It looks like the months-long dominance of Donald Trump may finally be over. The leader in the race for the Republican nomination is now, according to some polls, Dr. Ben Carson. In Iowa, Carson now leads by a significant margin, according to a new Monmouth poll that puts his support among Republican voters at 32 percent, compared to 18 percent for Trump. Nationally, a fresh New York Times/CBS News poll shows Carson leading Trump 26 percent to 22 percent. This is Carson's moment, and a great performance at Wednesday's GOP primary debate could push him higher, pulling support from voters who want an outsider candidate but have tired of the Trump Show.
But before we get too far on the Carson train, I have to step back and confess that the rise of the former pediatric neurosurgeon has me perplexed. Why is Carson resonating? What is it that people like about him? What exactly is his brand?
Much has been said about how Trump's pompous brashness flows from the id of very angry people on the right. So then what does it mean to have Carson supplant Trump? This is a massive cultural shift. If Trump were music he'd be some arrogant, abrasive, look-at-me, late-career Kanye; the soft-spoken Carson, would be some Kenny G-style, Muzakified smooth jazz. He talks like he's trying to lull you to sleep—although the content of what he says is so extreme, in a sense he's shouting just as loud as Trump.
Carson has a way with analogies. He likes to stretch them out to the nth degree, a habit that often destroys his point, inadvertently shifting the discussion toward him and his lack of judgment. Case in point: Carson's political star shot into the stratosphere when compared Obamacare to slavery. "Obamacare is really I think the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery," Carson told the Values Voter Summit in 2013. "And it is in a way, it is slavery in a way, because it is making all of us subservient to the government." It's a sentiment he's repeated many times since.
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And the slavery analogies aren't limited to Obamacare. In an appearance on Meet the Press Sunday, he compared women who get abortions to slave owners, saying that both believe they can "do whatever they want" to another person. In the past few weeks alone, he's said that the Jews might have prevented the Holocaust if they'd had guns, that Muslims should be disqualified from the presidency, and that Obama signed an executive order on immigration reform in order to create new Democratic voters. He also thought Congress should remove federal judges who ruled in favor marriage equality. I could go on, but you get the picture.
So Carson is, among other things, anti-abortion, anti-Obamacare, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, and LGBT-intolerant. Which means that for people on the right who long for a world without abortion, immigrants, Obamacare, and Obama, Carson is a dream. In that respect, his rise in popularity, like that of Trump, relates directly to Obama Derangement Syndrome: His attacks on the president— sometimes to his face—are highly seductive to that group of Americans who remain so angry about Obama's election that they oppose everything he stands for, and even oppose governing itself, cheering for shutdowns and endless obstruction and endless attacks on Obamacare and Benghazi! that put the country's ability to function in real danger.
Carson does have an inspiring personal story. He grew up poor in Detroit but made it to Yale University and eventually to the neurosurgery team at Johns Hopkins, where he made medical history. The "I-got-here-all-by-myself" narrative is appealing, particularly to a conservative electorate. His success seems to attack the notion that race holds people back, and appears to prove the right's tightly held argument that anyone can make it in the US, if only they try hard enough.
There is, of course, a deeper psychological aspect of this. While Obama Derangement Syndrome is not entirely fueled by racism, such vehement opposition to the president can lead to charges that one is a racist. Whether or not that's fair is a question for another essay. In the case of Carson, though, a black man's life story seems to repudiate liberal ideas about race in America— specifically that people of color struggle to succeed in this country and that policies should be formulated to help these communities. Thus supporting Carson may somehow seem to obliterate the sense that racism is an inherent part of hating Obama.
But while Carson's journey is definitely impressive, the insistence that he did it without help is farcical. He attended public schools, lived on food stamps, and even got free glasses from a government program. He's the product of a world with safety nets that helped him in significant ways throughout his early life.
Conservatives conveniently ignore that fact, preferring to see a man who came from nothing and made it to the top of an elite medical field—a glittering backstory filled with real tangible achievements that gives Carson an advantage over Jeb and Marco and other career politicians who've spent their adult lives in statehouses or on Capitol Hill. Carson's story separates him from almost all of the other Republican candidates, save Trump, whose backstory as a successful businessman in a party that reveres business success, similarly warms conservative hearts.
We assume the brother is extraordinarily intelligent, because he's a pioneering surgeon, but when Carson speaks he says dumb—or, uh, unintelligent—things. But don't be fooled by the way Carson seems to be less quick-witted than the other candidates, or the way he seems to have less of a grasp of the nuances of policy or government. The truth is, Republicans like that: The party has a deep anti-intellectual streak and is quick to fall in love with strong people who project a disdain of intellectualism and studies and facts.
This is a party that has been in love with Trump since June, and whose past trysts include Sarah Palin and George W. Bush. Carson's apparent slowness is something that separates him from the sharper political minds in the GOP presidential field, but don't be fooled: As with Trump, anti-intellectualism is part of Carson's appeal.
The thing that separates Carson from Trump, however, is his religion. Trump is lost on questions relating to faith, and his arrogance may be off-putting to many of the evangelical voters who make up a sizable chunk of the GOP's base. Carson, on the other hand, is deeply religious—he's a Seventh Day Adventist— and conducts himself in such a calm way, it seems like he just finished a nice, quiet church service. Or just finished a nice nap—but I digress. The NYT/CBS poll shows among evangelicals, Carson leads Trump by over 20 points, and other recent polls have shown a similar gap.
My friend, the political science professor Sam Popkin, author The Candidate: What It Takes to Win—and Hold—the White House, points out that this difference could be critical in a state like Iowa, where evangelicals make up a key voting bloc in the GOP. "Carson is more like Jimmy Carter than like Obama," said Popkin. "The polite, pure, dedicated outsider." Like Carter, Carson is a soft-spoken, calming, deeply religious man. Take that religious core and that nice guy mien and add in a deep hatred for Obama and you've got a dream candidate for a GOP who's pro-God and anti-Obama.
So ok, I understand that Carson's appeal flows from his ability to express Tea Party talking points in the calm voice of a political outsider. But I'm still not sure what Carson's brand slogan would be. At the last Republican debate, when it came time for candidates to give their closing statements, Carson spoke simply about being a surgeon. It seemed like he'd wandered in from a medical convention and decided to stay. But perhaps that's it. In this climate where being a political outsider is cherished, perhaps Carson's brand is "I was a surgeon." I'm not sure though. Because I've thought a lot about Ben and his appeal and I still don't entirely get it.
But maybe that's not my fault. If you can't clearly discern the central message of a campaign it usually means that campaign has done a bad job of explaining itself. So while Carson might be leading the GOP field for now, he's still got a lot of work to do to explain to America who he is.
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