Critics complain — quite rightly — that Donald Trump occupies his own reality, as he fires off bizarre denials of the casualties from Puerto Rico’s hurricane, fantasizes over “deep state” conspiracies, and wraps himself in an economic recovery that began under Obama. For these reasons and more, I have called Trump “a kind of Frankenstein monster of the philosophy” of positive thinking.
But it is insufficient for activists to bemoan Trump’s personal rise as the inevitable outcome of the worst aspects of American optimism and motivational philosophy. Rather, act the part of a martial artist and adapt your foe’s methods against him.
There is nothing intrinsically ideological about the methods behind the United States’ metaphysics of success. And they often do work, as Trump demonstrates, however grimly. Indeed, Trump was raised on the positive-mind spirituality of the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale, and the chief showman’s powers of persuasion and self-invention have proven grotesquely effective. In short, Trump structured a life around the unethical attainment of power. He brought formidable dimensions to that aim. You can despise the outcome — but can progressives afford to ignore the means?
Philosopher George Santayana bemoaned the role of self-delusion in modern therapeutic culture: “Assurance is contemptible and fatal unless it is self-knowledge.” His observation highlights a key contradiction in Peale’s approach, which is that blindly self-confident people, rather than accurately assessing their strengths, are often dangerously delusive, as with the president. But there is a different dimension to positive-mind philosophy: The search for self-belief can itself become of a form of ethical, inner inquiry by not only asking about your veritable capacities but also coming into possession of a core ideal and the means to attain it.
I have often extolled the power of possessing one finely focused, well-selected, and passionately held aim, a topic I explore in my forthcoming book, The Miracle Club. Some people argue against the concept of a single-minded goal. We like to think that we can balance everything in life. And we are, of course, faced with multiple and sometimes shifting demands. You likely want happiness at home, health for yourself and your family, material comfort for people around you, and so on. Such things are sound. But you must take self-knowledge — something Trump never sought — and, accepting that life’s needs are multiple, use it to dedicate your energies to one core aim. That is where power comes from, like the sun’s rays concentrated with a magnifying glass. Well-roundedness is overrated. A well-selected aim can facilitate multiple needs.
Whether in politics or other areas of life, your aim must be specific, concrete, and plain. It must be achievable, even if greatly bold. Beware of aims that are self-contradicting, such as traveling to exotic places while also raising young kids. Or becoming a prominent leader or activist while also having lots of leisure time. An aim is single-minded.
An example of this came to me in 1996, when I met a figure who soon exploded across the political scene. One afternoon, I spoke for several hours with Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who at the time was an eager and highly ambitious Rhodes scholar and student at Yale Law School. Mutual friends told me, “You’ve got to meet this guy. He’s going to be president someday.” He was earnest, studied, a little over-rehearsed — and deeply persuasive. I could see exactly what people meant. Cory quickly rose to become the nationally prominent mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and then a senator and prospective running mate for candidate Hillary Clinton. As usual, Clinton made the predictably safe (and disastrous) choice, in this case of Virginia Senator Tim Kaine.
As of this writing, Booker is riding high on his performance during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and is on the short list for any executive ticket to emerge from the Democratic Party. You will be able to see for yourself whether Booker becomes president, a role that peers foresaw for him — and that I am certain he foresaw himself — while he was in his twenties. Some were turned off by Booker’s ambition. I was not. He knew precisely what he wanted and possessed the skills, intellect, and drive to attain it. In areas where he was lacking, he was willing to gain the needed skills. He made easy, perhaps too easy, friends in finance, so fundraising got a head start. In short, Booker possessed a hugely ambitious but also actionable goal.
Study his rise. Emulate its best elements. I submit to every progressive that the tools used by a Donald Trump can be as easily used (hopefully for the common good) by a figure like Cory Booker — or by you, at whatever rung of political activity you occupy and toward whatever rung you set your sights on.