Ben Carson's coming takeover: What Tea Party's new star means for 2016

He's an accomplished retired neurosurgeon with fringe right views. How far can that take him in a presidential bid?

Published July 9, 2014 5:00PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Mike Theiler)
(Reuters/Mike Theiler)

Just as the GOP always seems to hype a quasi-moderate Great Midwestern Hope (Tim Pawlenty, Tommy Thompson) who ends up fizzling before the campaign even begins in every presidential cycle, it has also recently featured far-right African-American candidates (Alan Keyes, Herman Cain) who capture the imagination of the party's base before flaming out in the early primaries. What's interesting is that both groups are anomalous in the GOP in general: There are no real moderates left in the party and less than 5 percent of African-Americans vote Republican. Of course they can't win. But it does give the effect of a Big Tent and always provides a certain amount of excitement, particularly when the candidates are interesting iconoclasts. (The GOP Midwesterners are inevitably snoozers on the campaign trail, though.)

Ben Carson, an African-American retired neurosurgeon, is a phenomenon less known outside right-wing circles. But it appears he's a big fan favorite and is coming on strong. At the recent Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans he came in second only to Ted Cruz as their top choice to run for president and only by 1 point.

He's currently on a book tour all over the country selling his book "One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America's Future" and is being met with rapturous crowds wearing buttons that say "the Doctor is in the White House 2016" and "Run Ben Run," the latter of which is the official slogan of the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee. They had reportedly raised over $4 million by the end of April. A recent Rasmussen poll showed Rand Paul and Carson coming closest to Hillary Clinton out of all the potential Republican candidates. And among likely Republican voters only Rand Paul and Ted Cruz ranked higher.

He has been cagey about his willingness to accept the challenge, only saying that he's warming to the idea and issuing a not-exactly-Shermanesque denial of intent by saying, I don't want to do it but if we’re left in a situation where there’s not a lot of enthusiasm for anybody else, I would never turn my back on my fellow citizens.”

Dr. Carson is a truly accomplished person, a leader in his field who, prior to becoming a political activist, was best known as the first neurosurgeon to successfully separate twins who had been conjoined at the back of the head. He was head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins for many years and also wrote books and served as board member on numerous corporations. There was even a film starring Cuba Gooding Jr. based upon his autobiography, called "Gifted Hands, the Ben Carson Story," made for TNT back in 2009. It wasn't until he gave a barn-burning keynote speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013 that he came to the attention of conservative activists, however, and his political career took off like a rocket. The very next morning the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial headlined "Ben Carson for President." They were particularly taken with his economic program:

What we need to do is come up with something simple. And when I pick up my Bible, you know what I see? I see the fairest individual in the universe, God, and he's given us a system. It's called a tithe.

"We don't necessarily have to do 10% but it's the principle. He didn't say if your crops fail, don't give me any tithe or if you have a bumper crop, give me triple tithe. So there must be something inherently fair about proportionality. You make $10 billion, you put in a billion. You make $10 you put in one. Of course you've got to get rid of the loopholes. Some people say, 'Well that's not fair because it doesn't hurt the guy who made $10 billion as much as the guy who made 10.' Where does it say you've got to hurt the guy? He just put a billion dollars in the pot. We don't need to hurt him. It's that kind of thinking that has resulted in 602 banks in the Cayman Islands. That money needs to be back here building our infrastructure and creating jobs."

And this:

"Here's my solution: When a person is born, give him a birth certificate, an electronic medical record, and a health savings account to which money can be contributed—pretax—from the time you're born 'til the time you die. If you die, you can pass it on to your family members, and there's nobody talking about death panels. We can make contributions for people who are indigent. Instead of sending all this money to some bureaucracy, let's put it in their HSAs. Now they have some control over their own health care. And very quickly they're going to learn how to be responsible."

(I wonder how much you have to set aside every week in order to pay for the separation of conjoined twins. And what he means by "they're going to learn how to be responsible." Dying isn't going to do much good there ...)

Those were his more mainstream ideas. Lately, he's really let loose. He calls abortion a form of "human sacrifice." In his keynote speech last week to the right-wing National Organization for Marriage he claimed that "Marxists are using LGBT rights to destroy American unity and impose the 'New World Order.'" At the Values Voter Summit he said, “Obamacare is really, I think, the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery, and it is slavery in a way” and then upped the ante in a recent interview with the Daily Beast in which he said Obamacare is actually worse than the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks “because 9/11 is an isolated incident.”

He said he was very encouraged by the Cliven Bundy standoff and thought they were "outstanding people." (He had also been personally assured by the CIA and the military that they would take Bundy's side if it came to that.) And this is all coming to a head because Real Americans are losing their First Amendment rights to speak out because "Alynskyite-type" rules are silencing them. (One wonders how a Salon writer is able to thwart the jack-booted speech police in order to find all these quotes on the Internet.) "We are living in a gestapo age and people don't realize it," according to Carson, who says that he and everyone he knows have been targeted by the IRS.And just the other day Dr. Carson told Joseph Farah of World Net Daily that the Obama administration is promoting pot use and Pharrell Williams' "Happy" to make people dumb so they won't understand the important issues like Benghazi.

He tells his followers that he is a big reader and that's why he knows so much about the issues of the day:

“You have to take a long-term look at the ascent of something that fundamentally changes the power structure of America. You have to be someone who reads. Who is well-read. I want you to go back tonight. I want you to pull out what Saul Alinsky says about health care under the control of the government.”

What books would those be? Well, one author he frequently touts in his speeches is cracked conspiracy theorist and slavery apologist W. Cleon Skousen, the Tea Party's favorite author. Which leads to the inevitable conclusion that Ben Carson is so fully enveloped in the right-wing bubble that he is unaware of the fact that he's immersing himself in total quackery.

Not that it matters:

Jay Sekolow, chief counsel for the right-leaning American Center for Law and Justice, said Carson would be a “tremendous president.”

“The White House is a pressure cooker job, but it’s not brain surgery,” Sekolow said.

Neither is being a Tea Party celebrity.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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