A genuinely troubling piece by Matthew Schmitz appears at the Catholic magazine First Things (August/September 2016) on Donald Trump’s “faith,” which, it turns out, is in the positive thinking philosophy of Norman Vincent Peale, someone Trump interacted with personally when he was younger. It explains so much about Trump. By lifelong habit, he has learned how to con himself–and con others–via Peale’s famed confidence tricks, detailed in his book, The Power of Positive Thinking (1952). And how well the tricks have worked for Trump! Six money quotes from the excellent essay:
Peale promised his readers “constant energy” if they thought positively. Optimistic thoughts opened one up to a vital force coming directly from God. Negative thoughts, especially a tendency to dwell on one’s faults, could interfere with the divine charge. He warned those with active consciences that “the quantity of vital force required to give the personality relief from either guilt or fear” was so great that it left “only a fraction of energy” for going about one’s tasks. […]
For Peale, “attitudes are more important than facts.” The man who displays “a confident and optimistic thought pattern can modify or overcome the fact altogether.” The first fact that Peale’s positive thinking had to overcome was the fact of human frailty. […]
Where the Bible urges man to search his heart and know his faults, Peale encourages him to “make a true estimate of your own ability, then raise it ten percent.” […] Thus the necessity of repentance recedes. It is important to think positively, and a negative thought, […] can be injurious to spiritual health. Yet the gloomy aspect of traditional Christian practice is also the wellspring of Christian compassion. At the moment a Christian asks for forgiveness, he must acknowledge his own weakness and look mercifully on the weakness of others. […]
At a campaign event in Iowa, Trump shocked the audience by saying that he had never asked God for forgiveness. All his other disturbing statements—his attacks on every vulnerable group—are made intelligible by this one. The self-sufficient faith Trump absorbed from Peale has no place for human weakness. Human frailty, dependency, and sinfulness cannot be acknowledged; they must be overcome. This opens up the possibility of great cruelty toward those who cannot wish themselves into being winners. A man who need not ask forgiveness need never forgive others. He does not realize his own weakness, and so he mocks and reviles every sign of weakness in his fellow men. […]
Because Peale was a decent man of sincere if not quite orthodox Christian faith, he never drew out the harsh implications of his views. Trump feels no such restraint, and so has taken Peale’s teaching to its logical conclusion. He has called the widow whose house he tried to take a “terrible human being” whose lawyer is a “loser.” He has mocked a reporter for having a disfigured hand. […]
Peale is now largely forgotten, and his bestseller languishes in used book stores. This is a shame, for it has led us to underestimate the influence and power of the self-sufficient faith that he promoted, and that he imparted to his greatest student. Peale meant to preach a gentle creed, one that made hellfire and terror into mere afterthoughts. In Trump it has curdled into pagan disdain. Both forms of this philosophy have captured the public imagination, and both stand at odds with the faith taught by Christ.
What strikes me most about these quotes is how they expose Trump as an American Nietzsche, and yet they are also accompanied by this thought: If he wins the presidency, it will be because conservative evangelical and Catholic Christians–Christians!–put him over the top. Trump is devoted to a philosophy that holds losers in contempt, and his strongest backers are . . . Christians. And Mike Pence, an evangelical, is his running mate.
The majority of conservative Christians in Germany in the 1930s made a similar pact with a strong man. We are living through an extraordinarily dangerous political moment.