I awoke from fitful sleep troubled by the thought that there is a God who is just. My unease had begun the previous evening as I tried to find an explanation for Donald Trump’s rise in the polls. None of the oracles I consulted—Nate Silver, Real Clear Politics, Upshot, Vox—could explain how a man with such offensive political views and even more offensive hair could become the Republican frontrunner. A terrifying thought kept pressing itself against me: Could Donald Trump be an agent of divine wrath, sent by God to punish a nation of haters and losers?
I got out of bed and knelt down to plead with the world’s Awful Judge.
“If there are even one-hundred righteous men in this nation,” I prayed, “please speak now, say that you will stay your hand.”
“If there are even forty righteous men, promise that you lick him with tongues of flame and leave the rest of us alone.”
“Even if there is only one—if only because I am righteous—say something now.”
As I began to wonder how much a flight costs to the island of Malta (my belongings should fit in a single suitcase since they fit in a New York apartment, so I would lose only my family, friends, and loved ones when America is consumed by fire as red and terrible as Trump’s toupee…) one last appeal line of appeal occurred to me.
“God, you cannot visit us with the same judgment twice. Having flooded the earth, you promised the fire next time. Having sent us Norman Vincent Peale, you cannot now consign us to the doom of Donald Trump, who is, after all, eerily like him.”
“Well, there you have a point,” a voice said.
The Parallels Between Peale And Trump
The parallels between Norman Vincent Peale and Donald Trump are not immediately obvious. One was the pastor of Collegiate Marble Church in Manhattan and the author of The Power of Positive Thinking. The other is a casino magnate famous for telling people they’re fired. Yet Trump and Peale share not only a personal philosophy but a political sensibility molded by their simultaneous quests for elite membership and popular appeal.
Trump absorbed Peale’s teaching as a young man after his parents began attending the celebrity preacher’s church. Trump’s mother hoped that the pastor’s teaching would stick in her children: “I tried to get it into their heads that they had to believe,” she said. “Whether it shows or not, it’s in there because I put it in there.”
For Donald at least, Peale’s philosophy did stick. At what he has called the “lowest point” in his career (he has since reached new lows, though perhaps he hasn’t noticed) he turned to Peale’s philosophy. “I owed billions of dollars and many people thought I was finished.” Trump recalled. “What helped is that I refused to give in to the negative circumstances and I never lost faith in myself.”
“My father was friends with Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, and I had read his famous book, The Power of Positive Thinking. I’m a cautious optimist but also a firm believer in the power of being positive. I think that helped. I refused to be sucked into negative thinking on any level.”
In turn, Peale said that his acolyte Trump was “the greatest builder of our time . . . a very ingenious man” and said (no more plausibly) that he was “kindly and courteous in certain business negotiations and has a profound streak of honest humility.”
There was a real basis for this mutual admiration. Both men successfully cultivated a popular and populist image by convincing Americans that they were hoi polloi even as they hobnobbed with the power elite. Of course, the elite never really accepted either man, but it was willing to tolerate their pandering so long as they didn’t make naked appeals to the worst prejudices of their fans.
How Conservatives Can Benefit From Trump
For both Peale and Trump, the moment of ejection from the ranks of the right-thinking came during a political campaign. Just as Trump has been repudiated by NBC, star chef José Andrés, and many others for his comments on immigrants, Peale drew the fury of the liberal Protestant establishment when in 1960 he broke with them and sided with conservative Protestants who opposed the election of John F. Kennedy because of his Catholicism.
Two months before the election, Peale met with one hundred and fifty Protestant leaders at the Mayflower Hotel. Among the conveners of the group were Billy Graham and his notoriously anti-Catholic father-in law L. Nelson Bell (“The antagonism of the Roman Church to Communism is in part because of similar methods,” he quipped.) The group prepared a two-thousand-word manifesto and had the relatively mainstream Peale present it at a subsequent press conference. As in today’s debates over immigration, American identity was at stake. The manifesto asked whether any Catholic could lead the nation when Rome had shown such “determined efforts . . . to breach the wall of separation of church and state.”
Peale’s leading role in the drafting of the anti-Kennedy manifesto infuriated liberal Protestant leaders. They had long disdained Peale—not so much because his teaching was pseudo-Christian as because it was pseudo-scientific—and they expected his loyalty in return. Reinhold Niebuhr and Union Theological Seminary’s John Bennett accused him of “blind prejudice.”
Graham, whose role in the meeting had not been publicized, declined to come to Peale’s defense. Shunned and shamed, Peale fell into depression, issued an apology, and resigned his pulpit (his resignation was refused). Graham, meanwhile, began his ascent to become the unofficial chaplain to the White House.
Peale’s role in the campaign of 1960—so embarrassing to him at the time—is now largely forgotten. He is hated, when he is remembered at all, for his positivity rather than his negativity, his loosey-goosey approach to what counted as Christian rather than his hard-nosed approach to what it meant to be American. This is a shame, for it has led us to underestimate the influence and power of the self-affirming, vaguely Christian, and very American faith he promoted. This—not an orthodox Christianity or principled conservatism—is the faith that animates Donald Trump and his many followers. It is nostalgic and self-affirming, unconcerned with doctrine but defensive about identity.
Adlai Stevenson once quipped that he found “Paul appealing and Peale appalling.” Those who find Trump similarly appalling should remember that their reaction, like Stevenson’s, is not shared by a great number of Americans. Faulting Trump for his lack of consistency as a Christian or conservative will do nothing at all to dampen the enthusiasm of his supporters. Perhaps in addition to speaking of a religious right, we should talk about America’s Peale populists as a group that can be energized, mobilized and—if God does not spare us—pushed to the polls.