The audience in the auditorium, 3000 white kids and a few hundred ring-ins in two long-side bleachers, are baying and cheering, flanked by Ben Carson’s crew of black staff and advisers. The kids look like Christian college kids anywhere — we’re in Spring Arbor, Michigan, a glorified Bible college — dagginess en masse, denim and chambray, big Ts and long shorts, the endless childhood of Western adolescence and young adulthood. I’d vox popped a few while we’d waited. “Oh, I’m not political, but he really says it like it is.” “What’s that?” “Like how it is, like not being afraid to offend people or that.” “He’s got a really inspiring story.” The five? six? seven? hundred who’ve driven in are Walmart regular, older, fatter, whiter, if t’were possible. Carson’s staff are sharp and on point. The man himself strides to the stage with a sense of purpose. He’s an hour late, but no one seems to mind much. We’ve had Christian rock — “I was in for bad behaviour … then I met my … SAVIOUR!” — some lame chanting, and two failed Mexican waves, as the midday late summer heat rose.
But no one cares. Ben Carson, Christian, neurosurgeon, now second-frontrunner, is with a home crowd here, and at the first sight of him, coming out of the side door to the stage, there’s an extra gasp or two, a slight rock star feel. He waves, more gasps. The man’s 65, looks 35, daggy as the audience here, but with a cool goatee and an air of quiet authority. He shakes hands with the lumpy backwoods guys who run this joint — fat white guys in blue blazers — and goes to the mic. “Hi, we’re a little late. But we were up in Jackson, to see where the Republican Party was founded. Y’know?”
Crowd roars. They know. They know the party, And no other. And they know Ben Carson. The retired neurosurgeon, a poor black kid from Detroit who rose to great heights, is now at No. 2 in the candidates’ polling, sitting at 21%, only one or two points behind the Donald. He started at 3% a few months ago, and he hasn’t stopped rising since. He was shaky in the first debate — Fox gave him an easy pass, which looked like they were bypassing him, which helped even more — and he had an even better second debate, i.e. a pretty bad one. Outclassed on policy and bite, he was written off by the pundits, who do not yet seem to have understood how this race is going. The gawkier and more sincere you are, the better you do. Authenticity is all. Good for Carson, because policy-wise he’s got nothing. As the afternoon shows, he doesn’t need it.
“Good to be back in this part of the country,” he says, as the noise dies down. He speaks into the mic like a crooner, like a lounge act doing the 4pm slot, soft and barely audible at times. “Used to come to the Michigan state fair up here. We would save our coupons and get in free. [pause] We couldn’t go on any of the rides, or get any cotton candy. But we could get in. I’ve even had cotton candy since. It’s not that great. But when you can’t have it …” Jesus, this is the goods, primo corn, it’s a black poverty story about a white state fair. You laugh/cry, the manipulation of it, yet you can see that kid, allowed in, but held back from it all. “My mamma used to collect the coupons to get us in …”
Oh god, here we go. Ben Carson’s mother has loomed large in this nomination race, and to be fair the story is a winner. And we get it, for the next 15 minutes: “She was a single mother and she made us get a book from the library every two days and write a book report, and she would check it. It would come back with markings and underlinings. [pause] She couldn’t read, she never learnt properly, but there were all these marks and underlinings.” He tells it amused, low-key, not pompous or portentous, and that’s the killer of course, because it’s all too believable. Any fool can tell a poverty story, but Carson’s has that Chekhovian touch, and his mother is suddenly there before you, crafty, not pious, having hit on the one trick that would make the difference. I’ve heard it twice from Carson, and three times from other people, fans, and it moves me every time. But it’s only four minutes, and once the good doctor gets off that, he’s all over the place.
Ben Carson is a pioneer neurosurgeon, separator of twins cojoined at the head, deviser of new surgical techniques — and a bit of a dill. That is the conclusion most race watchers have come to, many reluctantly, and there is an element of paradox to it. He’s a physician who doesn’t believe in evolution, a scientist who doesn’t believe in the Big Bang. His statements on history and current affairs reveal a deep ignorance — he believes, or did, that Islam predated Christianity — and his politics, such as they are, are, well, lobotomised. “We’ve got to stop people dividing us — left and right, black and white, Democrat and Republican, we’re all Americans,” he says, to applause, the man who has called Obamacare “worse than slavery” and mused that it might be the work of Satan. He damns socialism but praises colonial Massachusetts for pioneering public education. And so on.
The crowd like that all right, but being a Republican crowd in 2016, they’re less interested in anything positive than they are in defining themselves against the power of Democrats/media/Hollywood/etc. It’s when he gets onto that that the cheers really come, and they really come big when he hits that button: “political correctness”. “We’ve got a real problem with political correctness in this country.” Big cheers. PC. Jesus. Carson has single-handedly revived that ancient term and made it his own. People are running with it again. But there’s a curious inversion to its earlier appearance. In the ’90s, examples of “PC” were quoted willy-nilly — children not allowed to sing Baa Baa Black Sheep, etc — a few of them true. Now, it’s the opposite. Carson never really quotes any examples of political correctness, he simply lets the term hang there. It simply covers for anything you might not like about the modern world, about the simple rising complexity of polycultural complex societies.
A few days before this speech, Carson was in trouble for saying that he wouldn’t want to see a Muslim as President and that such an event would be unconstitutional. When he was pilloried even by the staunchest rightists, he clarified: a Muslim, devoted to sharia law, couldn’t honestly take the oath of office, and Muslims by definition are devoted to sharia. That will come as a surprise to everyone filling the bars of Istanbul and Jakarta, but once again, facts matter little. As the pundits tut-tutted, Carson’s ratings rose further. Here he got the biggest applause for “we know this is a Judeo-Christian country, no matter what our president says”. Cheers and roars for that.
When he swept out of the hall, 40 minutes later, to more cheers and Christian rock, I looked at my notes and went down the list, trying to find a policy pronouncement or position. Not a one. That’s a first. But Carson’s a first. No non-politician with no corporate background has ever come so far in these races. No one has ever been in such a good position to capitalise on the decline and eventual collapse of the frontrunner. Carson would get six or seven of Trump’s 22 points, maybe more, and rise towards 30%. Were he to keep the running in the first few months of the campaign proper he would become … a disaster, a disaster for the Republican Party. Carson is a testament to the complex division of labour — that a neurosurgeon, a practical medical artist/technician, can be as dumb as any schlub sitting in front of his flat screen yelling at Nobama.
Carson’s politics, or his implied politics, of spending cuts, less government, are self-consoling fantasy, of course. It wasn’t just his mother’s cajoling that got him to read, it was the fact that there were libraries to get books from, funded, as were Detroit schools, by the 1960s “Great Society” program, which has become the bete noire of Republicans. At one stage in the mid-2000s, 18 of Detroit’s 23 libraries were slated for closure; 14 of them later saved by funding from the Obama stimulus package. Carson grew up in straitened circumstances in ’60s Detroit; the next Ben Carson never emerged because, by the ’90s, Detroit was an urban wasteland, a city where the state was absent. But Carson’s Americanism is so devout that no simple point like this could be made. So devout that he can turn America’s critics into its greatest boosters.
“Alexis De Tocqueville came all the way from Europe to study America because Europe was so surprised that this upstart nation could survive and prosper,” Carson said at the centre of his speech, mangling De Tocqueville, and then doubling down: “He wanted to learn from the country.” Well, yeah, but De Tocqueville’s point was that Europe should be careful about democracy, because it winnows away a shared culture and natural authority, and leaves you at the mercy of hucksterism. At this fundamentalist Christian “liberal arts” college, walling itself against the world, roaring with approval at a man telling myths — a political rally from which any skerrick of politics had been removed — De Tocqueville’s point appears to have been made, that absent of embedded values, politics will become religion and vice versa. This inspiring and admirable man, whose life’s work now extends through the work of hundreds of surgeons, to make better untold lives, to push back the barriers of ignorance and nature’s cruel caprice, is to become a travelling preacher of deliverance, in the hot and airless halls of America, recounting the myths they want to live by, to thousands roaring from the bleachers.