The quiet rise of Ben Carson is shaking up the Republican presidential race
He is the only African American – and the only brain surgeon – in the GOP field and his outsider status and inspiring life story are generating momentum
For six undisturbed weeks, Donald Trump held a broadly uncontested lead in the race for the Republican nomination for the US presidency.
That was until this week, when a respected pollster released new numbers showing that another candidate had sneaked into a tie with Trump in Iowa, the first state to vote. The contender’s name: Ben Carson.
Trump spat an excuse. “One of [the polls] came out, and a little bit surprisingly there was a tie, and I think that’s great,” he said. “But Ben is spending money in Iowa and I’m not.”
Carson had bought TV ads in Iowa, but not many: his campaign ranks only ninth in such spending.
What Trump could not account for was how Carson’s numbers had been steadily climbing through the month of August – and not only in Iowa. A typical poll showed Carson jumping from 5% to 18% support nationally in that time.
To understand where Carson’s surge is coming from, supporters say, you have to understand where the candidate himself comes from, and the importance of his powerful life story to his appeal. Carson supporters – a patchwork group of Republican outsiders, for the time being – believe they have found a solution to the country’s many grave challenges and to its dysfunctional politics.
Bill Millis, a North Carolina-based developer and a leading fundraiser for the Carson campaign, said time and again he has watched the soft-spoken candidate introduce himself to audiences, take their questions and leave them amazed and inspired.
“It doesn’t take long for people, once they get to know him, to say, ‘Wow, is this man really for real?” Millis said.
If Carson’s life story weren’t real, it would seem made up. An African American whose parents traced their roots to Georgia, he was raised with a brother in poverty in Detroit, Michigan, by his mother, who left his father after discovering he had a second family.
Sonya Carson worked two and three jobs at a time to provide for her sons, but she refused to go on welfare, apart from food stamps, because she thought it bred dependency. She made her sons read two books a week and write book reports that she herself could not read because she had only a third-grade education. Occasionally she arranged for the boys to stay for a few weeks at a time with neighbors. They thought it was a vacation. They found out later that she had been checking herself into a mental hospital.
“Even today I can clearly hear her voice in the back of my head saying, ‘Bennie, you can do it. Don’t you stop believing that for one second,’” Carson writes in his memoir, Gifted Hands.
What Carson did was make history. From the loose fragments of childhood poverty, racial prejudice and an absentee father, he was able to stitch together a career as one of the most brilliant neurosurgeons of the 20th century, pioneering multiple new forms of brain surgery and, at age 33, becoming the youngest-ever head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University hospital. In 2008, President George W Bush recognized him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.
“I did a craniectomy,” runs ones representative description he has given of his day job. “First I opened her head and took off the front portion of her skull. The skull bone was put in a sterile solution. Then I opened up the covering of her brain – the dura. Between the two halves of the brain is an area called the falx. By splitting the falx, the two halves could communicate together and equalize the pressure between her hemispheres. Using cadaveric dura (dura from a dead person), I sewed it over her brain. This gave her brain room to swell, then heal, and still held everything inside her skull in place. Once I covered the area, I closed the scalp. The surgery took about two hours.”
But now Carson, 63, is running for president, and the challenges are different. Dexterity of the tongue is more important than dexterity of the fingers. And calmness – in Carson’s case, the kind of calmness that can wield a saw and open a skull hundreds of times a year – is not necessarily an asset.
Carson first emerged on the national political stage with a keynote speech at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast in which he stood three meters from Barack Obama and trashed the president’s healthcare law. The speech, which has racked up millions of views on YouTube, was held up as an example of a Washington outsider speaking truth to power.
Larry Reichert, a self-identified Christian conservative voter from Kansas, described how the moment had inspired him, in an interview earlier this year at the Conservative Political Action Committee conference in Washington DC.
“He’s not afraid,” Reichert said. “We’re going to lose freedom of speech if we’re afraid to say what we believe, simply because we’ll be called racist or we’ll be called something unspeakable. So that’s what I like about Dr Carson. He’s totally American, and speaks passionately about America.”
But in other appearances on camera, not to mention on paper, Carson exhibits plain shortcomings as a candidate. He has never run for elected office and never had to meet the demands of a constituency. He can be soft-spoken to the point of inaudibility. He has no foreign policy experience. He has no party support.
Carson is also on the record with a small number of controversial views that might slow his entry to the mainstream of US politics. He has said that Planned Parenthood targets minority groups for abortions, a conspiracy theory as hoary as it is debunked . He has compared the president’s healthcare law to slavery, and grouped same-sex marriage with pedophilia and bestiality.
Carson’s prospects may likewise be limited by a lack of national campaign structure. He has hired only a handful of national staffers. He has yet to pick up a single endorsement from an elected official. And outside fundraising groups that support him have reported spending only in the low seven figures – compared with the more than $100m that the main outside fundraiser for former Florida governor Jeb Bush has collected.
Carson’s outsider status, however, cuts both ways, with voters in the 2016 cycle showing a strong appetite for candidates who speak like humans, as opposed to career politicians. Trump supporters overwhelmingly cite his penchant for unguarded speech as a key to his appeal. Carson, an even more unpolished and perhaps unpredictable speaker, offers something comparable.
“He’s never been in politics,” said Millis. “Well, that’s a plus in my book.”
Asked how he fits in – or stands apart – from the rest of the Republican field, Carson has shrugged and delivered an unassailable reply.
“I’m the only one to separate siamese twins,” he said at the first Republican debate last month. “The only one to take out half of a brain – although if you go to Washington, you would think that someone had beat me to it.”
Supporters assert that his outsider status is an asset, not a liability; that holes in his knowledge would succumb to his proven judgment and grace under pressure; that talk is cheap; and that his controversial views are a sign not of intolerance but of his profound religious faith as a Seventh-Day Adventist.
“I think Dr Carson is a strong believer, a strong Christian,” Robert J Brown , a top Carson adviser who served as President Richard Nixon’s chief adviser on race relations, told the Guardian. “And he has shown that in every aspect of his life.”
In his memoir, Carson credits his faith with seeing him through childhood confrontations with racism, and worse. He was once confronted by a white gang who told him “nigger kids ain’t supposed to be going” to the middle school where he excelled, threatening to kill him. A different gang forced him and his brother to quit the football team.
As a 14-year-old, Carson developed a violent temper. “I had what I only can label a pathological temper – a disease – and this sickness controlled me, making me totally irrational,” he wrote. A series of incidents culminated when he stabbed a friend with a camping knife in an argument over a radio station. The knife blade broke on the friend’s belt buckle.
“I stared at the broken blade and went weak,” he recalled. “I had almost killed him. I had almost killed my friend.”
In Carson’s telling, the episode resolved as would many future episodes of intense pressure, from a difficult college exam to complications during surgery with a patient’s life in the balance. In times of trial, he wrote, he turns to God.
“I’m not afraid of anything as long as I think of Jesus Christ and my relationship to Him and remember that the One who created the universe can do anything,” he wrote. “I also have evidence – my own experience – that God can do anything, because He changed me.”
That doesn’t sound like Trump. Whatever else Republican voters may or may not have in 2016, they have a choice.
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