The Self-Help Guru Who Shaped Trump’s Worldview
How the commander-in-chief succumbs to the perils of positive thinking.
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.
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.