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The Power of Positive Thinking: Too Much and Never Enough

How Norman Vincent Peale’s self-help theology took us from Trump Steaks to Trump COVID-19.
August 26, 2020
The Power of Positive Thinking: Too Much and Never Enough
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images / 1982 Mass Market paperback cover)

When published in 1952, The Power of Positive Thinking was a progenitor of what came to be known as the “prosperity gospel” (a belief popularized by televangelists that God intends Christians to be healthy and wealthy) and one of the very first Christian “self-help” books. America stood astride the globe, and the Greatest Generation was clamoring to catch up from the deprivations of the war years. Americans were making everything from cars to babies at astounding rates and creating civic organizations and churches to support growing families and communities. The Power of Positive Thinking’s message of optimism and self-improvement was perfectly suited to one of the most optimistic eras in American history.

The book’s teachings are straightforward, organized around 10 key principles, like the laws of Moses. The author, Norman Vincent Peale, recommends visualizing success, drowning out negative thinking, and minimizing obstacles—pretty much a Tony Robbins seminar or a Sunday morning with Joel Osteen. Certain Bible verses (“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”; “If God be for us, who can be against us?”) stripped of context, interpretation, and theology, are to be repeated 10 times per day to ward off the evil spirit of negative thought. The purpose of these psychological and spiritual practices is to free individuals from self-doubt and feelings of inferiority and help them to become the people God truly intends them to be: happy, wealthy, popular, and professionally successful.

In a way, the principles of the book were as old as the country itself. Ever since the first buckled Puritan shoe stepped onto North American shores, prosperity has been interpreted as proof of “election” and poverty, by extension, of damnation. (Forget what you read in the Sermon on the Mount, the poor aren’t blessed and even if they inherit the earth they’ll get nothing more than dirt.) While it’s hard to imagine a successful, capitalist economy without it, Puritan Christianity often leaves Christians feeling exhausted, anxious, and guilt-ridden, sinners in the hands of an angry God who looks at their brokenness and suffering and says, “You aren’t doing it right. Try harder.”

Peale took a kinder, gentler tack than Jonathan Edwards. Peale was exceptional for cutting the flock some spiritual slack, encouraging them to look for the sunny side and conquer their inferiority complexes. In his world, you can have the economic gains minus the guilt, which seems perfectly suited to the American sensibility. For a public with access to few effective mental health treatments—lithium had just come onto the market as a mood stabilizer in 1948—and weighed down by the demands of extroverted Americanism, The Power of Positive Thinking must have been a like a tonic, or perhaps a gin and tonic, something to soothe the wired, weary, worried soul.

The book sold millions of copies and was eventually translated into more than 40 languages, and Peale, from his pulpit at Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, became central to the spiritual life of the family of Fred Trump Sr., his wife, Mary, and the four Trump children, including the future president. Donald Trump once recalled how he could “listen to Peale all day” and “be disappointed when it was over.” He needn’t have worried: Peale’s ideas would take pride of place in the life of Trump’s family and America’s for decades to come.

The Power of Positive Thinking may have been a salve for the average, emotionally troubled, success-burdened American but it was also well suited to justifying and exacerbating the pathologies of the Trump family and businesses. In her recent memoir, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, Mary Trump (the president’s niece who also happens to have a Ph.D. in psychology) paints a portrait of Fred Trump Sr. as a sociopath, utterly uninterested in entering into the moral, emotional, and psychological world of his family or its members. In keeping with Peale’s teaching, he would no more hear about his wife’s or children’s problems than he would accept a failed business deal. Mary, a woman who suffered multiple illnesses including debilitating osteoporosis, was in and out of the hospital (which she appears to have enjoyed as a respite from her husband) and lived much of her life in physical pain. As she grimaced, Fred would just say, “Everything’s great, right Toots?” refusing to acknowledge, much less accommodate, her illness. 

Fred Sr.’s psycho-emotional stonewalling played out most acutely in relationship with his namesake, Fred Junior. Never suited to the family business, Jr. attempted to strike out on his own only to be bullied back into Trump Management, the family’s real estate company, by both Fred Sr. and Donald. As recounted in Too Much and Never Enough, Fred Jr. was then further abused, repeatedly denied authority, second-guessed at every turn, and blamed for every problem, setback, and failure in a perverse tag-team between Fred Sr. and Donald. The abuse fed his alcoholism, which, in the family’s Peale-informed understanding, was not a disease requiring treatment but the result of Fred Jr.’s negative thinking. When the son went to the father for help, Fred Sr. replied, “Just give it a quarter turn on the mental carburetor” or “Just make up your mind, Fred.” Fred Jr. replied, rather wanly, “That’s like telling me to make up my mind to give up cancer.” Fred Jr.’s deepening alcoholism only elicited increasing abuse from his father and brother seemingly under the theory that if they were hard enough on him he would turn around. Even in his final crisis, afflicted by fatal, alcohol-induced cardiac problems, no member of the family went with him to the hospital (Donald Trump went to a movie instead). Dying, it appears, is the result of late-stage negative thought.

These are the problem-solving strategies that Donald Trump brought to his marriages, six corporate bankruptcies, presidential campaign, and now, what increasingly appears to be a failed presidency. The consistent element in each of these has been to deny negative realities and keep moving. The casinos, the airline, the football league, Trump Vodka, Trump Steaks, Trump University . . . all bear the same markings of hyper optimism and overpromise/underdeliver salesmanship. Recorded on tape talking about sexual assault? No problem, just bluster your way through. Tell your team, “this doesn’t sound like me.” He wasn’t so much denying the charge to the public as much as denying it to himself, turning away from a distasteful glimpse of himself in the mirror. When he was presented with incontrovertible evidence of Russian interference in domestic U.S. politics, he didn’t just deny it (and continue to do so) he fired the messengers and shrank the White House offices that insisted on delivering the bad news.

Now we have Trump COVID-19 and it’s following the same pattern. The virus is “very well under control” and “going to fade away.” Or it can be cured by malaria drugs or maybe some light or injected disinfectant. (Or, as recently announced, overruling NIH experts to insist on an emergency use authorization for convalescent blood plasma despite uncertain results on its efficacy.) Slow down the testing and we’ll have fewer cases. You see, conquering COVID-19 is just a matter of substituting positive thoughts for negative data. Various theories have been floated to explain Trump’s resolute unwillingness to deal directly and truthfully with the crisis: stupidity (he’s anything but stupid), arrogance, and deceit among them. It’s really much simpler than that. Trump’s just doing what he’s always done: conquering the challenge by blinding himself to it, just the way Reverend Peale taught him and his father insisted upon. 

It is sometimes said a little bit of religion is often worse than no religion. My AEI colleague, Brad Wilcox, documented that men who identified as “evangelical” but infrequently attend church were more likely to engage in domestic violence than evangelicals who regularly attended church, mainline Protestants and those who never attend church. Wilcox believes this results from a kind of doctrinal cherry-picking—big on authority, sovereignty, and power but closed to other-directed teachings like altruism and self-sacrifice. Weak attachment to religious faith tends to put some of the worst behaviors on steroids.  

As he lays out early in The Power of Positive Thinking, Peale wanted people to be hopeful, kind, and optimistic, and to become “people persons.” The Trump family heard the positive thinking, personal empowerment parts, which integrated easily with its win-at-all-cost ideology, but they, or at least Donald, missed the bits about seeking counsel from others and living a life of dependence upon God. For Donald Trump, and now the United States of America, the Power of Positive Thinking and its encouragement to irrational optimism, has helped make the American pandemic response a failure by almost any measure

In a 2009 interview on failure with Psychology Today, the then-host of The Apprentice said he “refused to be sucked into negative thinking on any level, even when the indications weren’t great.” His optimism, though all-encompassing as it relates to himself, is abandoned in relationship to others. Every person Trump meets is assumed to be as nakedly self-serving as he is. Trump’s world is a dark one but also a sad and disappointing one in which he is always denied his due by “nasty” opponents, which includes anyone who goes so far as to demur from his claims of greatness. Hobbes said human existence was a state of nature, a war of all against all. The state of Trumpian nature pits all against him—and, more importantly, him against all, an anti-human worldview that stands Norman Vincent Peale on his head. For Donald Trump, The Power of Positive Thinking has turned out to be both too much, and at the same time, never enough.

Brent Orrell

Brent Orrell is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he researches workforce development and criminal justice issues.