Last week, President Trump delivered a controversial speech to the Boy Scouts of America at their annual Jamboree. Below, a group of rhetoric scholars have written commentary on Trump’s address, the controversy it inspired, and the apologies it required.
Trump’s Unceremonious Ceremonial Speech
President Trump’s speech at the Boy Scout Jamboree advances a thesis by way of antithesis. That is to say, Trump here and elsewhere uses a speech structure built on contradictions as a way of evading the usual expectations of decorum and ceremonial speech making.
Events like the Jamboree are epideictic in nature, meaning that they are moments of praise and blame where a rhetor displays their virtue before an audience. Such events demand celebrations of cultural values. However, as my mentor Karri Anderson and I have argued, in American politics these speeches also find ways to dress up political beliefs as virtues. In doing so, skilled rhetoricians find ways to advance policy agendas under the cover of ceremonial speech. To be blatantly political demeans the worth of the platform and occasion you are addressing.
President Trump seems to recognize as much, early on he asks, “who the hell wants to speak about politics when I’m in front of the Boy Scouts?” The answer is President Trump does. His rhetorical maneuvers are nakedly political, undercutting the ceremonial moment and, in the end, forcing the Boy Scouts to (weakly) apologize.
Trump advances two central claims: (1) Scouting is virtuous and (2) This is not a time for politics. The speech then zigzags between extolling the virtue of scouting and advancing Trump’s political beliefs. For example, Trump talks about how Boy Scouts come to be leaders in the government, but threatens to fire Secretary Price if he does not secure the votes to repeal Obamacare. Later he praises Scouts’ duty to God and Country only to argue that he has made America safe to say Merry Christmas again.
Each iteration of Trump’s chorus—Boy Scouts are paragons of virtue—is submerged by his verses which savage his political opposition and the non-partisan claims of the Boy Scouts. Together, they gather not to sing the virtues of Scouting, but to waddle into the political swamp Trump has yet to drain.
— George F. (Guy) McHendry, Jr.
Why Trump Talked about Christmas in July
Throughout Trump’s Boy Scout Jamboree Address, he strategically “sandwiches” his controversial political commentary between prepared sections of the speech that are powerful and meaningful for his audience of Boy Scouts. More than just random asides, Trump uses this strategy to borrow the ethos or credibility from officially-sanctioned Boy Scout documents like the Scout Oath, linking his political invective to Scout values and traditions.
This “sandwiching” strategy occurs throughout the speech, as Trump levies criticism at the “fake media,” Washington “cesspool,” and other common culture war targets. For example, in the middle of discussing the Scout oath, Trump interjects with an attack on the War on Christmas. “In the Scout oath, you pledge on your honor to do your best and do your duty to God and your country,” he says, speaking from prepared remarks.
Then he digresses: “And by the way, under the Trump administration you’ll be saying “Merry Christmas” again when you go shopping, believe me. Merry Christmas. They’ve been downplaying that little beautiful phrase.” Then, as though someone flipped a switch, he goes right back to his prepared remarks, returning to the keywords from the Scout Oath: duty, country, and God.
Why is Trump talking about Christmas in late July? He’s linking the broad idea of “God” within the Scout Oath to the more specific, Evangelical concept of a Christian God, one for whom the phrase “Merry Christmas” must be protected. While the linkage seems arbitrary, Trump is drawing on the official Scout pledge to sanction a partisan set of views. In turn, he places these views on the same level as the values and traditions the Boy Scouts tout as an organization.
Trump uses the same strategy when he talks about the Washington “cesspool,” inserting a criticism of politicians in the midst of a larger discussion of Boy Scout Service. You can see the sandwich below, with the italicized portion as the partisan meat in the middle:
The values, traditions and skills you learn here will serve you throughout your lives. And just as importantly, they will serve your families, your cities, and in the future and in the present will serve your country. The Scouts believe in putting America first. You know, I go to Washington and I see all these politicians, and I see the swamp, and it’s not a good place. In fact, today I said we ought to change it from the word “swamp” to the word “cesspool” or perhaps the word “sewer.” But it’s not good. Not good. And I see what’s going on. And believe me, I’d much rather be with you, that I can tell you. I’ll tell you the reason I love this, and the reason that I really wanted to be here, is because as president, I rely on former Boy Scouts every single day. And so do the American people.
Again, Trump borrows the existing ethos of Scout ideals to support his partisan political perspective. He weaves between the Scout language of service and his campaign language of “America First.” By interspersing the discussion of Scout service with a criticism of Washington politicians, Trump sets up particular politicians in contrast to the pure, patriotic service of the Scouts.
As a speaker, Trump is known for his digressions. But it’s important to know these are not random, but strategic. He seizes on key concepts that are widely held by his audience—in this case, core values embraced by the Scouts—to find a way to interject his politics into the discussion. While the speech may have misfired, the way Trump infused his own political beliefs with the built-in credibility of his audience’s most cherished values gives us an important insight into his rhetorical strategy.
— Andrea Terry
When the BSA Oath and Law Lose Meaning: A Scout’s Response to Trump and the BSA Apology
A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. Almost twenty years after achieving my Eagle Scout Award the words of the Scout Law roll off the tongue effortlessly as if I was repeating them during any number of Boy Scouts of America (BSA) meetings/ceremonies. A renewed vigor surrounds these tenets as critique President Donald Trump’s speech at the 2017 BSA Jamboree. Trump speaking to the attending Scouts was not out of the ordinary as sitting Presidents hold the title of BSA’s honorary president at each Jamboree. However, the tone and content of his speech have been, rightfully, criticized.
Precedent indicates Presidents utilized this opportunity to offer guidance on ideas of citizenship, leadership, and celebrating the adventure of scouting. The first third of Trump’s speech mirrored the typical address of a Jamboree. The remainder quickly veered into what has become the Trump campaign norm—a cacophony of how he won the election, attacks on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and deriding the “fake news media.”
When news that Trump would be speaking broke, there was growing discourse within multiple Boy Scout Facebook groups arguing the merit of Trump’s inclusion in the event as he seemingly lacks practice of the Scout Law in his personal, and presidential, life. Upon the conclusion of the speech, criticism rose to a fervor initially prompting a tepid response from the BSA organization. As criticism refused to abate, Michael Surbaugh, Chief Scout Executive of the BSA, offered an apology “to those offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree.” As a former Scout, I found that the apology lacked conviction. Instead of offering an apology for the inclusion of such a divisive and vulgar speaker, Surbaugh’s apology was offered only “to those offended.” This implied that those not offended could go on thinking that the speech, and the speaker, were rightfully within the principles of Scouting.
Mr. Surbaugh’s apology also included another claim I found irresponsible. He wrote, “For years, people have called upon us [BSA] to take a position on political issues, and we have steadfastly remained nonpartisan and refused to comment on political issues.” This is patently false. Until 2013, the organization took a firm partisan stance that gay youths could not participate in scouting. Until 2015, gay leaders could not participate in the organization. A common refrain against allowing gay individuals into the BSA consisted of a partisan reading of the closing line of the Boy Scout Oath, “To be physically fit, mentally awake, and morally straight.” “Straight” is the final word and was presented as proof positive members of Scouting should be heterosexual. Offered as a way to dodge criticism for Trump’s misunderstanding of the Scout’s mission, this attempt to paper over the recent past rang hollow to me.
In regards to Trump’s inclusion at the Jamboree, I imagine the BSA has relaxed the meaning of “morally straight,” given Trump’s long history of dubious statements, including his infamous Access Hollywood recording.
As I reviewed Trump’s speech at the Jamboree and the subsequent apology from the BSA, another remnant of my Boy Scout’s past became stuck in my head. The Boy Scout motto has long been “Be Prepared.” Certainly the BSA was in an unfavorable position with Trump. But as the motto indicates, the BSA needs to Be Prepared…to be better.
— Justin Gus Foote
For a group of people who are “forgotten,” the “forgotten people” have certainly gotten a lot of attention from American authors and politicians. Trump’s speech is no exception. Among his partisan asides, Trump attributed his victory, which he made sure to emphasize, to the “forgotten people.” When he did, he drew from a complicated rhetorical past, redefining the “forgotten” once again.
In 1883, Gilded Age social scientist William Graham Sumner penned an essay entitled “The Forgotten Man” in which he railed against unions, government regulation, and what he saw as forced philanthropy. Sumner’s Forgotten Man was the hard working, rule-following man who took care of himself and wanted to be left alone to make decisions on his own. The Forgotten Man suffered because of such high-minded meddling of well-intentioned government leaders and philanthropists, and would succeed only when left to his own devices.
In 1932, FDR spoke of a different Forgotten Man: the farmer and the working poor. He called them the infantry of the economy because they were the foot soldiers that kept the country afloat. But they had been taken advantage of by bankers and the wealthy and found themselves desperate and broken. Whereas Sumner’s Forgotten Men needed to be left alone, FDR’s Forgotten Men needed the help of the government to lift them out of the morass of destitution so that they could work their way into prosperity again.
In 2017, Donald Trump has spoken a lot about the “forgotten people.” In his Jamboree speech, he said:
“What a date. Do you remember that famous night on television, November 8th, where they said — these dishonest people — where they said there is no path to victory for Donald Trump? They forgot about the forgotten people. By the way, they’re not forgetting about the forgotten people anymore. They’re going crazy trying to figure it out. But I told them, far too late. It’s far too late.”
At first glance, it would appear that Trump’s Forgotten People are FDR’s economic infantry — the working poor who have been maligned by the “dishonest” elites who scoffed at their concerns during the campaign. Yet Trump’s speech offered a different narrative of the Forgotten Man: the life of William Levitt, the founder of Levittown.
In a long digression, Trump discussed how Levitt built his real estate empire from scratch, sold it for profit, and enjoyed several years riding on yachts and spending his wealth. He then tried, and failed, to make a return to the real estate industry. Eventually, Trump met Levitt at a party, where the once-great developer lamented how he lost his “momentum.”
On its face, the Levitt anecdote was Trump’s way of telling the Boy Scouts to stay persistent. Yet the story also revealed who Trump truly positions as the “Forgotten Man” in American life. Levitt, who was neither Roosevelt’s working poor nor Sumner’s overburdened worker, was the hero of Trump’s speech. Trump’s Forgotten Man is the wealthy man who has lost his way, who earned great wealth then stopped getting credit. This is the man Trump asked the Boy Scouts to feel sorry for.
Ultimately, Trump’s narrative belies his sympathies. While the history of the Forgotten Man favors the worker, Trump asks us to think of the wealthy.
— Martha Elizabeth Thorpe
Think of the Children
In recent years, it has become risky for Presidents of the United States to speak directly to children. In September of 2009, Barack Obama made the seemingly uncontroversial choice to deliver an address to the nation’s public school students. Before he even spoke, a backlash mounted accusing the president of attempting to indoctrinate children and promote his policies. The Obama Administration made it clear that the speech would have an innocuous message, encouraging children to “work hard” and “stay in school.” True to that promise, the final speech was boilerplate pro-education rhetoric.
Nonetheless, the lesson was learned. Obama did not try to make another “first day of school” speech for the remainder of his time in office.
In his Boy Scout Jamboree speech, President Trump also addressed an audience of school-aged children in the first year of his presidency. As with Obama before him, audiences were apprehensive before he uttered a word. Unlike Obama, he veered from standard platitudes, delivering a series of partisan invectives that critics have likened to a Hitler youth rally.
Trump’s remarks were not far removed from what he says in other contexts. His speeches to rallies and press conferences receive constant media coverage, and are no doubt regularly witnessed by children. Still, the embodied act of a President speaking to children about politics hit a nerve, even for many Trump supporters.
Why are Americans so apprehensive about what the President tells children? In part, it is because Americans do not imagine children as having control over how they interpret what they hear. Much of our thinking about children is still informed by John Locke, who posited that children are a tabula rasa—a blank slate, highly impressionable to the material imprinted upon them. Our laws and public culture reflect this assumption. When children protest a social policy, critics wonder whether teachers have filled them with rebellious ideas. In Supreme Court cases, scholar Ann Davies notes, decisions seldom concern themselves with a child or adolescent’s agency. Instead, they weigh whether the state or the parent should control what the child thinks.
I’m less pessimistic about how Trump’s audience might respond to the speech. Having previously worked with middle and high school-aged students, I have found that students in the 11 to 18 year old age group of the Boy Scout Jamboree are capable of thinking critically about persuasive messages they receive. That does not mean that they will do so on their own, but that they are capable of it with the right kind of guidance. On that score, I have been heartened to hear how many Scouts have other influencers in their lives who have turned the address into a teachable moment, an opportunity to reflect on what is appropriate and ethical. More broadly, the speech is being used as a touchstone for discussions of what a truly inclusive presidential message would, and should, entail.
While the spectacle of Trump’s speech was, to be sure, unbecoming of an American President, I have some stubborn faith that the children and adolescents in the audience will not all walk away wholly absorbed into the president’s way of thinking. They, too, are surely aware of the press coverage of the speech and the controversy it provoked. Many of them are likely thinking hard about what it all means.