Politics

05.19.14

The Conservatives' Great Black Hope

Dr. Ben Carson has been held up as a potential 2016 presidential candidate. He has no political experience but Republicans now say that doesn’t seem to matter.

Dr. Ben Carson became an instant conservative folk hero on Feb. 7, 2013, when, as a featured speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast, he upbraided President Obama for inflicting Obamacare on the nation—this, as the president sat poker-faced mere feet from him on the dais.

Carson’s moment in the sun spawned an entire movement on the right urging him to run for the White House himself. Ann Coulter called him “magnificent.” The Wall Street Journal published an editorial titled, “Ben Carson for President.”

The right’s Carson-mania will likely explode in full force with the publication Tuesday of his hardcover manifesto, One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America’s Future—which sounds suspiciously like a campaign document.

But truth be told, the right-wing frisson was generated not only because an ordinary citizen dared to criticize the leader of the free world to his face, but also because both men are African-American.

Like Herman Cain, briefly the frontrunner for the 2012 Republican nomination until his campaign was derailed by sexual harassment charges (not to mention his obvious lack of policy chops), the good doctor stands as a right-wing rebuke to the political cliché that liberal-Democrat economic and social policies serve the interests of African Americans, and conservative-Republican policies undermine those interests.

Conservatives have long claimed, with some justification, that liberals favor policies—particularly affirmative action—which tend to patronize and demean blacks. It is an article of faith that President Obama has been given a free ride by the liberal media, in part, because of his race. And as Coulter so memorably put it in her attempt to defend Cain, “Our blacks are so much better than their blacks” because “you have fought against probably your family, probably your neighbors…that’s why we have very impressive blacks.”

Carson, a neurosurgeon by training, is perilously close to becoming the Herman Cain of 2016—but with a scalpel instead of a pizza cutter.

In its gushing endorsement, The Wall Street Journal argued that Carson “may not be politically correct but he’s closer to correct than anyone we’ve heard in years.” But the evidence is thin that the retired doctor—who in his prime was brilliant at his profession, even successfully separating conjoined twins—is one of the foremost political thinkers of the age. In his speech to the National Prayer Breakfast—the thing that so excited the Journal’s editorial writers—Carson pushed health savings accounts and a flat tax. Those ideas are hardly original; indeed, they are Republican boilerplate.

Carson harps on again and again is that the nation has fallen prey to quasi-fascist forces of “political correctness.”

More generally, how could anyone who judges him solely on his merits possibly think Carson is qualified to be president? He has never held political office. He has never run a major organization or business.

It’s rather curious when conservatives push Carson for high office, given that they repeatedly complained in 2008 that Obama was woefully inexperienced—a “community organizer.” The typical sneer was that Obama had never even run a candy store. Yet when Sen. Obama of Illinois ran for president he had held two more public offices than Carson ever has.

Conservatives were equally dismissive of the Rev. Jesse Jackson when he sought the presidency in 1984 and 1988. In 1988, George Will famously asked Jackson a ridiculously esoteric question on ABC's This Week—whether he would support something known as the Louvre Accord—which seemed conspicuously designed to make Jackson look both ignorant and unqualified.

Jackson, at least, had been involved in public life since the early 1960s. Carson has almost no record of prior involvement as a political participant, let alone an activist. Nor, until recently, did he venture into punditry.

He also has no editing experience. He has no journalism experience. But that didn’t stop the right-leaning Washington Times from appointing Carson as the publisher of a new online magazine for black conservatives—and giving him a weekly op-ed column. It was inevitable when the Fox News Channel—which likes to have prospective Republican presidential candidates on its roster of paid analysts--put Carson under contract.

I’ve read all of Carson’s Washington Times op-eds since his column debuted in July 2013. He strikes me as a pedestrian thinker. He has none of the subtlety and nuance of black conservative academics such as Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams.

Instead, Carson tends to alternate between inflammatory arguments and threadbare truisms. His April 22 op-ed argued that the “massive show of force” by the government against rancher Cliven Bundy foreshadowed the “totalitarian regime” that awaits Americans if they do not safeguard their precious freedoms, particularly the Second Amendment. The depiction of Bundy as a brave, if slightly zealous, victim of government authority was published one day before the New York Times quoted his racist rant that “the Negro” was better off during slavery. Carson offered no subsequent condemnation.

He also has a rather skewed perspective on slavery. Carson has called Obamacare the “worst thing that has happened in this country since slavery.” This is the kind of inversion of history that conservatives attack when perpetrated by the left. It is the moral equivalent of Jesse Jackson saying that the Tea Party “is the resurrection of the Confederacy.”

But the theme Carson harps on again and again is that the nation has fallen prey to quasi-fascist forces of “political correctness,” leaving Americans frightened of dissent from liberal orthodoxy.

Carson recently said on Breitbart TV—after wowing a gathering of conservatives in Manhattan—that rampant political correctness has turned the United States of America into something like Nazi Germany. “I mean, [we are] very much like Nazi Germany. And I know you’re not supposed to say ‘Nazi Germany,’ but I don’t care about political correctness. You know, you had a government using its tools to intimidate the population. We now live in a society where people are afraid to say what they actually believe.”

Why would conservatives embrace someone who makes the argument—long a staple of the left—that creeping fascism is engulfing this country? And just who exactly is being silenced by political correctness? Carson himself certainly does not lack for platforms.

The term “white guilt,” which is now part of the vernacular, connotes a liberal who is so wracked by past injustices that he reflexively overlooks or apologizes for abominable conduct by individual African-Americans—or he tacitly accepts the soft bigotry of the official language of “inner-city pathologies.” 

But Ben Carson is a different case-study: He demonstrates that conservatives can also be remarkably patronizing toward blacks—especially those who, no matter how vapid or tendentious, lean rightward.