Politics

Goodbye, Ben Carson

Ben Carson, smiling, raises his left hand.
Ben Carson in Washington on March 4. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images

After almost 30 years as a pioneering neurosurgeon, you could have had a glorious—and prosperous—retirement. You were already a living Black History Month hero, an example to any child whose dreams were bigger and better than their circumstances. You had a million-dollar minimansion in a West Palm Beach country club. You were a sought-after speaker and author, someone whose inspiring life story had been turned into a movie. You even had political aspirations of your own, launching a presidential campaign in your hometown of Detroit in 2015. You had options.

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I was in Detroit when you announced your long-shot bid in the Republican primary that May afternoon. It was a triumphant but kitschy affair, ending at the Detroit Music Hall with a gospel choir and five opera singers from Nashville. Five opera singers from Nashville in Motown! That subtle but bizarre choice should have made it clear whom you sought as a constituency.

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You told the enthusiastic audience, with not much more than a handful of Black attendees in the Blackest city in the country, “Stop being loyal to a party or to a man, and use your brain to think for yourself.”

You would have done well to follow your own advice.

It all started to fall apart during the primary, when you made a series of blunders and said you didn’t think Muslim Americans should become president. Your anti-charisma and lack of preparedness seemed beneath a man of your stature, but it was easy to forgive because national politics are understandably disorienting.

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Things got worse when you finally dropped out of the race in March 2016 and inexplicably threw your support behind Donald Trump. “Some people have gotten the impression that Donald Trump is this person who is not malleable, who does not have the ability to listen, and to take information in and make wise decisions. And that’s not true. He’s much more cerebral than that,” you said then. Yes, you used the word cerebral to describe Donald Trump.

It seemed odd that you, an allegedly devout Seventh-day Adventist, would willingly tie your credibility and reputation to a hedonist like Trump. It seemed wrong that you, a believer, would shrug off the many credible allegations of sexual assault against Trump. When asked in October 2016 if you thought the women were lying, you said, “It doesn’t matter if they’re lying or not. What matters is that the train is going off the cliff. We’re taking our eye off of that and we’re getting involved in other issues that can be taken care of later.”

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Of course, you didn’t take care of it later. You never brought it up again. You were more faithful to Trump than to your God. You helped vet Trump’s vice presidential pick, joined his transition team, and then accepted his appointment as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. As far as anyone knew, you had no professional experience with housing or urban development.

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Accordingly, you did not distinguish yourself in the position. On your very first day, you likened enslaved Africans to immigrants. “There were other immigrants who came in the bottom of slave ships, who worked even longer, even harder, for less, but they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great grandsons, great granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land,” you said. It was an inauspicious but telling start.

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You weren’t just incompetent. You were malignant. You tried to eliminate a number of HUD programs meant to help poor Americans, or veterans, or Native Americans afford housing, and tried to get rid of fair housing regulations meant to fight discrimination. What you couldn’t eliminate, you attempted to cut to the bone. Trump—whose first mention in the New York Times was in a 1973 story about the Department of Justice suing him for discriminating against Black tenants—surely appreciated having you, the only Black member of his Cabinet, around to cut housing benefits to low-income people of color. And you never gave up in your quest to slash protections. In June, in one of your final acts, your department proposed a rule to scrap the Obama administration’s 2016 guidance requiring single-sex homeless shelters to accept transgender people.

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You even sullied your medical reputation, joining Trump’s laughably ineffective coronavirus task force. As tens of thousands of Americans died over the summer, you opposed another shutdown that might have saved more lives. Which is something you used to care about: saving people’s lives.

In a country where few Black men are widely exalted, you improbably scaled that pedestal. You probably thought you’d remain there forever. But wondering what happened to you doesn’t mean I thought you were on the right path to begin with. You often railed against athletes and celebrities, and once told an audience that you discovered during your 25th high school reunion that the “really cool” people from those years were now dead. Two years before you announced your candidacy, you let your bigotry slip into public when you compared same-sex marriage to pedophilia and bestiality. You were no hero of mine. But jumping on the Trump train was something I didn’t expect.

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I’ve often wondered if you were ultimately another one of those prideful Black men who grew resentful in the growing shadow of President Obama. As Obama became deified in many Black American households, I saw lots of impressive Black men—politicians, academics, celebrities—indulge their petty jealousies and gravitate to the man who loathed Obama most of all: Donald Trump. I won’t name them here because this is about you, but I think you are one of them.

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You could’ve chosen another path. You could have continued your great work with the Carson Scholars Fund, awarding college scholarships to deserving students, or settled into a Florida retiree’s life as a husband and grandfather. Instead you let your envy of Obama, or your desperate need for celebrity, or your weak moral compass turn you into a pawn for a lesser man—and a punchline.

More than five years ago, I wrote about your quixotic quest to enter politics, wondering if it would destroy your legacy. I wasn’t so sure then. But today, the answer is clear. You should hope that you’re forgotten.

This is part of a series of goodbyes to Trumpworld figures. Read the rest here.

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