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The Ultraconservative Black Neurosurgeon Who Might Run for President in 2016

Ben Carson is a famous pediatric neurosurgeon who doesn't believe in evolution and compares America to Nazi Germany. So of course he's running for president.
December 5, 2014, 1:30pm
Dr. Ben Carson. Photo by Jeffrey Smith via Flickr

There are a few different ways you could sum up what it means to be human. We love, we show empathy, we feel embarrassed about watching Gilmore Girls instead of sleeping. But if you decided to go with Walt Whitman's idea of being large and "containing multitudes," then Ben Carson might be more human than any of us. Because this dude has a lot going on.

In case you haven't heard, Carson, a conservative neurosurgeon, is one of the early leaders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. A CNN poll released this week showed the retired doctor coming in second among a field of 15 potential GOP contenders, behind 2012 loser Mitt Romney. Unlike Romney, though, Carson is openly considering running for president, and has a Super PAC devoted to making sure he does so.

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If Carson does run, he'll also be the weirdest major candidate for chief executive we've had since, I don't know, Ross Perot. I know this because Carson has far-far-right political positions, which we'll get to in a moment. I also know this because I watched a TV movie about him.

Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story aired on TNT in 2009, years before even the most ambitious of political swamis started throwing names against the wall for 2016. Its existence reveals that unlike most of the men (and woman) thinking about running for president, Carson had a rich and successful life before politics. He was the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital by the age of 33, when most doctors are still recovering from medical school. If there's a better barometer for measuring the wealth and success of a life than having it made into a TV movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr., I haven't heard it.

Gifted Hands is straightforward. It begins with Dr. Carson being presented with a seemingly unsolvable problem: Two German twins, conjoined at the head, need to be separated. The parents are distraught, the doctors perplexed. Any surgery will cause too much loss of blood. They're babies, dammit. They don't have much blood. But Dr. Carson didn't get where he is now by turning away from problems like this.

How did he get where he is? We soon find out. Carson is one of two children born to a single mother in Detroit. At first, people think he's dumb. But that problem is solved once he gets glasses and starts trying. The deeper issue, it's soon revealed, is that his mother can't read and also suffers from depression. Not wanting her children to be afflicted with her troubles, she issues an ultimatum: TV-watching will be replaced with book reading. Ben and his brother Curtis become academic all-stars! His mother's depression is cured! (It's not clear how this happens, but it goes away.) And a kindly white professor teaches her how to read.

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I'm not trying to be glib—this is a TV biopic, so it's not like we're going to get waist-deep in the intricacies of clinical depression and racial politics. According to the film, Carson confronts racism at two major, and it seems isolated, junctures: his eighth-grade graduation, where he accepts an award for the highest academic achievement in his class, and a white teacher says that all the white students should be a shamed for being beaten by this black boy; and later, as a resident at Johns Hopkins, when the doctor he's following on rounds starts straight-up spouting minstrelsy language at him. It's aggressive.

The young Carson does a few things in this movie that are remarkable. He almost attacks his mother with a hammer because she doesn't get him the right pants, which stems from the pressure he feels from new friends at an all-black high school. A few scenes later, he attempts to stab one of these new friends with a knife because they changed the classical music he was listening to on the radio. After that incident, he prays, asking God to take away his temper.

In the next scene, he's at Yale University, and is now played by Gooding, a 41-year-old man.

The rest of the movie shows how Carson overcomes obstacles at Yale and during his residency, and eventually separating the conjoined twins through a strategy he devised. It's a fine TV movie. It moves. What it does not dig into, aside from brief asides and the deus-ex-machina moment after that knifing, is Carson's faith or conservatism, which is where things get a little weirder.

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Because while Carson may be a celebrated neurosurgeon, educated at Yale and Johns Hopkins, he does not believe in evolution. His logic here uses the idea of God as a sort of trump card for any argument you might have. Carbon dating? God can carbon-date shit however he wants! He's God! The idiosyncrasies are impressive, although whether you believe it's impressive in a good or bad way would help most people determine whether they'd want to have a drink with you.

He also hates the Affordable Care Act. How much does he hate the Affordable Care Act? He has compared it to both slavery and the Holocaust. He's also compared progressives to Nazis, and then doubled down on the comparison last night, blaming the PC Police for taking the shine off his metaphors. And it wasn't even one of these contentious positions that led to his withdrawal as commencement speaker at his med-school alma mater, Johns Hopkins—in that case, students protested the time he equated gay people with NAMBLA and people who practice bestiality. (He also maybe-sort-of blamed gay people for causing the fall of the Roman Empire.)

Carson also trumpets many of the more conventional conservative positions—family values, "fiscal responsibility," American exceptionalism (and intervention), tax reform. He's anti-pot legalization and pro–Second Amendment, though he has, in the past, expressed skepticism about the need for semiautomatic handguns in cities. As a black man and a Republican, Carson has lately tried to get the upper hand on Barack Obama in terms of race relations, claiming that they've actually gotten worse since the President took office.

All of which has made Carson a massive star among conservatives. Since catching the right's attention at the 2011 National Prayer Breakfast in 2011, with a scathing speech about America's moral decay, Carson has been a fixture on the right-wing media circuit, beloved by the Republican fringe for his enthusiastic hatred of anything "progressive" or "politically correct." A Super PAC devoted to getting him to run for president has raised more than $10 million.

As a primary candidate, Carson has an easily understood appeal—he offers an olive branch to the far right while still being a respectable person, with an undeniably sterling record in the private sector (he has also served on the board of both Kellogg and Costco). While all his weirdness may be a stone to drag in a general election, if Republicans are looking for the polar-opposite candidate of Romney in terms of sheer intrigue, Ben Carson's their guy.