Why Dr. Ben Carson Is the Latest GOP Political Unicorn

Photo: Ron Sachs/Corbis
The Sixth- Most Admired Man in America
Is also the latest GOP political unicorn.
No wonder the party hopes Dr. Ben Carson will stay in the race as long as possible.
Photograph by Ron Sachs/Corbis

As the presidential field edges toward the 2016 starting gate, partisans of both parties may be able to agree that one contender stands apart from the rest. That would be the 63-year-old neurosurgeon Ben Carson, the only African-American in the race and the only candidate with a Horatio Alger story that can accurately be described as inspirational. Some voters have already begun to notice. Carson came in second to Ted Cruz in two 2014 conservative beauty contests, the Republican Leadership Council and Value Voters straw polls. He has outperformed Jeb Bush and Chris Christie in this year’s early polling of Iowa Republicans. Carson’s political-action committee raised more cash (some $12 million) in the early going than Ready for Hillary, and his best-selling political manifesto of last year, One Nation, outsold her Hard Choices by roughly a third. (In literary quality, it’s a draw: They are equally effective as sleep aids.) In a December Gallup poll measuring “the most admired men in America,” Carson was bested only by Barack Obama, Pope Francis, Bill Clinton, Billy Graham, and George W. Bush; in a tie for sixth, he was on a par with Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Bill O’Reilly. No other presidential aspirant in either party made the top tier. 

Carson’s backstory sounds like a movie, and indeed it has already been told in a TNT-network film adaptation of his 1990 memoir, Gifted Hands, with Cuba Gooding Jr. in the starring role. Carson was born in poverty to an illiterate single mother who was one of 24 children and whose own marriage, at age 13, was to a bigamist who deserted her and her two sons for his alternative family. With only a third-grade education, Sonya Carson had to work multiple menial jobs in hardscrabble Detroit to stay afloat. Her zeal to instill higher aspirations in her son propelled him past seemingly insurmountable racial, social, economic, and educational barriers to Yale and the University of Michigan Medical School. In 1987, he pulled off a medical miracle by leading a team of surgeons that for the first time separated Siamese twins joined at the head. At 33, he became the youngest person ever to head a department, pediatric neurosurgery, at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. He retired in 2013 to turn his full attention to politics.

A devout Seventh Day Adventist and, in partnership with his wife, a generous philanthropist, Carson seems guilty of only a single sin: vanity. His books tend toward self-deification, and he is the star of a cheesy infomercial, “A Breath of Fresh Air,” that’s blanketed the stations owned by the right-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group. As soon as prominent conservatives started fawning over Carson, he became besotted by the idea that he could pull off the electoral miracle of becoming president of the United States. This will not be happening. There has not been a political novice elected president since Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. Next to commanding the European theater in the battle against Hitler, even running a groundbreaking operating theater is small-bore. But Carson is undeterred.

He found his new vocation in February 2013, when he delivered a speech laced with right-wing prescriptions (e.g., a 10 percent flat tax inspired by tithing) at the annual White House prayer breakfast in Washington. The 27-minute oration was an implicit rebuke of President Obama, sitting on the dais a few feet away, and it soon went viral on YouTube. The spectacle of a black speaker dissing the black president to his face, and a black doctor who loathes Obama­care besides, was all it took for The Wall Street Journal to run an editorial titled “Ben Carson for President.” Once an Independent, Carson soon started saying he would not resist if God called on him to seek the White House (as a Republican, His will would have it). He consolidated his conservative cred by going on Sean Hannity’s television show to stigmatize same-sex marriage by likening homosexuality to bestiality and the pedophilia practiced by NAMBLA, the North American Man/Boy Love Association. This gaffe set off protests at Hopkins that prompted him to withdraw as the medical school’s commencement speaker last year—even as he secured a far bigger forum as a regular Fox News contributor. Following the 2012 examples of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, he has now left the Murdoch payroll in preparation for his official declaration of candidacy, probably this spring. He is the first Republican candidate to claim campaign chairmen in all of Iowa’s 99 counties. “He probably has the edge right now,” the state’s party chairman told the Journal in late January.

What makes Carson most intriguing, if not most viable, in the political arena, of course, is his anomalous status as a black man who both embraces and is embraced by a nearly all-white party that was able to attract only 6 percent of the African-­American vote in the last presidential election. (That’s the same percentage it drew in 1964, when the candidacy of the Civil Rights Act opponent Barry Goldwater inspired white Dixie segregationists en masse to flee the Democrats for the GOP.) Thanks to his status as the political equivalent of a unicorn, Carson qualifies for the most elite affirmative-action program in America, albeit one paradoxically administered by a party opposed to affirmative-action programs. Simply put: If an African-American raises his hand to run for president as a Republican, he (they’ve all been men) will instantly be cheered on as a serious contender by conservative grandees, few or no questions asked. He is guaranteed editorials like the one in the Journal, accolades from powerful talk-show hosts (Carson would make “a superb president,” says Mark Levin), and credulous profiles like the one Fred Barnes contributed to The Weekly Standard last month. Barnes’s piece regurgitated spin from Carson’s political circle, typified by his neophyte campaign chief Terry Giles, a criminal litigator whose clients have included Richard Pryor, Enron’s Kenneth Lay, and an estate-seeking son of Anna Nicole Smith’s elderly final husband. “If nominated, can Carson beat Hillary Clinton or another Democrat?” Barnes asked—and then answered the question himself: “Yes, he can.” How? By winning 17 percent of the black vote in swing states—a theoretical percentage offered by a co-founder of the Draft Carson movement.

There’s no reason that a small-government black conservative Republican couldn’t be elected president—a proposition that might have been tested by Colin Powell and no doubt will be by other black Republicans one day. But not today. There have been three Great Black Presidential Hopes in the GOP’s entire history, Carson included—all of them in the past two decades. None has had a chance of victory in a national election, not least because none of the three ever won any elective office. None can be classified as presidential timber without a herculean suspension of disbelief. Indeed, the two Great Hopes before Carson were a buffoon with congenital financial woes and a two-time settler of sexual-harassment suits. But they, too, were praised to the skies by their Republican cheering section up until—and sometimes past—their inevitable implosions. And not without reason. There is a political method to this madness that reaches its culmination with Carson.

In an era when the GOP is trying to counter its pending demographic crisis by limiting ballot-box access to blacks and Hispanics, his ascent could not be more opportunely timed. Carson not only gives cover to the GOP’s campaign for restrictive new voting laws but actively supports it. The results of the 2014 midterms left the Republicans with a total of 31 governorships, a near record for the modern era, and in control of a record 68 of the states’ 98 partisan legislative chambers. The epidemic of new state voting laws in recent years is already being compounded. The longer the GOP can keep Carson in the game, the more he can do for the cause. What he gets out of this transaction is a riddle, though his susceptibility to flattery and celebrity surely cannot be underestimated.

To appreciate the cynical nature of the relationship between the Republican Party and the black presidential candidates it fast-tracks to center stage, it’s worth revisiting the template established by Carson’s two predecessors, Alan Keyes and Herman Cain. Neither of them had a résumé that remotely matches Carson’s, yet both got the same royal welcome from the GOP and both contributed to the political Ur-text that is being rebooted for 2016.

Keyes, who in 1995 became the first known African-American Republican to declare for the presidency, was a bombastic radio-talk-show host and anti-abortion absolutist who, unlike Carson, had at least tried to win an election for a less lofty office before seeking the grand prize: He had twice lost Senate bids in Maryland by huge margins, his share of the vote falling from 38 percent in 1988 to 29 percent in 1992 as familiarity apparently bred contempt with that state’s voters. In his second race, he was caught paying himself an inappropriate if not illegal monthly stipend (a senatorial salary, by his reckoning) of $8,500 out of campaign funds. But his boosters were happy to look past that and other financial red flags once he set his sights on the presidency. William Kristol, who had roomed with Keyes when he was a Harvard doctoral student and managed his maiden Senate campaign, declared in 1995 that Keyes had “a grand vision of America and his role in it.” A year later, Rush Limbaugh marveled that he was “a tsunami waiting to happen.” Keyes was a tsunami all right. His savagely moralistic diatribes at the primary-season debates made his white opponents visibly uncomfortable; when he was excluded from an Atlanta debate that was limited to the top four presidential contenders, he stormed the gates and was taken away in handcuffs (briefly) by the police. That incident, emanating from the South no less, was not ideal optics for a GOP aspiring to shake its white country-club image. No Republican leader dared risk sending him to the back of the campaign scrum again.

Keyes ended up with a single delegate at the ’96 convention. But this didn’t deter him from another presidential run in 2000. This time, he came in second in eight primaries and third in Iowa, where he famously jumped into the caucus’s mosh pit during a Rage Against the Machine song, a stunt broadcast by Michael Moore on a television magazine show. Keyes was suited up yet again four years later by Illinois Republican leaders, who reached all the way to Maryland to draft him to run for Senate against Barack Obama after the party’s original candidate was felled by a marital scandal. Again, it was an affirmative-action move: The only other finalist the Illinois GOP considered for this human sacrifice was another ­African-American, a Bush-administration bureaucrat, who also hadn’t been living in the state. “It’s an attempt by the Republican Party to appeal to African-American voters,” Glenn Hodas, a Republican strategist, explained at the time to the Chicago Tribune. “How successful it will be is another matter.” In his landslide victory, Obama took 91 percent of the black vote.

Despite his historical standing as the first black Republican presidential candidate, Keyes has not proved loyal to the political party that continued to promote him no matter how poor his electoral performance, how slippery his finances, or how rebellious some of his rhetoric. (He not only attacked a fellow Republican, Pat Buchanan, but called him a racist.) He left the party in 2008 and now uses a subscription website and Twitter to rant against the GOP’s “quisling leaders” and call for the ouster of John Boehner.


What Herman Cain Sees in Ben Carson

The pizza-chain executive turned presidential candidate offers praise (and some advice) for the next political newcomer.
What do you know now about presidential politics that you didn’t in 2012?

Well, the first thing that I would advise Dr. Carson of is the importance of selecting your staff. As it turns out, a presidential campaign moves so fast. I knew the gentleman that was my campaign manager very well, and I knew some of the other people that ultimately became direct reports, but I didn’t spend the time at the next two levels as I should have. Because the campaign was like drinking from a fire hose.

How did you react when Carson criticized Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013, when the president was sitting a few feet away?

I was going hip hip hooray when Dr. Carson gave his speech! He was saying things that a lot of people felt but the mainstream media quite frankly wasn’t telling the American public the truth—the challenges of Obamacare. A lot of people have jumped on the Dr. Ben Carson bandwagon, and I don’t blame them! He certainly has shown he is courageous and he is unafraid.

And you’ve gotten to know him since?

I hosted a dinner in Washington, D.C., where he was one of the attendees. I called it a meeting of ABC—American black conservatives. It didn’t have an agenda other than for some of the prominent conservative black voices out there to get together and get caught up on things that we were doing, to improve our working relationships with one another. And to know that, as a black conservative, we’re not as alone as some people might think.

How do you explain Carson’s appeal to conservative voters?

They are responding to, No. 1, the man is obviously very intelligent, very bright, and very smart—or he would not have been a groundbreaking neurosurgeon. No. 2: the fact that he shows courage in speaking his mind in front of the president of the U.S. He’s not interested in being politically correct! And, I might add as a little footnote, he’s not a politician.

And what about his relationship to the party?

Trying to appeal to the Republican Party is a different animal. They have a bad habit of playing what I call Who’s Turn Is It? I experienced that when I ran for the Senate here in Georgia back in 2004, and I saw a little of that when I ran for president. You know, I respect people who are active in the party. But some of them—not all of them—don’t want to try to promote the best candidates, the ones that will give them the best chances of winning. They tend to want to promote the candidate that they believe has been around in the political trenches a long time. And it’s not just Republicans that do this—both parties have this. Who should get it because they paid some dues, which means they’ve spent a lot of their own personal money. Dr. Carson is not trying to pander to the Republican Party. He’s my kind of guy!

Has he reached out to you for advice?

Not yet, but I do anticipate that he will. It’s still early in this game.

By Alex Carp

Cain arrived at his 2012 presidential run sharing certain résumé entries with Keyes: He had tried to run for the Senate (in Georgia, where he lost in the GOP primary) and had hosted a radio talk show. He also boasted two attributes Keyes lacked: a winning sense of humor and a successful business career as a marketer, mainly as the CEO of Godfather’s Pizza. Like Carson, Cain came from a poor background, had used a public forum to confront a Democratic president about health care (Clinton, in 1994), and was an instant tea-party favorite. In mid-2011, a ­Gallup survey of Republicans found him placing third, behind Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin. By that October, he and Romney were neck-and-neck at the top of several polls.

As Cain would demonstrate repeatedly, he couldn’t be bothered to bone up on even basic issues; he didn’t know China was a nuclear power and couldn’t identify the “right of return” in a discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. None of his newfound political pals much cared. He had a nonsensical economic plan whose euphonic brand, “9-9-9,” was as marketable as pizza, and, most important, he emphasized that his candidacy would take race “off the table” in a matchup with Obama. Limbaugh raved about him; so did Ann Coulter, who declared Cain “a magnificent man” and “a great man.” Even when a parade of women (ultimately totaling five) started under­mining Cain’s image as a devoted spouse in a 43-year marriage, Republicans found excuses for him that they never did for, say, Mark Sanford. Senators like Orrin Hatch, Jeff Sessions, and James Inhofe belittled the accusations as overblown or press exaggerations. Charles Gruschow, the Iowa-based president of the Tea Party of America, vouched for Cain’s “incredible integrity” and charged that “the extreme progressive left” didn’t “want a black conservative to succeed” and was “trying to do to Herman Cain what they did to Clarence Thomas.” Nonetheless Cain’s candidacy collapsed faster than you can say Gary Hart.

The desperation of the GOP to fill its racial quota of one black presidential candidate per election cycle is so strong that just before Cain materialized, there was a boomlet for Allen West, an Army officer who had accepted premature retirement to avoid facing charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for torturing an Iraqi detainee. West’s most memorable promise was that he could unmask up to 80 Communists among the Democrats in Congress. He chose to aim for a Florida House seat, not the White House, in 2010. National Review called him “a dream candidate” who might prove “a major source of pride for the GOP this year—whether he wins or loses.” Glenn Beck immediately started to promote him as a dream presidential nominee. Those dreams died fast. West was swept to Washington by the tea party’s 2010 wave, but two years later, despite a staggering war chest of $19 million (Eric Cantor’s, by contrast, was a mere $11 million), he lost in a district that Romney won handily. Like Keyes and Cain, he’s since been tossed on to the GOP junk heap of discarded Great Black Hopes.

Now it’s Carson’s turn to play this evanescent role. Like Cain, he is a Godsend for white Republican voters who believe the mere fact of his candidacy will take race off the table and show that their monochromatic party is color-blind. A predictable ritual of partisan crossfire is soon to follow. Some on the left will overreact to the provocation of a black man who unapologetically espouses the conservative creed. The Southern Poverty Law Center, for instance, included Carson’s profile in a web archive of those with “extremist” views about LGBT issues—a bit of hyperbole given Carson’s seemingly sincere backpedaling (in One Nation) from his Hannity effusions and the fact that his beliefs are mainstream in his party. (Under fire, the SPLC has now stopped singling out Carson as an extremist.) The right, meanwhile, will overreact by vilifying Carson’s Democratic critics—much as they attacked Clarence Thomas’s, Keyes’s, and Cain’s ­critics—for being bigoted against ­independent-minded black conservatives who don’t adhere to liberal political correctness. Never mind that Carson’s views, much like those of his predecessors, strictly obey the right’s own rigid code of p.c., an endorsement of creationism included.

This back-and-forth should be tuned out, and probably will be by liberals and conservatives alike, because it’s all become so formulaic. What’s of more consequence is the extent to which Carson lends credence to the right’s continued effort to sanitize and rewrite America’s racial history to absolve the GOP of any responsibility for injustices then or now. In the context of both restrictive voting laws and the retro civil-rights jurisprudence of the John ­Roberts court, Carson’s contributions to this whitewashing effort matter more than Keyes’s or Cain’s.

The chief justice’s logic is simplicity itself: Mission accomplished. Jim Crow is dead and buried. No more legal remedies are needed, so let’s move on. Or as his immortal formulation had it, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” One very helpful tool in this push to prematurely declare the obsolescence of civil-rights enforcement, whether at the polling place or elsewhere, is the fomenting of a political vocabulary on the right that bowdlerizes the history of slavery and its Jim Crow legacy. This linguistic strategy was initiated, and ingeniously so, by Clarence Thomas, who, in his 1991 confirmation hearings, successfully shut down Anita Hill and the other women who persuasively accused of him of sexual harassment by claiming that he was a victim of a “high-tech lynching.” Thomas’s rhetorical bait and switch was so effective that one feels compelled to restate the distinction between a lynching and the term he has permanently bequeathed to political discourse: In a lynching, you die. In a “high-tech lynching,” you get to live, and you may even get a seat on the highest court in the land.

In subsequent variations on this tactic, Keyes and West, along with other black Republican politicians like the former Oklahoma congressman J. C. Watts, have routinely likened Democratic social ­programs to a “plantation” and “slavery.” When Social Security, Medicaid, and food stamps are repeatedly demonized with this language, particularly by prominent African-Americans, the institution of slavery, the gravest and most lasting stain on America’s DNA, is defined down to the far lesser crime of governmental paternalism. And it’s a political twofer besides: Branding the recipients of such programs as “slaves” feeds the resentments of those working-class white voters who believe that poor people of color are the primary beneficiaries of taxpayer largesse.

Similarly, the right’s conflation of “plantation” with the welfare state has the effect of reinforcing the notion that plantations were like the bucolic Tara of Gone With the Wind, where the slaves are denied their freedom but remain happy, even pampered campers, as opposed to the grotesque reality of the plantation seen in, say, 12 Years a Slave. When black conservatives practice this subterfuge, they are nothing if not in perfect synergy with white conservatives like the former governor of Virginia Bob McDonnell, who, in 2010, defended the omission of slavery in his proclamation of Confederate History Month because he wanted to focus on the issues in “the war between the states” that he considered “most significant for Virginia.” Though McDonnell was later brought down by a pay-for-play scandal, at the time his attempt to write slavery out of Civil War history did nothing to dampen his ­prospects within the GOP as a future presidential contender.

Carson has taken such linguistic sleight-of-hand to a new low by claiming that Obamacare is “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.” The equating of government-run health care, however much one abhors it, to an institution that killed, raped, tortured, and incarcerated its human victims, is so morally repugnant that it amounts to a form of Holocaust denial. And Carson, as it happens, has a comparable take on the actual Holocaust, since he routinely complains that America is “very much like Nazi Germany,” a judgment likely to affront any voter, Jewish or not, who wonders what in the American landscape Carson deems to be death camps.

More troubling still is Carson’s explicit support for the GOP’s voter-suppression strategy, by which the party hopes to help counter its continuing deficit of Hispanic, black, and young voters in 2016. Carson’s wholehearted embrace of these new voting laws can be found in his latest manifesto, paradoxically titled One Vote: Make Your Voice Heard. The book is a condescending sort of Democracy for Dummies, weirdly aimed at a semi-literate audience. (Encouraging his audience to become readers, he instructs: “If you know all 26 letters of the alphabet, you are on your way to reading.”) Carson extols the importance of being a regular voter and, as an object lesson, recounts with chagrin the time he turned up at his polling place too late. As a precaution against such tardiness, he recommends voting by absentee ballot. What he doesn’t say is that at least six states had bills pending in 2014 to reduce access to absentee ballots.

Those bills are just a fraction of the right’s larger effort, launched in 2010, to restrict voting as an ostensible antidote to a statistically nonexistent outbreak of “voter fraud.” (Funny how there have been no hysterical GOP sightings of such fraud in the aftermath of the party’s 2014 landslide.) The effort has been successful. On the eve of last year’s midterms, the Brennan Center for Justice calculated that “for the first time in decades, voters in nearly half the country will find it harder to cast a ballot in the upcoming elections.” Of the 22 states erecting new obstacles to voting, 18 were under Republican control—the most widespread drive to curb voting access since Reconstruction. States that had high African-American turnout in 2008 and high Hispanic turnout in 2010 have been disproportionately saddled with new restrictions. So have those 15 states that were monitored closely under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before the Roberts court castrated its enforcement provision in 2013. Analyzing the 2014 election results, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund calculated that the number of voters deterred by the new voting laws approached or exceeded the margin of victory in statewide races in Alabama, Georgia, Texas, and Virginia.

Most of these laws require a photo ID. In One Vote, Carson offers an enthusiastic endorsement: “I hope everyone (minorities included) across America will take responsibility for having proper identification documents, which are very easy to obtain as long as one does not wait until the last minute to acquire them.” He is also fine with “fees” for these IDs—knowing full well, as all Republicans are fond of saying, that “fee” is a euphemism for tax and in this case a poll tax. In a study last year for Harvard Law School of three states requiring photo IDs (Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas), Richard Sobel found that “the expenses for documentation, travel, and waiting time” to secure even a “free” voter ID typically range from $75 to $175. The Government Accountability Office’s estimate of direct voter-ID costs nationwide found a range of $14.50 to $58.50. All of these figures exceed, sometimes exponentially, the $1.50 poll tax ($11.45 in 2014 dollars) outlawed by the 24th Amendment in 1964. Carson, who now lives in Florida, which doesn’t offer free voter IDs, maintains that anyone without the means can “request a fee waiver” and “most states’ governments will oblige.” None of this will be a problem, he adds, as long as voters “plan ahead.”

Carson’s motivation for favoring voting restrictions is opaque. And his intellectual rationale is hardly in keeping with his otherwise jingoistic all-Americanism: “I have visited many non-white countries, if you will, in the last few years, and all of them require voter identification before anyone casts a ballot. Surely these nations aren’t racist?” One wonders if Sonya Carson would have had the time and energy, let alone the financial wherewithal, to jump through the voting hoops her son requires when she was working night and day to keep her family out of poverty in Detroit.

Ben Carson, like the other black Republican presidential candidates before him, will ultimately be felled by political reality. That reality includes the thorough vetting that he, like Cain before him, had been spared before entering the ring. Last month, BuzzFeed uncovered multiple instances of plagiarism in Carson’s 2012 book America the Beautiful. National Review, breaking with the conservative pack, has drilled into Carson’s ten years as a pitchman for Mannatech, a legally challenged company whose medical “supplements” have been allegedly marketed as ameliorating everything from ADD to ALS to AIDS. But the bigger scandal is Carson’s willingness to serve as a front man for the GOP’s movement to strike at the heart of democracy, the right to vote. It’s hard to believe now that as recently as 2006, the Senate voted 98-0 to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act that the Roberts court would tear asunder seven years later.

This year and last in America were meant to be elevated by the anniversary ­celebrations of two great milestones of democratic progress, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Martin Luther King’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. It has instead been one of the worst spells for racial conflict in recent memory, more in keeping with the centennial of Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffith’s 1915 silent-film epic sanctifying the Ku Klux Klan and vilifying the freed slaves of the Reconstruction era. Certainly liberals and Democrats have plenty to answer for in our current plight, from the Democratic governor who presided over the rank injustice of Ferguson to the Democratic city government that let the Cleveland police force metastasize into the lawless outfit that slaughtered 12-year-old Tamir Rice. But underlying all such American setbacks is the hope, however frail at times, that voters can make a difference—that, as Carson says, even one vote can make a difference. “Give us the ballot,” said King at Selma. It’s a remarkable historic development that a half-century later the party of Lincoln’s affirmative-action program would yield an African-American presidential hopeful who has enlisted in the effort to take it away.

*This article appears in the February 23, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.