(CNN) — Now that the Republican race is a fight between Donald Trump and Ben Carson it feels more explicitly like a reality TV show. “We took a billionaire who hates China and a neurosurgeon who loves guns and made them fight to the death in Iowa. Stay tuned to see what happens next…”
What happened next is that Ben Carson opened up a lead against Trump in the Hawkeye State. And now Trump is turning his blunt wit on the neurosurgeon, calling him “low-energy.” What he doesn’t appreciate is that this “low-energy” might be precisely what’s fueling Carson’s rise. As conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer suggests, he is the anti-Trump. People who like conservative populism but can’t stand The Donald now have a house-trained alternative.
Of course, liberals will struggle to see the difference between the two. Carson has said that Muslims should be disqualified from the presidency, that the Holocaust could’ve been averted if only the Jews had been armed and that abortion is like slavery. Crazy, right? Well, any keen observer of the conservative scene will tell you that these are all considered quite uncontroversial.
Anti-Muslim sentiment was aired in the 2012 Republican race, too, and is down to Americans simply not knowing enough Muslims (by contrast, the next leader of the UK Conservative Party could very well be Islamic). The belief that the confiscation of weapons was critical to Hitler’s dictatorship is a well-established right-wing theme. Finally, the view that abortion is like slavery was articulated by conservative—and former presidential candidate–Alan Keyes way back in his 2004 senate race against Barack Obama.
Note that Carson also uses the slavery analogy to attack Obamacare. It is commonly argued by conservatives that a) the Democrats were once the slavery party and b) they’ve transferred their authority from the plantation to the welfare state. Religious conservatives have a long, long history of opposition to eugenics and, again, see a seamless evolution from Southern racist laws to the modern family planning movement.
So Carson’s views come from the heart of the conservative movement.
What’s unusual is his personality. Polling shows Carson leading on the matters of honesty and temperament. He has the soft-spoken bedside manner of the very best doctor — imagine those steady hands hovering over the nuclear button compared with Trump’s waving, shaking, itchy fists. The Carson biography is pure Americana, from zero to hero in one generation. That he was a bad boy in his youth only fits better with the evangelical narrative of a man saved by grace.
As the New York Times reports, he speaks to people in a friendly, respectful way that builds trust. Peter D. Hart, a wise pollster, is quoted as saying: “Trump is rough; Carson is reassuring. And the unknown elements of Carson are reassuring, and the known elements of Trump are disturbing.”
Finally, there is the matter of his race. Mainstream conservatives are not, as liberals suspect, congenitally racist. On the contrary, they share the Left’s eager desire to find and elevate heroes from nonwhite backgrounds. The Right has waited a long time for a black leader to make it in national politics.
True, Carson suffers from a lack of experience of both high office and serious politics, and Trump comes off like a know-nothing and makes plenty of gaffes. But error is actually factored into Trump’s appeal: he is running on gutsy amateurism and ego. Carson, by contrast, offers reason and calm. It wouldn’t take much to puncture both. Carson only has to lose his temper once or say something a little too outrageous for his numbers to decline.
For the moment, however, the focus is likely to be on Trump vs. Carson, while the traditional candidates flounder. Why is this happening? In previous contests it tended to be that radical candidates rose and fell while the establishment types maintained a steady base of support that climbed before polling day. This time, Trump has clung onto a wide lead as more serious individuals have either dropped out or reduced their spending.
Of course, the establishment candidates are still fighting away, but they seem to be concentrating their fire on each other. Jeb Bush’s people are now attacking Marco Rubio. In a parallel race, the mainstream candidates are competing to see who gets to take on the maverick outsiders early next year.
A whole industry now exists of journalists and pundits trying to explain the Trump-Carson phenomenon, and before it’s been tested by actual voting it might be better just to withhold judgment. Even so, it surely can’t be separated from the crisis in Republican House leadership. That the GOP has struggled to find a leader either with the personality or the ideology to satisfy everyone tells us so much about contemporary U.S. politics. How divided it is, and how lacking in the Reaganite magic of charisma.
Within the Right, wild forces have been unleashed that represent a revolt against broken promises, big money, compromise, timidity and a GOP center that has lost two elections in a row. The revolt is a projection of middle-America’s id — and Trump vs. Carson is its yin and yang.
I can imagine husbands watching Trump on TV and cheering angrily. I can imagine wives watching Carson and nodding sagely. Like a reality show, this race is about the viewer’s connection with a particular character. Policies and experience lack that dramatic flourish.
Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. He is the author of “Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
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