America — or at least a healthy chunk of the Republican electorate — is apparently ready for Ben Carson. While Donald Trump has been soaking up all the media attention of late, leaving the professional politicians to sink lower and lower, Carson has been surfing in Trump's wake, all the way to second place in most of the polls. He's now the only Republican other than Trump who averages double digits, and in a new NBC poll, he comes in a strong second to Trump in Iowa, garnering 22 percent support to Trump's 29 percent. Furthermore, in most polls Carson is the Republican candidate who gets the most positive favorability ratings; even Republicans who are supporting someone else like him. So what's the attraction to Carson? Can he actually last?
The short and easy answer is that Republicans are drawn to Carson because they're looking for outsiders, and he's as outside politics as you can be. A retired neurosurgeon, Carson has no political experience whatsoever, so he's able to claim accurately that he knows virtually nothing about the job he's trying to get. Carson is also a deeply religious Seventh-Day Adventist, which is attractive to evangelical Republicans (and particularly important in Iowa, where a majority of GOP caucus-goers are evangelicals). His life story — a rise from poverty to becoming a heralded pediatric neurosurgeon — is undoubtedly inspiring. But it goes even farther.
Much like Trump, Carson tells voters that all the problems that vex our politics have simple and easy answers, a view that is unsullied by any experience in trying to solve those problems. In the candidates who have actually served in office, voters can detect at least some realistic acknowledgement that things can get messy. But the outsider candidate blows right past the prosaic complications of governing, assuring us that nothing in politics is actually complex, so long as the right person is leading. Whereas Trump does it with grandiosity and bombast, Carson offers a more soft-spoken and modest version, though one no less uninformed or fantastical.
And particularly at this stage of the race, lots of voters don't care. Go ahead and put out your 10-point plans, talk about your policy agenda — what they want is to have their feelings, their hopes, and their resentments mirrored back at them. Which Carson does, at least for some portion of Republicans. He talks endlessly about "political correctness," which in his lexicon means any criticism that comes conservatives' way, whether it's over things they say or even things they do. (In the first debate, he responded to a question about using torture on terrorism suspects by saying, "We've gotten into this — this mindset of fighting politically correct wars. There is no such thing as a politically correct war.") When you listen to him talk, he sounds like he stepped out of a Glenn Beck monologue, full of conspiracy theories, references to Saul Alinsky, and repeated assurances that all will be well if we trust in the fundamental decency and common sense of true Americans.
And is there a racial element to Carson's support? How should I put this...yes. That doesn't mean it explains all the attraction to him, or even most of that attraction. But conservatives are always on the lookout for their New Black Friend, the one who can demonstrate to the rest of the world that despite what so many believe, they have no racial animus in their hearts. As far as they're concerned, Carson is a living rebuke to everyone who says that African-Americans have fewer opportunities than white people, that their lives are hampered in a thousand ways, that racism is a living, breathing organism still pressing upon the American psyche. See? Anybody can achieve anything — just look at Ben Carson! Racism is over! (Except for the only real kind of racism remaining, which is when white people get unfairly accused of being racist.)
While the "establishment" candidates are trying to explain their records and what they would do as president, candidates like Trump and Carson are playing an entirely different game. Nevertheless, I have little doubt that as Carson receives more scrutiny, the broader public, which hasn't learned much about him, will say, "Wait a minute, this guy is kind of crazy." Among other things, Carson has said that the Affordable Care Act is "the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery," that if people want to understand Barack Obama they should "read Mein Kampf and read the works of Vladimir Lenin," that the current state of our government is "very much like Nazi Germany," that the fact that sex goes on in prisons proves that homosexuality is a choice, that gay rights are part of a Marxist plot to impose a New World Order, and that AP history courses will lead high school students to join ISIS (you can find these quotes and more here).
Yet he delivers all that in a calm, slow, even tone that might make you think he's an eminently reasonable fellow, so long as you didn't understand what he was saying (as Ed Kilgore writes, "Dr. Ben Carson is a wingnut with an excellent bedside manner").
Don't be surprised if at some point, some of the voters supporting Trump move over to Carson, a candidate who seems more responsible but is in truth just as clueless about the reality of governing. That might make him a terrible president, but for now it's the very reason so many Republicans are attracted to him.