Another Republican presidential candidate debate, and another opportunity to wonder how the party got into such a mess. The debate itself was remarkable because it took a cast of characters that wandered in from Alice in Wonderland and made them boring. In the midst of this yawn fest, Marco Rubio came off best, if only because he possesses superior varsity debate skills and didn’t have to answer tough questions about his flip-flopping on immigration.
Everyone else played their assigned roles: Trump was a blowhard, Fiorina the hard-charging CEO, Cruz the true believer, and Bush the incredible shrinking man.
And then there’s Ben Carson.
Carson has been having his moment in the sun, leading in some Iowa polls, apparently because some people mistake his low-key demeanor for reason. His debate performance only solidified that impression. But Carson illustrates pretty much everything that’s wrong with the GOP these days.
For one thing, he’s an extremist. Carson first came to widespread attention when he had to cancel a commencement speak at Johns Hopkins after he let loose a torrent of homophobic comments. Of course, that only endeared him to the party base. But homophobia is the least of it. Carson is a follower of far-right conspiracy theorist labeled by the conservative National Review as an “all-around nutjob.”
Cleon Skousen believed that Communists had burrowed into every level of government, industry and culture in America with the intention of destroying American life. Carson has simply transferred the Skousen’s rants to the “secular progressives” that he regularly complains about.
Carson has been pretty good at imitating a nutjob on his own. For a renowned brain surgeon, he’s remarkably stupid, with beliefs that are inexplicable in a man of science. There’s his belief that the Biblical figure Joseph built the pyramids as triangular grain elevators. He’s condemned Charles Darwin as inspired by Satan. He’s argued that if Nazis hadn’t had stringent gun laws, the Holocaust might never have happened.
Then there are the people that Carson surrounds himself with. First and foremost among these is Armstrong Williams, one of those fringe figures who makes a handsome living in the conservative political entertainment complex. Armstrong rose to fame defending Clarence Thomas, his former boss, and rode the connection to make himself a media figure, with his own TV and radio shows.
Needless to say, Williams has been reliably homophobic. He has also been accused of sexually harassing a male employee in a suit that was reportedly settled out of court. Ethics have never exactly been Armstrong’s long suit; in 2005, he lost his media gig when it turned out the Bush White House paid him $241,000 to promote its No Child Left Behind legislation.
So what role does Williams play in the Carson campaign? He’s the business manager.
Which raises the question of whether Carson is running a campaign or a business himself. At times, he stops campaigning to sell books and spends the bulk of the money he raises on raising more money, not on campaign expenses. His candidacy has all the earmarks of a resume-building experience meant to inflate his book-writing and speech-making fees.
And finally, there’s Carson’s relationship with the truth, which leaves a lot to be desired. He’s come out with a series of tales about his youth that sound suspiciously embellished at a minimum.
But here’s where the psychosis of the GOP base comes into clearest view. Carson could be a sociopathic liar, and the base wouldn’t care. Carson chose the right defense: he’s being attacked for who he is, not what he said. It’s all part of the vast left-wing media conspiracy.
That may be the saddest commentary of all. The Republican party has created followers who no longer care about objective facts. Anything that disrupts their world view can be dismissed as pure bias. By any reasonable standard, Carson should be a punch line. Instead, he’s a front runner.
Carson may eventually fade from the scene, but those voters will not. The question now is, how can a party survive when it is so divorced from reality?