The Ben Carson phenomenon is a case lesson in how some really smart, impressive figures in certain fields should never talk about politics.
Carson is now an official presidential candidate, representing a subset of grassroots conservatives who enjoy being played. This is not an insignificant number of people. He is, to the horror of the people who run the Republican party, polling viably. No would-be candidate has a more dedicated corps of volunteers supporting him. Whether it's CPAC or the First in the Nation Summit in New Hampshire, the Carson people are everywhere, handing out stickers and buttons and t-shirts and assorted other tchochkes from dusk till dawn.
But why? What is it that they like about someone who's quite obviously trying to separate conservative movementarians from their money?
Carson's rise to prominence among Tea Party conservatives, or whatever we're calling that element of the GOP now, should be bizarre to everyone. It's especially baffling, though, to people like your trusty Salon writer, who grew up in the mid-Atlantic in the 1990s. Most elementary and middle school students from Maryland were at some point assigned to read Ben Carson's autobiography, Gifted Hands -- typically ahead of a visit from the man himself. Carson was raised in Detroit, rising from abject poverty to Yale, eventually becoming the head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, one of the best medical centers in the world. To children and adults alike, he was the reigning regional saint. (Along with Cal Ripken Jr., who didn't pull off masterful feats of neurosurgery but did play in thousands of consecutive baseball games.)
Carson launched his second, lucrative career as a conservative movement celebrity at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast. This is one of those grand annual Washington events, sponsored by a Northern Virginia cult, that merits a visit from the President of the United States. Carson made President Obama sit through a chaotic 27-minute political rant against political correctness, progressive taxation, the national debt, etc., and conservative media went nuts. He went on a vapid spiel to President Obama's face! He should run for president??
Who knew Carson would actually take them up on this? But here we are, replete with a gospel choir singing Eminem.
It's sad that such a brilliant surgeon and role model for children has committed himself to a path of spectacular humiliation. Because that same free-flowing style he showed at the National Prayer Breakfast has been subject to diminishing returns in the last two years. The novelty is wearing off, and now he's in a position where he makes a fool of himself just about every time his mouth opens.
The trademark of Carson's brief political career is an all-out assault on the common literary devices of metaphor and analogy. Obamacare is slavery, and the United States under President Obama is Nazi Germany. "I want to be clear and set the record straight: I don’t think Obamacare is worse than 9/11," Carson found himself compelled to say at one point. He has compared criticizing police to criticizing plumbers.
He recently opined that being gay is a choice and people become gay when they go to prison.
Carson says that he's learned over the past couple of years not to "wander off into those extraneous areas that can be exploited" by the gotcha media. The problem here, as with so many other complaints about the gotcha media, is that the media simply transcribes the crazy things that he says. He might think that he has an off switch, but that's doubtful. People who become conservative media stars become conservative media stars by saying crazy things. It's part of their nature.
Carson's legacy will not include a stint as President of the United States. It's a shame that he's decided to risk his real legacy, as a brilliant world-renowned doctor who came from nothing, by playing right-wing also-ran in a presidential contest.