Donald Trump vs. Ben Carson: The knock-down, drag-out feud for the soul of the Republican Party

Two unlikely leading GOP candidates highlight the party's raging identity crisis. But who comes out on top?

By Sean Illing
Published September 10, 2015 8:05PM (UTC)
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It’s been clear for some time that Republican voters aren’t particularly interested in policy details. The fact that Donald Trump and Ben Carson, the two candidates with no political experience and even less relevant knowledge, are dominating the presidential race tells you all you need to know about their constituencies. According to the latest CNN poll, Trump has gained 8 points since August, which puts him at 32 percent. (Incidentally, Trump is the only GOP candidate thus far to eclipse 30 percent.) Carson, a neurosurgeon, is now comfortably in second place, with 19 percent support among likely Republican voters.

Trump and Carson, like many GOP candidates before them, have discovered that they don’t need to know anything about politics to impress the Republican base. Conservative voters, by and large, respond to two things: demagoguery and religious posturing. To Trump’s credit, he makes no effort at all to pretend like he understands the issues; instead, he goes right for the gut. He knows he can’t authentically play the religious card, so he appeals on an emotional level, shamelessly confirming the ideological biases of his supporters. In that way, he is the quintessential demagogue.

Carson, on the other hand, lacks the bluster of Trump, but he’s equally ignorant about political reality, and he’s a quiet demagogue in his own right. I’ve no doubt Carson is a bright man -- I don’t imagine many idiots become neurosurgeons, much less ones celebrated for their professional achievements. But the point is that he’s politically ignorant, and you know that because the only time he’s not speaking platitudinously is when he’s cloaking his prejudices in religious language.

Carson recognizes that he can’t match Trump’s blind fury, so he decided to attack Trump’s religious bona fides. When asked what distinguishes him from Trump at a recent campaign stop, Carson said: “I’ve realized where my success has come from, and I don’t in any way deny my faith in God…And I think that is the big difference.” Implicitly referencing Trump’s remarks about not asking God for forgiveness, Carson added: “By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches and honor and life and that’s a very big part of who I am…I don’t get that impression with him [Trump]. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t get that.” Shots fired!

The Trump-Carson rivalry is worth watching because the outcome will reveal what GOP voters most respond to. Is it Trump’s gaseous blend of bombast and bigotry or is it Carson’s congenial (but repellent) religious dogmatism? If Trump continues to dominate the polls without offering a single serious policy proposal, we can assume his empty rhetoric is all one needs to succeed in Republican politics in 2016. His entire campaign feels like a test to see how credulous Republican voters are. The man, after all, has said things like “I’ll be so good at the military it’ll make your head spin” and, even better, “I will build a great wall – and nobody builds wall better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall…and I will make Mexico pay for that wall.” And without explaining what any of that means, his numbers skyrocketed!

Carson isn’t the nativist Trump is, but he has likewise said some incredibly ridiculous things, things Republican voters appear to like: He’s claimed that Obamacare is America’s greatest moral failure since slavery. He’s equated homosexuality to bestiality. He’s implied that American Christians are being persecuted today in much the same way the Jews in Nazi Germany were. And, like Trump, Carson has been mighty thin on the specifics of his platform. He has no discernible experience in government and he has virtually no command of the facts. None of this has mattered, however, because Carson has made all the right religious noises in front of conservative audiences.

It will be interesting to see whether Carson’s latest gambit has any effect on Trump’s popularity. I suspect it won’t move the meter one way or the other. Trump’s psychological appeal to anxious white conservatives is deep, and it’s unlikely to fade anytime soon.

Klum 'Trumps Trump' with Instragram Video

Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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