Yesterday, the president of the Boy Scouts of America apologized for the political content of Donald Trump’s speech at the National Jamboree.
It’s July 2017. Donald Trump has been in office for roughly six months. Before that, we had about ten weeks to really prepare for his presidency. Before that, we endured his despicable 18-month-long campaign, and before that, anyone who was paying attention watched him transition from a once-failing businessman who saved himself by branding and licensing his reputation and becoming an inconsequential celebrity whose only real chance at relevance was stoking fires and pandering to American desperation and resentment through conspiracy theories, lies, and post-truthism.
My point is we’ve known what Donald Trump is for a long time. Or, maybe you’re just joining us because he’s put on full display the worst of America using the world’s biggest stage. Either way, love him or hate him, you know what you’re getting with Donald Trump.
I think we need to set aside policy and values and start being honest about the man. What does it really mean that he’s the president of the United States?
Here’s a dose of honesty: When Michael Surbaugh, the president of the Boy Scouts of America, invited Donald Trump to speak at the National Jamboree, he had to know what he was getting. He had to know he wasn’t going to tell the president of the United States, especially not this one, what the content of his speech could be. He had to know the speech would disrespect half of the country, journalists who work tirelessly to keep him in check as a vital part of America’s institutions, and anyone who looks to the president for leadership. He had to know Trump would irrationally dwell on things that don’t matter to anyone but him anymore.
We know this is what happens when you give Trump a platform of influence.
And Surbaugh had to know he was putting all of this in front of 40,000 children who, wearing the Boy Scouts uniform, stand for values and character that directly contradict those of their president. Perhaps Surbaugh saw it as an opportunity for those children to recognize how the president’s behavior violated everything they’d learned as Boy Scouts. Perhaps Surbaugh was surprised in this regard, and perhaps it represents a failure in education.
Perhaps it’s analogous to the election in which most Americans thought most Americans would refute the man who embodies the worst of most Americans.
I think it’s far more likely, as is tradition, the organization invited the sitting president to speak, and he foolishly expected Trump to be a decent human being.
So for the sake of honesty, Michael Surbaugh’s apology is not about the political content of Trump’s speech. His apology is for inviting the president of the United States to the 20th National Jamboree as a guest. It is an expression of regret for giving this man a platform of influence.
Let that sink in. The Boy Scouts of America invited the president of the United States to their National Jamboree, and they are sorry about that.
For some, it isn’t such a big deal. If we can be honest that this president is the type that organizations with longstanding traditions in and reputations for fairness, courage, honor, and respect are ashamed of, we can admit this president is not exemplary of fairness, courage, honor, and respect. But maybe for those who continue to support him, fairness, courage, honor, and respect aren’t important qualities, or maybe they just aren’t qualities a president needs.
Donald Trump has said before that he’s no Boy Scout. What does it mean to be a Boy Scout? If even he admits he isn’t one, does that mean even he admits he is not fair, courageous, honor-bound, and respectful? Should we care? Maybe this is where we diverge.
If we can be honest about him as a man, then we can be honest about whether we care that Trump is not fair, courageous, honor-bound, or respectful. And if we can be honest about that, and you can honestly express ambivalence toward those qualities in a president, then we can amicably exist on those terms, as long as we can call it what it is.
November 8 came and left many of us stunned. It wasn’t in the face of a Trump victory. It was because we learned on that day that so many Americans did not think it important for the president to be fair, courageous, honor-bound, and respectful.
Why do I keep using fairness, courage, honor, and respect? Because in his apology, they’re the qualities Surbaugh cited as exemplary of the Boy Scouts.
I see everything in stories. It’s how I experience the world. In the stories we Americans tell ourselves, our heroes are fair and courageous. They know honor, duty, and sacrifice. They respect others.
Whatever Donald Trump is, he is not that.
There’s another kind of archetype in stories that does not represent those values of character goodness: the anti-hero. Anti-heroes are kind of jerks. You don’t like them, but you also kind of like them, maybe because they’re funny or quirky in an endearing way. Their motivations may be selfish, and presented with the rock-and-a-hard-place decision, they generally don’t struggle morally or emotionally with it.
In stories, what makes the anti-hero interesting is when he or she starts to become a hero. At what point does someone like this begin to care about something other than him or herself? What makes a human selfless? What makes a person believe in a greater purpose?
Maybe in this story, Trump is an anti-hero, a guy who has no trouble accepting collateral damage to get things done that need to get done.
Of all the things we’ve seen of him in the past years, months, weeks, and days, we haven’t seen any evidence of that. So in fairness, maybe we don’t know what Trump is. Maybe we just know what he isn’t.
I think it’s more likely, however, at the ripe old age of 71 years old, sitting on a lifetime of materialism, greed, and privilege, he’s pretty much set in his ways, and he’s going to continue to not surprise us as he surprises us every day with the depths of his shallowness, the skill of his incapability, and the broadness of his narrow, stubbornly closed mind.
At least, were I writing this story, it’s the only way I could find to make it believable, which isn’t to say our current reality would be believable in any story unless it were about the fall of an empire.
If we’re being honest now, regardless of politics, isn’t that what we’re all afraid of? And if so, is a Trump presidency a reaction to that fear? Is it the right reaction? Is fear the right thing to react to?
Time will tell, but I think that, at the foundation of every person who finds the idea of a Trump presidency reprehensible, you’ll discover the very same fears that led to votes cast in his favor. And I think, if you’re a supporter of Trump and reading this now, that is an idea worth pointing out because, if you can be honest about the reasons so many Americans voted for him, you can recognize a reason for sympathy.
Maybe we should stop acting on our fears. Moving forward, maybe we should stop worrying that people who disagree with us will fail us and lead to ruination. Maybe, instead, we should focus on our common ideals and work hard to promote them.
Like Americans. We are not afraid. We are idealistic. There’s a stark difference.