Ben Carson is calm — calm like a cool spring breeze, or a long nap on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The Republican presidential hopeful speaks softly and slowly. He doesn't wave his arms about. He shows barely any emotion at all. But Ben Carson is also the possessor of ideas that are positively bonkers, not just about policy questions, but about the world and how it works.
This odd combination of a gentle manner and extremist ideas seems to be just what a healthy chunk of the Republican electorate is looking for. Carson is running a close second to Donald Trump nationally, and leading in Iowa. As The New York Times recently reported, Iowa voters in particular are enraptured with Carson's manner. "That smile and his soft voice makes people very comforted," said one farmer. "I believe someone as mild-mannered and gentlemanly as Ben Carson is just about the only kind of person that could" get things done in Washington, said another Iowan.
You'd think they were talking about someone with moderate views who'd be able to get along and work with anyone, not someone who wants to outlaw abortion even in cases of rape and incest, thinks we should ditch Medicare, and holds to all manner of weird conspiracy theories. And that's not to mention all the stuff the retired neurosurgeon says about slavery and Nazis, his belief that Muslims should be barred from the presidency unless they offer a public disavowal of their religion, or his latest proposal to turn the Department of Education into something that sounds like it comes out of China's Cultural Revolution, in which he would have students report professors who displayed political bias to the government so universities' funding could be cut.
Most of the time, we expect that when politicians take radical stands, they do it with raised voices and fists pounding on lecterns. "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," Barry Goldwater thundered in his 1964 convention speech, and "moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." We assume that ideologues will be the angry ones, while moderates will come across as sensible and ordinary.
In primaries, though, it's often the loud candidates who burn brightly, at least for awhile. Deliver a stem-winding denunciation of the other party, and you can get at least some of your partisans to rally to your war banner. The mild-mannered don't tend to have as much success, which is part of what makes Carson's candidacy so unusual. But maybe his supporters are on to something. Mike Huckabee used to say that he was a conservative, he just wasn't angry about it — an acknowledgement that to lots of voters in the middle, conservatism is associated with disgruntlement and contempt, as though the GOP were a party built on the fundamental principle that you damn kids better get off my lawn or else.
For the last eight years, conservatives have been angrier than ever before — mostly at Barack Obama, but also at a world that continues to change and evolve in ways they don't like. Of late their anger has turned most particularly on their own party, which many of them view as feckless and cowardly.
In that context it shouldn't have been a surprise that Donald Trump has done as well as he has. If nothing else, he's untainted by any association with GOP leaders. Carson can say the same, but instead of grand pronouncements about how super-luxurious America will be once he's in charge, he whispers sweet nothings into conservatives' ears, at a volume so low they have to strain to hear.
But there's no question which one is the more ideologically radical. It's hard to tell how many primary voters understand that, particularly since most Americans don't have a fine-grained understanding of where everyone in politics stands ideologically. Many don't even have a particularly good grasp on what the ideological differences that distinguish the two parties are.
One thing we do know is that Ben Carson's string of offensive and bizarre statements hasn't hurt him at all with primary voters; if anything, they've helped. So it's unlikely that too many people are being fooled by his calm into thinking he's some kind of moderate; perhaps they think other people might be fooled. But if any of them actually think that he could change the way business is done because he's gentle and genteel, they haven't been paying much attention to politics in America lately.
Of course, Carson's chances of becoming the GOP nominee are still less than great, even if he is doing surprisingly well now. Whoever that nominee is, when the general election begins he'll claim to represent the soul of mainstream thinking, while his opponent is a dangerous extremist whose beliefs and proposals are strange and frightening. That opponent will say the same about him. And one of them might be right.