Ben Carson, a seemingly nice fellow when he isn’t saying hateful things about the LGBT community, threatening to defund Planned Parenthood, dismissing the scientific proof behind global warming, and denouncing the Black Lives Matter movement as the antithesis to racial reconciliation, is surging as a contender among GOP presidential candidates.
According to a new CBS News-New York Times poll, Donald Trump is leading Carson by only four points, 27-to-23 percent. For Carson, that’s a significant leap from the 6 percent he tallied last month among likely Republican primary voters.
As with Trump, voters are smitten by the fact that Carson, a retired pediatric neurosurgeon, is an outsider. With zero political experience, he is, in the minds of his supporters, unpolluted by Washington’s inertia and cronyism. That’s all it seems to take in this incomprehensible election season. Months from the first primary, we’re already thigh-high in a swamp of absurdity. It would all be hilarious if there weren’t so much at stake for our nation and the world.
No one doubts that Carson has a compelling personal history: a troubled Detroit kid who gets right with God, graduates from Yale University, earns his MD at the University of Michigan and, at 33, becomes director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. It’s the kind of bootstraps backstory that makes conservatives swoon, following an oft-repeated, but leaky narrative that hard work is all it takes for anyone, regardless of race, to succeed in America.
It also hasn’t hurt that Carson comes off as humble and soft-spoken, which is exactly how white conservatives like their black folks. Don’t get it twisted: If Carson were as belligerent as Trump, he’d be dwelling in the GOP cellar alongside Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, South Carolina’s Senator Lindsey Graham, and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.
“I’m the only one to separate Siamese twins,” Carson said during his closing remarks at last month’s GOP debate. “The only one to operate on babies while they were still in the mother’s womb, the only one to take out half of a brain — although you would think if you go to Washington, someone had beaten me to it.”
That Carson has successfully separated conjoined twins may be a fun fact to share at dinner parties, but it doesn’t qualify him to be president. Yes, our nation’s capital is lousy with too many political dead-enders from whom we’ve come to expect nothing, and we are never disappointed. These days, our boiling discontent is coming out sideways. Now we have candidates using their lack of political experience as a selling point, and many would-be voters are eating it up.
Carson has also been graded on a far more generous curve than his more seasoned opponents, and the media have generally treated him more like an affable country doctor than a presidential aspirant.
This needs to stop. With Carson’s low-key campaign gaining traction, he must be scrutinized just as vigorously as his fellow candidates. While Trump still hogs the spotlight, Carson is now in a position few would have imagined even a month ago; and if Trump finally makes an irreparable trip over his own loose tongue, Carson will likely become the GOP front-runner. That’s why it’s time to regard him less as the placid, aw-shucks outsider, and more like the rising yet manifestly unqualified contender who thinks he has what it takes to be the ultimate insider.
Renée Graham writes regularly for the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.