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Harvard Psychiatrist: How Trump's Speech Was Toxic For Boy Scouts Beyond 'Rhetoric'

President Trump waves to the crowd of scouts at the 2017 National Boy Scout Jamboree at the Summit in Glen Jean,W. Va., on Monday. (Steve Helber/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
President Trump waves to the crowd of scouts at the 2017 National Boy Scout Jamboree at the Summit in Glen Jean,W. Va., on Monday. (Steve Helber/AP)

"A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent."

12 Points of the Boy Scout Law

The head of the Boy Scouts of America publicly apologized Thursday for the "political rhetoric" in President Trump's keynote speech at the scouts' Jamboree, saying that "We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program" and affirming Scout values that include "fairness, courage, honor and respect for others."

The carefully worded statement suggests that the Scout leadership heard loud and clear the complaints from parents who were offended by a speech that sounded much like one of Trump's campaign rallies: slogans, promotion of a political agenda, cutting remarks about his opponents.

But as a senior child and adolescent psychiatrist and advocate for healthy youth development, I'm concerned that the leadership may still not get just how bad this speech was for the tens of thousands of Scouts who heard it, cheered it, chanted "We love Trump!" I feel a professional obligation to share my understanding of the risks this kind of "political rhetoric" poses for our children.

The speech came in a particularly dangerous context: among a huge crowd of young boys, a captive and highly receptive audience that was particularly vulnerable to being influenced by the toxic traits the president consistently demonstrates: his insatiable desire to be adored, his demands for unconditional loyalty, his obsession with winning, and his need to devalue anyone he perceives as a threat.

Boy Scouts in the United States range in age from 11 (or just finishing fifth grade) to 18. Cub Scouts range from 6-11. While this range is considerable, boys from 11-18 have many things developmentally in common. Namely:

  • Their brains are still in the process of development, and, during these years, are more likely influenced by emotion rather than reason or logic;
  • they are drawn to powerful male role models and often follow them with passion;
  • they are significantly influenced by a strong desire to be part of a group, regardless of its moral intent;
  • they are fiercely loyal to each other -- and their leaders.

Trump played on all these qualities, even as his rambling speech was largely directed toward complex issues many of these kids were hardly likely to understand.

He boasted about his record on energy, jobs, health care, his victory in the Electoral College, and the "record" size of the crowd in front of him. He threatened to fire his own health secretary if a health care bill did not pass. He also implied that he could use more Scout-style loyalty, a veiled reference to the attorney general likely lost on most of the Scouts in the audience.

Trump promoted the loyalty of the boys themselves, noting that the Scouts “never, ever, let us down” and that “You can count on me, and we can count on you,” just like we count on the military, police and firefighters. In fact, he continued, we just launched the “newest, largest” aircraft carrier in the world -- named after an Eagle Scout, President Ford. And this ship, he stressed, is “feared and revered” because of its power, prestige and strength.

The subtext of this comment is actually Trump talking about himself, telling the boys: If you are loyal to me, if you stand with me, you, too, will be feared and revered, powerful and successful. Be like me, boys! You, too, will succeed. This invitation for them to identify with him is called projective identification in psychiatry, and is particularly compelling to youth.

He also told the boys a story of his idol, William Levitt, a self-made millionaire in real estate. Levitt had it all -- money, power, a yacht. But in the end, he “failed badly and went bankrupt.” So, Trump continued, after seeing him at a New York cocktail party “with all the hottest people in New York,” it was sad because Levitt had lost his "momentum."

Then Trump offered a litany of his own momentum and victories -- from the booming economy, to the election surprises, to the fact that everyone underestimated his power and persistence. “What we did," he said, "was unbelievable, thanks to you and the millions and millions of people that came out and voted to Make America Great Again!” (Boy Scouts are too young to vote, of course, but he spoke as if they had.)

Trump also devalued President Obama, noting his predecessor had never attended a Boy Scout Jamboree. He derided Hillary Clinton for losing in Michigan, prompting boos against her from the crowd. He devalued the media and “fake news.” He devalued all those who said he could not win the presidency in the first place.

So what is the big deal about this speech? Several issues:

  • It models seeing the world and people in it as either good or bad, while in reality we want our kids to see shades of gray and understand nuances.
  • It promotes individual winning as opposed to shared group effort for greater good.
  • It models devaluing and badmouthing those who disagree instead of listening and conversing.
  • It promotes distrust of our models of freedom, such as the free press.
  • It glorifies material wealth and social status above higher values, while promoting the glory of being feared and revered, not loved and respected.

The big deal is that Trump's speech smacked of indoctrination. It had the potential to capture the developmentally normal aspirations of young boys and teenagers to idealize a “successful hero,” and band together for his mission of winning, of defying adversity. But then it subverted those natural aspirations, toward all the issues listed above.

Trump's behavior in his first six months of office does not qualify as courteous, kind or any of the other Scout Law qualities. We, as adults, know this, but many of the Boy Scouts at the Jamboree did not.

So what can a concerned parent do?

  • Ask open-ended questions about a child's reaction to the speech. Do not assume indoctrination or any response, but see how your child reacts.
  • Watch the speech with your Scout after the event. Converse about what is going on during various parts of the speech. This technique allows for starting and stopping the speech to interact, correct false claims, and open conversations with your child. And through a process like this, perhaps suggest other role models you feel are more appropriate.
  • Do not be concerned about stating your opinion about what is being said or about why Trump is making this speech.

Our children are inevitably being influenced by Trump's behavior. We cannot stop that influence, but we can at least act to offset the damage it could do to their young hearts and minds.

Correction: An earlier version of this story used international scouting names (Beavers and Explorers), rather than the classifications in the Boy Scouts of America. We regret the error. We have also corrected the first name of real estate developer William Levitt.

Dr. Gene Beresin is executive director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. The observations expressed here are solely those of Dr. Beresin and do not represent Harvard Medical School or Massachusetts General Hospital.

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