During the last month the long-awaited, heavily-promoted decline in Donald Trump’s standing in the Republican presidential nominating contest has finally begun to occur. But aside from a small reshuffling of the order in the “lanes” (e.g., Rubio moving past Bush among Establishment Republicans and Cruz moving past Huckabee, Santorum and Jindal among experienced Christian Right candidates) to which the candidates have been assigned by the punditocracy, the big beneficiary of softening support for Trump has been another candidate with no experience in elected office, Dr. Ben Carson. He is running either first or a strong second in virtually every national poll, and is now routinely leading polls of Iowa as well. His approval ratings, moreover, are extremely high, and best in the field. It’s safe to say he is almost universally admired by GOP voters.
The conventional wisdom is that Carson is beloved for being a genial, soft-spoken figure and a non-politician with a distinguished biography. That may be true, though this does not necessarily distinguish him from many thousands of his fellow Americans. An equally obvious factor is that he is African American, and Republicans frustrated with being accused of white identity politics if not outright racism love being able to support a black candidate who is as conservative as they are.
Less obvious — and finally being recognized by political reporters spending time in Iowa — is that Carson is a familiar, beloved figure to conservative evangelicals, who have been reading his books for years.
Another factor, and one that I emphasized in my own take here two months ago, is that Carson is a devoted believer in a number of surprisingly resonant right-wing conspiracy theories, which he articulates via dog whistles that excite fellow devotees (particularly fans of Glenn Beck, who shares much of Carson’s world-view) without alarming regular GOP voters or alerting the MSM.
As David Corn of Mother Jones has patiently explained, the real key for understanding Carson (like Beck) is via the works of Cold War-era John Birch Society member and prolific pseudo-historian W. Cleon Skousen, who stipulated that America was under siege from the secret domestic agents of global Marxism who masqueraded as liberals. Carson has also clearly bought into the idea that these crypto-commies are systematically applying the deceptive tactics of Saul Alinsky in order to destroy the country from within—a theme to which he alluded in the famous National Prayer Breakfast speech that launched his political career and in the first Republican presidential candidates’ debate.
It’s not clear how many Carson supporters hear the dog whistles and understand what his constant references to “political correctness” connote (it’s his all-purpose term for the efforts of America’s secret enemies to mock or silence cognoscenti like himself, Beck and Skousen), but added with his other advantages, it fills out his coalition with depth as well as breadth.
And that is why the broadly held assumption that Carson will, like 2012 candidate Herman Cain, quickly fade from contention as voting nears is worth rethinking. For one thing, Carson’s race is just one source of his appeal, so identifying him with the last black conservative to run for president is highly questionable.
Cain was not a revered figure before running in 2012, beyond those who listened when he sat in for an Atlanta-based radio host. He also was not exactly a non-politician, having run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate. But the most important reason to stop identifying Carson with Cain is simple: Cain’s loss of his once-high poll ratings were not caused by a voters getting tired with a “flavor of the month” or realizing his slim qualifications; he was brought down by a series of sexual allegations that escalated from multiple claims of sexual harassment to a long-term extramarital affair. Cain never admitted any wrong-doing, but he also never convincingly rebutted the allegations, and all the smoke convinced many observers there might be fire. He left the race on his own terms, but after losing most of his altitude.
There’s zero reason to think Carson has any such skeletons in his closet. The one thing we know about his background that is politically dangerous is his testimonial work for a subsequently fined nutritional supplement company. But unless it turns out he was paid a lot more than seems to be the case, he’s only in hot water if he cannot soon keep his story straight. Being a straight shooter is extremely important to his image.
He seems to have successfully back-pedaled on his one easy-to-understand policy heresy, a proposal to replace Medicare and Medicaid with heavily subsidized health savings accounts, which he now describes as an “option” for beneficiaries (that, too, is problematic, but not as much as his original “idea”).
So there remains what should actually disqualify Carson: his extremist, paranoid “world-view” which treats regular boring old center-left liberals as conscious and systematically deceitful would-be destroyers of this country bent on imposing a Marxist tyranny via “politically correct” suppression of free speech and confiscation of guns.
There’s unquestionably a constituency for this point of view, but we may never know whether it would outnumber the Republicans baffled or horrified by it until such time as one of his rivals or the heretofore clueless media start talking about it. If they don’t pretty soon, then one theory of the 2016 GOP nominating process could come true: conservatives want to rerun the 1964 elections, and they’ve finally found their Barry Goldwater.