As the Invisible Primary for 2016 reaches its zenith in the months before formal voting begins, there is one Republican candidate doing very well despite a lack of media attention, a record in public office, an elaborate campaign apparatus or even a clearly articulated platform. In the latest survey of Iowa for the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg Politics by highly-regarded pollster Ann Selzer, Ben Carson is running second behind Donald Trump at 18 percent, triple the vote share of supposed Establishment favorite Jeb Bush, and more than twice the vote share of early Iowa frontrunner Scott Walker.
He’s also the top candidate in second-choice preferences. Carson’s favorable/unfavorable rating in the Selzer poll is 79/8, best in the field, with 46 percent giving him a “very favorable” rating; no one else is close to that number. And as political observers absorbed these findings, a new Iowa poll came out from Monmouth showing Carson tied with Trump for the lead at 23 percent. Each had the same vote share as Bush, Walker, Kasich, Rubio and Paul combined.
Carson reportedly has four paid staffers in Iowa. So his popularity is not the product of any “ground game.” He’s in the middle of the pack in terms of days spent there, so it’s not like he’s carpet-bombing the state with personal appearances, either. Unlike Trump, he is not identified with any particular position on a hot-button issue. While he seems to be an orthodox “movement conservative” in nearly every respect, the issue content on his campaign webpage is very general when not eccentrically specific (e.g., he has no section on crime or criminal justice or terrorism, but does have one on the need to “keep Gitmo open”).
Admiration for Carson’s dazzling medical career and up-from-the-ghetto background appears to be a factor, though knowledge of that career and background is mainly centered among African-Americans, who are not heavily represented among Republicans, especially in Iowa. So what’s his appeal, and what does he represent?
Much of the talk about Carson at present involves contrasts with Trump. Linda Feldmann of the Christian Science Monitor sums it up:
Ben Carson, in many ways, is the antithesis of Donald Trump.
Mr. Trump is loud and bombastic; Dr. Carson is low-key and genial. When Trump speaks, he chops his hands in the air as if to enhance his brashness. Carson has calm, steady, surgeon’s hands—“Gifted Hands,” as his memoir is titled.
Moreover, Trump talks endlessly about how he will fix America’s problems and make the country great again. Though Carson hardly lacks self-assurance, his rap invariably focuses on the ability of the American people to solve their own problems using common sense.
But Carson’s temperament or biography are hardly enough to make him so appealing to a strongly ideological and currently very frustrated GOP base. It’s the subtext of his calm words that packs a punch if you know how to interpret them, which most non-conservative observers probably don’t.
Consider this moment from the first GOP presidential debate, in which he was generally rated as among the “winners.” Chris Wallace asked Carson how he would deal with Hillary Clinton as an opponent who might accuse Republicans of fighting the aspirations of women and minorities and the poor and taking the country backwards:
CARSON: If Hillary is the candidate, which I doubt, that would be a dream come true.
The fact of the matter is, she is the epitome of the progressive — the secular progressive movement. And she counts on the fact that people are uninformed, the Alinsky Model, taking advantage of useful idiots. Well, I just happen to believe that people are not stupid.
And the way I will come at it is to educate people, help people to actually understand that it is that progressive movement that is causing them the problems.
You know, you look at the — the national debt and how it’s being driven up. If I was trying to destroy this country, what I would do is find a way to drive wedges between all the people, drive the debt to an unsustainable level, and then step off the stage as a world leader and let our enemies increase while we decreased our capacity as a military person. And that’s what she’s doing.
The “Alinsky Model” is a dog whistle to a certain breed of conspiracy minded hard-core conservative, as is the identification of Clinton with the “secular progressive movement.” Both are references some might recognize from Glenn Beck’s many discourses, and both are meant to describe people who are actively and consciously working through deceit to enslave if not destroy (Carson’s word) America. The Alinsky Model’s main weapon, according to most aficionados of this sort of thinking, is “political correctness,” which happens to be Dr. Ben Carson’s favorite phrase for everything he is fighting against.
Earlier in the Fox debate, Carson denounces limits on torture as an effort to impose “political correctness” on the military. In his announcement of candidacy in May, he promised never to be “politically correct,” and also claimed liberal disciples of the radical organizer Saul Alinsky were following his blueprint for psychological warfare by trying to stamp out dissent. And the pattern goes back to the event that clearly launched his political career, his speech at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast, where, a few feet away from the president, he began an attack on the condition of the country under Obama’s stewardship by warning listeners against the “trick” of “political correctness” being used to keep people from realizing the “fabric of this society is being changed.”
The more you listen to Carson talking about “political correctness,” the more it becomes obvious he’s not attacking college speech codes or disputes over racial or ethnic or gender terms, but liberal elite mockery of right-wing conspiracy theories. When Wolf Blitzer of CNN challenged Carson’s comparisons of Obama’s America to Nazi Germany, the good doctor accused Blitzer of being part of the problem, along with the IRS and other instruments of liberal oppression:
[W]hat you were doing is allowing words to affect you more than listening to what was actually being said,” Carson insisted. “Nazi Germany experienced something horrible. The people in Nazi Germany largely did not believe in what Hitler was doing, but did they say anything? Of course not. They kept their mouths shut.”
“The fact that our government is using instruments of government like the IRS to punish its opponents, this is not the kind of thing, as far as I’m concerned, that is a Democrat or Republican issue. This is an American issue. This is an issue that threatens all of our liberty, all or our freedom.”
In this context, it becomes clear that Carson’s occasional “gaffes” aren’t really accidents, but what he believes: Obamacare is the worst thing since slavery; Obama might be planning to cancel elections; Democrats are opening the borders to bring in immigrants who will increase the welfare population and thus keep Democrats in power. Even though these are not unusual beliefs in the fever swamps of the far right, they are exotic for a major-party presidential candidate.
But here’s the thing: Carson’s distinguished life and his whole manner of presentation numbs the mind to his extremism—except to the initiated, who nod knowingly at every reference to Alinsky and “political correctness.” And there’s something extra special about an African-American preemptively labeling suspected incidents of racism and sexism as mere political incorrectness, which he then defends as essential free speech! Let it rip!
So it’s probably accurate to say that Dr. Ben Carson is a wingnut with an excellent bedside manner. It’s unclear at this moment how many of his fans understand what he’s saying and how many don’t. But if he is indeed about to become a near or actual front-runner, people should watch and listen a bit more closely than before.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.