Ben Carson’s Moral Super-Majority

I guess it’s necessary in a news-cycle blog to take notice of presidential campaign announcements by candidates with enough support and money to draw MSM attention. And so, I read Ben Carson’s announcement speech, and read a couple of articles about said speech, but continued to find him as difficult to parse as any recent political figure I can think of.

Here’s a guy who talks endlessly about overcoming divisions among the American people and having civil conversations about issues. Yet his own POV is incredibly divisive–basically anyone other than constitutional conservatives like him is a traitorous looter–and consistently uncivil–he likes to compare America to Nazi Germany, and the president to the worst tyrants in history. He clearly speaks for a tiny minority of people–basically those who listen to Glenn Beck and think he makes a lot of sense–but acts as though he’s just a common-sense tribune of the vast majority of citizens who don’t much like politics or politicians. His speeches are pretty much serial non sequiturs strung together with his autobiography. And a certain kind of conservative audience just loves it.

I’ve tried to explain Carson’s message before in terms of his very unique concept of “political correctness,” a term he uses constantly.

[T]o the kind of people who are hailing Ben Carson as a potential president, hearing an African-American man tell them it’s their duty to defy “political correctness” is, whatever Carson intends by the term, an invitation to spout all kinds of racist and sexist nonsense. If anyone so much as frowns at them, well, they are agents of tyranny and not really Americans. And anyone who finds the premises of their world view not worth taking seriously is trying to “intimidate” them into silence—the silence of the grave!

I stand by that characterization of Carson’s following, but also think something else is going on. One of the real problems for cultural conservatives these days is that they are having a hard time accepting the evidence of their own eyes when it comes to changing public opinions–most notably the growing acceptance of homosexuality generally, and of same-sex marriage specifically. It’s hard for them to pretend they represent a “moral majority” any more, and increasingly, they are tempted by the rhetoric of the “righteous remnant”–people acutely conscious of their minority status, and in fact taking pride in their obduracy, and appropriating the moral authority of the persecuted.

Carson’s shtick allows such people to have it both ways: they are still the majority, of course, but have been silenced by fear of the IRS and the ATF, the mockery of sophisticates, and the byzantine tricks of the Alinskyites who run the country.

So while pols like Mike Huckabee or Sarah Palin appeal to the fury of “real Americans” who are called to arms to smite their godless foes, Carson seems to be telling the same people they are an overwhelming majority that has been deluded into powerlessness, and need only to stand up and speak out to win. You’re not crazy, Carson seems to be telling his audiences. You’re completely normal, and you can take back your country whenever you want.

I think this explains a lot of the adulation surrounding Carson. He speaks not as an evangelist, or as a crusader, but as a self-help expert, a therapeutic motivational speaker, reassuring The Folks that their America still exists beneath the culture wars and the partisan politics. As we know, people will pay a lot of money for that kind of advise.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.