Trump vaulted to the top spot by insulting immigrants, women, war heroes, journalists and anyone who crossed him — and doing so with unbridled glee. The conventional wisdom is that his dramatic, made-for-television antics are the flame attracting the GOP base. That’s why I’m confounded by the guy consistently coming in second and climbing in the polls. That guy is Ben Carson.
Besides not being a politician like Trump and having a willingness to speak his mind (no matter how out of it he is), Carson is the antithesis of Trump. The neurosurgeon mumbles. The builder bellows. The demeanor of the man known as “Gifted Hands” is painfully humble compared with the swagger of the Manhattan real estate mogul. Trump is loud, obnoxious and tells you how great he is whether you want to hear it or not. Whether you truly care or not. He’s so high-octane that anyone else is “low-energy.” But Carson is the very definition of low-energy. You could practicality hear crickets chirping every time he spoke at the first Republican debate.
For a party in thrall to a natural showman with little known allegiance to Republican ideology, what explains the rise of an otherwise boring doctor who made a name for himself telling off President Obama at the prayer breakfast in 2013?
“Trump satisfies the id. Carson satisfies the superego,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican ad maker and strategist told me in an e-mail. “Trump feeds the nationalist, isolationist, sometimes revanchist sentiment of a lost working and lower middle class overcome by change and economic dislocation. He’s the avatar of their anger, even if he asks them to look past all their conservative values to support him.”
As for Carson, Wilson said, “Carson is the aspirational story that fills people’s hearts and makes them look at a miracle that could only happen here. Evidently brilliant mindfully, but firmly conservative, in for the country not just for his ego.” Wilson, who is not working with any of the presidential candidates and says he’s “neutral,” later wrote, “’l’ll take door number 2!”
Carson is also this cycle’s Republican answer to Obama. A role that was Herman Cain’s in the 2012 race. The sad subtext of the support is “See, we have our own brilliant black man!” If Carson were former secretary of state Colin Powell, Republicans would be on solid ground. By definition, being a neurosurgeon makes you smart. But it doesn’t automatically make one politically smart or naturally capable of leading and governing.
Republican strategist Juleanna Glover is supporting Jeb Bush, but her assessment of the state of the race and the place of the two presidential front-runners in it are spot-on. “Trump and Carson continue to perform well, because they are not constrained by the earthly bounds of practical and responsible governance,” Glover told me in an e-mail. “They can speak in slogans and give homilies that have superficial appeal, but have limited application in the real world of running the country.”
Trump’s immigration policy is a prime example. Rounding up and deporting an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants would be immoral. Booting their American-born children, too, would be immoral and unconstitutional. In addition, what Trump proposes would require an explosion in the size and power of government that would be anathema to conservatives. Carson’s support for a balanced budget amendment to get a handle on the nation’s debt is ill advised. A 2011 editorial in The Post argued that such an amendment “would deprive policymakers of the flexibility they need to address national security and economic emergencies. It would revise the Constitution in a way that would give dangerous power to a congressional minority.”
“Most of the serious candidates are planning to foment voter interest and peak [in] the weeks before Iowa and New Hampshire,” Glover told me. The candidates who aren’t Trump and Carson better hope she’s right and that they can break through. Right now, with id and superego riding high, it’s not looking good.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj