It's early on Friday evening, and I'm in the middle of a crowd listening to a man talking chaos and salvation, terrorism and God. He sounds very tired; everyone listening to him looks very tired.
I am in Florence, South Carolina, to see Ben Carson. We are in the Florence Civic Center, a concrete box, cavernous and bright, neutral carpets, a place built specifically to host events of vague importance, minor league hockey and WWE matches and, right now, a presidential campaign as funeral procession. Hundreds of people are here to celebrate this doomed campaign, which is still here, physically, making promises, "beholden to no one," he says, but also sort of gone.
I don't know why Ben Carson is still in these rooms, trying to be president. I don't think anyone does, even Carson himself; maybe he knows least of all. Even before he took in a pathetic 7 percent of the vote in Saturday's South Carolina primary, he was drifting: unimpressive results in Iowa and New Hampshire, a campaign staff that literally quit on him, a moment where he seemed to go catatonic backstage before a debate. But he has vowed to stay in the race until the end. After the South Carolina primary, he said that "the political class" only has control if America gives it control. "That's the message I'm going to be taking across the nation." So then, I guess, this is to be a traveling public service announcement of one man's hallucinated interpretation of America, the earth, the history of the universe.
He is a man who will never be king, but until then, he and all these people will stand together dreaming about castles.
Friday's event was originally scheduled for Wholly Smokin' Downtown, an "upscale barbecue restaurant," but it was moved to the Florence Civic Center the day before due to the large expected attendance. And it's true, there are lots of people here, rows and rows of seats filled, people standing in the aisles if they have to, teenagers with shiny sneakers and impeccably gelled hair sitting on a ledge in the back, filming on their iPads and drinking Mountain Dew.
But it feels obligatory, muted. Security guards checking their phones, making sure no one comes in the back entrance. An old woman in pink sits on a scooter, looking at her watch. There are old men with their belongings piled at their feet; women pushing strollers around the room to keep babies quiet; photographers with heavy sweaters and beards mumbling to each other and packing tripods up early; guys with official-seeming blue blazers and lapel pins covering their mouths with their entire stretched palm to hide big yawns that make them look like lions about to nap.
A sleepy young Carson fan. Photos by Andy McMillan
"People say conservatives aren't compassionate," Carson says at one point. "But I think they're way more compassionate than people who are going to pat you on the head, say 'There, there,' give you things and make you dependent forever and ever."
And later, "We've been free for hundreds of years. And we've had guns for hundreds of years. I think there's a correlation there."
This is a man who believes that the pyramids in Egypt were built by Joseph from the Old Testament to store grain, that women getting abortions is comparable to slavery, that the Jews could have prevented the Holocaust if they had access to guns. Lots of the time, Ben Carson sounds like Sarah Palin on opiates.
Yet everything here is lifeless. There isn't even the sense that the event is on the brink of something ridiculous or electrifying, something to gawk at. It feels like we are sitting through a timeshare seminar to get a free vacation, or passing time while a substitute teacher narrates a PowerPoint on Mesopotamia. See this as an indictment of society, of the current political candidates, as the internet has ruined everything, but it's undeniable: Ben Carson, for all his tangents and absurd, re-tweetable suggestions for fixing America, is deeply boring.
Carson in mid-speech, leaning on the lectern for support.
Before he quit the race, Jeb Bush was your divorced dad clipping a cell phone on his belt, drinking Diet Snapple alone at the airport, buying VIP passes for him and a date to a Red Hot Chili Peppers show, getting stood up and eating shrimp cocktail alone and listening to "Californication." Trump is the guy at the carnival positive he can guess your weight, and when he guesses wrong, he tells you impossible, you're lying, how much change you got in your pockets? Cruz has turned a presidential campaign into something almost militaristic.
But Carson is just... just... out there, tumbling around the universe. He is fascinating for his delusions; if he has an identity it is that he seems permanently confused. Not an existential crisis, but, like, how'd all these cameras get here? If he said them more loudly, his theories on society, the economy, and religion would be outrageous. For 19 years, he was the director of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. He once separated conjoined twins.
He spends his days now comparing homosexuality to bestiality and being in NAMBLA.
He is a man singing a sometimes-inaudible lullaby about fiscal gaps, the "pied piper coming along talking about free college." About electromagnetic pulsation, dirty bombs, something something we need to something our electrical grid. He says phrases and words out loud, things like "couple that with" and "via," that seem like they have only existed in press releases from pharmaceutical companies.
The people in the crowd seem like they showed up more for the symbolic acknowledgement of their own up-from-nothing narratives, their rigid Christian values, than for Ben Carson, Protector of the Republic and the Sanctity of Human Life. The applause is weak and quick.
But, anyway, we're here: There are cameras on platforms and silent bodyguard-ish men with earpieces and good posture guarding Carson, the man whose face is on the book his fans are holding, and now he's right in front of them, and we are all swirling in this little whirlpool of low-level celebrity and instagramable moments.
He closes his speech with something about the military, our troops, and then "God is my center. I'd much rather lose than tell a lie, thank you very much." This was the way most of it went, call and response buzzwords about guns and Muslims when he senses the crowd is flat-lining, and he needs to resuscitate it. There are lots of medical analogies as well: performing surgery, removing the infection. America is poisoned; Carson is a real-life doctor. Get it?
Ben Carson works the crowd
As Carson steps off stage and wades into the converging mass, I see a mom with lots of makeup dragging her kids by the hand through kneecaps and interlocked chairs, camera already set to selfie mode, trying to make space for her friend, calling out to her across the room. She is desperate for someone to join her.
Waiting in front of a railing to the side, young kids in fleece vests, guys in V-neck sweaters, kids with their shirts tucked in, guys with shirts you get for renewing a magazine subscription. Teenagers in gingham shirts tucked into jeans, faded visors, holding their girlfriends' waists with a firmness somewhere between "hey remember me????" and "Maybe later.... ;)"
A woman with wavy red hair says, "Do you wanna go shake his hand?" to a blond woman in a leopard-print shirt and jeans with bedazzled back pockets. The blond woman says back, "Nah, but I'll take your picture if you wanna go?" They both linger in the back row for a few seconds, maybe considering how long is appropriate to pretend-consider the handshake and the picture. They take a few steps, still undecided. Then they walk toward the door and leave for good.
Carson works his way to an exit behind the stage, posing and signing, inching a little bit closer each time. A short man climbs onto a chair to take a picture over everyone. Carson decides it's time to go, and the crowd groans briefly in disappointment. It disappears not long after that.
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