If you’d like to test whether your human capacity for shock has been overworked to the point of total ruin by Donald Trump’s presidency, watch his Monday evening address to the Boy Scouts of America’s quadrennial jamboree. Every beat more self-obsessed, petty, and hateful than the last, the speech found Trump cussing and alluding to sexual exploits in front of a crowd of children, congratulating himself and demeaning his ideological opponents at an event that has pretty much steered clear of partisanship for 80 years.
Plenty of member of Trump’s audience were right there with him. They clapped when he insulted the press and the specific videographers at the event. They booed when Trump made a passing mention of Hillary Clinton during an extended rant about how thoroughly he won the presidential election. They chanted “USA!” when he said that former Boy Scout and current Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price is “helping to keep millions of Americans strong and healthy” by getting the Senate votes necessary to start “killing this horrible thing known as Obamacare that’s really hurting us.” (If Price didn’t get those votes, Trump told the scouts, he’d fire the secretary.)
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In some ways, the Boy Scouts represent a perfect slate onto which Trump can project his fantasies about authoritarian rule and a bygone era of white men saying and doing whatever they wanted. As Amanda Marcotte wrote in Slate in 2011, the Boy Scouts were founded in 1910 in response to a “crisis in Anglo-American masculinity.” The growth of U.S. cities had parents worried that their sons were turning into soft, urbane sissies—the cucks and betas of yesteryear. Scouting was supposed to hone a kind of pioneering, colonialist sensibility in these young men, toughening and roughening them up through outdoor excursions and wilderness skills-building. Trump won the 2016 election in part because of a related panic over the slow-declining supremacy of white men in the U.S. There is reason to believe that the proudest misogynist in public life could not have won over anyone but a woman, and that the most openly racist candidate in modern history could not have succeeded any president but a black one. Building campfires and tying knots soothed the masculinist anxieties of the last turn-of-the-century; a Manhattanite heir to a real estate fortune has soothed the masculinist anxieties of this one.
Trump’s speech to the Boy Scouts, and the scouts’ demoralizing response, makes one wonder what a parallel Girl Scout event would have looked like. The Girl Scouts of the USA have jamborees, too, after all, and the organization was founded just two years after the boys’ group. Unlike their male counterparts, though, the founders of the Girl Scouts championed a more forward-thinking conception of their gender. Girls were, and still are, encouraged to embrace outdoor adventure just as the Boy Scouts did and do. “The Boy Scouts had previously backed another girls’ organization, the Campfire Girls, which incorporated some elements of scouting, but with more of an eye towards domestication,” Marcotte wrote in 2011. “Not so surprisingly, the national leadership of the Boy Scouts reacted poorly to the Girl Scouts, which had girls acting more as the Boy Scouts imagined boys should act.” Girl Scouts of the USA is still more welcoming and broad-minded than Boy Scouts of America. In 2015, weeks before the Boy Scouts decided to start accepting gay leaders, one regional branch of the organization returned a $100,000 donation after the donors demanded that the group stop serving transgender girls. For more than a century, Girl Scouts leaders have advanced a generic brand of women’s empowerment that teaches girls they can do and be anything they want—just today, the organization introduced 23 new STEM-related badges—while keeping neutral on political matters.
That hasn’t stopped right-wing organizations from casting the Girl Scouts of the USA as a band of radical leftists indoctrinating young girls into some kind of sex cult. Family Research Council head Tony Perkins has gone after the Girl Scouts for years, suggesting that money from cookie sales goes to Planned Parenthood and accusing leaders of “leaving the door wide open at the chicken coop for the fox” by hiring LGBTQ staff members. (He recommends girls join the Christian-based American Heritage Girls instead.) Some conservative groups once concocted a completely false rumor that the Girl Scouts gave a “graphic sex guide” prepared by Planned Parenthood to a group of girls at a United Nations conference. In 2014, anti-abortion activists signal-boosted by Megyn Kelly boycotted Girl Scout cookie sales after the organization tweeted a link to a Huffington Post discussion of “incredible ladies” who “should be woman of the year for 2013.” The discussion included a mention of pro-choice Texas legislator Wendy Davis, leading right-wingers to accuse the Girl Scouts of endorsing Davis and, thus, abortion rights.
Because the actual curriculums of Girl Scout troops are laughably benign—girls earn badges for first aid skills, pottery, and researching family history—the right-wing fixation on the Girl Scouts as some kind of socialist abortionist training ground seems based in the idea that a group that emits any faint scent of women’s empowerment must, by definition, contain the seeds of a misandrist revolution. Their frenzied boycotts betray the idea that any gathering of women not explicitly devoted to patriarchal ideals, as the American Heritage Girls are, is a threat. On the other end of the ideological spectrum is Trump’s address to the Boy Scouts: a speech akin to any he’d give at a rally of supporters, comfortable in the knowledge that he would not be challenged, that his audience would play along. If a group of empowered, confident girls represents a threat to oppressive systems of power, to Trump and his supporters, a group of young, mostly white men trained to be obedient represents their comfort zone: an insulated, impressionable boys’ club.
It’s no wonder some people find it hard not to politicize the very act of girlhood—female bodies are on the docket in every state and federal lawmaking body, in every legislative term. But the Girl Scouts are not inherently political, and they’re far from a political monolith. I know one Trump-supporting Girl Scout troop leader, and I’m sure there were at least a few Boy Scout troops that boycotted Trump’s speech or sat horrified through the whole sickening thing. If there had been a different outcome in last year’s presidential election, perhaps President Hillary Clinton might have addressed the Girl Scouts and attracted criticism for poisoning members’ young minds with feminist propaganda—or, in other circles, for declining to do so.
The Boy Scouts of America have defended Trump’s speech by reminding observers that his appearance was not politically motivated, since they invite every sitting president, regardless of party, to address their jamboree. Imagine hypothetical President Clinton accepting that invitation, a woman audacious enough to believe she has something to say that men and boys should hear. Would the scouts and troop leaders who cheered on Monday when Trump criticized a sitting female Republican senator, Shelley Moore Capito, have chanted “lock her up” when Clinton took the stage? Or is it Trump’s victory—a triumph of man over woman—that’s begun to erode the Boy Scouts’ capacity for nonpartisanship, respect, and common decency? Under better leadership, a single-gender group of service-minded Boy Scouts could do a lot of good. In the hands of a spiteful misogynist, a crowd of pliable young male minds goes to dangerous waste.