Taking Dr. Ben Carson Seriously

Now that we’ve seen a host of surveys, nationally and in Iowa, that show Dr. Ben Carson to be the current leader of the Invisible Primary for the Republican presidential nomination, it’s as good a time as any to look seriously at the nature of his appeal, and eschew easy dismissals of him via racially suspect and factually dubious analogies to Herman Cain.

So that’s what I tried to do in my weekly TPMCafe column.

His “genial” manner and celebrity non-political background have been recognized as factors by just about everybody. Even the MSM is beginning to realize Carson began the race as a beloved and familiar figure among many conservative evangelicals, who have been reading the man’s books for years (in this respect he reminds me of you-know-who from Wasilla, Alaska, who was a big celebrity among antichoice activists when John McCain chose her as his running-mate, even though most MSM folk had never heard of her). And there’s no question Carson’s race provides an important silver lining for conservatives anxious to fend off accusations of racism, and pleased to offer a version of “minority outreach” that involves no “move to the center” in ideology.

And speaking of ideology, the real wild-card regarding Carson is his world-view, heavily influenced by the famous Bircher conspiracy theorist W. Cleon Skousen, better known as Glenn Beck’s favorite “historian.” There is definitely a distinct constituency for this kind of paranoid “thinking” in the GOP, though in the past it has usually been identified (at least at the national level) with fringe characters like Michele Bachmann. Unlike Bachmann, though, Carson is very good at conveying his underlying philosophy via occasional references and dog whistles. And despite the best efforts of MoJo’s David Corn to provide a decoder ring, the MSM has largely shown itself to be completely clueless about Carson’s very special definition of terms like “political correctness,” which he utters about every 30 seconds.

While that could theoretically change, it may be dangerous to assume that Carson will inevitably fade just like 2012 candidate Herman Cain, another African-American “novelty” aspirant to the White House with no experience in elected office. It seems to have been generally forgotten that what brought Cain down to earth and eventually drove him from the race wasn’t his lack of knowledge or experience, or the suspicion he was only running to market his “brand” (a widespread assumption about Carson as well), but a series of ever-more-toxic sexual allegations he never succeeded in rebutting. There’s absolutely no reason to think that a similar fate awaits Carson.

Even Carson’s most eccentric behavior, his decision to go on a book tour in the middle of a presidential campaign, makes some sense if you recall the bonds of affection his books have created with conservative evangelicals around the country. By the same token, though, the threshold viability of his campaign will probably depend on whether he can convince the Christian Right activists of Iowa–being intensely courted by more conventional candidates like Ted Cruz, not to mention the candidates who won the Iowa Caucuses the last two cycles–to convert the affection he commands into Caucus Night commitments.

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.