief
rumination about not taking too much time off, and the foolishness of
most business advice other than his own (“Some of these guys that never
made ten cents, they’re on television giving you things about how you’re
going to be successful, and the only thing they ever did was a book and
a tape”), Trump moved on to asking the boys if they remembered the great
night when he won the election. He pictured them, again, watching
television. “That map was so red, it was unbelievable! “ he said. That
was back when he had momentum.

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