Pause a moment to pity temporary front runner Ben Carson for his poor performance at the Third Republican-CNBC Debate in Boulder. Perhaps ‘non-performance’ is the right word. He was hardly a presence among the weirdly energized collection of candidates. So how did candidate Carson go from being the ‘great Evangelical hope’ to ‘doctor who?’
You only notice that Carson is boring when he is faced with any competition for attention on the stage. Between his soft, slightly slurred voice and the rambling illogic of his story-telling, it is easy to simply stop paying attention as you drift off. Which may explain the candidate’s appeal to Evangelical voters. He is as dull as going to church. Rather than burden listeners with distressing facts which remind listeners that public policy making is a minefield of distressing trade-offs, he soothes their anxieties with stories meant to inspire with messages conveying the inherent goodness of America…and Ben Carson. Yet the self-promotion is spoken in such mild tones that it is easy to miss the incessant ‘me…me…me’ content. Whatever miracles Jesus might have worked in Carson’s life, they did not include curing egocentricity. And for Christian Right audiences that’s actually a plus: they love the ‘theology of me.’
Another part of Carson’s problem in Boulder was that his schtick was jacked. His campaign message was culturally appropriated by the white candidates on the stage. If you are surprised to learn that he has a campaign message all you need to do is metaphorically leaf through the ‘vanilla envelope’ of his speeches to identify the recurring themes.
Education comes up a lot in his speeches. So does Carson’s claim that he is not “politically incorrect.” Sometimes these themes occur together, as they did during his October 9th appearance at the National Press Club. An uneducated population, he informed his audience, is easy for dishonest politicians and a complicit news media to manipulate. That was followed by the repeated disclaimer, “I’m not politically correct. I will not be politically correct.’ Laying aside that theme, he spoke a great deal of nonsense about the U.S. constitution, same-sex marriage and the size of the government before denouncing the press as partisan. And by ‘partisan’ he appears to have meant critical coverage of himself. Carson’s intellectual armamentum includes not only a theology of me but also a ‘constitutional theory of me.’
As his recent promise/threat to engage in a McCarthyite heresy hunting in academia shows, Carson doesn’t actually value either education or dissent. Professors don’t get to be ‘politically incorrect,’ unless they are ideological conservatives. Not only does he want to silence professors who makes him ideologically uncomfortable but he wants to compel the press to speak with one voice. Read the candidate’s May 4 Announcement Speech and you learn that the press has an “almost sacred position” under the U.S. Constitution and is responsible for being “on the side of the people.” There is more than a whiff of tyranny in that characterization. The soft spoken doctor is upset that the press is deviating from its responsibility to produce the sort of news the people deserve. And by the people he means Evangelical conservatives. Like his promise to persecute dissenting academics Carson wants to silence serious journalists.
In some of his other speeches Carson references the work of Alexis de Tocqueville in the same manner as conservative undergraduates in political philosophy classes. They haven’t read him but they imagine that he said things that they agree with. Possibly Doctor Ben confuses Tocqueville with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For a post-modern ideologue, the names of long dead political philosophers float free of their ideas without penalty.
What you observed in the debate in Boulder is that the white candidates who figured out Carson’s blame the media game attacked the CNBC debate moderators. Of course Carson was the first to counterattack by dismissing a question about his unseemly relationship with nutritional supplement maker Mannatech. That was followed by Ted Cruz’s flat refusal to answer a question about the debt ceiling, Donald Trumps’ bald faced lie that he had not described Marco Rubio as Mark Zuckerberg’s “personal Senator,” and Chris Christie’s refusal to respond to a question about taxing fantasy football online gambling. Altogether it made for the kind of ideological temper tantrum that entertains a conservative audience but offered nothing of value to anyone else.
After pausing a moment to feel pity, dry your tears. He deserves his fellow candidates as much as they deserve him. As we learn in John 6: 49, “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.”