Mr. Bright Side

Mr. Bright Side

Trump’s Gospel of Positive Thinking


Donald Trump begins Crippled America, his will-to-power tract about recovering American greatness, with an uncharacteristic apology of sorts. “The picture we used on the cover of this book”—a glowering shot of the real-estate and reality-TV mogul—is “angry,” even “mean looking,” he writes. He assures the concerned reader that this was deliberate. There were plenty of “beautiful pictures” of an upbeat and smiling Trump. But these would send the wrong message for his dark diatribe: “In this book we’re talking about Crippled America. Unfortunately, there’s very little that’s nice about it. So I wanted a picture where I wasn’t happy, a picture that reflected the anger and unhappiness that I feel, rather than joy. Because we are not in a joyous situation right now.”

The scowling, belligerent image of Donald Trump is by now something of a campaign cliché. It’s the face of an insurgency of aggrieved middle-class and working-class Americans—fed up, as their leader loudly is, with the tortured public etiquette of “political correctness,” and determined to wrest back the bulwarks of American opportunity from the malign neglect of our incompetent political class. It’s the countenance of a movement that wants to eradicate all illegal immigration, bar Muslims from entering the country, and bomb ISIS back to the Stone Age. And it’s the image of Spenglerian doom that we witnessed during his speech at the Republican National Convention.

But as Trump himself acknowledges, there is another side to him. Flip forward to the photos illustrating Crippled America, and you’ll see the other, far sunnier Trump: color images of the extended family, interspersed with promotional photos of his towering and luxurious properties. Go back to the endmatter of the book, and you’ll see an “About the Author” note that runs 17 pages, featuring tidbits like “In March of 2013, Mr. Trump was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in front of 25,000 fans at Madison Square Garden”; “Mr. Trump is one of only two people…named to ABC’s Barbara Walters special The Most Fascinating People two times”; and “In 2013, Mr. Trump received the T. Boone Pickens Award from The American Spectator at the Robert L. Bartley Gala.”

This cheerful, self-congratulating Trump, of course, is the one who’s ruled New York’s tabloid-media scene for the better part of four decades, building a career as a real-estate mogul, reality-TV personality, and retail-brand-for-hire. In fact, despite the visage on the cover of Crippled America, and the fusillades of insults and bigoted asides at his rallies, this wellspring of optimism nourishes the deeper roots of his appeal. Trump isn’t just a tireless doomsayer; he’s also an apostle of the upward-striving mantras of self-help, a lay preacher of the deepest fantasies and longings of the aspirational American soul. He draws his power from the age-old gospel of American success, the spiritual-cum-motivational faith that beholds the most lavish spectacles of unequal accumulation and pronounces them duly anointed blessings of the divine will.

Trump’s political genius comes from his deft rhetorical maneuvering between the poles of apocalyptic despair and spectacular optimism. Like the American jeremiad- preachers who stretch as far back as Jonathan Edwards, Trump understands that the specter of chaos and damnation only whets the wavering believer’s appetite for deliverance. Whether he’s scowling or beaming, invoking the immigrant hordes or the sensational ratings of The Apprentice, Trump comes bearing the tacit message that he is not merely the aggrieved voice of dispossessed Americans; he is also the embodiment of their greatest aspirations. He is, believe it or not, the nation’s premier positive thinker.

* * *

The growing cottage industry of Trump biographies tends, not surprisingly, to overlook this facet of his mass appeal. The chief composite picture of Trump is that of a figure at the center of a series of shady real-estate deals, lawsuits, and bankruptcy proceedings, all turned to his favor via the intercession of a brutal fixer or a generous bailout by creditors. The story of the Trump fortune, writes investigative journalist David Cay Johnston in The Making of Donald Trump, is that “of a business career built on breaking, ignoring, or making up rules.”

Johnston’s case is unassailable and eye-opening, even if it misses most elements of Trump’s gospel of self-advertised success. A former reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Johnston chronicled the near-collapse of Trump’s Atlantic City holdings on a day-to-day basis back in the early 1990s. His new book, which collects much of this reporting into a brief against Trump’s biggest selling point—his image as a deal-maker—offers a bracing account of the backroom negotiations and lax New Jersey regulatory regime that permitted the last-minute rescue of Trump’s hotel-and-casino empire on the Jersey Shore. As Johnston documents, these machinations allowed his properties in Atlantic City to stagger out of their all-but-certain receiverships and into the ambit of downscaled debt and face-saving partnerships. But perhaps the greatest revelation in Johnston’s book is his incisive rendering of the supreme cynicism of Trump’s media-handling strategy.

In the Atlantic City negotiations, for example, Trump’s lieutenants avoided using the term “bankruptcy” in their descriptions of the pending bailout before the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement. Their hope was to prevent journalists from using the word in their reporting. Johnston, who has a background in financial journalism, saw through the charade and filed an Inquirer dispatch under the headline Trump Empire Could Tumble Today, Casino Panel Told. But what really struck Johnston was not only how ably Trump and his lieutenants handled the press, but also how ably they then harassed and targeted those who hadn’t been manipulated:

All but two of the other reporters who had been told what testimony to expect missed the story. Because the word bankruptcy went unsaid, these reporters did not allude to it.

Many reporters accurately quote what they are told, but don’t know much about the underlying issues. For Trump and others like him, this makes it easy to manipulate most of the press. Those who see through the manipulation and make connections themselves get a different response: complaints to editors, threats of litigation, and occasionally public denunciations.

This is a spot-on dissection of how Trump creates and enforces his assiduously cultivated public image as a successful and hard-charging businessman. But it also leaves out a crucial detail: Trump can’t permit the notion of bankruptcy to be attached to his image because of the harm it would inflict on his own psyche and sense of self-worth.

As the Atlantic City fiasco unspooled, Trump famously confided to his future second wife, Marla Maples, that a homeless man they passed on the streets of Manhattan had a higher net worth than his own. But as he explained in the wake of his rescue, it was crucial to his image that no one thought he was, in a personal sense, bankrupt. As the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Michael D’Antonio observes in The Truth About Trump, far and away the most comprehensive and insightful recent account of all things Trump, “Others had used the peculiar dynamics of bankruptcy to similar effect, preserving substantial fortunes while escaping the stigma of personal bankruptcy, but few considered it a great accomplishment.”

For Trump, avoiding the taint of bankruptcy was “a public relations advantage.” “If I had filed a personal bankruptcy,” D’Antonio quotes Trump as saying, “I don’t feel that my comeback story would have been nearly as good a story…. It would have been always a tarnished story.”

* * *

Trump’s resistance to the “tarnished” nomenclature of failure—his fear of being publicly perceived as an also-ran or a bankrupt loser—is more than just solicitude for his public image. It is also the faith he was raised in: the positive-thinking creed pioneered by Norman Vincent Peale, pastor of the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, where the Trump family worshipped.

Touting his religious credentials in Crippled America, Trump writes: “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. I would literally leave that church feeling like I could listen to another three sermons.”

There is no particular reason to doubt that Trump’s endorsement of Peale’s gospel is heartfelt (which is decidedly not the case with the candidate’s clumsier efforts to package himself as a stout evangelical, overtures that found him botching the names of Bible books and gamely suggesting that he’s never done anything worth repenting). Peale presided over Trump’s first wedding, to the former Ivana Zelnickova, in 1977. And many features of Trump’s message that traditional political observers find so exasperating and resistant to critical inquiry can be traced to the reverend’s influence. In fact, Trump’s sprawling record of policy reversals and flat-out lies isn’t just a personality quirk, but the logical extension of the reverend’s gospel of positive thinking. Trump’s new-millennial gloss on Peale plies a vision of capitalist uplift steeped in a doggedly counterempirical belief that Christians can achieve success by relentlessly intoning their own preferred image of prosperity.

Like his positive-thinking spiritual master, Trump clearly believes that the manic repetition of what he desires to be real, in both the pecuniary and political realms, is enough to make it a reality. This is the guiding directive in Trump’s preferred narrative of his otherwise far from self-evident personal success—and it’s just as powerful a driving force in his assured prophecy of an America that he will make great again.

This set of autosuggestive word pictures likewise forms the heart and soul of Peale’s enormously influential preachments of personal success. A self-described “missionary to American business,” Peale burst into the pantheon of Protestant uplift with the 1952 publication of The Power of Positive Thinking. Written in a curious mixture of psychoanalytic jargon and the imperative style of industrial-age assembly manuals, the book laid out the basis for successful self-reinvention in the trenches of market warfare.

“Picturize, prayerize, and actualize” was the mantra of the Peale method, and one of his key homilies drove home the process-driven character of his positive-thinking gospel. “On a roadside billboard, I saw an advertisement of a certain brand of motor oil,” Peale announced to his success-hungry flock:

The slogan read, ‘A clean engine always delivers power.’ So will a mind free of negatives produce positives; that is to say, a clean mind will deliver power. Therefore, flush out your thoughts, give yourself a clean mental engine, remembering that a clean mind, even as a clean engine, always delivers power.

* * *

It’s no great exaggeration to note that each time Trump contradicts his past assertions and positions, or summons phony mental pictures of New Jersey Muslims celebrating the 9/11 terror attacks, or recalls seeing a nonexistent video of a $400 million US payment to the government of Iran, he is, in Peale-ist terms, revving up his mental engine. Trump isn’t just lying; he is exercising the power of positive thinking.

This is why the mere suggestion that reality is otherwise sends the great man into unappeasable transports of fury. In 2006, for example, Trump sued New York Times reporter Timothy L. O’Brien for supposedly harming his future earning capacity by depriving him, in the book TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald, of the sacred title of billionaire. For Trump, O’Brien’s trespass was far more than a matter of misguided accounting: The Times reporter had struck at the very heart of the mogul’s innermost sense of self-worth. As D’Antonio notes, the deposition that Trump gave in the O’Brien suit is one of his most notorious flights of fancy—and it comes right out of the Peale playbook:

When asked if he exaggerated, he said, “I think everybody does. Who wouldn’t?” In an echo of Norman Vincent Peale, he added, “I like to be as positive as I can with respect to my properties.” He explained that he was so inclined to look on the bright side of things that he regarded his 30 percent interest in the West Side yards development as 50 percent. Why? Because “if the seventy percent owner puts up all of the money, I really own more than thirty percent. And I have always felt I own fifty percent, from that standpoint.”

I have always felt—this is, for a devoted positive thinker like Trump, the most relevant measure of one’s fortune. Pressed again during the O’Brien deposition to verify his actual net worth, Trump once more replied with an impressionistic Peale-like word-picture:

“My net worth fluctuates, and it goes up and down with markets and with attitudes and with my feelings…. Yes, even my own feelings, as to where the world is, where the world is going, and that can change rapidly from day to day…. So, yeah, even my own feelings affect my value to myself.”

To no one’s surprise, Trump’s suit against O’Brien was dismissed, as was a subsequent appeal by his legal team. But in true positive-thinking fashion, Trump spun the whole proceeding as a victory, since it tied O’Brien up in a procedural limbo for years on end. “I liked it because I cost him a lot of time and a lot of energy and a lot of money,” he told Washington Post reporters Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher in Trump Revealed. He even claimed that “I didn’t read [O’Brien’s book], to be honest with you…. I never read it. I saw some of the things they said. I said, ‘Go sue him, it will cost him a lot of money.’”

The ironclad self-conviction that allows someone to claim that he doesn’t need to read a book before deeming it libelous is psychotic. But like the rest of Trump’s fiercely defended citadel of megalomaniacal self-regard, it is also a logical outgrowth of Peale’s positive-thinking gospel.

In fact, much the same evidence-free grandstanding is now driving an ideological wedge into the heart of the Republican Party. Trump’s die-hard adherence to Peale-ism has begun to divide the GOP, crowding out virtually every hard-and-fast doctrine of modern American conservatism. The party of business has casually discarded its century-plus devotion to free trade, and it has done so based on little more than Trump’s feeling that existing regional trade accords have sapped America’s ability to be great again. And Trump, of course, will redraft them all to recover America’s competitive advantage in a flurry of deal-making genius—yet another effusion of Trump’s positive-thinking dogmatics.

Indeed, Crippled America is notably short on any sort of policy specifics. Instead, it devotes long stretches of argument to the mystic deal-making prowess that Trump exercises by sheer force of charisma. In one particularly flagrant example, he explains that he will be able to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear-nonproliferation deal with Iran because “I am especially good at reading a contract. There is always a loophole.”

* * *

It’s true that many of Trump’s excursions into the realm of magical thinking are more confrontational and punitive than what is commonly associated with the gospel of positive thinking. But in economic and political terms, the liberal theological mysticism of the positive-thinking creed has often sparked a deeply reactionary policy agenda.

It’s worth recalling that Peale kept close company with some of the roughest right-wing ideologues of his time. From 1942 to ’45, Peale chaired the anti–New Deal Committee for Constitutional Government, organized by Edward Rumely, who was once suspected of transacting business with the German government during both world wars. Another close ally was James W. Fifield Jr., a far-right Congregationalist pastor from Southern California and a sworn foe of “pagan stateism.” And most famously, Peale joined forces with Billy Graham and other prominent conservative preachers to publicize the alleged Romanist menace of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential candidacy—an effort that both name-brand ministers eventually disavowed.

In other words, Trump’s trademark compound of sunny self-promotion and ugly nativism isn’t anything new for American conservatism. Indeed, the annals of heroic American enterprise have long doubled as a history of metaphysical suggestibility, from Cornelius Vanderbilt’s flirtations with spiritualism to the unhinged techno-utopianism of Elon Musk. But what makes Trump’s visions of uplift distinctive is how he has customized them in order to mobilize millions of ordinary, striving Americans behind his banner.

Trump’s more notorious boondoggles—such as the litigation-addled Trump University and the failed Trump Mortgage operation—are, among other things, bald-faced efforts to cash in on the positive-thinking aura associated with his celebrity. Trump accurately assessed the appeal of his positive-thinking gospel long before this year’s election. He deliberately timed his abortive run at the 2000 Reform Party presidential nomination to coincide with a motivational lecture tour he was conducting with Tony “Unleash the Power Within” Robbins and other evangelists of the gospel of success. But perhaps because the conservative base has become so much more restive and economically desperate over the past decade and a half, his formulas for personal transformation have proven wildly effective for his 2016 run. And so, unlike the many failed peddlers of the positive-thinking gospel, Trump has displayed the unique gift of seeing his success prophecies come true—at least insofar as they concerned himself.

* * *

Apart from D’Antonio’s 2015 book, which takes pains to depict Trump as “the face of modern success,” few explications of the Trump phenomenon mine these deeper connections between the Trump insurgency and his positive-thinking faith. We often encounter a familiar rehash of Trump as the avatar of untrammeled American ambition. “The Trump brand’s primary product line,” Kranish and Fisher tell us in Trump Revealed, “was a menu of ways to fulfill the workingman’s vision of a titan’s lifestyle, and Trump sold his products—casinos, hotels, condos—in part by surrounding himself with symbols of the high life.”

But to read the Trump movement as entirely an effusion of his publicity-hungry ego, and to frame his supporters in the working and (sinking) middle classes as gullible victims of a bait-and-switch scheme, is to miss the ways that Trumpism has taken root as a perverse brand of antiestablishment protest.

Alexander Zaitchik’s The Gilded Rage offers a sharp corrective to the panicked schematic analysis of Trumpism as another GOP-choreographed hoodwinking of disgruntled grassroots conservatives. By focusing on the Trump phenomenon as a social movement, Zaitchik astutely shows us how Trump’s mass appeal doesn’t stem so much from his person or past résumé, but rather arises out of the same populist discontent that the GOP leadership has stoked throughout the Obama era, without even pretending to assuage it.

Zaitchik is perhaps more sensitive to the question of how Trump has arisen to meet a vast, pent-up demand for populist outrage because he’s not fixated on Trump qua Trump. Unlike other recent chroniclers, who home in on the vagaries of Trump’s bumpy political ascent, Zaitchik spent much of the 2016 primary cycle talking to people who have come to embrace the fundaments of Donald Trump’s success gospel.

Zaitchik offers close-up portraits of the Trump insurgency in Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New Mexico, and California. To his great credit, he listens while his subjects offer up complicated, often self-questioning accounts of their idiosyncratic paths to ardent Trump support. There’s nothing here that resembles the glib demographic explanations-cum-dismissals of Trumpism that are now fashionable among liberals in the Northeast corridor.

Yes, many of Zaitchik’s sources are downwardly mobile inhabitants of forgotten American manufacturing regions. And yes, some are old, angry white guys given to hair-trigger outbursts against the shadowy immigrant hordes. But few in Zaitchik’s book are outright bigots. Many are recipients of federal or state income supports; still others are angry beneficiaries of a deeply dysfunctional VA system—an issue that Trump made his own on the primary stump.

One supporter at a Trump rally in West Allis, Wisconsin, a middle-aged white woman named Kathy, laments that “the country is more racist than ever” and recounts with great sympathy how a number of people of color have worked at her home assisting her special-needs son, but find themselves spread thin by contingent work and no benefits: “These are hard-working women….They want to earn a decent income but the policies say, if you earn $20,000 or $25,000, you’re going to be completely cut off from food stamps if you need them, heating assistance if you need it, daycare assistance if you need it.”

This is both a strong, if inadvertent, case for instituting a minimum income, and a critique of the perverse incentives of Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare overhaul. But one of the tacit tragedies that Zaitchik documents here is the flip side of Kathy’s support for Trump: a Democratic Party that has spent the better part of a political generation ignoring the plight of its former working-class and poor constituencies and feverishly packing American manufacturing jobs off to low-wage foreign destinations.

Indeed, one of Zaitchik’s more striking interviews is with a West Virginian named Ed Wiley, a former mine worker committed to stopping the spread of silica dust to the schools in his native Coal Creek. After he failed to get state and local officials involved, Wiley walked some 300 miles to the DC office of his home-state senator, Robert Byrd, in an attempt to get some traction in Congress. (The effort ultimately failed when Byrd, then on the verge of retirement, insisted that he was powerless to rein in the state’s coal industry.)

Wiley could have gone in two directions: the left or the right. Guess which one he ultimately chose? “Trump will get elected,” he explains. “I’m for it…. People in America like his attitude. We’re tired of being broke. People’s tired of bull crap. Jobs never should have left here. They should have stayed in America. He’s a businessman, and mostly everything in the world now depends on some kind of business.”

Like several of Zaitchik’s interview subjects, Wiley is attracted to Trump not because of Trump’s xenophobia or dour view of the political status quo; he’s drawn because Trump represents a return to a no-nonsense view of America’s promise and place in the world. “We need to keep our butts at home, stay out of these wars,” Wiley says. Trump “says it like it is.” And like any true positive-thinking believer, Wiley adds: “If he says it, he’s probably going to do it one way or another, or try to. He don’t hold nothing back.”

In fact, Wiley wishes that Trump would hold back a few of his more apocalyptic applause lines. He’s not a champion, for example, of the fabled wall that Trump wants to erect along our southern border. “We don’t need a damn wall,” Wiley says. “Get along with the people. Bring them and build more. Help us build the country. They want to work too.” He likewise rejects Trump’s law-and-order bluster on the immigration issue: “Trump should stop calling them scoundrels. Everybody’s not a scoundrel. And them people are desperate. You become a bit of a scoundrel when you get desperate, whether you are or not. You get hungry, you’re going to grab that donut, if you can get it.”

* * *

The overall effect of Zaitchik’s unrushed, painstaking interviews is to show a Trump electorate whose members—much like the rest of us—are deeply anxious and concerned about their precarious standing in a political and economic order that hasn’t given them any grounds for hope. He also captures the power that Trump’s positive-thinking gospel has over many Americans who find themselves trapped in grinding socioeconomic despair. That hopelessness does undoubtedly spill over into spasms of racially charged invective. More often, though, it translates into a talismanic faith in Trump’s near-mythical ability to “fix it.” Rather than deriding Trump’s following as a collection of unseemly and ill-informed yahoos, our elite commentariat would be far better served by actually talking to them and considering how Trump has become a symbol of the yearnings for hope and possibility in the American heartland.

Many of Zaitchik’s informants say approvingly of Trump that he’s a businessman—i.e., a nonpolitician who knows how to get things done when no one else will. Trump’s long record of past business failures doesn’t dampen this faith. Quite the contrary: It serves as a credential among some of his supporters—a reminder that, rich as he may be, he’s also faced hard times and prevailed. “Why not give Mr. Trump the opportunity to bring the country back?” asks Eldon Martinez, a retired Native American cop at a rally in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Who better than Trump, a business owner who has failed a couple of times? Who knows how to pick himself up and move forward?”

Still, it’s surpassingly odd to hear people describe, in painful detail, the business-engineered mauling of their livelihoods and communities—and then see them turn to a singularly callous and self-obsessed businessman as their appointed political savior. Then again, these are people who have been systematically denied any meaningful measure of political control or power over their lives. Except, that is, the power of positive thinking—and that grim truth will provide ample reason for Trump and his new legion of alt-right enablers to keep smiling well beyond the 2016 election.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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