The Ben Carson phenomenon might well be passing; having emerged as a social conservative frontrunner, displacing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker out of the race, as well as the perennial Pennsylvania tantrum otherwise known as Rick Santorum, and comic relief upstart Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, both of whom should consider following the Cowardly Badger off the field.
It was only two weeks ago that Rich Lowry toddled over from his corner at National Review to explain for Politico why Dr. Carson is “the superior outsider”.
Carson’s rise suggests that it’s possible to catch the populist wave roiling Republican politics and yet not be an obnoxious braggart who abuses anyone who crosses him and will say or do anything as long as he’s getting attention. Ben Carson is a superior outsider to Donald Trump.
He is more gentlemanly and more conservative, with a more compelling life story. Carson is a man of faith who, despite his manifest accomplishments, has a quiet dignity and winsome modesty about him. Ben Carson is a throwback, whereas Donald Trump is a bold-faced name straight out of our swinish celebrity culture.
Then again, this is the same Rich Lowry who wrote the now-obscure rave review of Sarah Palin’s 2008 vice presidential debate performance, and we needn’t wonder why the National Review editor would rather that one be hard to find. And there is, of course, a reason we note Mr. Lowry’s poor judgment.
Last week, author Richard North Patterson called out Dr. Carson’s “faux humility”:
In the fevered political moment captured so well by the second Republican presidential debate, Dr. Ben Carson has improbably emerged as the leading challenger to the improbable Donald Trump. Recently asked to distinguish himself from his rival, Dr. Carson humbly singled out his faith-based humility. One must assume that he equates humility with the disarming persona he once again displayed on Wednesday evening — his soft-spoken manner seemingly detached from the conflict around him, his most memorable response a pleasing tribute to his hard-working mother. But that muted volume shrouds pronouncements which, in both their strangeness and self-certainty, are stunning even by Trumpian standards. For little in Dr. Carson’s campaign thus far suggests the slightest awareness of the feeble qualifications, rhetorical excess, and monumental self-regard he brings to his pursuit of the presidency.
And New York Times columnist Ross Douthat noted that “the growing evangelical embrace of Carson is arguably a greater folly than Trumpmania”:
Carson, on the other hand, is running a more content-free campaign. Like Trump, he’s underinformed and prone to wild rhetorical flights, but unlike the Donald he doesn’t have a distinctive platform. He’s offering a collection of pieties and crankery; mostly, his candidacy is just about the man himself.
And unfortunately evangelical voters have a weakness for this kind of pitch. From Pat Robertson in 1988 through thin-on-policy figures like Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, even Michele Bachmann briefly in 2012, the evangelical tendency has been to look for a kind of godly hero, a Christian leader who could win the White House and undo every culture-war defeat. (The resilience of evangelical support for George W. Bush as his presidency went sour reflected a persistent hope that Bush might be this hero in the flesh.)
Dr. Carson announced his candidacy by reminding supporters, “I’m not a politician”, and has spent the rest of his campaign proving it. In May, less than two weeks into Dr. Carson’s candidacy, Steve Benen had occasion to write these paragraphs:
Just this week, for example, Carson endorsed the idea that presidents are legally entitled to ignore Supreme Court rulings. He also sat down with CNBC’s John Harwood, and made some bizarre comments about marriage equality, which left Harwood saying, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Carson thinks President Obama is a “psychopath,” the Supreme Court may not deserve the power of judicial review, the unemployment rate is a big ruse orchestrated by “slick politicians and biased media,” and raising taxes on the poor is fine – it may be “condescending” not to.
Indeed, the neurosurgeon turned not-a-politician rose to prominence saying weird and inflammatory things; after years spent peddling books to churches, Dr. Carson used the occasion of the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast to rant at President Obama about debt and taxes and health insuranceα; by the next month he was a superstar speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference, even drawing live coverage from FOX News, who in turn would declare, “Amazing Conservative Speech Upstages Obama At Prayer Breakfast”. Oh, and they also hired him. Ben Carson might not be a politician, but he has been running for president, it seems, since 2013.
And saying stupid things the whole time.
As a candidate, he has done no better, whether declaring war inside women, or against caves, or the Department of Veterans Affairs, or maybe the Constitution he aims to protect and preserve, or even general decency. Still, though, we ought to have known, even back in 2013 when FOX News and the conservative establishment started preparing a path for the good doctor who is not a politician.
Which, in turn, brings us to the present, which is in fact the past, even before the taxation tantrum at the Prayer Breakfast:
In a speech delivered in 2012, Ben Carson said the big bang theory was part of the “fairy tales” pushed by “high-faluting scientists” as a story of creation.
Similarly, Carson, a noted creationist, said he believed the theory of evolution was encouraged by the devil.
Carson said he personally believed Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was encouraged by the devil.
“I personally believe that this theory that Darwin came up with was something that was encouraged by the adversary, and it has become what is scientifically, politically correct,” said Carson.
It seems a strange tale; that much is certain. What, even approximately, will history write of this period? It is not so much a question of trying to explain the societal influences that brought us the ascendancy and seemingly imminent crash of Dr. Ben Carson. As Carly Fiorina surges on a strong show of charisma and the charm of a lie, Ben Carson might well be at his precipice, and preparing to tumble. We might expect it inevitable that he will fall from his polling success, as Dr. Carson seems entirely terrible at running for president. For whatever reason, though, conservatives failed to notice. The latest controversy―
Carson received a barrage of backlash after telling “Meet the Press” on Sunday that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.” He clarified on Monday, saying that he would support a Muslim president — if he or she denounced their religion.
“If someone has a Muslim background and they’re wiling to reject those tenets and accept the way of life that we have and clearly will swear to place our constitution above their religion, then of course they’ll be considered infidels and heretic, but at least then I’d be quite willing to support them,” he told Fox News’ Sean Hannity.
It’s worth noting that no Christian president has ever been asked to denounce their faith.
―might be too painful to ignore.
With Carson seemingly called up from farm league after the 2012 electionβ, one might wonder how they have failed to notice until now.
This is where the whole phenomenon gets interesting, though, because this year’s Republican field has thus far proven exceptionally terrible at running for office. Dr. Carson is no exception. But as the Republican establishment mulls the fate of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker―just how did they miss that?―it seems there really are no good, strong campaigners in the GOP field. Conventional wisdom still has pathways by which Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, and John Kasich need only hold out until the new year, and there really is some strange buzz around Marco Rubio. Just how that last works is a little strange, but that’s the thing. As long as Donald Trump is in the room, Rick Santorum isn’t rocketing into the lead; nor Miker Huckabee. Still, though, the expected “serious” candidates, and especially Jeb Bush, seem to be having their own troubles, though a large part of that seems to be navigating the territory demanded by the market forces that make people like Donald Trump and Ben Carson seem attractive candidates. Remember, before Trump it was Scott Walker pushing Jeb ever more uncomfortably rightward.
It is one thing to suggest conservative voters presently give priority to platform over electability, but neither does that account for actual hostility toward the general.
Try psychoanalyzing that. The obvious candidate is some manner of victim complex, but come on, what valence of mass malady can we realistically suggest? That involves way too many moving parts. Still, though, attending reality, this is a difficult question. Can the right wing bury the pivot? Yey why would they?
Stay tuned. There’s more than a year of this stuff left. Well, okay, it ought to be a safe presumption that, at some point, the election contest will steer back into reasonable, or even merely useful waters. But, Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your 2016 Republican presidential clown car; Ben Carson may teeter over the abyss, but that doesn’t mean we’re shaking the crazy anytime soon.
Image note: Top ― Source photo by Reuters, 2015.
α At the time, Benen wondered at the brazen irony:
Indeed, last year, Obama explained how his faith influences his views on public policy, including asking the very wealthy to sacrifice just a little in order to help the rest of American society. “[A]s a Christian,” the president said, his approach “coincides with Jesus’s teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.’” Republicans were outraged – Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) condemned the speech on the Senate floor; Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) left the breakfast in protest, and scandal-plagued lobbyist Ralph Reed said Obama went “over the line.”
Obama’s remarks this week, which focused on the need for humility, drew fewer far-right complaints, but the president was preceded by Dr. Benjamin Carson, a conservative physician, who used his time at the microphone to complain about “fiscal irresponsibly” and the national debt, before insisting that God wants a 10 percent flat tax.
Though conservatives were outraged that Obama tried to “politicize” the prayer breakfast in 2012, the right quickly celebrated Carson’s remarks this week.
It’s funny how that works out, isn’t it?
β Strangely, he wasn’t even on the roster as the family values crowd tried to wave away the dust and look ahead after the 2012 general election.
Benen, Steve. “As GOP field shrinks, Marco Rubio gets the spotlight”. msnbc. 22 September 2015.
—————. “Ben Carson revels in GOP spotlight”. msnbc. 18 March 2013.
—————. “Carson makes a rare endorsement of war crimes”. msnbc. 17 February 2015.
—————. “GOP’s Ben Carson eyes end to Veterans Administration”. msnbc. 4 September 2015.
—————. “Repeated errors have no effect on Ben Carson”. msnbc. 15 May 2015.
—————. “This Week in God”. msnbc. 9 February 2013.
CNN and ORC International. “Interview with 1,006 adult Americans conducted by telephone by ORC International on September 17 — 19, 2015”. CNN. 20 September 2015.
Douthat, Russ. “Evangelicals and the Carson Illusion”. The New York Times. 19 September 2015.
FOX News. “Amazing Conservative Speech Upstages Obama At Prayer Breakfast”. FOX Nation. 12 February 2015.
Horowitz Satlin, Alana. “Ben Carson Walks Back Anti-Muslim Comments With More Anti-Muslim Comments”. The Huffington Post. 22 September 2015.
Horsey, David. “Sarah Palin’s wink factor”. SeattlePI.com. 4 October 2008.
Kaczynski, Andrew and Molly Ward. “Ben Carson: Big Bang A Fairy Tale, Theory Of Evolution Encouraged By The Devil”. BuzzFeed. 22 September 2015.
Lowry, Rich. “Ben Carson, the Superior Outsider”. Politico. 2 September 2015.
Montgomery, Peter. “Ralph Reed: It’s Not My Fault”. Right Wing Watch. 7 November 2012.
Nerz, Ashley. “FOX News Signs Dr. Ben Carson to Contributor Role”. Press Release. October, 2013.
North Patterson, Richard. “The Faux Humility of Dr. Ben Carson”. The Huffington Post. 18 September 2015.
Shalal, Andrea. “Carson says wants drones to blast caves, not people at U.S.-Mexico border”. Reuters. 23 Augsut 2015.
Shane III, Leo. “Vets groups upset with Carson’s plan to eliminate VA”. Military Times. 28 August 2015.
Strauss, Daniel. “Carson: The President Wouldn’t Have To Follow SCOTUS On Gay Marriage”. Talking Points Memo. 6 May 2015.