What the Hell Is Going on With Ben Carson?

Carson has kept his hand at the controls of the sort of brute animal hatred driving the Republican primary

Ben Carson recently compared Syrian refugees to rabid dogs. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

When you meet new people and tell them your job, there's always one response you know you'll eventually get. Doctors wait for a shoe to drop and someone to say, "Can you tell me what this thing on my foot is?" Lawyers expect people to try to weasel free legal advice. Journalists get lectures about issues people think are covered incorrectly. So it was weird to find myself at a wedding two weeks ago and instead have almost everyone ask me a question: "Is Ben Carson out of his goddamn mind?"

For once, the correct answer might come from actor Troy McClure: He's not crazy, just ignorant!

After all, Thursday Carson denied that longtime friend Armstrong Williams has anything to do with his campaign, despite the fact that Williams is his business manager and has spoken as a representative for his campaign many times. In fact, just this week Williams downplayed former Iran-Contra ghoul Duane Clarridge's role in advising Carson after Clarridge told the New York Times that "nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East." And on Tuesday his campaign tweeted out his anti-refugee vow, "I am standing with the 31 Governors who are fighting to keep our nation safe," along with a map of the United States that looks like someone played Tetris with New England, blocked it up on the right side of New York somehow, then lost the game. 

And yet, in spite of his demi-euphoric rolling-on-X demeanor, he's still managed to keep his hand at the controls of the sort of brute animal hatred driving the Republican primary. Carson recently compared Syrian refugees to rabid dogs, calling for another layer of refugee screening, despite an already arduous, expensive and long process that people fleeing a civil war and religious zealots will have difficulty complying with.

Lest you think the dog comments were off the cuff, they represented another analogy put atop something else from this week, when Time ran a "Carson"-penned op-ed demanding that America stop being so politically correct about Syrian refugees and terrorism. It was a low point for a magazine that once had higher callings, like making Hitler Man of the Year or trying to hound State Department liberals into retirement because they "lost China" and made Luce-family bridge partners Monsieur and Madame Chiang hightail it to Formosa for a quarter century of dictatorial pouting.

It begins with the contention that Barack Obama is weak on terrorism because he uses the wrong nouns: "In the war against Islamic extremism, the President cannot even bring himself to confront the enemy by its name." This idea gets thrown around a lot, often by Marco Rubio, to suggest that people who use the right terminology not only have more courage but better strategy, and that this simple step is already transformative. At best, this is the Beetlejuice theory of military policy: Say their name three times, ISIS will go away! Oh no, they changed their name to Nilbog! Quick, read it backwards!

Then Carson calls on "the American people to stop viewing Islamic extremism through the lens of political correctness." Bonus points if you can identify what this thought-Scrapple is made of. Carson is obsessed with political correctness; he weaves it through a book on the Constitution that reads like a paraphrased Wikipedia entry. It probably links conservatives' domestic "war on Christianity" and "college campus thought police" narratives, but mainly it makes you wonder what this would even look like. Do we call them the Islamic-American State? Do we refer to them as Terroristically Abled? What if we create "safe spaces" on campuses by issuing a "trigger warning" that they are "gun privileged"?

After repeating the fear-mongering claim that the Paris attackers were refugees, Carson tells us that "Paris offers a bloody reminder that we must not be afraid to confront those who harbor the jihadist views that have spread violence and hatred around the world." Sure, fine, but how demonstrating your courage squares with "acting scared shitless of orphans, widows and non-combatants" isn't clear, nor does demonizing terrorism's victims reduce global hatred. You can just as easily make an opposing grandstanding point: that accepting Syrian refugees shows how fearless America is, while allowing terrorists in their midst to be ensnared by a voluntary monitoring regime.

Carson bookends token comments about how he's known some Muslims — some of the good ones! — by demanding we "stop the corrosive influence of Sharia law here in the U.S." and stating, "I personally would not support having a Muslim president… if he or she had not renounced Islamic extremism, Sharia law or the tenets and practices of Islam that are in conflict with the Constitution." You know what that might sound like? Taking the oath of office.

All of which combines hateful with dumb, but there are two problems with dismissing Carson here, because as always he defies an either/or judgment. On the hate account, Carson and Donald Trump's campaigns show that it works. Trump's calling for a Big Beautiful Wall across the Mexican border and the forced deportation of over 10 million people — with the sickness, misery and death that would attend it — doesn't rate a gasp but rather wild cheers. 

As for the stupid stuff, none of the above would even make the track listing for one of those second albums of Greatest Hits released years after the first comp. For that, you only need to go a few weeks back to Carson's forays into Egyptology and biography enhancement.

Years ago, Carson delivered a commencement address in which he stated his "personal theory…that [the Biblical patriarch Joseph] built the pyramids to store grain." There are several problems with this, starting with the fact that the pyramids are mostly solid stone and that solid things are incredibly bad for storing things in. Try it yourself: Go up to the biggest goddamn rock you can find and try to push a 12-pack into it. Head for the mountains!

Second, this isn't a question of how the universe started. There's no theory room here where everyone can have their own dumbass idea. The Egyptians wrote down what the pyramids were for, and in any case, people have walked into them and taken pictures and could see for themselves. Third, the "Joseph's Granaries" theory dates back to the writings of Gregory of Tours, which means that Ben Carson's Lonely Planet guide is 1,500 years out of date. Why this knowledge would be more valid to him than, I dunno, a goddamn photograph, is especially galling considering all the other contemporary knowledge from the era Dr. Carson has discarded. Or maybe not. Maybe every time he cut open the skull of an angry person he was surprised not to find a surfeit of yellow bile in there. Of course, the bigger embarrassment was that Carson defended his interpretation of the pyramids when reporters brought up his old speech, only to have Egypt basically tell him, "Uh, sorry, dude, no."

And if Dr. Ben Carson Meets The Mummy seems like a weird story, his biographical details are even worse. As Matt Taibbi noted in his "Clown Car Rolls On" update, after journalists began combing through Carson's memoirs and interviewing childhood contemporaries, huge chunks of the evil details that made his evangelical redemption story so moving turned out to not be real at all. 

The bat-wielding thug that Carson claims he was melts away, replaced by a dude with a pocket protector. A story about him stabbing another youth also falls apart, which led to New York magazine's transcendent headline, "Ben Carson Defends Himself Against Allegations That He Never Attempted to Murder a Child." It's like an Alice In Wonderland version of a Detroit youth and a nationwide contemporary moment: Ben Carson, insisting, "I would say to the people of America: Do you think I’m a pathological liar like CNN does? Or do you think I’m an honest person?" Because, sure, I tried to stab someone to death, but you wouldn't trust me if I were a liar. 

Paradoxically, Carson even wound up defending a story about a class he took that didn't exist, in which he wasn't awarded $10 for his honesty after retaking an exam that didn't burn. In reality, the class was more mundane, the burned exams were a prank he fell for, the $10 were just gilding the lily, and Carson's assertions to the media were propping up a lie about a test of honesty that was actually made up. (You figure that one out.) And while it's not uncommon for evangelicals to greatly exaggerate tales of their youthful degradation, to make their journey back to Christ seem that much more powerful, here he was, fudging the parts where he'd already changed his ways.

Given Carson's blissfully imperturbable demeanor on the trail and in conversation, given his almost total want of command of information in any of the debates (the appropriate reaction to any response he gives is, "What the fuck does any of that even mean?"), given the fact that he suspended his campaign to go on a book tour, it's been easy to start to think of Carson as something like a Holy Fool. You know, Praise Jesus, where are we, who are you, how did I get here, who cares? Unfortunately, fools get exploited, which is what some commentators started to suspect. Either that, or Carson's indifference to policy and competency was part of the grift. After all, why do the homework if winning isn't the point?

Those suspicions were stoked by the fact that Carson's campaign has a very high "burn rate," which is the percentage of campaign costs relative to donations. The campaign not only assigns 54 cents of every dollar raised to raising more money, but much of that fundraising comes in the form of direct mail and cold calling. On their own, these details aren't really sinister: Direct mail and cold calling can build a solid grassroots campaign. But, as historian Rick Perlstein points out, the history of movement conservatism for the last 50 years is shadowed by the history of a predatory direct-mail apparatus that has gorged itself on the energy of the movement. 

Movement conservatism's legacy of direct mail and cold calling adds more and more names to the list of people who can be directly mailed and cold called, sold MREs and guns and gold for the coming national collapse (and/or race war), investment secrets, miracle cures, etc. Meanwhile, the funds raised for special interest groups often go overwhelmingly to the direct-mail marketers who raise them in the first place. Then, most of whatever's left gets kicked upward to the chairmen and vice presidents of whatever think tank, super PAC or foundation (temporarily spun off from a bigger foundation) commissioned the direct mailing and cold calling in the first place. Grannies, desperate loners and garden-variety racists and whackjobs sign over more of their diminishing discretionary income to, say, Freedom Partners Against the Black Tidal Wave, and then it turns out that almost no money actually goes to stopping the oncoming storm surge of armed negroes from the cities, because their joint plan with the United Nations doesn't fucking exist.

The question then of whether Ben Carson is exploitive or exploitable again comes down to one of those either/ors that his behavior so rudely resists. Is a campaign this bumbling, unfocused, contradictory and fixated on one form of potentially lucrative fundraising just a scam? Is he going to turn around and parlay those donor and volunteer lists into partnership with a company or a direct-mail outfit, or is he really going to try to ride this to the White House? 

On the one hand, he has a substantial record of lending his name and testimony to the quack dietary supplement Mannatech. On the other hand, this is an insane amount of effort to expend to make money when Carson could get $1 million per year as a Fox News commentator and ride the six-figure speaker circuit out until his death. And as Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel tweeted Thursday night, his campaign went to the effort of raising 14,000 signatures to appear on the Virginia ballot, which is not the sign of someone planning to jump out of the plane with a parachute lined with marketing data. It would be just as easy to gather the same number of names from anywhere in America via more mail.

There is another explanation, one that embraces the contradictions and ties together many of the loose threads of the Ben Carson experience. 

Being an ace doctor — an ace surgeon especially — is a helluva drug. Even the humblest of characters can't help but feel the rush of stealing a life from death, of defying it, of reshaping a person's body and world, of being the ultimate agent of rescue for them in moments of direst fear. If you happen to be better at that than almost all your peers who feel that same rush, it's even more powerful. And Ben Carson might well have been the best in the world at what he did.

It's possible that it's been decades since Ben Carson heard the word "no" in any meaningful way. Possessed of both incredible talent and the authority of being director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, Ben Carson might have stopped registering the objections, input or even the basic reality of ideas originating outside of Ben Carson sometime in the mid-Eighties. By all accounts, he engages beautifully with fans, signing books and reacting warmly. But these are people on bended knee, not people with the stature to say no. These aren't countervailing narratives, data that disrupts the flow of Ben Carson. These are not peers in the field of non-medical ideas: journalists, historians, economists, military planners, natural scientists. Those latter merit only Carson's derision as agents of political correctness, dishonesty or his favorite hand-waving epithet, "foolishness."

Even his speaking demeanor drips with disregard: the total unconcern with being audible, as if anyone who has trouble hearing needs to lean closer; the endless dilations delivered with eyes almost fully closed, as if eye contact or even the presence of others is immaterial; the answers that engage topics of interest to him at a plodding pace regardless of your available time, ending at a terminus of his choosing, the journey intelligible only to himself. More pointedly, almost the only time Carson raises his voice, opens his eyes and looks directly at someone for a response is when he's angered. Like Jabba the Hutt, he only stops nap-talking and stares when he's surprised or denied his expectations.

Ben Carson might just be running an incompetent and confused campaign with a dubious funding apparatus because it has become impossible for him not to conceive of his every feint as another move along the board of the Fisher-Spassky match playing in his mind. Ben Carson might think that the pyramids are teeming with unpopped corn because he long since lost the capacity to suspect that anything he's convinced himself he knows could ever be incorrect. Ben Carson might genuinely believe that, between his totally authentic story of nearly stabbing a man and the story of a Syrian child fleeing a war, his tale isn't the one that should scare the hell out of you. Ben Carson might be so brilliant and talented that he cannot detect how often he's being an absolute moron. 

He's not crazy, just ignorant. He's fine. Everything is fine.