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The Difference Between Couth and Substance

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The host’s exchange with Mike Allen was fascinating this morning, and specifically the host’s quotation of Podhoretz saying that millions of people really do believe that POTUS is somehow cooperative with Putin.  The host is right – there is zero evidence of such interaction, but there are thousands of implications that there is.  Why?

I think there are three things at play:

  1. Simple denial of the fact that Hillary could possibly lose to Trump unless there was cheating of some sort.
  2. Delusion.  This is actually related to the first but broader.  Trump’s election so challenges not just their understanding of electoral politics, but the worldview generally, that they cannot bring themselves to accept it.
  3. People think couth is substantive.  I will admit the president lacks couth.  If you think its absence reflects a lack of intelligence, honesty, or substance then you would suspect something was amiss with the election and the administration.

The first two items there are psychological in nature.  Such psychological issues have grown common in recent years.  As culture has moved from other-focused-and-centered (say build upon a moral code and a God, even if you do not particularly believe in that God) towards self-focused-and-centered such psychological issues were bound to arise.  Lord knows I have preached about that enough.

Actually, the confusion of couth and substance is a natural consequence of the change in focus and centering.  Couth makes life pleasant, it is the grease in the gears of social interaction.  If we are focused on self – on making our own life as pleasant as possible what we are going to most want from people is couth and as such we will begin to think it matters more than it really does.

The president’s lack of couth is, to my mind completely understandable and more important than may seem on first blush.

Let’s be completely honest.  Obama kicked off his presidency with a stimulus package – spending billions upon billions of dollars for pork projects.  That’s substance – throwing money out the window.  How did Obama respond when Republicans voiced objections?  “I won.”  Now that is not exactly the most couth-filled response ever, but it has more than President Trump often exhibits.  Obama learned from that.  He grew less in-your-face with his verbal responses as the administration went on – that’s gaining couth.  But seriously, his regulatory operation and Obamacare, circumventing the will of the people as expressed in the election of Republicans to Congress, was perhaps couth but on a substance level he might as well have told the American people to go f^%$ themselves.

President Trump did not set the couth-less tone of the national political discussion, he just capitalized on it.

As a deeply committed Christian, I have many qualms about the president’s sexual history.  But one thing I have pointed out to many a #NeverTrumper that brings it up to me – infidelity is greatly compounded by dishonesty.  Trump, to my knowledge, has never lied about his past infidelities – in point of fact in the past he typically bragged about it.  This again reflects a lack of couth, but it also reflects a fundamental honesty.  Infidelity is a sin, but lying calls into question everything someone has done because you can no longer trust what that individual says about anything.

President Trump, in many ways, reminds me of one of literature’s greatest characters – a rogue and reprobate – Falstaff.  Says a NYTimes book reviewer of Shakespeare’s Falstaff:

Falstaff, excessive, loving, outrageous, overblown, but true, stands against Hal’s counterfeit. Prince Hal, morphing into Henry V, may be a great leader, but he dumps his friends, rewrites his past, and in carnage is a self-aggrandizing commander of the Death Star. Falstaff is on the side of life; messy, silly, unplanned, all for love, life.

Trump is a dose of reality in a culture that seems to want nothing more than to escape and deny reality.  Reality includes both our ugliness and our goodness.

What is happening right now is far more existential than simply collusion, policy or elections.  We are facing the nation recalibrating itself; a society coming to terms with the fact that wishing for a thing does not make it true; a culture reawakening to the fact that just because we can conceive of some utopia does not mean we can achieve it.

Only history will be able to tell us whether Donald J. Trump is a great president or not.  But he is most certainly an important one – reflecting a national and cultural inflection point.  I think we are headed in the right direction – substance first; we’ll worry about couth later.


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