We’ve become accustomed to joke candidacies in recent presidential primaries, to voters embracing hitherto obscure personalities who, in more mundane elections, they wouldn’t trust for dog-catcher. Herman Cain, the pizza king, represented this phenomenon (thus far confined to Republican primaries) in 2012; Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon, sometime pitchman and self-professed born-again Christian, is the stand-in this time. Cain, as you may recall, briefly led the polls before Republican voters sobered up and nominated Mitt Romney—which, admittedly, was sobering up with a vengeance.
We’ve had actual joke nominees for office—Dan Quayle for Vice President in 1988; Sarah Palin for the same job in 2008. Maybe it’s the office that’s the joke? Quayle, of course, actually spent a term in office, and he and Palin had prior public service, if that’s the word. But Cain, and now Carson, came completely out of right field. Nobody outside of the pizza and snipping businesses had ever heard of them, and they were as innocent of political experience as a baby’s backside. Yet both soared to the head of the field, and Carson is still a close second to Donald Trump as I write.
You’ll notice I don’t mention Trump. (Interestingly, the Donald himself apparently toyed with the idea of being George H. W. Bush’s running mate himself in 1988. That would have made for quite a pair!) Trump, though still a political novice, is anything but obscure: self-promotion has been his entire career. Cain and Carson, in contrast, seemed to come from Purgatorial obscurity. They figuratively invented themselves before the public eye, with whatever fact or fiction they chose to combine. Cain really did sell pizzas. In Carson’s case, as we are learning day by day, fiction has been by far the preponderant element.
Like Trump, Cain and Carson are the products of a reality TV culture. Reality TV specializes in plucking ordinary Americans out of nowhere and giving them a shot at fame and fortune, a version of the lottery where the prize is less money than face time, and, for the lucky few, an “entertainment” career of some sort. Their biography is their performance, for nothing else distinguishes them. Trump has sold his biography for decades, but then he’s been the host, not the contestant, in the Reality sweepstakes. Cain had and Carson has only the song and dance of themselves, an act they were putting on for the first time before a national audience. Off-handedly, they suggested positions on this political issue or that, but what they were selling was the personality that, speech by speech, they invented for us.
Both Cain and Carson are, of course, African Americans, and that has been critical to their success, particularly with conservative white audiences. The reason for this has been suggested: they signify not a mysterious transcendence of the race factor in American politics among conservatives, but a backhanded repudiation of Barack Obama. Without mentioning Obama, Cain and Carson opposed everything the first African American president was held to stand for, and Carson, as a physician, has particularly delighted audiences by denouncing Obamacare, the President’s so-called signature achievement. It’s an old trick: every stigmatized social group is presumed, at least publicly, to have exceptions—“good” Jews who don’t care about money, “good” blacks who aren’t violent. Their function is not to disprove the negative stereotype, but to confirm it. In the end, the exception vanishes; the stereotype remains, stronger than ever.
We have come to see of late just how careless or indifferent Carson is about “Ben Carson,” the persona he has created for himself. There is, for example, the howler about his having been offered a scholarship to West Point (embroidered with a tale about sitting down with the late general William Westmoreland, of Vietnam fame). The problem with the story is that West Point doesn’t offer scholarships; it is tuition-free for all cadets. This means that Carson could not have misremembered his application; he could never have made it. Most people who lie try to be credible, at least for awhile; Ben Carson wanted to be exposed, because the people who had bought into his persona were not going to blame him for fibbing or even hallucinating, but the media for persecuting him. And this, up to now, has been the result.
Carson has similarly told us of late of a violent youth in which he had even threatened his mother with bodily harm. This, too, is deeply puzzling on the surface, because Carson’s appeal, when he began to catch on, came from a soft-spokenness and calmness of demeanor almost uncanny in a would-be politician. The contrast with the bombastic Trump was obvious and intentional, but it touched a deeper chord as well, for the stereotypic African American is not only violent but loud: once again, Carson was portraying himself as the exception to the rule. Yet, having carefully cultivated this image for months, he then set out to contradict it: the original Carson, as it turned out, was every bit as violent, as filled with rage, as the stereotype would have him.
The moral of Carson’s story was, of course, that he had been born again through evangelical Christianity, and thus saved from himself. In short, he was a black man who had become something other than black; who confirmed the stereotype of the violent African American while exempting himself from it. Whites, particularly evangelical whites, could thus forgive the sinner who had repudiated the greatest sin of all: that of being black.
It is hard to imagine Carson keeping up this high-wire act for long, and he seems already to have peaked. His “campaign”—which at this point has apparently devolved into a lucrative book tour—never seems to have been much more than an attempt to turn a quick buck. Nor would it be of much interest, except for what it tells us about the state of our democracy. Yes, it has exposed and exploited a deep-seated racism, one that suggests that the election of Obama in 2008 was not the watershed event in our national life so many hoped it would be, but a signal for the huge racial backlash that has engulfed the waning days of his administration. But there’s more to it than that.
Absurdist candidates such as Carson and Trump gain support, at least in Republican quarters, not despite their lack of personal or political credibility, but because of it. The more their unfitness is exposed, the more tenaciously their core supporters rally around them. This has nothing to do with who these candidates really are—a huckster and a blowhard, respectively—but what their personas represent. To call them outsider or anti-establishment figures tells us nothing. They are the negations of a political process that increasing numbers of people feel has failed them, or more pointedly, that exploits and dumps them, exporting their jobs, bilking their pensions, ridiculing their hopes and values, and above all making mock of the idea that they can have any say over their own destinies. Democracy itself, for them, is the real cheat; their disempowerment by the government, the faceless bureaucracies, and the corporate and financial elites that rule them, is complete. Their country has been stolen out from under them, and they are beleaguered strangers in it.
Some of this has to do with the shrinking (or mythical?) middle class, and some of it with the shrinking proportion of whites in the population. But it is a reality-based experience. It is a fact, not an illusion, that a union-based manufacturing economy has been replaced by an unsecured service one; that wealth has been extracted at alarming rates from the toil of the many by a small ownership elite; and that the two political parties, once in office, operate as one. It is not only useful but necessary to say that Obama, elected as the candidate of change, has been Wall Street’s obedient servant for seven years, from the bank bailouts to the Trans-Pacific trade partnership, and that Obamacare itself has simply dumped the care of the poor on the backs of the middle class in the interest of for-profit medical monopolies. A fabulating doctor sued six times for malpractice and a billionaire casino mogul are a poor way to express them, but the grievances are real, and deep.
What Carson and Trump thus express is a hunger for a leader completely outside the existing system, one not bound by constitutional rules or niceties. This is not a novel situation. Long ago, when the city-states of ancient Greece fell into strife over class inequities, they had resort to an outside figure who was given plenary powers by which everyone would be bound. Such a figure was called a tyrannos, which we translate as “tyrant.” The tyrants of old were not baneful figures, but, it was hoped, impartial arbiters who would restore peace and justice, and, thanked for their labors, would then depart. Sometimes, the system worked; but the gradual connotation that tyranny gained—of arbitrary power used for hateful and despotic ends—was the fruit of bitter experience. More and more people have become willing to take the gamble, though, and that is what Carson and Trump finally represent. They are comic figures, yes, and Trump in particular is a poor imitation of Mussolini. But don’t make the mistake of laughing them off.