Carson’s Implosion Is a Reflection of the Con Artistry That Has Overtaken the GOP

Ben Carson’s presidential campaign is imploding. One could argue that that’s the result of a candidate in freefall: things always get ugly when a campaign is losing ground in the polls, and staff shakeups are inevitable. But the way that Carson’s campaign has imploded is yet another window into the way the GOP has allowed itself to be run into the ground by charlatans of all kinds.

To begin with, as a politician Ben Carson himself is something of a fraud. By all accounts an eminently successful neurosurgeon, Carson parlayed his story of success into a grander overarching narrative that every person of color could overcome structural racism by sheer dint of hard work and determination, plus an abiding faith in God. His story became mythologized, played out on stage and on film as an example of the model minority.

But Carson, like many successful specialists, is not exactly well-rounded in his knowledge of life and the world. He drew the wrong political conclusions from his rise in the medical field, and grew to believe in his own hype–not just that he had a knack for neurosurgery, but that he was a genius in all respects and specially guided by the hand of God. Without even a political science undergraduate’s knowledge of either domestic or foreign policy, Carson decided that he was qualified to be President of the United States–and that his utter lack of policy ken or experience would be unimportant, irrelevant and undiscovered. And if he failed as a presidential candidate? There would always be a right-wing media circuit and book tour available.

In typical fashion for such a candidate, he allowed close friends and confidants to dominate his campaign instead of people who actually knew what they were doing. In particular, he trusted key decisions to Armstrong Williams, a media maven, radio jockey and advertising executive who has rather transparently been using the Carson campaign as his own vehicle for professional advancement. That in turn led to comically bad candidate preparation and campaign decision-making, with the direct result that Carson’s staff is engaged in a mass exodus.

But this shouldn’t surprise anyone. The libertarian-conservative ethic of “get rich any way you can” combined with a stubborn dismissal of objective fact makes political conservatism especially ripe for con artistry. It is no accident that Richard Viguerie was able to conduct his mail fundraising scams on the backs of GOP voters. It’s no accident that the tea party has been home to one grifter after another making a quick buck. American conservatism is the home of quack televangelists and secular Ayn Rand-spouting hucksters alike. Fox News itself is a long con perpetrated on fearful, older white Americans with the goal of making Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes rich while keeping Republican politicians in power. Donald Trump is merely the latest in a long line of egomaniacal scammers willing to play the same group of people for fools.

It should shock no one, then, that GOP presidential campaigns themselves are being waged by con artists, and themselves fall victim to media-hungry carnival barkers. It’s part of the culture.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.