SALT LAKE CITY — When President Donald Trump told journalist Bob Woodward that he liked to downplay the novel coronavirus that has killed more than 200,000 Americans, critics said he was being irresponsible, dangerously so. Later, after the president became sick with COVID-19, they said they hoped Trump would take the virus more seriously.
But the president’s tone wasn’t changed by his illness. In videos and tweets, he remains cheerful and enthusiastic, and some of his supporters point to the influence of a minister and bestselling author who famously said, “If you change your thoughts, you will change your life.”
The Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, who died in 1993, was best known for writing “The Power of Positive Thinking,” but he was also the co-founder of “Guideposts” magazine and pastor of the New York City church that Trump’s family attended when he was young.
Conservative radio host Glenn Beck noted on his radio show this week that Trump’s attitude is consistent with a worldview the president learned from his father, Fred. That worldview, which Peale championed, remains prevalent in America today, so much so that the late L. Robert Kohls counted optimism as one of 13 core values that most Americans embrace.
8 quotes from the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale
“How you think about a problem is more important than the problem itself, so always think positively.”
“Go out of your way to talk optimistically about everything.”
“If you have zest and enthusiasm, you attract zest and enthusiasm. Life does give back in kind.”
“Drop the three Ls — lack, loss, limitation — from your vocabulary.”
“Put your trust in God and just calmly go on your way.”
“Love life, and it will love you right back.”
“Feel God’s presence within you, lifting you up and filling your heart with the deep and abiding assurance that all is well.”
“Sing at least one song every day.”
But an ethic based on optimism also has a downside noted by the late Stephen Covey in “The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People.” Covey believed that positive thinking was part of the “personality ethic” that spread across America after the First World War. Covey said the personality ethic could be detrimental because it emphasized a person’s attitude and public-relations skills over the person’s character.
Similarly, Mary Trump, the president’s niece and author of “Too Much and Never Enough,” spoke of the dangers of “toxic positivity” in a recent Frontline interview.
The president’s supporters, however, say they are happy to have a leader who talks of courage and hope and looks for the positive in difficult circumstances. “I feel great, I feel, like, perfect,” the president said in a video released on Twitter Tuesday, following a weekend hospitalization for COVID-19. “I think this was a blessing from God that I caught it. It was a blessing in disguise.”
‘The greatest guy’
Donald Trump was 6 years old when “The Power of Positive Thinking” was first published, wrote Trump biographer Gwenda Blair in Politico Magazine. The book was ultimately translated into 15 languages and has never been out of print.
Fred Trump, the president’s father, also believed in positivity as a way of life, and occasionally took the family to services at Peale’s church, Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan. According to the church’s website, it is a “diverse, inclusive community of God’s people led by the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. We inspire everyone to become positive thinkers who make a difference in the world.”
The president has spoken fondly of Peale, saying at the Iowa Family Leadership Summit in 2015, “I still remember (Peale’s) sermons. You could listen to him all day long. And when you left the church, you were disappointed it was over. He was the greatest guy.”
Trump married his first wife, Ivana, at Marble Collegiate Church and Peale was the officiant, according to multiple reports. And although his second wedding, to Marla Maples, was held at the Plaza Hotel in 1993, the ceremony was performed by Peale’s successor, the Rev. Arthur Caliandro, according to the wedding announcement in The New York Times.
His parents’ funerals were held at the church, too, according to Blair.
Peale, the son of a Methodist minister, also became a Methodist minister after a brief stint as a newspaper reporter. But he joined the Reformed Church in America in 1932 in order to become the pastor at Marble Collegiate, according to Guideposts.org. He co-founded Guideposts, an inspirational magazine, 13 years later. He remained with the church for 52 years and saw its membership grow from 600 to more than 5,000, a biography on the Guideposts website says.
Peale’s philosophy was developed, in part, because of his struggle to cope with shyness and feelings of inferiority, according to his obituary in The Los Angeles Times. But he also equated positive thinking with faith, and with trust in God. “Put your trust in God and just calmly go your way,” he said.
In the Los Angeles Times obituary, Russell Chandler wrote, “Some charged that Peale attempted to apply sugar-coated panaceas to complex problems. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once accused Peale of ‘trying to make a success story out of Christianity’ by seeking a largely white, middle-class audience. And many psychologists wrote off his book as simplistic Pollyanna poppycock.”
But, Chandler noted, “Legions of followers testified that Peale’s message changed their lives for the better and represented the best combination of faith and pragmatism.”
In an interview with Gabrielle Schonder of Frontline, niece Mary Trump described the president’s father as a “quite cheerful person” who was “fairly lighthearted.”
“I don’t think he learned it from Norman Vincent Peale, who wrote that awful book, but it perfectly fit in with what my grandfather already thought: Everything’s great, and if you think that way, then everything will be great,” she said.
The problem, said Mary Trump, a clinical psychologist, is “everything is not always great.” She went on to say that positivity can be toxic if it does not allow for the natural human experiences of sadness or depression, if it never allows for circumstances to be less than perfect.
“We see how that continues to inform Donald’s way of approaching the world. Everything’s great, he’s always right, nothing’s ever bad,” she said.
“You couldn’t possibly be talking about COVID?” Schonder responded, to which Mary Trump replied sarcastically, “What makes you think that?”
And the president did find a way to speak positively about his own experience with COVID-19, calling it a “blessing in disguise” because he wants the treatments that helped him to become available to others who are infected with the virus.
The president’s famously positive attitude has even resulted in a gag gift on Amazon: “The Presidential Daily Affirmations Button.”
Many people who are familiar with Peale’s philosophy may not know that it’s grounded in Christianity. In “The Power of Positive Thinking,” Peale wrote that his philosophy came from the teachings of Jesus Christ. “I have merely tried to describe those truths in the language and thought forms understandable to present-day people.”
In the first chapter, Peale describes an encounter with a businessman who was paralyzed with self-doubt. The “prescription” he gave the man was to memorize a Bible verse — “I can do all things through Christ which strengthened me” — and to repeat it multiple times a day.
When preparing the manuscript, Peale said that he and his wife prayed that the book would help people “to live more effective lives” and to cultivate peace of mind. “It teaches positive thinking, not as a means to fame, riches or power, but as the practical application of faith to overcome defeat and accomplish worthwhile creative values in life.”
As for the president, his COVID-19 diagnosis presented a challenge to what appears to be a consistent, Peale-inspired worldview. But descriptions of his stay at Walter Reed Medical Center, plus his subsequent tweets, suggest he is holding fast to the philosophy of positivity. And many of his supporters love that.
After a report that Trump was “cracking jokes nonstop” at Walter Reed, Linda Suhler, a retired molecular biologist who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, wrote on Twitter, “How can anyone not love this man?”
Another supporter on Twitter responded to the video of Trump waving to supporters in a car while still a patient at Walter Reed by writing, “Even while battling Coronavirus, @realDonaldTrump has more energy, more enthusiasm and gets more work done than #JoeBiden!”
And the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal noted that Trump’s call to “not be afraid of COVID” aligns with the Great Barrington Declaration, a statement signed by more than 14,000 scientists and health professional worldwide, which argues that COVID-19 is going to be with us for a while and “those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal.”