“We have it totally under control,” Donald Trump said on Jan. 22, regarding the coronavirus. “It’s going to be just fine,” he prophesied. It was not just fine, but that didn’t stop Trump from adding in February: “It’s going to disappear. One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.”
The question lingers: Why would he say this? Why would Trump downplay the threat of COVID-19, when (a) he knew better, and (b) Politics 101 says you should always under-promise and over-achieve? There are a myriad of plausible reasons, including fears of spooking the stock market and thus hurting his re-election chances. Or maybe he just thought he could fake it till he made it—that the problem would resolve itself, and he’d get lucky. Or maybe he’s just a pathological liar?
Yes, but… It would be wrong to dismiss Trump’s penchant for hype as merely a cunning attempt to gaslight us (though that is certainly one byproduct). A closer look suggests that Trump actually believes some of the things he wishcasts. As Ted Cruz once observed, “He doesn't know the difference between truth and lies… Whatever lie he’s telling, at that minute he believes it.” I would take it a step further: It’s not just that Trump believes the things he says, it’s that Trump believes that by believing them, he can actualize them.
If this sounds crazy, consider his relationship with Norman Vincent Peale, the famed New York City pastor and author of the mega-bestselling book, The Power of Positive Thinking. As has been widely reported, Peale greatly influenced Fred Trump. Later, this trickled down to Donald, who was first married at Peale’s church.
You don’t have to be a genius to see how Peale’s “Adopt the ‘I don’t believe in defeat’ attitude” and “Never entertain a failure thought” maxims are baked into Trump’s remarks on everything from his inaugural crowd size to the coronavirus.
Peale’s objective wasn’t to fool people, but to show us how to change our thinking, change our verbal confessions (the way we talk), and then, to change our reality. He seemed to believe that this was both a psychological and a supernatural phenomenon. “When you expect the best,” Peale wrote, “you release a magnetic force in your mind which by a law of attraction tends to bring the best in you.”
At this point, I should probably confess that I, too, believe in the power of positive thinking. At least, provided you also are open to an honest appraisal of objective reality. I also believe it would be wrong to blame Peale for Trump’s behavior. Peale advocated lots of virtuous instructions that Trump has clearly discarded. Indeed, Peale’s central premise is derived from Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Conversely, Trump believes he can do all things through Trump.
Peale also spent a lot of time warning the reader that this recipe for success won’t work unless they let go of resentment, forgave others, and even prayed for them. This is one area where Trump seems to prefer his longtime adviser Roger Stone’s philosophy, that “hate is a stronger motivator than love” and a person should always “attack, attack, attack. Never defend.”
To be sure, Peale has long been criticized for preaching an overly sunny theology that highlights the Bible’s promises and rewards while down playing the parts about sacrifice and suffering. But if Peale is guilty of having simplified and bastardized Christianity, Trump has taken it to another level. That’s not to say Peale doesn’t deserve some blame. Back in 2015, when Trump said he doesn’t ask God for forgiveness, I noted Peale’s New York Times obituary, wherein he said he wished he could go back through his old books and “strengthen the Christian view of repentance” expressed in them.
Regardless, Trump’s penchant for insisting on alternate realities is likely informed by Peale’s teachings. And, at least some of Trump’s surprising appeal to Christians can be attributed to the fact that Trump’s “name-it-and-claim it” philosophy feels familiar to those who espouse what is often derisively termed the prosperity gospel. We have heard a lot about evangelicals’ rationalizations of Trump as a modern King David or King Cyrus, but I think an overlooked part of his appeal is that his rhetorical style is consistent with a movement known as the Word of Faith.
In this context, faith means believing something that may contradict your physical senses (you don’t need faith to believe something you can see). The Bible is full of such stories. In the old testament, Moses sent spies into Canaan Land to scout it out. The spies who came back with what Peale would call a “realistic” report about the fearsome giants occupying the land were punished for an “evil report.” Moses then sent Joshua and Caleb, who reported on a “land of milk and honey” that they said the Israelites could take immediately. Those two were the only members of their generation who were permitted to enter the promised land.
Part and parcel of this is the belief is that doing the miraculous requires (and inspires) positive confessions (and vice versa). God said, “let there be light.” Jesus spoke to a fig tree and told it to dry up. In Romans, we are told about “God, who… calleth those things which be not as though they were.” In Mark 11:23, we are told that a person can move a mountain, and that if he “believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says.”
The next verse is equally important: “What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.” Other translations use “received.” Either way, it’s important to note that believing you have received is done in the present or past tense—not the future tense.
My take? Faith and positivity are admirable attributes that can move mountains, but faith without works is dead. You have to do the work. You can pray for a sick friend, but also make sure she takes her medicine. Doing the latter does not undermine your faith in the former. In other words, we should “pray as if it all depends on God and work as if it all depends on you.”
Had Trump followed this advice on COVID-19, this column would be unnecessary. But rather than praying, Trump is blabbering on TV. Rather than believing the Almighty will work miracles according to His plan, Trump believes that he can will them into existence before the next election. And the truth is, by winning what seemed like a miraculous election in 2016, Trump convinced many Christians that he can do just that.
In The Power of Positive Thinking, Peale writes about a business executive he knows who follows these same principles. Peale says this man “seems to have a magic touch on life—a touch that never fails.” Sound familiar?
If Donald Trump somehow pulls off another miracle on Nov. 3, we will know the magic touch is still working.