Few things are as predictable as death and taxes, but the desperation of a sinking presidential hopeful comes close. Such is the case for retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, whose campaign is being lugged around like a corpse in a suitcase.
In a Politico podcast, Carson suggested that President Barack Obama was “raised white” and that, unlike his own upbringing in hard-knock Detroit, the nation’s first black commander in chief cannot truly identify “with the experience of black Americans.”
It’s difficult to know to whom the message is targeted. Certainly, it cannot be black Americans—who overwhelmingly support the president, according to polling data. It cannot be conservative Republicans, who have rejected his lackluster candidacy, favoring Donald Trump and Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Carson, who shed nearly half his staff in recent weeks, has yet to concede defeat.
Carson’s “hole card” has always been his blackness. His journey from government dependency as a child living in crushing poverty to a world-renowned neurosurgeon made him a much-ballyhooed attraction on speaking circuits. He has sold millions of books, been the subject of a biopic, and received countless honorary degrees over the course of his career.
“He’s an ‘African’ American. He was, you know, raised white,” Carson said of the president during the podcast. “Many of his formative years were spent in Indonesia. So, for him to, you know, claim that, you know, he identifies with the experience of black Americans, I think, is a bit of a stretch.”
Carson has long suggested that much of the recent racial strife—in places like Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri—is drummed up by charlatans with a political agenda.
“Remember now, I’ve been around for 64 years, you know,” he said. “I’ve had a chance to see what real racism is.”
Like a modern-day Svengali, he has simultaneously downplayed the significance of his racial heritage while using it as a launch pad for his national prominence. That he denies the effects of systemic and implicit bias or the existence of explicit racism, and that he is now advancing the notion of a racial litmus test, should come as no surprise.
His short-lived lead in the Republican presidential primary season was built almost solely on being a counterbalance to the Obama presidency. He was, for a time, the perfect foil for Republicans who wanted to eschew their reputation as the party of white men.
The truth is, the Carson candidacy was never about any more than that.