Donald Trump is a self-help apostle. He always has tried to create his own reality by saying what he wants to be true. Where many see failure, Trump sees only success, and expresses it out loud, again and again.
“We have the votes” to pass a new health care bill, he said last month even though he and Republicans didn’t then and still don’t.
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“We get an A-plus,” he said last week of his and his administration’s response to the devastating recent hurricanes as others doled out withering reviews.
“I’ve had just about the most legislation passed of any president, in a nine-month period, that’s ever served,” he said this week in an interview with Forbes, contradicting objective metrics and repeating his frequent and dubious assertion of unprecedented success throughout the first year of his first term as president.
The reality is that Trump is in a rut. His legislative agenda is floundering. His approval ratings are historically low. He’s raging privately while engaging in noisy, internecine squabbles. He’s increasingly isolated. And yet his fact-flouting declarations of positivity continue unabated. For Trump, though, these statements are not issues of right or wrong or true or false. They are something much more elemental. They are a direct result of the closest thing the stubborn, ideologically malleable celebrity businessman turned most powerful person on the planet has ever had to a devout religious faith. This is not his mother’s flinty Scottish Presbyterianism but Norman Vincent Peale’s “power of positive thinking,” the utterly American belief in self above all else and the conviction that thoughts can be causative, that basic assertion can lead to actual achievement.
Trump and his father were Peale acolytes—the minister married Trump at the first of his three weddings—and Peale’s overarching philosophy has been a lodestar for Trump over the course of his decades of triumphs as well as the crises and chaos. “Stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding,” Peale urged his millions of followers. “Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade.” It was a mindset perfectly tailored for an ambitious builder determined to change the skyline of one of the globe’s great cities. Trump, who used this self-confidence to blow right past a series of seemingly fatal gaffes and controversies to win an election last fall that polls said he couldn’t and wouldn’t, in this respect has been a prize Peale pupil—arguably the most successful Peale disciple ever.
“I don’t even think it’s an argument,” his biographer Gwenda Blair told me recently. “It’s a fact.” The power of positive thinking? “He weaponized it.”
But now, in the political realm, where the space between spin and truth is parsed constantly—and with consequences—it is Trump’s very success that has opened him up to questions that simply didn’t matter as much when he was a television star, or opening golf courses, or licensing his last name to steaks, bottled water or far-flung condominium projects. Is Trump’s relentlessly optimistic insistence of his own version of reality an asset, a sign of admirable grit for a politician desperate to score some legislative victories? Or is it a sort of self-delusion that risks embarrassment, or worse, in the highest-stakes geopolitical arena?
Science, it turns out, has something to say about this.
Self-help is a multibillion-dollar business. Airport shelves groan under the weight of how-to and pick-me-up books churned out by writers who all are essentially Peale progeny. The industry is prevalent in American culture to the point that it has spawned its own sub-group of critics who dismiss it as silly at best and dangerous at worst. “If you are simple enough to buy a self-help book, you may be congenitally programmed to fail,” Tom Tiede wrote in 2001 in his own book, Self-Help Nation: The Long Overdue, Entirely Justified, Delightfully Hostile Guide to the Snake-Oil Peddlers Who Are Sapping Our Nation’s Soul. “Positive thinking” has garnered such social currency that it also has become a subject of academic inquiry. And though it certainly was not conceived with this in mind, the science of self-help—of happiness and well-being, of specific phenomena called “unrealistic optimism” and “positive illusions”—is now in some respects the study of the way Trump thinks and what it could mean for the country and beyond.
How can Trump say the things that he does?
Read the research.
In 1988, in a seminal paper within the subject area, psychologists from UCLA and Southern Methodist University wrote that “considerable research evidence suggests that overly positive self-evaluations, exaggerated perceptions of control or mastery, and unrealistic optimism are characteristic of normal human thought.” They added that “positive illusions may be especially useful when an individual receives negative feedback or is otherwise threatened.” They warned, though, of inherent risks and limitations: “For example, a falsely positive sense of accomplishment may lead people to pursue careers and interests for which they are ill-suited.”
Two years ago, English researchers published an update. People with “unrealistic optimism,” they wrote, “believe that they are more virtuous, more talented and more compassionate than others, and less prone to error.” They “believe that they can control events that are not under their control.” They “believe that they are less likely to experience future negative outcomes.” They “have overly flattering conceptions of themselves that are also resistant to negative feedback.” Sometimes, they said, all of that can help people like this perform well. “In conditions of uncertainty and risk,” the researchers explained, “some instances of optimism lead people to make better decisions by helping avoid more costly mistakes and contribute to survival and flourishing.” Even so, it’s true only to a point. “Excessive optimism,” they concluded, “can become problematic and lead to poor strategic planning, disillusionment and disappointment, and risky behaviors.”
Where precisely the benefits of “unrealistic optimism” and “positive illusions” end and the drawbacks and dangers begin is nearly impossible to identify, researchers told me. There are just too many variables. A person’s web of characteristics. That person’s wider environment. The complexity of a situation. There’s almost no way to know for sure when a line is crossed between helpful self-assurance and disastrous self-delusion.
“If there is, I don’t know it,” said retired professor Neil Weinstein, who wrote a paper in 1982 when he was at Rutgers University titled “Egocentrism as a Source of Unrealistic Optimism.”
“The world isn’t that predictable,” he said.
Donald Trump, after all, is the president.
He was born into a house that Norman Vincent Peale helped build.
Peale’s cheery, simple tips allowed Trump’s father to alleviate his anxieties and mitigate the effects of his innately awkward, dour disposition. Emboldened Fred Trump banked hundreds of millions of dollars building single-family houses and then immense apartment buildings in New York’s outer boroughs. Peale appealed to the elder Trump, too, because both men embraced conservative, right-wing, us-versus-them politics—an important but often forgotten portion of Peale’s M.O.
A generation down, Peale appealed to Donald Trump because Trump idolized his father, and because what Fred Trump drilled into his most eager, most ambitious, most like-minded son—be a killer; be a king; be a winner, not a loser—is what made that son so receptive to the teachings of Peale. Born in 1946, Donald Trump’s childhood was spent in a house with white columns and nine bathrooms and a live-in maid and chauffeur in Jamaica Estates, Queens. Sometimes, when it rained or snowed, he did his paper route from the back of his father’s limousine.
Peale, known as “God’s salesman,” reached the peak of his influence in the heart of Trump’s childhood, preaching in the 1950s to millions of people on Sundays at Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan as well as through a syndicated newspaper column, radio and television shows, his Guideposts magazine and a spate of books that were self-help trailblazers—first and foremost, of course, The Power of Positive Thinking, his defining work and wild bestseller that came out in 1952. It offered chapters such as “Believe in Yourself,” “Expect the Best and Get It” and “I Don’t Believe in Defeat.” “Whenever a negative thought concerning your personal powers comes to mind, deliberately voice a positive thought,” he wrote. “Actually,” Peale once said, “it is an affront to God when you have a low opinion of yourself.”
Peale was far from universally popular. One psychiatrist dubbed The Power of Positive Thinking “saccharine terrorism.” And during the 1952 presidential campaign, the Democratic nominee made his feelings plain. “Speaking as a Christian,” the brainy Adlai Stevenson said at a Baptist convention in Texas, “I would like to say that I find the Apostle Paul appealing and the Apostle Peale appalling.” But Peale permanently altered the way many Americans worship. His was a precursor to the prosperity gospel espoused today by, say, the toothy Joel Osteen. “By repeatedly equating business acumen with piety, uncertainty with religious doubt, and personal and cultural failure with godlessness, Peale and his admirers helped to redefine religious Americans as socially superior winners,” Northwestern University English professor Christopher Lane wrote in his 2016 book, Surge of Piety: Norman Vincent Peale and the Remaking of American Religious Life.
What Peale peddled was “a certain positive, feel-good religiosity that demands nothing of you and rewards you with worldly riches and success,” said Princeton University historian Kevin Kruse, the author of One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. “It’s a self-help gospel … the name-it-and-claim-it gospel.”
And for Donald Trump, the attraction to Peale did not diminish with time. Even as more traditional theologians derided Peale as more huckster than holy man and intellectuals mocked him as a lightweight, Trump in his 30s remained a staunch Peale adherent.
Peale, then nearly 80 years old, officiated Trump’s wedding in 1977. In 1983, shortly after the opening of Trump Tower, Trump credited Peale for instilling in him a can-do ethos. “The mind can overcome any obstacle,” he told the New York Times. “I never think of the negative.” The feeling was mutual. In the Times, Peale called Trump “kindly and courteous” and commented on “a profound streak of honesty and humility” he thought Trump possessed. Trump at the time was newly ascendant, and the influence of Peale coursed through his aspirations and interactions. “If you’re going to be thinking anyway,” he wrote in 1987 in The Art of the Deal, “you might as well think big.”
That year, Jack O’Donnell saw it firsthand. He started work for Trump as a marketing executive at one of his casinos in Atlantic City.
“This is the best place in the world to work, and I’m the best guy in the world to work for,” Trump told O’Donnell in their first meeting, according to O’Donnell’s 1991 book, Trumped! The onslaught of Peale-preached superlatives kept coming. “I’m America’s most successful businessman,” Trump said. “I’m a winner. I’ve always been a winner.”
O’Donnell, though, soon was worried about the pitfalls of such optimism. By 1988, a manic, temperamental Trump was overwhelmed, in O’Donnell’s estimation, by the world that he had created for himself. He had piled up accomplishments, acquisitions and debts. It was too much. “He was at the point where image superseded reality,” O’Donnell would write in his book. “In the same way that he believed a man could retain his hair by willing not to go bald, he thought he could redress the operational shortcoming of a multimillion-dollar company and make it successful by stating and restating that it was.”
It caught up with him.
The early 1990s were a low point in Trump’s life. As his casinos careened toward corporate bankruptcy and he suffocated under billions of dollars of debt—not to mention the hyper-public break-up of his marriage to the mother of his first three children—Trump’s credibility and viability as a businessman were in jeopardy. Drawing on Peale, Trump was unswayed, leaning extra-heavy on the principal tenet of the power of positive thinking—think it, say it, and say it and say it and say it, in an all-out effort to make it so. “It’s all going to work out,” he said to a reporter from the Wall Street Journal. Trump, all but dead? “Hotter than ever,” he told New York magazine.
“I would have been looking for the nearest building to jump off of, and he just remained upbeat all of the time,” Steve Bollenbach, the lender-mandated financial-fixer who helped Trump avoid personal bankruptcy and lasting business humiliation, once told biographer Tim O’Brien. “I never suspected that he lost a moment’s sleep.”
Trump tapped into Peale, he would say. “I refused to give in to the negative circumstances,” he said in a 2009 interview with Psychology Today that is littered with the particular language of Peale. “I never lost faith in myself. … Being tenacious is part of my personality. … Defeat is not in my vocabulary.” He mentioned Peale and his most famous book. He was, Trump said, “a firm believer in the power of being positive.”
“Someone asked me if I thought I was a genius,” he wrote in 2009 in Think Like a Champion. “I decided to say yes. Why not? Try it out. Tell yourself that you are a genius.” He practiced this tactic even as the scorecard of his business dealings recorded something other than genius. After three more corporate bankruptcies for his casinos, as well as a variety of other business failures, from Trump Mortgage to Trump University to name-branded condo projects stalled and killed by the Great Recession, Trump kept proclaiming success. “I’ve done an incredible job,” he said in 2013.
It was time to run for president.
“Norman Vincent Peale, the great Norman Vincent Peale, was my pastor,” Trump told the audience at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, in July of 2015, barely more than a month into his run. “The power of positive thinking,” he said. He said this in between having consultant and pollster Frank Luntz ask him the same question twice: “Have you ever asked God for forgiveness?” His answer: “I’m not sure I have.” For Trump, thanks to Peale, that’s not primarily what religion was for.
“Affirm it, visualize it, believe it, and it will actualize itself,” Peale had written—and last year around this time, in the roiling wake of the tape of Trump bragging about his ability to grope women with impunity, with pundits saying he would lose and lose badly, and with more and more women accusing him of sexual harassment and members of his own party and even the man who would become his chief of staff suggesting he should drop out, Trump did not do what almost anybody else would have done. Everybody else? There’s literally not another politician in history who was facing what he was facing and didn’t not only stop running the race in question but recede from public life altogether. But that’s not what Trump did. Trump did what he’s always done. He doubled down on Peale 101.
Polls said he was not going to win.
“We’re going to win,” he told Sean Hannity three weeks before the election.
“We’re going to win the great state of Michigan,” he said at a boisterous rally at 1 in the morning in Grand Rapids on Election Day, “and we are going to win back the White House.”
Trump does not often share the spotlight, but it seems likely, based on his decades of testimonials, that he might give Peale at least some credit for the astonishing, highly improbable arc of his life. Trump’s current job is in some ways a confirmation of Peale’s core principles. He visualized. It actualized.
From a scientific perspective, though, Trump is an incomplete experiment. For decades, researchers have attempted to quantify the range of outcomes of positive thinking, looking for objective ways to correlate internal belief and external reality.
“There are really strong benefits in terms of undertaking activities that are difficult and for which the true odds would be daunting if you paid attention to them,” Jonathon Brown told me. He was the SMU psychologist who was one-half of the research team behind the 1988 paper on “illusion” and “well-being.” He’s now at the University of Washington. He gave examples of starting a business or getting married. Other researchers I talked to brought up health outcomes. In situations of, for instance, dire cancer diagnoses, the prospect of survivability can get a boost from optimism that’s statistically unjustified.
“Positive thinking can motivate an individual,” Wellesley College psychology professor Julie Norem said. Also: “Other people at least initially often respond positively to it. If I present myself to you as somebody who’s upbeat and really confident … chances are pretty good that initially you’re going to believe me. You’re going to say, ‘Wow, that person’s really got it together. That person’s really going to go someplace.’ And that’s a huge advantage in life.”
Then there’s the but.
“For most people,” said Norem, who specializes in optimism, pessimism and personality psychology, “there’s a point at which, if that’s all they bring to the table, it breaks down.”
The question is where that point is for Trump. He is so clearly not most people. In the words of Mitch Horowitz: “He is a kind of Frankenstein monster of the philosophy” of positive thought.
“Trump,” said Horowitz, a self-help expert and the author of One Simple Idea: How the Lessons of Positive Thinking Can Transform Your Life, “seems to be an example of at least the short-term, destructive gains that you can attain through self-help, through self-assertion, and people’s willingness to believe what they think that they see.”
Short-term. Trump’s version of his own reality, some insist, ultimately will crash against something more real. “In the end, I think reality is like gravity. It exerts its own force,” said Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a consistent conservative critic of Trump. “The power of positive thinking can only carry you so far.”
He offered an example. “I could use the power of positive thinking and convince myself that I’m going to be the starting center for the Golden State Warriors,” Wehner said, “but it’s not going to happen.”
To carry this metaphor a small step forward, though, Trump is actually currently the starting center for the Golden State Warriors. (He’s definitely not Stephen Curry.) Wehner granted that. “And his supporters,” he said, “probably think he’s scoring 25 points and a game and averaging 11 rebounds.”
This, though, is just it: Nobody, ever, has had more success convincing himself, and others, that he is a success even when he is not—and thus turning that stated sentiment into actual, tangible, considerable accomplishment. And if he could do that, it seems fair to ask whether gravity or accepted laws of politics apply to him at all. What, exactly, is “unrealistic” about Trump’s optimism? “It’s gotten him this far,” said Blair, the biographer. “He has a lot of reason to believe that something like the power of gravity doesn’t apply to him.”
The science here hits a ceiling. Researchers do their work in controlled settings to obtain empirical results. America under Trump, meanwhile, is far from a controlled setting. And if it’s difficult to determine the location of that line between self-assurance and self-delusion in the former, it’s impossible in the latter. Scientifically speaking, the Trump presidency is uncharted territory.
“The degree of positive thinking that we talk about in the paper bears no resemblance to what President Trump is exhibiting on a daily basis, which would be an extreme form of what we talked about,” said Brown from the University of Washington. “What we were really looking at was sort of … should you know what you are really like? Is a person best served by knowing what they are really like? And I think the answer to that is no. You’re better served believing you are a little bit better than you are—but not wildly …”
Brown citied the opening salvo of the Trump administration: the fight over the size of the turnout at the inauguration. He somehow saw a crowd that was larger than it factually was, and said so. That, Brown said, isn’t self-confidence or self-assertion. “That’s bizarre. That isn’t within the normal range of human behavior,” he said. “No psychologist would say that’s adaptive.”
“There is a lot to like in the idea of power of positive thinking,” Ed Diener, one of the country’s leading researchers of happiness, told me, “but of course it must be grounded in a degree of realism.”
And where’s that dividing line?
The dividing line, Diener said, “is when the delusions become dysfunctional.”
And where is that?
“Where the distortions become strong enough that they make one act irrationally, impulsively,” he said.
“The biggest problem with the Norman Vincent Peale version of positive thinking,” said Wellesley’s Norem, “is that you can’t know when you’ve crossed the line—because if you’re accepting that as a philosophy, you’re already defining out of the picture any negative thoughts. And one of the ways in which Trump is so extreme is the extent to which he does that for himself. So he’s at the center of this positive world, and anything negative that impinges on it is evil, bad and forbidden.”
He won’t see the line if and when it arrives.
As for the rest of us?
“I mean, if we’re all blown up, in a nuclear war,” Norem said, “then that’s going to be a pretty clear line.”