Ben Carson’s brand is “nice.” “Carson has the bedside manner of the physician he is,” says the Christian Science Monitor. “Ben Carson doesn’t shout,” writes Adam C. Smith for the Tampa Bay Times. “He doesn’t throw zingers, and he rarely disparages rival presidential candidates. In a period when Donald Trump’s bluster dominates the 2016 presidential race, Carson seldom says anything provocative enough to generate TV news coverage.”
On Sunday, in an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, that changed. “Do you believe that Islam is consistent with the Constitution,” asked Chuck Todd, after Carson said a president’s faith only matters if it’s inconsistent with the country’s values. “No, I don’t, I do not,” answered Carson. He continued: “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.” The Council on American-Islamic Relations slammed the retired neurosurgeon, who with Donald Trump leads the Republican presidential pack. “Mr. Carson clearly does not understand or care about the Constitution, which states that ‘no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office,’ ” said the group’s national executive director in a statement.
The Carson campaign wouldn’t budge. “[Mr. Carson] has great respect for the Muslim community,” said spokesman Doug Watts, “but there is a huge gulf between the faith and practice of the Muslim faith, and our Constitution and American values.” Despite the reality of the American Muslim community, which is as loyal and patriotic as any group of Americans, Carson—the soft-spoken, genial doctor who runs on his religious faith—believes they are unqualified for high public office and that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with “American values.”
But this isn’t shocking. Of course Carson believes in the disloyalty of American Muslims. His genial reputation conceals a deep commitment to paranoid politics, honed over years of conservative activism and deployed in speeches, op-ed columns, and now a presidential campaign. At the Values Voter Summit in 2013, for example, he compared the Affordable Care Act—President Obama’s signature health care law—to chattel slavery. “You know Obamacare is really I think the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery,” said Carson in his remarks to the conservative gathering. “It is slavery in a way because it is making all of us subservient to the government, and it was never about health care. It was about control.”
There’s no question this is outrageous. But it pales next to the reactionary paranoia of much of his other rhetoric. “I mean, [our society is] very much like Nazi Germany,” he said last year, in a rant against “political correctness.” “You know, you had a government using its tools to intimidate the population. We now live in a society where people are afraid to say what they actually believe.”
If political correctness is akin to German fascism, then it’s no shock the doctor thinks the IRS is a bona fide secret police. “You know, we live in a Gestapo age, people don’t realize it,” he said, in reference to the federal tax agency. He believes that President Obama might suspend elections in 2016, that Democrats want immigrants to increase the welfare population and keep themselves in power, and that—as he explained in the first Republican presidential debate this year—Hillary Clinton and “the progressive movement” are “trying to destroy this country” by driving up the national debt and stepping “off the stage as a world leader.”
Carson, the doctor, is a brilliant pediatric neurosurgeon. Carson, the candidate, is a crank—a creature of deep suspicion and conspiratorial thinking, who gives the mainstream a rare glimpse into the American Negative Zone of far-right fear and fetid fever dreams. There, anti-Muslim prejudice is common and unapologetic while Carson’s claim—that Islam is inherently anti-American—is axiomatic. Given his political background, his remarks were typical, if not even expected. (It almost goes without saying that there’s an irony in Carson’s bigotry: When he was a child, his ideological antecedents attacked civil rights activists with the same anger and contempt.)
If his comments surprised, it’s because of his style. Carson’s gentle affect is his greatest asset; it soothes listeners and obscures the degree to which he’s the most extreme candidate in the race. With that said, he’s a Kessel Run away from the Republican nomination. Barring the catastrophic collapse of every other “establishment” or conventional candidate, he has little chance of becoming the GOP nominee, much less president. But that’s no consolation.
Right now, the top candidates in the Republican primary are a nativist demagogue and a right-wing paranoiac. They’re channeling and emboldening the worst impulses in American politics, and winning the polls because of it. They will fall, but not before making a dangerous, and potentially enduring, mark on our politics.