What Ben Carson’s Rise Says About America

How a brilliant man’s profound ignorance became his greatest political asset.

10.27.15 5:00 AM ET

So it’s Ben Carson’s moment. He’s overtaken Donald Trump in a CBS/New York Times national poll and he’s ahead in Iowa now with the caucuses just three months away. The Times is writing nice profiles of him full of polite euphemisms like “lack of governing experience.” First we all got used to the idea that it wasn’t insane to think that Donald Trump could be the GOP nominee. And now we have to acclimate ourselves to the idea it could be Carson, too.

The only actual interesting thing about Carson is that he raises a question we rarely get the chance to contemplate: How can a man who is so obviously distinguished and brilliant in one field be such an across-the-board nincompoop in another? Because usually, if a man (or woman) is a good and knowledgeable and sure-footed doctor, or lawyer or department chair or any other position that could have been attained only through repeated displays of excellence and probity, then that person will also be a pretty solid human being across the board. He or she might be right wing or left wing, and he or he might have a weakness for French New Wave cinema or for Rock Hudson-Doris Day movies; but s/he won’t be an idiot.

But Carson is a political idiot. And it’s not all the Nazi and slavery talk, although those are certainly stupid and crude comparisons that can only be invoked by people who are dumb enough—and, I should add, insensitive enough—never to have given serious thought to the grisly particulars of what Nazism and slavery entailed. Whatever you think of Obamacare, you actually have to be a ghastly human being to compare it to practice in which horrors like this happened all the time, to many millions of people.

And these rants of his against political correctness! We’re getting to be like (again) Nazi Germany? Is he serious? Yes, he is. Imagine how ignorant of history a person has to be to think that today’s pc police, annoying as they sometimes are, can be compared to the SA or the SS? It’s insulting even to have to hear it.

So all that is plenty bad, but even more, I mean nearly everything else that comes out of this mouth. Just Google “Ben Carson ignorance” and you’ll see quickly enough that on subjects ranging from science to foreign policy to the Constitution to virtually any political or historical or policy topic on which he chooses to speak, he says something that has no basis in real-world fact.

How does a man who is (presumably, anyway) in his chosen realm a man of science and empirical knowledge and testing of hypotheses enter this other realm and become someone who just spends his time scouring the most lunatic right-wing websites there are and repeating back everything he reads there as if it’s true? That’s where that madness about how armed Jews could have prevented the Holocaust comes from—it started about 20 years ago, and there is nothing about it that’s true. But the notion lives a healthy life on right-wing and pro-gun websites and chat boards. Great weight is given in those circles to a supposed quote from Hitler extolling gun control. But as Alex Seitz-Wald showed in this Salon piece in which he quotes leading scholars, Hitler almost certainly never said it.

Now, none of this is shocking to you, if you follow these things at all. There are all kinds of matters on which conservatives have their own version of reality. I remember being astonished back when we were all first getting to know a certain half-term Alaska governor to learn, via some dodgy and weird creationistic answer she gave to some question, that there’s this excavation site in, predictably enough, Texas, called the Taylor Trail, where there exists “evidence” that man and dinosaur walked together. So this kind of thing goes on all the time out there in this big country of ours.

But what doesn’t go on all the time is that a man who gets his ideas about the world from conspiracy-theory websites is a leading presidential candidate—or that his idiot comments not only don’t hurt him but help him. I’d reckon some of you saw that poll last week asking Iowa Republicans whether X statement about Carson raised or lowered their esteem of him. His comparison of Obamacare to slavery was considered “attractive” by 81 percent of those polled, and gave just 16 percent the willies.

It’s one of the great cons of the year that Carson gets to be called “mild-mannered.” How many people who think that getting health insurance is worse than being held in bondage get to be called mild-mannered? And how arrogant a man must Carson be—what made him think he should be the president of the United States in the first place? There are lots of distinguished surgeons out there. So why him?

And now we have this debate coming up Wednesday. Carson did pretty badly in the first couple debates—he was unfocused and off-point and spoke in the kind of generalities that left you wondering what he really meant. But did it hurt? No, it helped him! Now, Trump and maybe some of the others are going to come after him. So we’ll see how he holds up.

But it hardly matters. If he misstates some facts, no one’s going to care. And if he pulls a big whopper—locating a country on the wrong continent, not knowing some obvious point of history—that too will just help him, because to the Carson people it will just be the liberal media piling on the poor man. We’ve reached the point where ignorance really is bliss.