The Gospel of Winning: Trump's philosophy, and its policy implications

"Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding. Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade. Your mind will seek to develop the picture ... Stand up to an obstacle. Just stand up to it, that’s all, and don’t give way under it, and it will finally break …"

- Norman Vincent Peale

America will start winning again, winning like never before … There should be no fear — we are protected, and we will always be protected … Most importantly, we are protected by God … We must think big and dream even bigger. — President Trump, Inaugural Address

By fits and starts, based on shrewd intuition and gut instinct, Donald Trump is building a new political philosophy for Americans. Here and there, even before his inauguration on Friday — in his appointments, his rhetoric, his bullying of corporations to keep jobs here at home and his trust in evangelist Paula White — he has provided us with revelations of his core beliefs.

Trump’s governing philosophy is a curious blend of Prosperity Gospel and Social Darwinism. Let’s call the resulting potion the American Gospel of Winning. This is the heart of Trump’s “populist” vision.

Trump and his first wife, Ivana, with Ruth and Norman Vincent Peale at Rev. Peale’s 90th birthday party in New York on May 26, 1988. Trump hosted the event at the Waldorf-Astoria. (Ron Galella/WireImage)

Trump learned to admire this doctrine in his youth in Sunday school at the First Presbyterian Church in the Jamaica section of Queens, N.Y., and later at Peale’s Calvinist Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan.

Pastor Paula White poses for a portrait at Shop Studios in New York, Friday, Jan. 6, 2017. Michael Rubenstein / for NBC News

Paula White, who is Trump’s spiritual adviser and helped officiate at the inauguration, is a Prosperity Gospel evangelist. The premise of Prosperity Gospel is that if you get right with God, God will get right with you in the here and now by solving your problems and making you successful.

It is a simplified version of Old Testament theology: Yahweh rewards those who walk in his ways and spurns those who don’t.

Prosperity Gospel echoes the Biblical covenant between Yahweh and Abraham, renewed through Moses: If the children of Abraham would honor him with fealty, they would inherit the land of milk and honey as their estate. The covenant has come down to us through the Calvinism that arrived on North American shores with the Pilgrims and the Puritans.

Originally, Calvinism had a special twist for many believers: Only those “preselected” by God before birth could enjoy his favors during their lives. But during the 18th and 19th centuries, other Protestant doctrines broke down that wall excluding many from enjoyment of God’s bounty. Finding God’s grace, even for Calvinists, became open to all believers. Thereafter all right-minded Americans could aspire to be “winners” in the eyes of God.

Social Darwinism was launched as a secular theory of life by the English sociologist Herbert Spencer in 1851 in his book “Social Statics.” Spencer argued that life was a daily struggle for all creatures and only the most fit would survive.

"Survival of the fittest" - Herbert Spencer

After the Civil War, Spencer’s belief in the “survival of the fittest” (powerfully reinforced by Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory in biology) was grafted onto the root of Calvinism to solidify the American dream of middle-class striving and deserved prosperity.

The combination of a Prosperity Gospel and Social Darwinism was invoked by industrialists, politicians and courts to legitimate a brute form of capitalism during America’s Gilded Age. Prosperity Gospel doctrines added an aura of divine blessing and deserving virtue to Spencer’s coldhearted competitive struggle for wealth and position.

Both Prosperity Gospel and Social Darwinism are about “winning” in life. When fused, the two make a potent psycho-social brew of belief and motivation.

Under the resulting Gospel of Winning, those who are blessed “win” — and their “winnings” are somehow both earned and a gift of grace.

How much money and/or status you have becomes a most reliable sign of how much you have pleased and been favored by God.

As an inevitable corollary, those who are not blessed will be “losers.”

Opponents of Calvinistic Social Darwinism based their objections on 1) the social gospel of New Testament mercy, 2) the old Calvinist duty to care for our fallen world, an obligation felt by elite WASP families and taught at elite prep schools, or 3), the Progressive ideal (think Woodrow Wilson and Eleanor Roosevelt) of social reform through good government, enlisting experts to solve social problems and right social wrongs.

Trump is all about the Gospel of Winning. It’s the theology behind his call to “Make American Great Again.” His program is to design an American social and legal order where everyone can be a “winner.”

Trump’s populism is not about top-down, taxpayer-funded, bureaucratic programs but about bottoms-up, community-based, individually driven self-reliance.

Trump’s choices for senior positions in his administration are revealing of this vision. In his mind, his appointees are all “winners.” Many of them, in line with the Prosperity Gospel, are winners to him because they got wealthy the “right” way — not through unworthy shortcuts like cronyism. They took risks and challenged fate; they were positive thinkers about themselves. They won fair and square in the nasty marketplace of vicious competition. Their financial success proves their worth.

Exxon Mobil CEO and Chairman Rex Tillerson speaks as he and other top oil and gas industry executives testify during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on 'Oil and Gas Tax Incentives and Rising Energy Prices' on Capitol Hill in Washington May 12, 2011. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Secretary of State designee Rex Tillerson epitomizes the pattern, having climbed Exxon’s corporate ladder from a modest starting point to the CEO pinnacle at one of the world’s largest enterprises.

Trump’s appointments of generals are even simpler to understand: They were “winners” on real battlefields.

Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis declined a Military Times request to talk about the Iran nuclear deal. Photo Credit: Military Times Staff

So what does Trump’s Gospel of Winning imply for his policy agenda?

Domestically, first, it will not validate government entitlements being awarded to “victims.” It rejects the founding premise of the entitlement state that the government must take from those who succeed in order to advantage those who have failed.

The victim-first vision of the modern entitlement state was offered early on by Maximilien Robespierre during the French Revolution, in a new list of the “rights of man and the citizen” in 1793. He asserted that those who did not have enough had a right to share in the wealth of those who had more than enough.

Franklin Roosevelt adopted a version of this French ideal for the Democratic Party with his 1944 State of the Union speech, when he added “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” to the legitimate expectations of all Americans and all persons regardless of their achievements.

Normal Rockwell's interpretation of the Four Freedoms was used on posters encouraging Americans to buy war bonds. | Wikimedia Commons

Provision of health care to Americans under Trump will reverse course, turning away from a government-driven system of mandated enrollments and toward a market-based consumer purchase system with some subsidies for the poor.

Trump’s Gospel of Winning will fight the rhetoric of victimization tooth and nail. According to Trump’s social psychology, negativity only breeds more negativity. Just put your mind to it, his creed advises, and think of yourself as a winner, as the greatest, as the best. Use your will to banish bad thoughts about yourself and your chances. Brand yourself a winner and sell that brand to the world.

Ironically, of course, part of Trump’s electoral success lay in arguing to his base that they are being victimized (by unfair trade, illegal immigration, etc.) in ways they don’t deserve, and that he will raise them up and lead them to a promised land of reasonable prosperity in an America restored to lost greatness.

Trump’s public preaching of the Gospel of Winning likely will continue to play loose with facts and with sad social realities. This is his style of speaking, as he says, in “truthful hyperbole.” Some will continue to denounce such rhetoric as a dishonest con for the impressionable.

Nourished with positive thinking, Trump populism will work hard to create jobs. This goal will be sought through incentives to capital to invest in new and expanded enterprises. Hence Trump’s picks of Wall Street insiders for secretary of the Treasury, his White House economic adviser, and his chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The general Trump economic program will be plain-vanilla laissez-faire: low taxes and fewer regulations. But like Teddy Roosevelt, Trump will also intervene, using the bully pulpit to castigate and deconstruct a company’s social license to operate if it does not provide jobs for Americans.

On education, Gospel of Winning populism will seek to transform public education from a top-down delivery system organized around teachers to a bottoms-up system of work and achievement organized around students and parents.

Following his mentor Norman Vincent Peale, who wrote “The Power of Positive Thinking,” Trump will insist that each of us can will his or her way to success. If we see ourselves as winners, we will be winners in time, no matter our race, gender, or ethnic background.

This will give Trump’s administration a radical new approach to race relations. Trump’s stand is that no one is a victim by necessity; all can be successful, even legal immigrants.

During a campaign stop in Cleveland, Trump spoke in a charter school in a “tough” neighborhood. He spoke about “the ladder to success,” saying “I define that as a great education and a great job,” adding, “You cannot have prosperity without safety.”

His vision for inner cities is of communities of positive-thinking people working to better their individual conditions. Thus, Ben Carson — a kind of Prosperity Gospel preacher himself — is chosen to be secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

In foreign affairs, Trump’s Gospel of Winning will be more tribal than internationalist. His underlying Calvinist orientation predisposes him to faith in American exceptionalism — America as God’s chosen “winner” among nations. That will translate into policies that will keep us aloof from messy entanglements with “losers” around the world.

It will also focus Trump on seeking the most self-interested terms — “winning” terms — for the United States in all negotiations. “Winning” in foreign affairs means rejecting reliance on free markets. Nations avoid “losing” to one another economically by erecting trade barriers, manipulating their currencies and favoring domestic producers.

“Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families,” Trump said in his inaugural address. “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.”

And Trump won’t stand for being a “loser” in anything.

So, in one sense Trumpism is new to post-World War II America. But, from another perspective, the Gospel of Winning is only bringing back to the fore — in a newly blunt and unapologetic form — much older and foundational American presumptions about the individualism underpinning social justice and about our ability to prosper and triumph merely by believing that we can.

Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network of business leaders working to promote a moral capitalism.

Made with Adobe Slate

Make your words and images move.

Get Slate

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.