The warp-speed news cycle has moved on, but I want to linger a bit over what now seems like ancient history: President Donald Trump's speech to the Boy Scouts Jamboree two weeks ago. I shall contrast Trump's speech with one the previous month to a similar (albeit smaller) crowd: The ninth-grade commencement address that Chief Justice John Roberts delivered at the Cardigan Mountain school, where his son Jack was among the graduates. The Roberts speech was everything that the Trump speech wasn't: self-deprecating; well-crafted; compassionate; and wise. The contrast tells us something profound about the differences between the men who respectively head the judicial and executive branches of our national government.
Readers who are pressed for time may wish to read a transcript of the Roberts speech, but I recommend watching and listening to it in full. (It begins at the 5:45 mark and lasts just over 12 minutes.)
[Y]ou are good guys. But you are also privileged young men. And if you weren’t privileged when you came here, you are privileged now because you have been here. My advice is: Don’t act like it. When you get to your new school, walk up and introduce yourself to the person who is raking the leaves, shoveling the snow or emptying the trash. Learn their name and call them by their name during your time at the school.
for a tremendous amount of money. And he went out and bought a big yacht, and he had a very interesting life. I won't go any more than that, because you're Boy Scouts so I'm not going to tell you what he did.Trump then teases the crowd for a few moments as he contemplates completing the story. One can see the gears spinning inside Trump's head as he decides whether to describe what one imagines are cocaine-fueled orgies aboard Levitt's yacht. In a rare display of good judgment, Trump chooses not to go there explicitly, settling for some further lecherous innuendo.
Now the commencement speakers will typically . . . wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.
Trump's speech contains something similar--but it is also, of course, wholly different. After leaving Levitt on his yacht, Trump tells the Boy Scouts that years later he finds Levitt sitting alone at a party, apparently depressed about his business having gone badly after he got bored of the orgies and repurchased it. Here's what the actual real-life president of the United States then says:
And [Levitt] explained what was happening and how bad it's been and how hard it's been. And I said, "What exactly happened? Why did this happen to you? You're one of the greats ever in our industry. Why did this happen to you?" And he said, "Donald, I lost my momentum. I lost my momentum." A word you never hear when you're talking about success when some of these guys that never made 10 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. But I tell you -- I'll tell you, it was very sad, and I never forgot that moment. And I thought about it, and it's exactly true. He lost his momentum, meaning he took this period of time off, long, years, and then when he got back, he didn't have that same momentum. In life, I always tell this to people, you have to know whether or not you continue to have the momentum. And if you don't have it, that's OK. Because you're going to go on, and you're going to learn and you're going to do things that are great. But you have to know about the word "momentum."
What is Trump trying to say here? Does he mean that if you stop doing something, you can't restart it? Why not? Does he realize that "momentum" is at best a metaphor? And even if there is some truth to what he is trying to say--about the importance of perseverance perhaps--how does knowing about the word momentum help? Does Trump even know what momentum is?
It's tempting to dismiss such questions as pointless and simply pity Trump, whose inability to articulate coherent thoughts seems to be evidence of the early stages of dementia. Even so, we can glean insights into Trump's mind (such as it is) by noting the particular incoherent thoughts he has.
Notice that at the end of the passage above a spark of decency buried deep within Trump's icy soul briefly flickers to light. "And if you don't have" momentum, Trump says, "that's OK." Perhaps Trump thought to himself "wait, some of the kids in this crowd won't be so successful; I should tell them that it's okay if they don't have momentum." So he says that. But then he forgets why he said it and says that they'll be okay because they'll turn out to be winners after all! Why? Because Trump can't imagine that it's okay--in the sense of being a person deserving of self-respect and the respect of others--not to be successful by conventional measures. Spark extinguished, he reverts back to "look at how wonderful I am, don't you want to be like me?".