We are well past the point when anything that happens in the Republican presidential primary can qualify as surprising. A bigoted billionaire has led the race now for more than 100 days. The establishment favorite is crumbling in a heap of awkward moments and entitled whining. What once was up is now down, and has been for a while.
That’s why I found it odd when the Washington Post's Chris Cilizza proclaimed that Ben Carson was the least-understood candidate on either side. The GOP establishment, he wrote, doesn’t “get” the appeal of the retired neurosurgeon who has been running second to Donald Trump—except in Iowa, where he’s first. In polls released over the last week, Carson has either an eight-, nine-, or 14-point lead over Trump in the state hosting the first nominating contest. It seems that Republican voters get Carson quite well, actually. On Tuesday morning, he surpassed Trump in one national poll, besting him 26 to 22 percent. Even establishment Republicans recognize that he's in position to win Iowa. Of course, they also know that the last two Republicans who won the caucuses were Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012, running campaigns that played heavily to both the far right and evangelicals (sound familiar?). Neither man came close to sniffing the nomination in the end.
Republican voters see Carson not as a momentary entertainment like Herman Cain, but as a less-experienced version of Santorum and Huckabee, with a juicier biography, open expressions of Christian faith, and a quieter voice. This is working to Carson’s benefit because while Trump embodies the id of the Republican Party’s hardline voter base that Iowans have represented in an outsized manner, Carson is its superego, articulating what currently stands for its moral conscience with his quiet, even voice.
When the doctor speaks during Wednesday night’s third Republican debate, we might have to strain a bit to hear, but be assured that he’s speaking on a frequency that the far right can hear loud and clear. Carson, who was once a very different kind of black conservative, has bought into what they’re selling. In a strategy that calls to mind Fox News more so than a political campaign, what he's doing to win is presenting black respectability politics while preaching the conservative word. It isn’t as hard to figure out as some think.
Carson used to be a different kind of black conservative, one who stemmed from the Booker T. Washington tradition of black self-help amid the permanence of white racism. BuzzFeed this week flagged an excerpt from his 1999 book The Big Picture in which he wrote that white Americans have “no grasp on the history of racial violence in this country.” But now that he’s a politician, he hasn’t sold out so much as he’s bought in, serving up inappropriate and ahistorical slavery and Holocaust metaphors and ludicrous policies to cater to Republican voters. The saddest part is that he’s trashing his legacy, most likely, only to win Iowa and get a brief, almost certainly unsustainable ride atop the polls. Carson, once an iconoclast, is now a parrot for the hard right.
The guy who seems to be misunderstanding Carson’s appeal the most, frankly, is Trump himself. He out-and-out said it during a rally last Saturday in Jacksonville: “I don't know what the hell is going on there. I don't get it!" The real-estate magnate also made light of the doctor’s perceived lack of energy and verbally sub-tweeted Carson’s Seventh Day Adventist faith, a denomination that religious scholar Anthea Butler told CNN doesn’t typically get involved with politics and “veer[s] off of traditional mainline Christianity.” That was probably a clapback at Carson for paraphrasing Proverbs 22:4 in an earlier attack against Trump’s faith. At an Anaheim rally in September, Carson had called his faith the "big differentiator" between him and Trump. “Probably the biggest thing—I've realized where my success has come from and I don't in any way deny my faith in God,” he said. “By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches and honor and life and that's a very big part of who I am. I don't get that impression with him. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't get that."
While Muslims are still waiting for their mea culpa from Carson for his insistence that none of them should be president of the United States, Trump got an apology—but isn’t giving one in return. That’s probably OK, though, since Carson’s true doctrine isn’t so much Christianity as it is conservative fundamentalism.
That creed also, it seems, holds that women who seek abortions are equivalent to slave masters. That’s the analogy Carson drew on Sunday’s episode of “Meet the Press.” Before he told Chuck Todd that he’d like to see Roe v. Wade overturned, he said, “During slavery—and I know that's one of those words you're not supposed to say, but I'm saying it—during slavery, a lot of the slave owners thought that they had the right to do whatever they wanted to that slave. Anything that they chose to do. And, you know, what if the abolitionist had said, you know, 'I don't believe in slavery. I think it's wrong. But you guys do whatever you want to do'? Where would we be?”
The comparison is insulting and historically incongruous, but that’s been Carson’s lane throughout this campaign. He went to the slavery-metaphor well once before, declaring that the Affordable Care Act was the worst thing since—and just as notably, said after the recent mass shooting at an Oregon community college that the Holocaust would have been less likely had Jewish people been fighting back with firearms. Yes, all of that is ridiculous, but not to like Iowa Republican caucus-goers, who give him an 84 percent approval rating. Carson, as USA Today reported, had only two negatives with these voters, including the use of fetal tissue during his medical career. Not even Ben Carson can be a perfect modern-day conservative.
He is trying, though. Last Thursday, Politico reported that the doctor wants to eliminate Medicare and Medicaid, offering in their place “cradle-to-grave savings accounts” that would be funded by the government to the tune of a measly $2,000 per year and making every family “their own insurance company,” in his words. This is something Carson brought up two years ago at the National Prayer Breakfast, when he made a splash by criticizing President Obama from a few feet away. Carson buttered folks up for the Medicare and Medicaid proposals with a National Review op-ed in July, in which he claimed that “the majority of Americans are unhappy with Obamacare and would prefer something that is simple, effective, and under their own control.” It’s one of the strongest anti-government ideas yet put forth by a Republican in this campaign cycle. Nationwide, it is typically bad politics, even for Republicans, to propose that 49 million people be tossed off of their health insurance and given national savings accounts. But thus far, Carson has been the Teflon Doc, with no consequences. The stuff that has torpedoed Santorum and Huckabee in the past and present has not hurt him.
Part of it is simply because people like the dude. “Dr. Carson's personality and likeability causes people to cut him some slack,” former McCain campaign manager Charlie Black told NBC News last week. “He comes from outside the political world, where what you say and your observations are more like someone in the public sphere.” Other voters told reporter Alexandra Jaffe that they respect that Carson "loves the Lord,” and said they find him “very refreshing, very inspiring—even his stances on race in this country, that we need to be getting people to work together and love their neighbors.” A lifelong Democrat told Jaffe that Carson was someone she could see herself voting for, because he “sounds very smart and has helped children.”
We cannot discount the degree to which respectability politics plays into this. As I’ve written before, Carson is a Horatio Alger myth come to life, and the willfully incomplete Republican framing of racial strife in America only serves to buttress his legend as a Black Man Who Did It On His Own And Didn’t Make Excuses. But one thing I didn’t mention is what sociology professor Tressie McMillan Cottom aptly noted in The Atlantic, which crosses racial lines: the public’s assumption that being smart in one capacity is an indication of overall (specifically political) intelligence. I suspect that Carson's ridiculous platform and lack of foreign-policy specifics will catch up to him—perhaps as soon as Wednesday’s debate, given that he’s now more of a target for Trump and the other candidates. But Carson will likely still sound like the reasonable one, even as insanity drips from his lips. Even when impassioned, he rarely sounds excited. He spouted about abortion and slavery with the cadence one might use to read a grocery list.
We associate Trump's hyperbolic manner with performance, but Carson is also performing something: earnestness. Perhaps he actually believes all the stuff he says, but Carson is proving that even the most politically extreme African American can sound reasonable to some folks when he speaks so well, and so articulately.
The column originally stated that Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses in the wrong years. The error has been corrected.