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The Power of Negative Thinking

Trump's dark portrayal of the country offers important lessons for his political opponents.

Adam Campbell/Flickr

President Donald Trump is a terrific leader, if he does say so himself. There’s never been a commander-in-chief so prone to extravagant self-praise, which is all the more striking given the paucity of his achievements to date. “We’ve done a great job,” he told reporters on Friday. “We’ve done a great job in Puerto Rico.” Later that day, he tweeted what “a wonderful statement” from “the great” Lou Dobbs, a host on the Fox Business Network: “We take up what may be the most accomplished presidency in modern American history.” In interviews, Trump is eager to tout accomplishments that, quite frankly, don’t even make any sense, as when he claimed in an interview on Wednesday with Fox News’ Sean Hannity that the rise in the stock market can be seen as offsetting the national debt.

Trump’s relentless self-promotion is one of his most consistent character traits, which can be traced back to his earliest days as a real estate mogul. In always tooting his own horn, Trump is a familiar American type: the eternal salesman, a hustler who won’t take no for an answer and will say anything to close a deal. Being relentlessly on the make, for someone like Trump, isn’t just a job; it’s a vocation. And that vocation is fueled by a theology of positive thinking.

As a number of observers have persuasively argued, Trump is guided by a particular gospel. Though he’s more secular than any of his predecessors, he has genuine roots in one particular strand of Protestantism. He grew up attending the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, which was presided over by the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale, the author of one of the all-time bestselling self-help books in American history: The Power of Positive Thinking. In 1977, Peale would marry Trump to his first wife, Ivana.

While Trump has only the most rudimentary knowledge of the Bible, he often echoes Peale’s core lesson: that happy thoughts and cheerful chatter are the key to success. “Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding,” Peale wrote in his best-seller. “Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade. Your mind will seek to develop this picture. Never think of yourself as failing.” In a 1983 interview with The New York Times, Trump echoed Peale’s dogmas. “The mind can overcome any obstacle,” the young Trump said. “I never think of the negative.” In his campaign book Crippled America, Trump wrote, “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.”

Trump might feel positive about himself, but not about the world around him. As a candidate, and even as a president, he has often used dark, frightening rhetoric to portray America as a land where ordinary people are betrayed by a globalist elite and exploited by cunning foreigners and vicious immigrants—the most memorable exampled being his “American carnage” inaugural address. He also concocts derisive nicknames for his political enemies, most recently going after “Liddle” Bob Corker. But this seeming contradiction between the mantra of “positive thinking” and Trump’s nasty, apocalyptic rhetoric is best understood as two sides of the same sales pitch: The world is a mess, and “I alone can fix it.” Trump’s portrait of an America in deep decline was a necessary predicate to winning votes and now, less successfully, to maintaining support, the logic being that the U.S. was in such dire straits that it’s worth the risk to trust Trump.

The theological roots of “positive thinking” show how the seeming polar extremes of pessimism and optimism work hand in hand. Peale’s “positive thinking” is part of one of the great revolutions in American history, the overthrow of the Calvinist conscience. Historically, Calvinism, the version of Protestantism popular among early British settlers, promoted an almost morbid self-reflection on personal sin. This often debilitating focus on remorse was challenged in the nineteenth century from religious reformers, philosophers, and self-help gurus who were collectively labelled New Thought. As against the Calvinist injunction to examine internal vice, the New Thought argued that focusing on wholesome, productive ideas was the path to virtue.

As Barbara Ehrenreich noted in her 2008 book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, there was considerable continuity between the older Calvinism and the New Thought, despite their superficial differences: “The Calvinist monitored his or her thoughts and feelings for signs of laxness, sin, and self-indulgence, while the positive thinker is ever on the look out for ‘negative thoughts’ charged with anxiety or doubt.” To put it another way, Positive Thinking doesn’t so much displace Calvinist theology as shift the locus of evil, now seen as an external enemy to be fought rather than an internal sin to be overcome.

In political terms, it is precisely because Trump can’t abide any negative thoughts about his abilities that any problem is externalized. As a megalomaniac, Trump can’t acknowledge fault or the need to improve himself, so he lays blame for his failures on foes instead: the Fake News media, disloyal Republicans, or whiny Democrats. In short, Trump’s self-regard is built on his contempt for “losers and haters”—and vice versa. Yet Trump’s polarized view of the world and stark combination of pessimism and optimism offers a lesson for his opponents: If you want to build a politics that persuades people that major change is necessary, you have to paint with the same bright colors of despair and hope that Trump uses.

In the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton pointedly refused to match Trump’s dark vision of our times. She echoed the uninspiring words of Barack Obama: “America is already great.” Clinton was, to be sure, hobbled by the fact that she was running to continue Obama’s legacy. Still, by accepting the binders of “America is already great,” she foreclosed the possibility of running as a transformative candidate. Her campaign message could be summed thus: “Preserve the status quo.”

Fortunately, Democrats running in 2018 and 2020 won’t be similarly bound by a popular incumbent president. With Republicans controlling all three branches of government, presidential hopefuls like Senator Elizabeth Warren, not to mention many down-ballot candidates, should take a page from Trump’s playbook.

From a liberal point of view, it’s easy enough to tell a dystopian story about America today. It’s not just that the president is a reckless, incompetent racist who has no grasp on policy. It’s also that the political system is in the grip of plutocrats who limit reform, the archaic electoral and representative system effectively allows for minority rule, and the Republican Party’s embrace of white nationalism and voter suppression threaten to erode democracy. This doesn’t even begin to touch on the intractable problems of climate change, extreme economic inequality, and systemic racism.

Positive thinking is popular not just among hucksters like Trump, but also the political left, attached as it is to a view that history is a story of progress, however haltingly. Obama constantly invoked Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The notion it might not bend as such remains controversial on the left, hence the unending debate about the pessimism of Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose work increasingly emphasizes the profound influence of white supremacy in America. In an extended back-and-forth with Coates in 2014, Jonathan Chait of New York magazine argued,  “It is hard to explain how the United States has progressed from chattel slavery to emancipation to the end of lynching to the end of legal segregation to electing an African-American president if America has ‘rarely’ been the ally of African-Americans and ‘often’ its nemesis. It is one thing to notice the persistence of racism, quite another to interpret the history of black America as mainly one of continuity rather than mainly one of progress.” In response, Coates made a compelling case that an optimistic narrative of American history sweeps too much ugliness under the rug by ignoring how the very basis of progress was often racism itself:

The notion that black America’s long bloody journey was accomplished through frequent alliance with the United States is an assailant’s-eye view of history. It takes no note of the fact that in 1860, most of this country’s exports were derived from the forced labor of the people it was “allied” with. It takes no note of this country electing senators who, on the Senate floor, openly advocated domestic terrorism. It takes no note of what it means for a country to tolerate the majority of the people living in a state like Mississippi being denied the right to vote. It takes no note of what it means to exclude black people from the housing programs, from the GI Bills, that built the American middle class. Effectively it takes no serious note of African-American history, and thus no serious note of American history.

You see this in Chait’s belief that he lives in a country “whose soaring ideals sat uncomfortably aside an often cruel reality.” No. Those soaring ideals don’t sit uncomfortably aside the reality but comfortably on top of it. The “cruel reality” made the “soaring ideals” possible.

Three years later, Donald Trump is president, confirming Coates’s grim assessment of American history up to the present day. Trump didn’t just run a virulently racist campaign; his entire political identity, as Coates wrote in a recent essay, is founded on negating the achievements of the first black president. “The first white president in American history,” he concluded, “is also the most dangerous president—and he is made more dangerous still by the fact that those charged with analyzing him cannot name his essential nature, because they too are implicated in it.”

Coates’s fatalistic view that racism is intrinsic to American culture, including on the left, is tough for many progressives to accept. Stephen Colbert recently asked him, “Do you have any hope tonight for the people out there, about how we could be a better country, we could have better race relations, we could have better politics?” Coates responded in the negative.

One senses a fear, among Colbert and so many others, that pessimism is paralyzing; that it discourages the fight for change. But optimism has its own pitfalls. It can cause political miscalculations, as when Obama assured supporters in 2012 that if he were reelected, the Republican “fever” would break and the GOP would become more cooperative. In fact, Republicans became even more fevered, not only obstructing Obama but becoming more extreme in their racial politics, paving the way for Trump.

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, during his long imprisonment under Benito Mussolini’s regime, famously wrote, “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” In an American context, this combination can be found most potently in Abraham Lincoln, whose very awareness of the enormity of the problem of slavery pushed him toward the radical solution of abolition. There are few more negative national appraisals than Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, where he said, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

Traditionally, modern politicians shy away from such a dismal portrait of their own country, for fear of furthering polarizing the nation and thereby making governance more difficult. Yet as both Trump and Bernie Sanders proved in 2016, pessimism is an effective mobilizing tool because it raises the stakes of an election, bolstering the case for risk-taking change. If such a case proved convincing for Trump in the waning days of a popular presidency and steadily improving economy, then surely it would be even more convincing under a historically unpopular president who is undoing efforts to fight climate change, proposing tax cuts for the rich, sabotaging health care for the poor, demonizing non-white people, monetizing his presidency, and posing an existential threat to American democracy itself.

Trump’s curious mixture of pessimism and optimism might be rooted in the flimsy self-help gospel of Positive Thinking, but it would be a mistake to confuse the message with the messenger. There is carnage in America indeed, even if it’s largely not the carnage that Trump claimed. The problem is that the solution he offered—his supposed skills as a deal maker—was quack medicine. But an accomplished politician could, as Trump did, appeal to suffering Americans while also selling a remedy that would, unlike Trump’s, actually address their troubles. In other words, the risk for Democrats lies not in preaching such a self-serving gospel. The real risk would be to dismiss Trump’s effective rhetoric simply because he failed to deliver on it.