A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows a remarkable result: Ben Carson has moved into essentially a tie for the lead, with Donald Trump scoring 21 percent and Carson scoring 20 percent. They are followed by Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina at 11 percent. Carson and Fiorina’s rise comes at a time when one of them is getting large amounts of media coverage for his ignorant, even bigoted remarks about Muslims, and the other is getting lots of coverage for a lie about Planned Parenthood videos she keeps stubbornly repeating no matter how many times it’s debunked.
While the details of these two cases are important, what’s even more important is the fact that the controversies may be helping Carson and Fiorina in the primaries, not hurting them. Welcome to the GOP, circa 2015.
Let’s start with Carson. Last weekend, Carson told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that no Muslim should be elected president. Given the chance to clarify his remarks, he didn’t back off at all, saying: “Muslims feel that their religion is very much a part of your public life and what you do as a public official, and that’s inconsistent with our principles and our Constitution.” He did allow that a Muslim could be president if he or she “publicly rejected all the tenets of sharia,” explaining that Muslim politicians are particularly dangerous because “Taqiyya is a component of Sharia that allows, and even encourages you to lie to achieve your goals.” This is complete nonsense, but it reflects Carson’s level of understanding of Islam.
You might think that at this point, someone close to the candidate would say to him, “Gee, Dr. Carson, you’re getting a lot of questions about Islam. Maybe you should read something about it, or, I don’t know, talk to a scholar who can answer questions you might have. What do you think?” If anyone did suggest that, it appears that Carson would have replied with something like, “That’s okay — I listened to Glenn Beck talk about Islam on his radio show one time, so I’m all good. I’ve got everything I need to know.”
This weekend, Carson appeared on CNN’s State of the Union and ABC’s This Week and stuck to his guns. He and CNN’s Jake Tapper went back and forth over the issue, with Carson insisting repeatedly that for a Muslim to be president, “you have to reject the tenets of Islam.” To ABC’s Martha Raddatz, he said, “what I would like for somebody to show me is an improved Islamic text that opposes sharia,” by way of explaining why Islam is so suspect. Carson seems to think that “sharia” (which just means “law” in Arabic) is a specific, agreed-upon set of governing instructions that all Muslims who haven’t expressly denounced it believe in. But it’s nothing of the sort. The Taliban have their idea of what Islamic law is, just as David Koresh had his idea of what Christian law is, but the idea that we should assume barring any public disavowals that every Muslim believes what the Taliban believe makes no more sense than assuming that every Christian shares Koresh’s views.
Now to be clear, my position has long been that candidates should be asked detailed questions about their religious beliefs in proportion to the degree they say those beliefs will impact what they would do as president. If a candidate says, “My faith is a source of comfort and contemplation,” then the details aren’t particularly important. But if he says, “My faith is the foundation of everything I do every day and everything I believe about the world,” then we need to know a lot more about the specifics of what he actually believes.
But Carson argues that unlike people of other faiths, Muslims are inherently suspect because of something he heard somebody say about Islam, and therefore that Muslim politicians have a special responsibility to publicly disavow every interpretation anybody anywhere has made of any passage in the Koran that might be shocking to someone who knows nothing about Islam.
So what if we applied the same principle to Christians and Jews? After all, the Bible is full of very concrete and specific commands that could relate directly to governing — commands that in many cases, only a complete lunatic would believe in — and if Carson is right, then people whose religions are based on that scripture should be required to make a public statement of disavowal for every one of them.
For instance, Deuteronomy 22 states that if a man rapes a virgin, he must give her father 50 shekels and marry her. I would be shocked if any of the current presidential candidates thought that prescription should be enshrined in American law, but just in case, perhaps we ought to make all of them publicly disavow it. Ditto for Exodus 31’s insistence that anyone who desecrates the Sabbath must be put to death, and anyone who works on that day must be exiled from his people. A campaign to cast out every American who has answered work emails on a Sunday would be even harder to achieve than Donald Trump’s idea to round up 11 million undocumented immigrants, but we need to know if, as believers, the candidates are planning such a thing.
If you think I’m being ridiculous, you’re absolutely right. So why is it that Ben Carson is being any less ridiculous? And more to the point, why is it that so many Republican voters hear what Carson is saying, and respond, “Hey, he’s right! That’s who I’m voting for!”
Before we answer that question, let’s turn to Fiorinia. In the last Republican debate, the topic of secretly recorded Planned Parenthood videos came up, and Fiorina said passionately, “I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.'” While it received huge applause, the line was false. The Planned Parenthood videos contain someone describing a similar scene, but not what Fiorina claimed was in them.
Which might not be a big deal — afterward, Fiorina could have said, “I mixed up something in those videos with things I had seen and heard elsewhere,” and we could still have a reasonable debate about the merits of fetal tissue research. But that’s not what she said. Instead, after practically every single fact-checking enterprise declared her claim false (here’s Politifact, here’s FactCheck.org), her campaign released its own cobbled-together video, using footage not from Planned Parenthood of a fetus kicking on a table, in an attempt to claim that Fiorina was actually telling the truth. Even in their phony video, which includes a photo of a stillborn baby being passed off dishonestly as a photo of an aborted fetus, there isn’t anyone saying, “We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.” This is, as Dahlia Lithwick says, “trying to doctor doctored videotapes and still failing to produce an image that corresponds to Fiorina’s narrative. It’s truthiness elevated to almost cosmic levels.”
But most remarkably, Fiorina continues to insist, no matter who asks her, that she never said anything untrue about the original Planned Parenthood videos. When Chris Wallace asked her on Fox News Sunday last week, “Do you acknowledge what every fact checker has found, that as horrific as that scene is, it was only described on the video by someone who claimed to have seen it?”, she answered, “No, I don’t accept that at all. I’ve seen the footage.” Yesterday she appeared on Meet the Press, and Chuck Todd asked her, “There is no evidence that the scene you described exists. Are you willing now to concede that you exaggerated that scene?” She replied, “No, not at all. That scene absolutely does exist. And that voice saying what I said they were saying, ‘We’re going to keep it alive to harvest its brain’ exists as well.”
There’s no reason why a conservative couldn’t say to her, “Look, I agree with everything you believe about abortion and Planned Parenthood, but you just need to admit you misspoke and move on.” But Fiorina has seemingly decided that the proper strategy is to just keep lying about what is in the end just a detail related to a larger policy issue, no matter how many people point out that she’s lying.
And why not? It’s working. While not long ago her support was too small to measure, she’s now in double-digits in the polls, while other candidates are faltering. The people rallying to support her don’t seem to care. Quite the contrary — they may be looking at this controversy and concluding that Fiorina is standing up to all those media bullies with their “facts” and their “evidence,” just like Ben Carson is telling it like it is on why the Constitution is for people like us, not people like them.
However this primary race turns out, at the moment more than half the Republican electorate is supporting either 1) a spectacularly xenophobic candidate who wants to round up 11 million people and build a wall around America; 2) a candidate who thinks that we ought to have religious tests for high office; or 3) a candidate who evinces few qualms about lying repeatedly even after her lies have been carefully documented. This is a party with a lot to be proud of.