Day before yesterday, Michael Gerson made a comment on the PBS News Hour that rang true to me. He said that President Trump doesn’t have principles. He has instincts.
Hillary Clinton, in contrast, had principles but her instincts weren’t in tune with where millions of voters were at. She said as much in her new memoir. She more or less admitted that her head was in the right place, but her political correctness prevented her from revealing what she felt. To put it another way, she sang the right lyrics, but she was enough off key with the melody to not be pleasing to a large segment of the audience she was singing to.
The good thing about being guided by instinct is that you come off as being genuine. To millions of Trump voters, he “told it like it is.” A fact check on many of his candid comments reveals that what he said didn’t match “like it is.” A fact check reveals that many of the lyrics he was singing were at least factually incorrect if not downright lies. But millions loved the tune and the tone of the song he was singing. Check out what Peter, Paul and Mary sang in 1967 (yes, I’m that old):
I dig the Mamas and the Papas at “The Trip,”
Sunset Strip in L.A.
And they got a good thing goin’
When the words don’t get in the way
And when they’re really wailing
Michelle and Cass are sailin’
Hey! They really nail me to the wall.
Some of the old rock and roll songs that I know by heart and still love to sing, have words that are totally contrary to my values. But they conjure up feelings that are very real inside me, which I try desperately to not reveal in public in my words or behavior.
Some preachers I’ve heard make, to my mind, the most outrageous, theologically-inconsistent, biblically-inaccurate statements. But the people in the pews grin and clap and say “amen” because the preacher is instinctively resonating with how they feel.
On the other hand, of course, we’ve all been lulled to sleep by speakers who say things that are factual but presented in such a dry way, it’s hard work to even pay attention. I’ve heard preachers like that, too. It’s embarrassing to keep yawning during a sermon, but sometimes I can’t help it.
So what do we need in our society right now?
Right now, what I see happening is a tilt toward relying on instinct more than principles. And what is needed is for all of us to pay less attention to how we feel and/or what we think and to focus more on character, defined as moral qualities or lack of them, or “how you behave when you think no one is watching.”
The reason character is so important is that I am among those who believe human nature has a dark side as well a good one. Or like some Native Americans say, inside each of us is a good wolf and a bad wolf.
The problem with instincts is that, when we are spontaneous, we have less control over which wolf reveals itself. What “character” does is not put a fact check on our instincts but a check to see if what we happen to be feeling at the moment is in line with the principles we use to guide our lives.
Look at some things David Brooks says in his book, The Road to Character, to see if what he says rings true to the values you hold most deeply:
We can shoot for something higher than happiness.
The climb to success has surrendered to the struggle to deepen the soul.
[The WWII generation’s] first instinct was to remind themselves they were not morally superior to anyone else. Their collective impulse was to warn themselves against pride and self-glorification. They intuitively resisted the natural human tendency toward excessive self-love, a shift from a culture of self-effacement that says, “Nobody’s better than me, but I’m no better than anyone else,” to a culture of self-promotion that says, “Recognize my accomplishments, I’m pretty special.”
Notice that Brooks also uses the word “instinct” but in a very different way. What he means by instincts are values that are cultivated in a moral ecology, if you will, and reveal a solid character instead of an untempered, narcissistic ego.
After watching the Bears game on Sunday, I said to one of my neighbors, “The Bears looked pretty good against a really good team.” To which he responded, “Yeah, but they didn’t win. That’s all that matters.”
After watching Congress spin its wheels for nine years now, I’m willing to declare that how you play the game is more important than winning.