The report from the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol lands at an all-too-apt juncture in our politics. Just this week, the Republican Party launched the new session of Congress with a once-in-a-century failure to designate a House speaker, as the hard-right Freedom Caucus blockaded basic procedural order in favor of raw nihilistic power plays. The right-wing mediasphere continues to light up with baseless, militantly confrontational conspiracy theories, involving everything from Hunter Biden’s laptop to Anthony Fauci to Jewish world domination. Meanwhile, Donald Trump himself is once more dusting off the false election-theft narrative that sparked the January 6 attack, reviving disproven, plainly racist, allegations of election tampering targeting Georgia African American election worker Ruby Freeman.
In other words, we are still very much living in the shadow of January 6. The select committee’s published report patiently lays out how the delusive Trump-authored lies about the theft of the 2020 presidential election touched off a lethal assault on the Capitol, and by extension the rickety armature of our system of governance. It lays to rest the superficial impression that the 2021 insurrection was a peaceful civic protest that got out of hand and devolved into destructive chaos: It was, rather, scripted and directed by the 45th president, who supplied the bald fabrications about the election to foment mass outrage on the right while mounting a concerted legal and political effort to overturn it and restore himself to power in a violent coup. Rendering all this in plain language, the report’s authors make an unanswerable case for Trump’s legal and criminal responsibility for the horrors of January 6.
There remains a mystery at the heart of the insurrection, though, that gets only glancing treatment in a document principally taken up with questions of legal culpability—namely, how did Trump come to embrace the stolen-election narrative in the first place? The report contends that it was a crude and desperate power grab—that as the Trump campaign was losing ground in the final stretch of the election, its lead strategists began flirting with the notion that the president might simply pronounce himself the victor and exploit the vast reach and resources of the presidency to make it so. “Trump’s going to say he’s the winner,” his former campaign manager Steve Bannon told a group of backers. “That doesn’t mean he’s the winner.”
The committee’s shorthand for this strategy is “the Big Lie”—an Americanized version of the Nazi propaganda tactic of building a message out of brazen untruths, repeated without qualification, apology, or remorse. This is certainly an apt characterization of how Trump and his operatives ginned up the stolen-election fable and unleashed it into the mediasphere. But it omits a key point: Unlike Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, Trump was lying to himself as much as to the American public. The committee gives an impressive litany of the many times White House aides and Justice Department officials sought to talk Trump down from the deranged, kitchen-sink narrative of election theft that he and enablers such as John Eastman and Rudy Giuliani cobbled together on the fly. But the legal and moral brief here doesn’t get to the heart of the matter: What sort of semi-functional adult buys into this sort of crap?
In Trump’s case, the short answer is: a diehard apostle of positive thinking. From his childhood on, Trump worshiped at clergyman and self-help author Norman Vincent Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan; Peale even presided over his first marriage. And the heart of Peale’s gospel is the rote incantation of scripture-themed mantras of personal success that make personal and business conquest a virtual inevitability. Introspection and self-doubt are pure poison to aspiring positive thinkers, and the entire Peale-driven scheme of salvation pivots on the dogmatic denial of failure as a possibility. Trump’s devotion to positive thinking was plainly manifest when his Atlantic City casino empire foundered on an ocean of debt; he deliberately staged press events that omitted all mention of the word “bankruptcy,” even though Trump was well and truly bankrupt (and not for the first time in his overhyped career as a lord of finance). Likewise, when Trump sued one of his biographers over the published claim that he was not, in fact, a billionaire, he explained in a deposition that he was a billionaire because he felt like one—or as he put it, in classic Peale-ese, “I like to be as positive as I am with respect to my properties.”
With this sort of self-fabulizing gospel of wealth at the foundation of Trump’s character, it’s not hard to see why the notion of a one-term presidency was simply unthinkable. The committee’s chronicle of the events leading up to January 6 is so comprehensive that Trump’s own Peale-ist outlook does obtrude, albeit without editorial comment. At one point, Trump urged Acting Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen and his deputy Richard Donoghue to file a complaint alleging widespread election fraud before the Supreme Court; when the lawyers explained this was impossible, since the DOJ had no standing to sue, the report notes that “President Trump became incredulous and ‘very animated.’ The President kept repeating the same question over and over, ‘How is that possible?’ ‘How can that possibly be?’”
In the mind of Donald Trump, it can’t—which is why he blew by not just Rosen and Donoghue but any and all messengers poised to remind him of the obvious mathematical truth of his defeat at Joe Biden’s hands. It’s also why he followed the chipper Constitution-shredding counsel of boyish New York lawyer Kenneth Chesebro, whose harebrained plan to create fake slates of Trump electors in pivotal swing states became the leading edge of the crusade to overturn the election. Cheseboro peppered his strategic correspondence with middle-school variations of Peale sloganeering such as “Pretty simple!” and “Really awesome!”
In the same vein, Trump tried to inveigle state election officials into signing off on the stolen-election narrative by invoking the purest currency of Peale success-preaching: executive praise. He told Frances Watson, the chief investigator for Georgia’s secretary of state, that he “won Georgia…by a lot” and tried to buck her up by assuring her that “you have the most important job in the country right now” and “when the right answer comes out, you’ll be praised.”
It’s admittedly hard to square the sunny apothegms of positive thinking with a fascist formation in American politics steeped in racialized resentment and coup-plotting. But Peale himself was an ardent political reactionary; he composed The Power of Positive Thinking on a union-busting junket to Hawaii. And the ritualized togetherness of Trump rallies and Trump-driven social media is likewise a clear outgrowth of the Peale success gospel. Another small but telling detail from the January 6 report drives this home: Sycophantic Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows was also lobbying Georgia election workers on his boss’s behalf, and at one point “suggested that Trump send election workers Trump memorabilia like presidential challenge coins and autographed MAGA hats.” Meadows’s proposal was dropped, which is too bad: One sure sign that American democracy would be on the long road to recovery would be a line of apparel reading, “I tried to overthrow our democracy and all I got was this lousy hat.”