(AP/Reuters/Lenny Ignelzi/Chris Keane/Jim Cole)

The GOP's house of lies: Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina & the era of post-truth politics

The Republican upstarts learned a valuable lesson from Trump: Never back down, no matter how brazen your lies


Sean Illing
October 12, 2015 8:14PM (UTC)

The passion for political incorrectness on the right has had some rather unfortunate consequences for the GOP candidates. To begin with, it’s put constant pressure on people like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina to stretch the truth, to say very stupid things that very stupid people want to hear, regardless of the facts. Trump is a bit of an exception, as his approach is to be as crass and offensive as possible. Trump certainly plays loose with the facts, but his campaign is about tone and style as much as it is anything else – he doesn’t even pretend to care about the truth.

Carson and Fiorina are different, though. To be seen as dignified, they have to strike the right balance of respectability and political incorrectness. You won’t hear Carson calling people “losers,” just as you won’t hear Fiorina lobbing juvenile insults at other candidates – that’s Trump’s shtick. What you will hear, however, are Carson and Fiorina saying manifestly untrue things because they align with various right-wing narratives.

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We saw this with Fiorina at the last Republican presidential debate when she lied about the leaked and highly edited Planned Parenthood videos. “Anyone who has watched this videotape,” Fiorina said, “I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.’” Of course, this scene does not exist, and even the propagandists behind the Planned Parenthood videos have acknowledged as much. But that didn’t stop Fiorina from insisting otherwise, just as the facts don’t stop her from distorting her objectively disastrous record as CEO of Hewlett Packard.

Fiorina’s willingness to double down on discredited claims gave her a definitive edge in what has become a post-truth campaign. But it appears Dr. Ben Carson won’t go gently into that good night. Carson has told at least two whoppers in the past few weeks. The first involves an alleged robbery at a Baltimore Popeye’s. In an interview on Sirius radio, Carson recounted the tale to host Karen Hunter: A “guy comes in, puts the gun to my ribs and I just said, ‘I believe that you want the guy behind the counter’…I redirected him.” I’m not sure if Carson thinks he played the hero in this story or not, but the more important point is that it likely never happened. According to the Baltimore Sun, “Baltimore Police said Thursday that they could not find any report related to the incident based on the little information that Carson has provided.” It seems Carson set fire to his pants in an effort to walk back his earlier comments (after the shooting at Umpqua Community College) about not “standing around” and allowing a gunman to shoot him.

Carson’s second lie was about gun control and the Holocaust. In yet another attempt to appease gun enthusiasts, Carson told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer the following: “I think the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed…There’s a reason these dictatorial people take the guns first.” This lie has reached truism status on the right, despite having no basis in history or the facts. As Alex Seitz-Wald noted in a 2013 article for Salon:

University of Chicago law professor Bernard Harcourt explored this myth in depth in a 2004 article published in the Fordham Law Review. As it turns out, the Weimar Republic, the German government that immediately preceded Hitler’s, actually had tougher gun laws than the Nazi regime. After its defeat in World War I, and agreeing to the harsh surrender terms laid out in the Treaty of Versailles, the German legislature in 1919 passed a law that effectively banned all private firearm possession, leading the government to confiscate guns already in circulation. In 1928, the Reichstag relaxed the regulation a bit, but put in place a strict registration regime that required citizens to acquire separate permits to own guns, sell them or carry them.

Carson, however, has doubled down on this stupidity, saying “It’s not hyperbole at all…Whether it’s on our doorstep or whether it’s 50 years away, it’s still a concern and it’s something that we must guard against.” Carson is smart enough (one hopes, at least) to know that more Jewish people with pistols would not have beaten back the Nazis, which had already defeated three of the largest armies on the planet (Soviet Union, France, and Poland), all of which, as David Frum pointed out, possessed not only “rifles and pistols, but also tanks, aircraft, artillery, modern fortifications, and massed infantry.”

Don’t expect Carson to retract anything he’s said, though. Like Fiorina, he’ll ride his wave of bullshit to the very end, and for obvious reasons. Somehow “politically incorrect” has become synonymous with untrue in Republican circles. Carson won’t bend to the truth-mongers because that would be seen as apologizing, and being politically incorrect also means never apologizing, no matter how offensive or false your remarks.

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Trump was the first in this race to illustrate this – Carson and Fiorina are just building on his success in their own ways.


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 silling@salon.com.

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