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Ben Carson and the Dark-Hued Fantasy World of the American Right

The 2016 United States presidential election is almost exactly one year away. As putative Democratic Party frontrunner Hillary Clinton contends with socialist upstart Sen. Bernie Sanders for the nomination on the left side of the spectrum, the picture on the right is far more muddled. After two consecutive general election defeats and seven years out of the Oval Office, the Republican Party faces a chaotic, dissatisfied primary campaign to select a candidate to lead its long-anticipated battle of prophesied Armageddon against the Great Enemy herself. As typifies the American right-wing movement in the Age of Obama, the GOP is consumed by a low-simmering civil war between the capitalist-controlled, corporate-integrated party elite and a zealous activist base hardened in its apocalyptic vision of a threatened Real Murica deep in an existential conflict with the forces of tolerant, urban, diverse, easy-spending, godless liberalism. Too consumed, one might note, to focus effectively on who among their rogue’s gallery of potential nominees stands the best chance to prevent Hillary Clinton’s ascension to the White House in November 2016.

With its gerrymandered control of the House of Representatives, state houses, and county and local politics, the GOP should be in prime position to mount an aggressive and effective campaign for the nation’s top office. That enthusiastic base, regularly worked up to a furious froth over taxation, immigration, diversity, gay marriage, abortion, climate change, evolution, photosynthesis, the laws of thermodynamics, and any other idea not devolved upon them by Glenn Beck, evangelical preachers, or Citizens United-empowered puppet-master business leaders, has been a great strength to the party in these localized skirmishes and ought to provide ready boots on the ground for larger triumphs. Instead, as Andrew O’Hehir has discussed with subjective, Hunter Thompson-esque eloquence and penetration at Salon, the Frankenstein’s monster of faux-populist, nihilistic extremism that the conservative establishment brought to life as a simulacrum of grassroots opposition to the pax Obamaum (once and therefore forever dubbed the Tea Party) has, like the model in gothic literature, passed beyond its control. The parasite is in great danger of taking of the host, and the consequences for America (where, sooner or later, each of its opposing political machines holds the reins of power) are unforeseen.

The more proximal consequences of this rampaging beast are facing the Republican Party at the moment. The plethora of famous pols with outsized personalities running with single-digit support in the primary polls (belligerent Sopranos guest-star Chris Christie here, quasi-folksy raving theocratic lunatic Mike Huckabee there, compromised libertarian Golden Twerp Rand Paul lingering sadly by the refreshments) has confused a nomination race picture that has been surprisingly but disturbingly stable for months. Corporate mogul blow-up doll Donald Trump, once considered a mere flash in the pan whose appeal would flame out almost as quickly as his own interest in the serious practice of political campaigning would fade away, has remained in a leading position in the polls for much of the year. Trump’s consistent support, couched in antagonistic trolling skills, brazen outspoken bravado, virulently bigoted nativism, and an unorthodox set of policies that are sometimes at direct odds with GOP cant, has found a solid core of support among the zombie hordes of the right wing and has confounded the frustrated efforts of more traditionally acceptable candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio to activate the hair-trigger on his self-destruct sequence.

But the more stunning rise in fortunes has belonged to a Republican candidate who seemed like a laughable afterthought earlier in the campaign. Dr. Ben Carson, a retired African-American neurosurgeon with strongly fundamentalist Christian beliefs (he’s a Seventh-Day Adventist, a little-understood Evangelical Protestant offshoot), has seen a gradual but definite increase in polling support that has seen him emerge as the main challenger to Trump, at least so far. To some extent, this is not unsurprising. Carson, who worked himself up from poverty in Detroit’s ghettos to become a world-class brain surgeon (documented in a television movie in which Cuba Gooding, Jr. played Carson), can boast a compelling life narrative that certainly tops any of the more conventional privileged histories of his opponents.

It’s hard to overlook his ethnicity in reference to the appeal of this narrative, too. One must not underestimated the appeal of such a story of overcoming difficult circumstances, and its attribution by Carson to chest-beating conservative values like work ethic, personal responsibility and religious faith, to the fanatical popular right as a funhouse-mirror inverted-racist contrast to the completely fabricated but firmly believed net of conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s amazing path to the White House. More than that, Ben Carson’s biography is an anecdotal hammer with which to shatter the cherished liberal glass figurine of structural discrimination of African-Americans. Very few elements of the progressive belief-system set conservatives’ teeth on edge quite like this evocation of concerted, long-term institutional and socially-supported racism against black Americans that frequently finds recourse to violent enforcement. Carson is a case study that, for conservative critics of sociological analysis, seems to put the lie to the idea that the structural obstacles arrayed between African-Americans and financially-comfortable respectability are practically insurmountable (although an observer of a differing ideological bent might point to the government assistance received by his single mother as an argument for active and compassionate social policy to counteract those historical and contemporary obstacles).

Laying this aside, what has been most unconventional about Carson’s rise is that it has coincided with any number of increasingly extreme, outlandishly ignorant and often bizarre public statements on his part. Despite having been a top medical professional, Carson parrots the American right’s ignorant distrust of science, going so far as to state that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was inspired by Satan. He often defaults to hyperbolic comparisons of despised political issues, from abortion to gun control to government-funded healthcare, to slavery or Nazism. Most recently, Carson sent a tremor through the internet when his belief that the Pyramids of Giza were constructed not as tombs for the pharaohs but by Hebrew slaves as granaries, a common-enough belief on the Christian right (and in medieval Christianity before that) but suffused with supreme nuttiness to the layman.

In the strange and unprecedented reality of the Republican Party of 2015, however, the more fantastical and unsupportable Carson’s stated views become, the more it endears him to the potential voters of the American right. Debunkers of the Pyramids-as-granaries theory, quibblers with the Nazi comparisons and wild speculations that an armed German populace could have stopped the Holocaust, and journalists casting doubt on some less-convincing details of Carson’s life story miss the nearly-unbelievable point of it all. Pointing out that a story is not true will do little to change the hearts and minds of people whose most deeply-held beliefs are stories that are not true. Espousing beliefs that flagrantly contradict conventional wisdom, established knowledge, and basic rational sense greatly recommends a candidate to the loyalists of the American right, that furious alliance of bigoted nativists, libertarian anti-taxation dead-enders, and fundamentalist, pro-life young-earth creationists. After all, that supposed wisdom, knowledge, and reason has, in the view of the radical right which is now the mainstream right, almost irreversibly crippled America to the extent that only an aggressive enema of closed borders, flat taxes, and vigilante justice at home and abroad can save the patient. And who among the candidates is most qualified to administer such treatment? Why, Dr. Ben Carson, of course.

Ben Carson, more than the self-aggrandizing charlatan Donald Trump or even than true Tea Party warrior Ted Cruz (whose campaign has been too milquetoast by half to shear off the important nutcase vote now needed to win the nomination), is willing and able to represent the dark-hued fantasy world of the American right of the moment. This is a nomination campaign that has applied a New York Times Magazine Twitter poll concerning a classic time-travel conundrum about choosing whether or not to kill Adolf Hitler as a baby as a sort of litmus test for moral certainty and leadership. Jeb Bush (challenging his purported status as the brighter Bush son more and more by the day) would like the world to know that he would definitely commit time-travelling infanticide, thank you very much. If Ben Carson’s position on the hypothetical matter remains unrevealed, then that might be because it could not possibly be in much doubt. Such speculative fantasies are not mere sidelines in the Republican presidential campaign but redolent of its dominant currents. After decades of conservative criticism of the left’s relativism eroding social connections to hard-nosed American reality, the GOP has become the party of horror-movie fantasies and paranoid nightmares. And it may be that Ben Carson embodies that new normal on the American right more than anyone else who wants to be President in 2016.

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