Corning, Iowa — There are 40 chairs set out in the foyer of the Corning Opera House. For the record, Corning, Iowa, does not seem like a big opera town. Just 1,600 people live here, and just 4,000 stouthearted Iowans reside in Adams County, making it the least populous county in the Hawkeye State. For a political event, 40 chairs should be plenty.
By the time Ben Carson begins to speak, at 8:30 a.m. on a June Friday, some 130 people have arrived. We’ve abandoned the foyer for the opera house itself, where the crowd takes up every seat on the main floor and has forced a handful of listeners into the balcony.
This is my fifth stop with Dr. Ben Carson, neurosurgeon, New York Times bestselling author, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, and now Republican presidential candidate, and this is not a new experience. In Rock Rapids, in Sioux Center, in Missouri Valley, in Lamoni (that’s luh-MOAN-eye), they’ve also underestimated. Former Texas governor Rick Perry recently spoke to about 40 people at Frontier Bank in Rock Rapids, so planners figured that, for Carson’s appearance, two pots of coffee should be plenty. Eighty-five people showed, at 8 a.m. on a Thursday, some from across the South Dakota border.
The quadrennial first-in-the-nation Republican caucus being something of a pastime in these parts, there are plenty of attendees with plans to hear — if they haven’t already — any candidate who might swing through. But in Carson’s case, there is clearly also raw celebrity at work. He enters to standing ovations, and finishes to larger ones. Nearly everyone gets in the receiving line. Many have a copy of one of his books — Gifted Hands, America the Beautiful, One Nation (he’s penned seven, pick your favorite) — and one member of his advance team has become his unofficial receiving-line photographer.
We’re a ways from February 1, when Iowa’s Republican caucus-goers will gather, but the Carson team is in good spirits. As of the end of June, the RealClearPolitics average had Carson in fourth place nationally, in a field of 15 candidates (as of this writing). He is polling just behind Marco Rubio and Scott Walker, and he is less than four points from Jeb Bush. He won the 2015 Western Conservative Summit straw poll.
“The pundits all said it couldn’t be done, that Carson can’t possibly be successful,” he tells audiences. “Right now all their heads are exploding.”
You do not have to spend much time at a Carson event to begin catching on to key words and phrases. The most important of them: “common sense.” One supporter after another: “He speaks common sense,” “It’s common sense,” “He just makes sense.” Common sense is apparently not at all common in Washington, D.C., which, people seem to agree, operates primarily on nonsense.
“Washington,” here, is a term of opprobrium. It’s applied rather loosely by Carson supporters: to Bush and to Perry, for example, neither of whom has worked in the federal city. But you get the point: They’re politicians. “I am not a politician,” Carson emphasizes, “and I never will be.” His best applause lines are about “politicians.” “Now, the political elites in Washington say, ‘You can’t give health-savings accounts to poor people! They’re too stupid to use them!’” He is talking about his proposed Obamacare alternative. “But that’s because the politicians think all people are like them.” It’s a good line, it suits Carson’s understated sense of humor, and it makes the crucial point: He’s the Anti-Politician.
Politicians are beholden to special interests and self-interest. They bend to lobbyists, to big money, and to sheer ambition. By contrast, Carson notes, his campaign has received nearly 200,000 new donations in the last few months, averaging about $50 apiece. No billionaires here. And as for ambition, he says, “I don’t want to be president.” He’s Cincinnatus, called from his plough to save the republic.
And Carson is clear that it needs saving. There is an interesting contrast between Carson’s rhetorical style — mild-mannered, low-affect; a surgeon’s calm — and his content, which is blunt and apocalyptic: If we do not act now, America as we know it will cease to exist. President Obama and the progressive Left have done their best to destroy the nation from within. Our financial instability (Carson notes the $200 trillion–plus in unfunded liabilities) increases the likelihood that the dollar will cease to be the world’s reserve currency, at which point we can expect economic catastrophe, while our military drawdown has made us more vulnerable than ever before to an attack on our electrical grid or to a nuclear attack by radical jihadists. If things were not so dire, Carson says, he would have retired to the golf course. But things are dire.
This style makes Carson “genuine,” “authentic,” “a breath of fresh air.” Things are not all right; unlike politicians, Carson will say so; and he has “commonsense” solutions to pull America back from the brink.
Carol, whom I meet in Missouri Valley, is making a point of hearing as many Republican candidates as she can manage. She attended the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s April dinner in Waukee, where Republican voters heard speeches from Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, and Scott Walker. When Carson finishes, she turns to me: “Wow.”
In my 48 hours stalking the candidate, I never have the “Wow” experience. On general principles, most Republican voters would not disagree with Carson: President Obama and his coterie have been fiscally profligate, Obamacare has transformed the relationship between state and citizen, we have turned our back on crucial allies in favor of dangerous and untrustworthy regimes, etc. But he has a way of hitting odd, uncomfortable, and over-the-top notes.
References to “socialism” and “totalitarianism” creep into his speeches (an oblique reminder that he has said contemporary America is “very much like Nazi Germany”). He talks about the “wars” the president has tried to stir up: “race wars” and “age wars.” He recommends framing policies not as “conservative” or “liberal,” but as “pro-American” or “anti-American.” Even if you know what he’s getting at, it’s a bit much.
Carson does not deliver a stump speech, exactly, as much as touch on a handful of points, complemented by a set of anecdotes and historical allusions (a Daniel Webster quote here, a Thomas Jefferson citation there), in a loosely structured 15- to 30-minute address. Perhaps it feels “genuine,” but it also can feel meandering and undisciplined. At the Lamoni Community Center, one-third of the way through his remarks, he tells at length the story of Francis Scott Key at Fort McHenry. At the Fruited Plain Café in Sioux Center, he ends his address talking about the need for enhanced defense capabilities because of the possibility of a nuclear strike in the exoatmosphere. His answers to audience questions can be wandering. In Corning, a question about reducing the number of government employees turns into a discourse on his plans for the Department of Education. You can see how he got from A to B, but there was no particular reason to make the journey. And some questions he simply does not answer. He is asked twice about how he would work with Democrats in Congress. His answer is that we need to elect more Republicans to the House and Senate.
For all his appeal, Carson lacks polish. His language is a bit too blunt; his sentences perambulate. This works in front of already-sympathetic listeners, but it will become a vulnerability — on the debate stage, for instance, where he will face aggressive questioners and feisty opponents, most of whom have been in the national limelight before. And it would be self-immolating in a general-election campaign, when hostile media will be searching for every off-pitch statement and a candidate must capture voters who, though they disagree with President Obama, do not think him a proto-Mussolini.
Still, Carson’s rise is noteworthy. The intrepid Outsider is a recurring type in American politics. But Carson does not fit into any obvious mold. He is not, for instance, Steve Forbes, who staked his name on one idea, the flat tax. He is not Dwight Eisenhower or Wesley Clark, who staked their fitness for office on their battlefield service. He is not Pat Buchanan, who set out to redefine conservatism. He is Ben Carson, phenomenon sui generis.
God is a big part of Carson’s campaign. Carson says that God was the surgeon, while he was just the hands, and that his presidential aspirations are dependent upon the Lord’s continued blessing. It’s not just a rhetorical flourish: Carson would model his revised tax code on the Biblical tithe.
Carson’s religion and his political career have always been intertwined. Indeed, Carson’s political stardom was made by a single morning: the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast, when, addressing the annual gathering for the second time (the only other two-time speaker: the Reverend Billy Graham), Carson offered a frankly conservative talk about the problems with Obamacare and the dangers of political correctness — unmistakably, if gracefully, dressing down the event’s guest of honor, the president of the United States, seated to his right.
Two years later, Carson seems to some tailor-made for the moment. Among a certain part of the Republican electorate — Christian conservatives, largely — the desire for someone who will stand up has grown desperate. Government has become alarmingly invasive, the bureaucracy notoriously partisan, a whole bevy of agencies hideously corrupt; America’s reputation and influence abroad have diminished, allowing for the rise of a host of malevolent forces; cultural progressivism, with the full backing of the Democratic party, has abandoned compromise for raw force, and proved that it will cheerfully extirpate First Amendment rights to secure the concocted rights of sexual liberation; race relations have degraded. These voters see a federal government that has demanded to evaluate their prayers and Facebook posts, an administration that makes theological excuses for Islamic terrorism, a secular left-wing culture that would crush an Indiana pizza shop on the basis of a hypothetical question, and media keen to exploit (or manufacture) racial divisions. All of this has been promoted, presided over, or prodded on by Barack Obama, who promised to “heal” and to “unite.” Carson seems the antithesis of this president. Serene, plain-spoken, expressly Christian — in a time of political corruption, he is a citizen-servant, and in a time of moral degradation, a spiritual leader.
But if the Outsider is one type in American politics, the Messiah is another. And to a messianic politics, conservatives — especially Christian conservatives, inclined to see themselves and their God as persecuted or cast into exile — are particularly susceptible.
Salvation is not afforded by the Oval Office, and those who think it is are destined for despair. The presidency is a job — a big, important, difficult job, but a job nonetheless, with enumerated and implied powers articulated in a constitution. Conservatives would do well to remember that. A man might be correct about fundamental principles and about America’s future; he might be intelligent and accomplished; he might be a man of integrity and good will; and he might still be the wrong man for the job.