Republican voters, donors, and activists watching Wednesday night's presidential debate have plenty of reasons to panic. Would-be frontrunners can't get traction. Should-be frontrunners struggle or fade. Those at the top face immense opposition from within the party. There are too many candidates. The electorate is fractured. All in all, the GOP presidential primary is kind of a mess.
For Jeb Bush, amping up his game meant bristling more — playing aggro defense on Iraq one minute, challenging Donald Trump physically the next (with a startling high-energy low five). Chris Christie, already a master bristler, doubled down on raising the law-and-order alarm. Carly Fiorina established herself with an outsized intensity that cannot last.
Meanwhile, an element of nervousness and doom haunted the candidates who calculated they needed to cool their jets instead of switch on the afterburners. Although Donald Trump recognized he had to switch gears now that he's zoomed to the front of the pack, his performance was more uneven and less controlled than last time around, and not just thanks to Fiorina. His whacks at Rand Paul, who also took the edge off his performance, showed how unsettled and unsettling the race has become.
A few candidates chose to maintain an even keel — a reasonable choice for Marco Rubio and Mike Huckabee, though an approach that has so far yielded them nothing. Scott Walker, meanwhile, faded even closer to oblivion.
And then there was Ben Carson.
Carson has settled into a very strong second place behind Trump, with some polls suggesting he may be quietly creeping into first. And he's doing it without breaking a sweat. While others raise the competitive stakes, he lowers them. While others attack and strike back and low five, he reconciles and de-escalates and struggles to keep his eyes open. ("Even Ben Carson's Biggest Fans Worry He's Too Mellow," The New Republic insisted on Thursday.)
No worrying is required. Carson is this mellow on purpose. Being soft spoken and kind are features of his candidacy, not bugs. He doesn't have donors to appease or an ego to feed. He doesn't have a pre-packaged base, so he doesn't need to pander to it. He's not just an alternative politician, as so many insurgents ultimately turn out to be. He's created a reality so independent of the anxieties of power that he's virtually an alternative to politics. Machiavelli would gasp.
Carson knows exactly what he's doing. And because it's not an act or a tool, he only talks about it, politely, when asked. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal — notable for its calmly forgiving treatment of Trump — Carson revealed the secret to his success, perhaps unintentionally, with the most evocative political metaphor of the year. "The human body was not made for that type of abuse," he said of football. "There's no question about that. But do human beings love to see carnage? Yes. They always have and they always will. So that may be one of the safer forms of carnage to satisfy the human desire."
Carson renounces violence in an arena defined by ritual bloodsport. His response to the instinct for pandemonium hardwired into us all is to channel an almost super-human practice of peace.
Here Carson's fellow Christians will detect some real-life modeling of the art of the turned cheek. But Carson's significance goes beyond simply "bringing Christianity back in" to Election '16. Huckabee's Christianity hasn't done a thing to change the dynamic of the race. That goes double for Santorum's. The effect of Carson's faith can't be separated from the effect of his personality, which makes no-drama Obama look fitful. Even more remarkable than Carson's serene religiosity is his personal control over his attitude and demeanor. Christianity alone doesn't magically elevate candidates above the frenzy. To succeed in politics as a man of faith, simple human discipline — of a kind much different than that inculcated in the world of "message discipline" — is required.
That's why Carson is so important right now. Even if his campaign fades or fails, he has quietly challenged his competitors to show the right character — not just for the job, but for these frazzled, puffed-up, panicky times. Carson's wager is that neither bristling nor brashness can cure what ails us, no matter how much hyper-competence they deliver.
At a moment when our culture of competitive desperation turns every issue into grounds for an all-out war, Dr. Carson's conscious character is an invitation to rediscover the link between personal and political health.