Armstrong Williams has resurfaced. The controversial political commentator—best known for his lucrative promotion of No Child Left Behind during the Bush administration—called the news site Talking Points Memo last week to clarify his friend Dr. Ben Carson’s position on embattled Kentucky clerk Kim Davis. “Dr. Carson has said since the Supreme Court ruling that it is the law of the land and that’s what he respects,” Williams declared.
It was a curious position for a man regarded as a conservative cult hero, one that placed him in the same camp as squishy John Kasich rather than grizzled Scott Walker—to say nothing of Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz, who spent much of this week slap-fighting each other over who was Davis’ more gallant escort. Carson did clarify his position by calling on the Supreme Court to accommodate Davis’ First Amendment rights. But he still refused to join many of the other GOP candidates in using Davis to beacon social conservatives.
This has become a pattern for the Detroit neurosurgeon. When he speaks generally, he has a penchant for outlandish rhetoric—America is Nazi Germany, the IRS is the Gestapo, Obamacare is slavery. But pin him down on the specifics and he often sounds distinctly non-ideological, even progressive. He’s supported hiking the federal minimum wage, defended the contributions of illegal immigrants, extolled the benefits of green energy sources like hydropower, and backed various gun control measures. He deftly sidestepped the mandatory vaccination trap the same day that it snared Rand Paul.
On foreign policy, Carson is even more of a curiosity. He opposed not just the war in Iraq, but also the war in Afghanistan, a position that usually gets one hurled out of the marble halls of establishment thought and into the lonely realm of Noam Chomsky. In fact, he wrote a letter to President George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks encouraging him to enfeeble the terror masters by making America energy independent rather than declaring war.
And yet, in an age when the right is raging over immigrants and ISIS—when consensus is out and shaking your fist is in—Carson is somehow placing a strong second in most Republican primary polls. A new CNN/ORC survey has him winning between a fifth and a quarter of both self-identified conservatives and Tea Partiers. The right has spent the last six years rooting out so-called RINOs, to the point that John Boehner may not survive this congressional term. Now they’re rallying behind a political neophyte with few conservative credentials and far more apostasies than Eric Cantor (look him up).
There are several reasons for this. The first is that outsider status is more coveted in the GOP than ever before. Of the top six Republican candidates, three—Donald Trump, Carson, and Carly Fiorina—have never held elected office, and one—Ted Cruz—spends the majority of his time pretending he doesn’t hold elected office. The conservative base is so livid at its politicians that the Republican electoral process has become a never-ending raid on the Bastille, in which even the shortest-serving senators can suddenly fall under suspicion and everyone from radio hosts to party apparatchiks claims to have the establishment on the run. Having concluded that politicians won’t listen to them, the voters have turned, rather logically, to private citizens like Carson.
But perhaps more important to Carson’s rise is the right’s newfound infatuation with celebrity. One of conservatism’s most impressive accomplishments was the construction of an alternative and oppositional media that challenged center-left orthodoxy. Today that media is far more mainstream than it used to be, but conservatives still cluster around outlets like Fox News and talk radio, believing them to be the only sources that are even remotely trustworthy.
This has created a demand for fresh faces under the klieg lights that can recite the conservative message. Ben Carson is just such a face. His entire ride across the political scene has been rhetorical, from his debut at the National Prayer Breakfast where he criticized Obamacare to his numerous Fox News appearances. Once renowned for his steady hands, the gifted neurosurgeon discovered he could rile up a crowd by swinging wildly. To his fans, this verbal sugar rush—along with his impressive life story and ability to present himself as a foil to President Obama—is more important than his policy preferences.
Carson is benefitting from the same phenomenon that’s lifted Donald Trump, another voluble showman with an odd abundance of left-wing positions. Only whereas Trump is the conservative celebrity id unleashed, Carson is more like its super-ego. His rhetoric can be irresponsible and his policies can be confusing, but there’s little doubt his motivations are genuine and moral. One of the reasons his supporters like him is his deeply felt conscience, which is informed by a Christian faith that many of them share.
It was Jeb Bush who declared he only wanted to run for president if he could “do it joyfully,” but these days it’s Carson who’s enjoying himself the most. While Trump spent much of Thursday lashing out at Carson, even questioning his medical acumen, Carson refused the bait and actually apologized to Trump for minimizing his faith in God. At last month’s debate, Carson was charming and delivered the line of the evening when he said he was the only candidate “to take out of half of a brain, though you would think, if you go to Washington, that someone had beaten me to it.” A Gravis poll found more viewers named him the winner than any other candidate.
Carson does have at least one glaring flaw: his lack of familiarity with policy. Regardless of public opinion, he sounded thoroughly unschooled in the issues at that debate, opting instead, as he often does, for personal anecdotes and broad statements. It’s difficult to imagine him leading a Cabinet meeting—or even holding his own against Hillary Clinton.
Still, if the Republican base wants to flirt with presidential celebrity, they could do far worse than Dr. Carson.
Matt Purple is the deputy editor of Rare Politics.
Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore