One of the most jarring behaviors of this presidency is the way in which people who were previously thought to take pride in their intelligence and expertise — William Barr, for example — have revealed their inner Donald Trumps. They don’t so much imitate their president as seek to emulate the traits that have brought him to the Oval Office. What are those, precisely?
Trump’s boorish bullying, for one. The manner in which he spits his opponent’s lines back at them as if a stinger were attached to each syllable. And in those moments when he is challenged, Trump often cloaks his ignorance with sophomoric humor, deployed as retaliation for the eggheads who dared to test his knowledge in the first place.
Ben Carson may be the worst at this. That much was clear on Tuesday when his appalling attempt to go full Trump during his House Financial Services hearing ended up with him sharing a photo of himself poking fun at his own stupidity. Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA), an expert in the field Carson is supposed to know as the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, stumped him with a basic question about foreclosure. “Do you know what an REO is?” she asked. “An Oreo?” he responded. I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not. She had to spell it out for him twice, all three letters. He still didn’t know what it stood for (real estate-owned).
— Rep. Katie Porter (@RepKatiePorter) May 21, 2019
In the photo he tweeted afterward, Carson grinned while holding a box of Double Stuf Oreos. To see the former world-renowned neurosurgeon delighting in his idiocy was sad enough, but for anyone familiar with the etymology of “Oreo” as an insult and not a cookie, well, let’s just say that image swelled with meaning.
It is because we have such an estimation of Carson’s intellectual capabilities that his lackadaisical, sophomoric responses were so outrageous. Throughout the hearing, he was willing to debase himself to a level heretofore unseen. Labeling Carson an “Oreo” is imprecise: It’s more that he is black on the outside, Trump on the inside.
Carson’s minstrelsy, though, was not nearly as significant as the incompetence and outright wickedness that he displayed. Carson doubled down when pressed about the new rule his department recently filed, which tightens previous restrictions on undocumented immigrants in public housing, now making anyone living in a unit with someone who is undocumented — even if they themselves are citizens — ineligible for benefits, a clear problem for families with members of mixed legal status. “It’s not that we’re cruel, mean-hearted,” he said. “It’s that we are logical. This is common sense. You take care of your own first.” He told the committee members that the rule was his way of triggering them to do their jobs.
“If you read the rule carefully, you will see it provides a six-month deferral if they have not found another place to live,” Carson said, noting that residents can defer for a total of 18 months before they end up homeless: According to him, “enough time for Congress to engage in comprehensive immigration reform.” That isn’t so much leniency as it is jeopardy.
Carson’s own department found that the new rule, open for public comment until July 9th, could displace more than 55,000 children who are U.S. citizens or legal residents — all of whom are, by law, entitled to that housing as much as anyone. If this is about “taking care of your own first,” the rule defines “your own” selectively.
That is part of the point of the Trump enterprise: determining who is and who isn’t American, largely by one’s immigrant status or racial heritage. Carson had no experience whatsoever in public housing beyond his Detroit childhood; I wouldn’t put it past Trump (who was sued by the Justice Department in 1973 for housing discrimination) to have ghettoized Carson, his only black Cabinet member, into his job just because it had “urban” in the title. He conveniently puts a black face on one of America’s longest-standing systemically racist enterprises: the process by which the government, private landowners and rental agencies have consistently made housing less accessible to people who aren’t documented, aren’t wealthy and aren’t white.
In Tuesday’s hearing, Carson sought not only to pass the burden of that institutional injustice onto Congress. He tried to sound like he was being the good guy. “If in fact you want to explain to the American citizens who have been on the waitlist for several years,” he said patronizingly, “why we should continue to support families who are not here legally, I would be happy to join you in explaining that.” Notice the inherent lie in there — mixed-status families aren’t all here in the United States illegally, but in Trumpworld, proximity is enough for criminalization.
Carson couldn’t tell Porter what REO means with reference to the foreclosure epidemic, but the hearing made clear that he understands just what he needs to do in order to carry out Trump’s wishes. Despite being more than two years into the job, the secretary didn’t have the first clue whether HUD even has an Office of Minority Women and Inclusion, or who heads it (he thought it does, but it actually doesn’t). But he knows how to write a legislative ransom note for tens of thousands of children, attempting to place the blame for their pending homelessness on Democratic inaction rather than his own cruelty.
There was a potential positive, however. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez squeezed an endorsement out of Carson for her Fair Chance at Housing Act, which rolls back some of the harsh “one-strike” HUD rules that can kick people out of public housing for a single criminal incident. But Carson’s bizarre performance was enough of a warning to not leave the nation’s Housing and Urban Development office in the hands of such an amateur and an ideologue. Democrats should adopt an even more urgent platform. Some, including Ocasio-Cortez, Porter and another of their freshmen classmates in the House, are already doing just that.
“Let me be clear: housing is a fundamental human right,” Rep. Ayanna Pressley, the first black woman that Massachusetts has ever elected to Congress, told Carson at the hearing. Pressley didn’t go on to make the case for Carson’s removal, but she didn’t have to. In a way, Carson did it for her.
When Pressley inquired whether “stable and safe housing is a social determinant of health,” he snapped back, “Sounds like you have not been here and heard most of my testimony.” Pressley demanded that he please answer the question. With a condescending tone, barely elevating his volume enough to be heard, he refused to answer in a “yes” or “no” fashion, saying instead that there is “no question” that housing is “a part of health.”
I feel compelled to describe the next part, since most press reports about Pressley’s exchange with Carson got wrapped up in his antics. Her questions centered on the health dangers of lead poisoning in substandard housing conditions, and he acted up as a way of avoiding them entirely. She then spoke of a family in her district at risk of illness because of mold on the walls, showing him images of the home.
“Do Ms. Norcross and her family deserve to live in these conditions because they are poor?” she asked. Carson tried to talk over her. “Yes or no, do they deserve to live in these conditions because they are poor?” Pressley asked again. Carson’s mumbles continued. “Under your watch and under your helm, would you let your grandmother live in public housing?” Pressley went on, “Under these conditions?”
Carson said nothing other than, “I would be very nice if you could stop.” He was saved by Chairwoman Maxine Waters, who ended Pressley’s five minutes. He’d run out her time successfully with his trolling.
— CSPAN (@cspan) May 21, 2019
This was the performance of a pure incompetent, one that should have sounded a clarion call for Pressley and all those fighting to make housing a guaranteed right. If anything, that hearing showed how dangerous it is to leave open the possibility that the nation’s public housing may land in the hands of a man like Carson.
Carson must go, but that isn’t enough. Every child within the United States borders is constitutionally entitled to equal access to public education, regardless of identity, class or immigration status, yet we have a Department of Education and, ostensibly, a secretary now leading it who barely qualifies for the job herself. Similarly, every single person in this country should be guaranteed access to a home where they can live safely and affordably without fear that a willfully incompetent ideologue like Carson might jeopardize the roofs over their heads. And how on earth can we leave HUD in the hands of such a man when the homeless rate rose in 2018 for the second straight year, after years of decline? How can we continue along this same path when the public housing system has, rather than become immune to social inequities under Carson’s leadership, instead turned into of a symbol of it?
Housing as a human right is surely something that would get laughed off of a Fox News segment, but a number of international agreements recognize it, including the United Nations International Bill of Rights, which states that “adequate housing is one of the most basic human needs.” And really, how much are we asking for here? The line Trump uses about the country being “full” is pure rubbish. Yet he keeps on with that line, despite ample evidence of declining birth rates among native-born Americans, underpopulated cities and towns, vacant housing, and tax-starved municipalities. Don’t get me wrong; the United States is hardly broke. A spokesperson in Congresswoman Porter’s office told Rolling Stone that she believes that in a nation as rich as ours, no one should be without shelter. I can only hope that she and her similarly minded members of Congress take this argument beyond this news cycle.
Carson is already unfit for office, given that he broke the law with his exorbitant furniture purchases. Carson has also ignored the law, consciously and publicly shucking his legally prescribed duties. As it is, he remains simultaneously incompetent and indifferent to the suffering he is about to cause, all while daring Congress to do his job for him. In a sense, we should hope that he gets his wish.