Ben Carson's twisted appeal: Riding to the top of GOP politics through Nazi comparisons

Ben Carson built a 2016 following out of anti-Obama extremism. Here's what that says about movement conservatism

Published December 5, 2014 11:58AM (EST)

  (Jeffery Malet,
(Jeffery Malet,

Ben Carson is having his moment. The celebrated neurosurgeon and former Fox News pundit found himself squarely in the political spotlight this week when a CNN poll found that he was the second most popular choice among Republican voters for the 2016 presidential nomination. Beating out established political figures like Rand Paul, Rick Perry and Jeb Bush, Carson trailed only Willard “Mitt” Romney, who insists that he isn’t going to run again. The poll means little to nothing in terms of the actual race for the nomination, but it does mean that Carson will face more media scrutiny from here on out.

And that’s a problem for Ben Carson. When you’re talking to a friendly audience of right-wing activists, blurting out comparisons between the Obama presidency and Nazi Germany would scarcely raise an eyebrow. The same thing said in general company will, rightly, inspire revulsion and condemnation, which typically aren’t conducive to getting yourself elected to high office.

Thus, Carson is in a bind: The very quality that feeds his popularity is also what will prevent him from ever having a shot at legitimacy. And it will make for some very awkward media encounters, like the one Carson had with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer yesterday afternoon. Asked to explain his aforementioned comparison between the Obama era and the Third Reich, Carson at first held his ground. “The people in Nazi Germany largely didn’t believe in what Hitler was doing,” he said. “But they didn’t say anything? Of course not, they kept their mouth shut. The fact that our government is using instruments of government like the IRS to punish its opponents, this is not the kind of thing that is a Democrat or a Republican issue. This is an American issue.”

But then Carson pivoted and chastised Blitzer for focusing on the “Nazi” part of his Nazi comparison. “You are just focusing on the words ‘Nazi Germany,’” he said, “and completely missing the point of what I said.” Remember, Carson had just explained the point: Obama oppresses his opponents in a very Hitler-ish fashion. Carson knows that the things he says are outlandish – he prides himself on it – but he also clearly doesn’t know how to be himself in front of people who don’t share a visceral hatred of Barack Obama.

And really, conservatives who want their movement to be about something more than spittle-flecked outrage at the Kenyan socialist in the Oval Office should be embarrassed by Carson’s popularity. No one doubts that Carson has an inspiring back story and has racked up some impressive accomplishments in his life, but that’s not why conservatives love him. Nor are they feting him for his ambitious and reformist vision of small-government conservatism. They throw their support behind him and fantasize about his ascension to the White House because he says nasty things about Obama.

But please, don’t take my word for it.

For Carson, abandoning political correctness is a central element of his persona -- and something that's winning fans in the GOP base. Carson recently appeared at an event for the Family Leader, an influential social conservative organization in Iowa.

"He was very well received, and enthusiastically well received," said Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of the organization, who noted Carson spoke to 900 attendees about pressing domestic concerns including cultural issues, foreign policy, and his disdain for political correctness.

"It is like a breath of fresh air when he talks about not being politically correct and how he won't be controlled by the 'PC police' and he will say what needs to be said," Vander Plaats said. "That message really resonated."

The things Carson says don’t “need to be said” – indeed, the average person who disapproves of the Affordable Care Act probably doesn’t think it’s worse than 9/11 or in any way comparable to slavery. He says things that conservatives very much want to hear: that Obama’s policies are historically disastrous, that they’re victims of government repression just because they’re conservative, and that gay marriage is a deliberate plot to undermine America. He aggravates all of the conservative movement’s long-standing resentments.

A number of commentators have attributed Carson’s popularity among Republicans to his visibility as a Fox News contributor, and there’s certainly something to that. But it’s hard to imagine that he’s any more well-known among Republican voters than any of the established political figures whose names also get tossed around as potential 2016 contenders. A movement that’s been raised on talk radio and encloses itself in Fox News’ alternate reality bubble is naturally going to confuse bombast and eloquent extremism for leadership and gravitas.

Carson seems serious about putting together a campaign and very well may be in this thing for the long haul. He won’t win, and for that we can all be thankful given that he’s an obvious extremist. But that hasn’t prevented him from gathering a significant following of Republicans who will happily back a radical bomb-thrower for president for no other reason than his refusal to be “politically correct." That doesn't speak well of the health of the conservative movement.

By Simon Maloy

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