Calm, confident, crazy Ben Carson: The "subtle form of arrogance" that's pushing him ahead in the polls

Salon speaks to the author of "Obama on the Couch" about why the GOP candidate's steady demeanor has him surging

Published October 26, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Brendan McDermid)
(Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

It doesn’t matter if he’s comparing Obamacare to Nazi Germany or abortion to slavery, or denying The Big Bang and evolution, Ben Carson tends to deliver his lines in a calm, mellow tone that differs significantly from the style of many other politicians. Especially those in his own party.

Carson's manner strikes some as odd, but Iowa voters seem to love it. “That smile and his soft voice makes people very comforted,” one told the New York Times in a story about Carson’s secret weapon. “He is kind when he speaks,” another says. (No mention that some of his ideas are, let's be honest, utterly crazy.)

Carson, it’s worth pointing out, has no political experience at all: He is running on an inspiring back story, and on being untouched by the corrupt world of politics. But temperament clearly plays a role in his support as well.

What’s the role of calmness in politics past and present, and human interaction in general? Salon spoke to Justin Frank, a psychoanalyst at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. -- and the author of “Obama on the Couch” and “Bush on the Couch" -- about the appeal of calmness in unsteady times. The interview has been edited slightly for clarity.

Ben Carson is polling very high in Iowa. The New York Times argues that it’s partly his mellow manner that is drawing people to him. Does that sound feasible to you?

Yes – that’s very likely, and very feasible. I think people who are calm inspire confidence. And there’s a difference between calm, like Ben Carson, and low energy, like Jeb Bush: He does not inspire confidence, because he is saying he can’t take it, that he’d rather do something else.

Ben Carson inspires confidence because he’s calm, everyone knows he’s smart. He’s been a very important surgeon at Johns Hopkins, and people have confidence in him because of his steadiness.

I also think that there’s a calmness that people are not as willing to admit to themselves: Barack Obama has been a calm president. In the face of attack from all kinds of people, he’s remained steady. He can transform the barbs into thought, so he’s not just reactive. He’s able to process attacks, take them seriously. In that way he’s stronger than Ben Carson, who sticks much more to a set of political beliefs.

Theres’s two kinds of calm, then. [There's] the calm that can tolerate cognitive dissonance, that can tolerate more than one idea in one’s mind that might be conflicting with another. And then there’s calm like Ben Carson, which is confidence, but it’s the confidence that comes from being sure he’s right.

Yeah – there’s a smugness to it.

Yes – it’s a subtle form of arrogance. It reminds me of my days in medical school – we used to walk across the street and say, “Don’t hit me, I’m a doctor,” to the cars. There was an arrogant jokiness. It’s something Carson, I think, has maintained over the years.

People confuse calmness with steadiness and intelligence. He has a defensive attitude toward certainty. Some people are more tolerant of not always being certain. But people like their leaders to be certain. That’s been one of Obama’s problems – he thinks, so people think he’s weak. But Carson gives a sense of being certain and being calm.

I find certainty, as a psychoanalyst, as a defense against anxiety. And he’s an absolutist. That is very appealing, compared to Trump, who seems to be all over the place.

You’ve mentioned Obama and Carson as demonstrating two different kinds of calm. Can we think of other political leaders, American or otherwise, whose support has come partly because of a calm manner?

I actually thought the way Hillary dealt with the Benghazi hearings changed a lot of people’s minds. I have friends on the left who are enamored of Bernie Sanders, who didn’t really like Hillary before [the hearings], but they were surprised at how calm and controlled and knowledgeable she was – she’s a person who does her homework. [People like this] can be very reassuring and affirming. She can listen… it makes her more like Obama than Ben Carson.

At the top of the GOP we have two very different temperaments. I don’t know what it tells us, but we have Carson’s smug calmness, and we have Trump’s truculence and impulsiveness…

They have something in common. They are both viewed as what-you-see-is-what-you-get. They’re viewed as not hypocritical, as authentic. Most candidates are not viewed as authentic – they say one thing and do something else. There’s a sense that both Trump in his bombast, and Carson is his calm steadiness, convey who they really are. They’re reliable, they don’t have anything to hide.

While all the others are politicians. Look at Christie, what he’s had to hide with Bridgegate, [and] Rubio… they all have stuff.

The big rap against Hillary, until the hearings, was that she wasn’t trustworthy. While with Bernie Sanders, “he is who he is.”

The appeal of this sort of calm confidence must be built into human nature – it’s trans-historical. But I wonder if Carson, for instance, is benefitting from the fact that so many voters – this is probably true on both the left and the right – think we live in unsteady and vexing times. To what extent is this about our manic and polarized moment?

I wouldn’t call it manic. I’d call it paranoid. We live in a paranoid and polarized world right now – where one side doesn’t trust the other… There’s a need for calm more than before, because of gun violence, stridency, instability in the Middle East, and I think – there’s no evidence of this, but speaking as a psychoanalyst – there’s a lot of unconscious anxiety that transcends the parties around climate change. People aren’t able to articulate that, because it’s not always available to people. But there’s an underlying anxiety about tornados, [extreme temperatures], everything.

Watch four of the most terrifying things Carson has said on the campaign trail so far.

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By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

MORE FROM Scott Timberg

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