The Self-Help Guru Who Shaped Trump’s Worldview

How the commander-in-chief succumbs to the perils of positive thinking.

Chris Lehmann December 13, 2017

Illustration by Jackie Parsons.

Tak­ing stock of the first offi­cial year of Trump in pow­er means with­stand­ing a mul­ti­front assault on real­i­ty. Pre­sent­ed in a relent­less bar­rage of Make Amer­i­ca Great Again hyper­bole, the president’s crush­ing fail­ures are mag­i­cal­ly trans­formed into unprece­dent­ed suc­cess­es, and all expres­sions of dis­sent become the work of pet­ty ingrates, ide­o­log­i­cal fab­u­lists and priv­i­leged elites. His sig­na­ture ini­tia­tives — the shame­ful tax bill and the mer­ci­ful­ly stalled Oba­macare repeal — become his­toric wind­falls for the very mid­dle- and work­ing-class con­stituen­cies they delib­er­ate­ly set out to beg­gar, to say noth­ing of how Trump and his appa­ratchiks have dis­fig­ured basic and hith­er­to set­tled facts of his­to­ry, such as the notion that the Civ­il War was fought over slav­ery.

In the president’s alternate-universe Twitter feed, the polls continue to ratify his amazing and historic legislative successes, and it’s Hillary Clinton, not the scores of shady Trump campaign cronies, who has been colluding with the Russians

At one lev­el, these mind-bend­ing pro­nounce­ments are the ran­cid fruits of a con­cert­ed assault on basic cat­e­gories of mean­ing and sig­ni­fi­ca­tion. To the scat­tered forces of the anti-Trump resis­tance, the ongo­ing appeal of such bald lying is dumb­found­ing: Shouldn’t the truth win out — or at least count for some­thing? But such befud­dle­ment stems main­ly from a key ele­ment of the Trump phe­nom­e­non, one that lies firm­ly out­side their cul­tur­al frame of ref­er­ence. Trump­ism has tak­en root in our pub­lic dis­course because it is square­ly in the main­stream of Amer­i­can spir­i­tu­al life. It is the most extreme, and per­verse­ly log­i­cal, appli­ca­tion of the pos­i­tive-think­ing gospel.

In the president’s biog­ra­phy and busi­ness career, the role of pos­i­tive think­ing is hid­ing in plain sight. From child­hood on, Trump wor­shipped in the tem­ple of the movement’s prophet, Nor­man Vin­cent Peale: Manhattan’s Mar­ble Col­le­giate Church. Indeed, Peale presided over Trump’s first wed­ding in 1977. Trump’s father was a die-hard adher­ent of Peale’s preach­ments, as is his daugh­ter Ivan­ka, who wrote in her 2009 self-help tract, The Trump Card, that per­cep­tion is more impor­tant than real­i­ty” and you shouldn’t go out of your way to cor­rect a false assump­tion if it plays to your advantage.”

Peale’s mid­cen­tu­ry self-help bible, The Pow­er of Pos­i­tive Think­ing, is, at its core, a dis­til­la­tion of the mes­sage of the Chris­t­ian faith into a series of achieve­ment-mind­ed axioms. Pic­tur­ize, prayer­ize, actu­al­ize” was Peale’s mantra, and he applied this sim­ple for­mu­la to every facet of the believer’s life — but most espe­cial­ly to the sphere of mate­r­i­al advance­ment, which was the surest sign of divine favor in the her­met­ic social world of Pealeism. The implaca­bly right-wing Peale cheer­ful­ly described him­self as a mis­sion­ary to Amer­i­can busi­ness” and made good on that by wag­ing a relent­less cam­paign against the New Deal, unions and oth­er affronts to true-blue indi­vid­ual achieve­ment in the pages of his pop­u­lar self-help mag­a­zine, Guide­posts.

So long as an earnest, aspi­ra­tional Chris­t­ian duly intoned the Bible’s max­ims of lav­ish­ly reward­ed per­son­al faith, he (in Peale’s gospel, the achiev­er was almost always a man) was on the path to amaz­ing world­ly suc­cess. Keep incant­i­ng the scrip­tural­ly sanc­tioned slo­gans of upward mobil­i­ty, and a world of won­ders will open before you:

This process will change you into a believ­er, an expecter, and when you become such, you will in due course become an achiev­er. You will have new pow­er to get what God and you decide you real­ly want from life.

The Pow­er of Pos­i­tive Think­ing remained on the New York Times best­seller list for 186 con­sec­u­tive weeks and helped launch the mod­ern self-help indus­try; more than five mil­lion copies remain in print today. Peale’s gospel became the suc­cess creed for a new­ly cor­po­ra­tized and pros­per­ous Amer­i­can social order. Rather than harp­ing on the drea­ry demands of socioe­co­nom­ic jus­tice and the hard work of equi­tably dis­trib­ut­ing the unprece­dent­ed mass boun­ty of the post­war Amer­i­can scene, the pos­i­tive-think­ing faith sim­ply reject­ed per­son­al fail­ure as spir­i­tu­al weak­ness. When Arthur Miller sought to sum up the cru­el, fact-averse nature of our country’s unique brand of pos­ses­sive indi­vid­u­al­ism in Death of a Sales­man, Willy Loman’s career cre­do was an out­burst of pure Pealeism: He’s a man way out there in the blue, rid­ing on a smile and a shoeshine.”

This same process of mag­i­cal think­ing dri­ves the Trump pres­i­den­cy. In the president’s alter­nate-uni­verse Twit­ter feed, the polls con­tin­ue to rat­i­fy his amaz­ing and his­toric leg­isla­tive suc­cess­es, and it’s Hillary Clin­ton, not the scores of shady Trump cam­paign cronies, who has been col­lud­ing with the Rus­sians. The twist­ed, incan­ta­to­ry log­ic of Peale’s pos­i­tive-think­ing gospel now dri­ves the fed­er­al agen­da. Take, for exam­ple, Vic­tims of Immi­gra­tion Crime Engage­ment, the qua­si-fas­cist office with­in Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment devot­ed to address­ing the non-exis­tent epi­dem­ic of vio­lent crime com­mit­ted by undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants. It is tes­ta­ment to the White House’s col­lec­tive will to reshape real­i­ty into its pre­ferred dream image; immi­grants are actu­al­ly less like­ly to com­mit crimes of any kind than the home­grown U.S. pop­u­la­tion, as study after study has shown.

The office bears that non­sen­si­cal title just so it can be ren­dered in press reports as VOICE — that is, the thing that it, just as non­sen­si­cal­ly, pre­tends to grant to vic­tims. In real­i­ty, as a recent Splin­ter report on the pro­gram has doc­u­ment­ed, VOICE is chiefly a vehi­cle by which infor­mants enlist fed­er­al law enforce­ment to bring the ham­mer down in pur­suit of pet­ty per­son­al vendettas.

Empir­i­cal facts can nev­er pen­e­trate this cara­pace of fan­ta­sy. Pos­i­tive think­ing works for its adher­ents because it makes them act and feel as if they can do no wrong. As Trump him­self recount­ed in his 2015 book, Crip­pled Amer­i­ca, Rev­erend Peale was the type of min­is­ter that I liked, and I liked him per­son­al­ly as well. I espe­cial­ly loved his ser­mons. He would instill a very pos­i­tive feel­ing about God that also made me feel pos­i­tive about myself.”

To fact-check each and every truth-demol­ish­ing utter­ance of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion and return the public’s gaze to the actu­al­ly exist­ing his­tor­i­cal record remains essen­tial and indis­pens­able work for jour­nal­ism, and for the polit­i­cal foes of Trump­ism. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it does noth­ing to dis­lodge the larg­er mes­sage of the pos­i­tive-think­ing cult of per­son­al­i­ty sur­round­ing the pres­i­dent: the irra­tional, trib­al faith that he alone can fix the many ills assail­ing the repub­lic, as he famous­ly announced from the podi­um of the 2016 GOP con­ven­tion in Cleveland.

The lit­tle-not­ed corol­lary propo­si­tion of the Pealeist creed is that the forces of neg­a­tiv­i­ty can nev­er be per­mit­ted to gain seri­ous pur­chase in the believer’s mind; at that moment, all the hard work of retrain­ing your brain to achieve in the face of all seem­ing adver­si­ty sim­ply unrav­els, as weak­ness and defeat swamp the poor belea­guered soul of lit­tle faith. This is why the dogged media reports on Trump aren’t sim­ply repu­di­at­ed, per the stan­dard con­ser­v­a­tive cri­tique, as the bad-faith dis­tor­tions of a biased, elite-rid­den jour­nal­is­tic estab­lish­ment. No, in the Trump gospel, such reports are always and for­ev­er fake” — that is, a meta­phys­i­cal affront to the way that real­i­ty can and should be ordered. Oppo­nents can’t be inter­locu­tors who hon­or­ably dis­sent — they have to be warped bad actors.”

All of this mag­i­cal think­ing works to sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly blind Trump and his fol­low­ers to the rag­ing hubris, racism, xeno­pho­bia and dis­hon­esty that Trump­ism breeds dai­ly. But as the stout Cold War reac­tionary Nor­man Vin­cent Peale him­self would like­ly preach if he were with us today, that blind­ness is a fea­ture, not a defect, in the won­der-work­ing hydraulics of the pos­i­tive-think­ing creed. The best hope is that the Peale gospel is also spec­tac­u­lar­ly ill-equipped to con­front and process adverse truths that prove to be more pow­er­ful than it is. Novem­ber 2017’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic sweep in the bell­wether Vir­ginia elec­tions prof­fered a rare, and hope­ful, indi­ca­tor that Amer­i­cans can still rec­og­nize rag­ing bull­shit for what it is. After all, in the end, things didn’t exact­ly work out for Willy Loman, either.

Chris Lehmann, is edi­tor-in-chief at The Baf­fler and a for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of In These Times. He is the author of The Mon­ey Cult: Cap­i­tal­ism, Chris­tian­i­ty, and the Unmak­ing of the Amer­i­can Dream (Melville House, 2016).
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