Trumpstagram is Slate’s pop-up blog that close-reads Instagram accounts in the Trump orbit.
Shortly after Trump was elected, the Hill confirmed that retired neurosurgeon turned failed presidential candidate Ben Carson had no interest in serving as an official in the new administration. Carson’s brief time in the political spotlight had seemed ill-fated far before he walked away from the presidential race with a meager eight delegates and zero states won. Now, compared to our deranged current reality, Carson’s earnest answer to a question about how he would go about picking Supreme Court nominees—“The fruit salad of their life is what I will look at”—reads as almost quaint.
Carson’s trademark affectless arrogance has been on public display throughout his tenure as housing and urban development secretary, whether he’s opining that “poverty, largely, is a state of mind” or ignoring federal ethic rules so his son and daughter-in-law could organize his Baltimore “listening tour” or purchasing a $31,000 dining table set because $5,000 (the legal limit for office décor) “will not even buy a decent chair.” But his Instagram account, which, while labeled as a joint account with his wife, Candy, lives under the handle @realbencarson, still feels like an oddly riveting time capsule—back to the days when his misdirected ambition stretched even further, toward the highest office in the land.
This account can be thought of primarily as a campaign document—the bulk of its photos were uploaded between May 2015, when he formally announced his candidacy, and March 2016, when he dropped out of the race—but it’s also a perfect distillation of Carson’s personality and ego. The first photo posted to the account is from July 2014. Carson, in a windbreaker and khakis, has his hand inside the mouth of what appears to be a replica of a crocodile. (I am not a herpetologist so please do not @ me if it is actually an alligator.) The caption reads “ ‘Thinking about getting involved…’ #itsnotbrainsurgery.” What he’s thinking about getting involved with is unclear. One thing is clear: Ben Carson does not want you to forget that he can perform brain surgery. Was the “involvement” referred to here a precursor to his eventual bid for president? Or perhaps he was considering getting involved with the crocodile, in which case I have several more questions that are probably not fit to print. Regardless, that first post was a strong indicator of the deep and alienating personal weirdness that would come to define not only his Instagram presence but also his presidential campaign.
Behold, also, the unreasonable number of photographs of pumpkins on this feed. There’s a pumpkin painted with the Ben Carson campaign logo:
There’s a jack-o’-lantern with a Ben Carson campaign logo:
There’s … this:
Despite the fact the profile photo is of Candy and the account’s bio reads “The Official Instagram Page of Dr. Ben & Candy Carson,” this sure feels like a Ben Carson joint. Only 25 of the 423 posts feature Candy. Granted, this would make sense even if she were running the feed, in that her presence on this Instagram mirrors the public role she’s taken on as a supporting actor in her husband’s life. Candy was complimentarily dubbed the “anti–Michelle Obama” by National Review in 2015, and pretty much every interview she has given thus far has revolved around her duties as wife, mother, and potential first lady. The closest we get here to a glimpse of her inner life is a blurry photo from March 2015 showing her playing the violin—an instrument she played in the symphony at Yale where she triple-majored in psychology, pre-med, and music.
But the account somehow still feels irrevocably Ben Carson–esque. The longer you scroll through picture after picture of Carson’s banal quotes superimposed on his own face, the more you start to feel like you’re idling in the warm bath of a milder form of megalomania—just as delusional as Trump’s (the good doctor loves to repost paintings of his own face), but it’s less toxic and manipulative than it is awkward and ineffective and strange. In 2018, it’s almost soothing to drift through the uncanny charisma void that is Carson’s Instagram, like entering a nonsense dream from which you know you will awaken.
Alas, given the fact that the last post to the account was in March of 2017, there is little we can glean from the account regarding any recent Carson-related scandals. What was Carson’s state of mind when he blamed Candy for the purchase of that horrendous $31,000 dining set? Or when he proposed raising rent for low-income Americans receiving housing subsidies? It’s unlikely we’ll ever find out. Until the fateful day that the account becomes active again, it looks like all we’ll have to remember Carson by are his disastrous housing policies, his many embarrassing public statements, his two Twitter accounts (one also shared with Candy), and this “keep calm” meme of himself that he apparently made for his own birthday.
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