Ben Carson is now ahead of all the rest in the latest polls of Iowa Republicans and a clear second—in some cases a very close second—to Donald Trump in the various national polls. The Carson phenomenon is arguably even more remarkable than the Trump phenomenon. Trump, after all, has been a public figure for decades. His reality show has made him a TV star, watched regularly by millions of people. Carson’s deserved renown as a surgeon pales by comparison; his only claim to political stardom lay in his having denounced Obamacare at a National Prayer Breakfast while the president was seated only feet away.
Undoubtedly a large part of Carson’s appeal lies in the fact that, putting aside the content of what he says, he has a very attractive persona. Soft-spoken and self-effacing but utterly self-assured, Carson comes across as a gentle man as well as a gentleman. He inspires confidence and trust. Evangelicals identify with his fervent religiosity. Since a large of the Republican base has no problems with—indeed, embraces–the content of what he says, it’s not hard to understand his quietly charismatic appeal.
But make no mistake about it: politically Carson is a certifiable loon. Not only is he appallingly ignorant of the contemporary political world; he seems blissfully unaware of or indifferent to his ignorance. In an earlier post, I pointed to Carson’s deluded explanation of how he would have avoided the need for the US to invade Afghanistan in 2001. Almost as ludicrous was his original idea for a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Most recently, Carson’s fact-free interpretations of history extended to Nazi Germany, which he claimed utilized gun control in pursing Hitler’s goals. You can’t say the guy has no imagination!
Carson is a devotee of the late right wing conspiracy theorist W. Cleon Skousen, who believed that Communist agents had penetrated all echelons of American society, including the media and the highest offices of the US government. Carson believes that Clousen, who died in 2007, remains remarkably relevant today. (Carson may not know that even the right-wing National Review characterized Skousen as an “all-around nut-job.”) So it’s natural for Carson to suspect that President Obama might declare martial law and cancel the 2016 elections. Do I need to go on about Carson’s comparison of the present-day US to Nazi Germany, of homosexuality to bestiality, etc., etc.? It’s no wonder that the Washington Post’s resident conservative, Jennifer Rubin, pronounced Carson “entirely unfit for the presidency.”
Carson’s nuttiness is no impediment to success in Republican primaries, but there is another aspect of his persona that you might think could pose problems: he’s Black. Interestingly, Carson’s race is almost never mentioned in the political commentaries. Is it possible that we have become such a color-blind society that the race of a leading candidate for a major party presidential nomination is irrelevant? Sorry, I don’t believe that. I suspect that the reticence about Carson’s race reflects the media’s skittishness about asking the obvious question: how is it that a Black man is garnering significant support in a party which, in various subtle and occasionally not so subtle ways, has been exploiting anti-Black racism for half a century? It’s a question worth asking, but I haven’t seen anyone else ask it. I’ll try to answer it as best I can.
First, let’s be clear: no one should doubt that racism remains very widespread in American society, and that racism is especially common among Republicans. An Associated Press poll, taken on the eve of the 2012 elections, found that 51% of Americans manifested fairly explicit anti-Black attitudes. 79% of Republicans were explicitly racist, compared to 32% of Democrats. I haven’t found any more recent similar polls, but there’s no reason to believe that things have changed much since then.
How can we explain the popularity of a Black man in a party heavily populated by racists? Undoubtedly, part of the answer lies in the fact that this country really has made significant progress on race in recent decades. The nature of racism has changed. Half a century ago Carson’s candidacy would have been simply unthinkable. What I call “primitive racism,” a visceral distaste for any and every member of the other race, is now quite rare. Most white people are perfectly capable of recognizing individual blacks as upstanding, decent folks even if they retain a disdain for blacks generally and resent their political demands. In other words, plenty of white people who basically don’t like blacks are quite capable of making exceptions: of seeing in Melissa or Harry or Ben an individual who is not like the rest of “them.” What’s the old saying—“the exception proves the rule?” You really need to be a pretty extreme bigot not to see such exceptionalism in a brilliant surgeon with a winning smile and a calming bedside manner.
Exceptionalism in political leadership isn’t confined to race or to the United States. Argentina, Chile, Brazil, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have all had female presidents or heads of government. I don’t think anyone would cite that fact as evidence for the absence of sexism in any of those countries.
And, of course, the case for Carson’s exceptionalism is strengthened by the fact that what he says sounds far more like the talking points of the white politicians who dominate the Republican Party than of the Democrats who are perceived as constantly trying to buy “them” off with benefits and favors. That makes Carson all the more admirable to right-wingers: despite his race, he sees things the way we see them! A model Black man! Carson’s candidacy thus serves to legitimate resistance to Black political grievances: why can’t they just stop complaining and be more like him? Better still: Carson helps inoculate Republicans against the charge of racism—how can we be racist when we’re supporting a Black guy for president? Paradoxically, Carson’s race is probably at least a small plus for him in his quest for the Republican presidential nomination.