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2020 Crises Confront Trump With An Outage In The Power Of Positive Thinking

President Trump arrives for a news conference at the White House on Thursday in Washington, D.C.
Evan Vucci
President Trump arrives for a news conference at the White House on Thursday in Washington, D.C.

President Trump has long been a champion of what's been called positive thinking — the power to make things that you want to see happen actually happen.

"Affirm it, believe it, visualize it, and it will actualize itself." Such mantras have characterized much of the Trump story from his childhood when he first absorbed it from the man who first spoke it, Norman Vincent Peale.

Peale was a minister and author much admired by Trump's father. His most famous book, The Power of Positive Thinking, sold millions of copies in multiple languages and helped spawn a self-help movement and industry that has flourished ever since.

The Trumps attended Peale's Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, and Peale officiated at the first of Donald Trump's three marriage ceremonies.

Read more here about Peale and his legacy.

It has been argued that Trump stands as the single most successful practitioner to date of Peale's philosophy. Surely his careers as a builder and businessman, TV reality show star and media-dominating politician seemed to prove what Peale preached: "What the mind can conceive and believe, and the heart desire, you can achieve."

Emulating Peale's ferocious focus on attitude probably helped Trump plow ahead when his presidential prospects seemed hopeless just weeks before Election Day in 2016. The candidate appeared behind in polls and a now-infamous audio recording revealed his toxic comments about women.

But "there are no hopeless situations," Peale had counseled, "only people who take hopeless attitudes."

Obstacles, Peale taught, should never be a deterrent: "You will find they haven't half the strength you think they have."

Until this year, it is possible Trump took this literally. Arguably, he was getting away with it far more often than not.

He seemed to have been experimenting with this parallel universe approach all his life. It was not just the ups and downs of his business and personal life. It was his dogged insistence that there had only been ups and never any downs. He seemed to be demonstrating that an individual truly could ignore obstacles, defy norms and scoff at official rules and still succeed.

Impeachment? What impeachment?

Even impeachment was not a wall that stopped him but rather a hurdle he managed to clear — with the help of his party in the Senate.

Still, never is a long time, and the year 2020 has ultimately brought greater challenges than impeachment.

Our present moment compounds the coronavirus pandemic, ensuing quarantines and economic strains and the moral crisis prompted by the nationally witnessed killing of George Floyd by police.

For months, Trump has tried to deny or minimize the gravity of all of these events. Yet they loom as large as ever — and perhaps larger.

In an insightful Politico essay in October 2017, political analyst Michael Kruse found Peale's imprint on every phase of Trump's career. But near the end, Kruse noted that Trump's success story remained unfinished, like a study in which some results have yet to be counted.

"From a scientific perspective," Kruse wrote, "Trump is an incomplete experiment."

Kruse then quoted the self-help author Mitch Horowitz, who called Trump's story an example of what, in at least the short run, "you can attain through self-help, through self-assertion and people's willingness to believe what they think that they see."

To which Kruse added: "Trump's version of his own reality, some insist, ultimately will crash against something more real."

And that something might well be the COVID-19 crisis and the sequence of events that has followed.

Irresistible force vs. immovable object

Watching the president this week as he renewed his late-afternoon briefings on the virus, we all saw a man much altered from the one who convened similar sessions in the early spring.

For one thing he was alone, no longer surrounded by a posse of doctors and research scientists and responsible officials arrayed on stage in the White House briefing room.

Beyond that, the lone figure of the president seemed besieged and becalmed.

He admitted the situation would get worse before it got better. He gave ground on the mask requirement. He canceled the Republican National Convention's final night speeches and celebration in Jacksonville, Fla. — a concession to the persistence of the virus he'd earlier hoped would go away by Easter and insisted had passed its peak in April.

So what happens when positive thinking fails? What happens when the power goes out? In common experience, when the power goes out, it gets darker.

Trump's critics and opponents say that is exactly what we are seeing in America today.

Unable to conquer the combination of pandemic effects and civil unrest by the force of his will and a Twitter blizzard of "alternative facts," Trump is now turning to a set of alternative powers.

In June, he sent out law enforcement officers to clear peaceful protesters from the street and park in front of the White House. In July, he sent federal officers to police portions of selected cities — including Portland, Chicago, Albuquerque and Kansas City — where he found the performance of local officials unsatisfactory.

Initial efforts to justify this as the protection of federal property in downtown Portland convinced no one. The White House now says the federal officers from the Department of Homeland Security, the Drug Enforcement Administration and elsewhere within the Justice Department are going in on behalf of "law and order."

But that is not the perspective of local and state officials, who have not been consulted or even informed in some cases prior to federal officers arriving in camouflage and helmets, wielding wartime weapons and taking street protesters into custody.

The intrusion of these officers is not absolutely unprecedented, but it is exceedingly rare in the peacetime history of this country. As such it is a test of what the legal system will bear, and what the American public will accept.

Former Sen. Gary Hart, a Colorado Democrat, wrote in The New York Times this week that there are documents setting forth emergency powers for a president in the event of a nuclear war or another catastrophe, such as a pandemic.

These alleged powers have not been made public, nor have they been approved by a vote of Congress or blessed by the judicial branch.

A federal officer fires crowd control munitions at Black Lives Matter protesters at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on Friday in Portland, Ore.
Noah Berger / AP
A federal officer fires crowd control munitions at Black Lives Matter protesters at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on Friday in Portland, Ore.

Some things are known

But some information about these secretive documents has been gathered by researchers and lawyers at the Brennan Center for Criminal Justice at New York University Law School.

That has built a fire under Hart, now 83, one of two surviving members of the Senate investigating committee that revealed in the 1970s the serial abuses by the U.S. intelligence agencies in the Cold War. Hart recalls that in March of this year, Trump himself alluded to powers he thinks he has "that people don't even know about."

It is time, Hart says, that the relevant documents are brought to light and subjected to public debate. Absent such an airing, any president might feel free to invoke secret emergency powers — suspending at least some citizens' rights under the Constitution — in a moment of emergency.

For Trump, a moment of emergency might include the apparent rejection by the voters in his reelection year.

Among the key takeaways from the interview the president gave Fox News anchor Chris Wallace last week was a flat refusal to promise he would "accept the results" of the election on Nov. 3.

He would not say yes or no. He wanted to wait and see how things went.

After all, losing one's reelection bid might seem to pose an obstacle to a second term — but Trump may believe that obstacle might not be half as strong as it appeared.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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