Last week, Jonathan Capehart tried to explain, How Ben Carson Cures White Fright in the Republican Party. It’s mostly an interview with Leah Wright Rigueur, author of the recent book, The Loneliness of the Black Republican. With all the discussion of Donald Trump leading the pack in the Republican presidential nomination, it is easy to overlook the fact that Ben Carson is the only person who is even close to him. It is Trump, then Carson, then statistical noise.
Rigueur mentions a number of reasons why Carson is doing so well. One rather obvious one that she doesn’t mention is that he’s been a Fox News celebrity for years. If Dr Oz decided to run for president, it wouldn’t be surprising that he would have an installed base of support. But that does rather beg the question. Carson is doing well because he did well on Fox News and he did well on Fox News because conservatives like him and conservatives like him because… Well, that is the question.
One of the minor reasons that Rigueur mentions is that Carson is an evangelical. Of course, he’s more than that: he’s a young earth creationist. So he not only appeals to the conservative Christians, but he also assuages their fear about him being a “scientist” — or close enough. And there is also the fact that Carson is kind of a self-made man. He found something he was good at and got rich doing it. And then, much more to the point, Carson is able to complain about the “wrong kind of blacks.” So he can say that Black Lives Matters is all wrong and no one can say that he is a racist.
But this is all nuance if you ask me. Ben Carson is doing well with the very same people who once made another political neophyte, Herman Cain, the front-runner in the 2012 Republican primary. And I think it is pretty clear that Carson and Cain are extremely different men. In fact, Cain is more akin to Donald Trump: loose, entertaining, substanceless. Carson is soft spoken. He seems serious — like he’s given the issues serious thought (even though he clearly has not). Indeed, if you look at the two men, you can see what a lie the whole concept of race is. Other than having darker skin than I do, there aren’t a lot of things that bind them together. They have totally different shaped heads, different noses, different eyes. But the key thing is that all Americans recognize them as the same race. And that’s most especially true of conservatives.
Like everyone else — very few conservatives think of themselves as racists. But they are painfully aware of just how white their party is. And yes, they take some comfort in convenient narratives about how the Democratic Party has tricked African Americans into supporting them. But they also know that for almost a century, African Americans were very loyal to the Republican Party. So something happened about 50 years ago, and we all know what it is: Richard Nixon and the southern strategy.
So there is a certain section of the conservative movement that is just dying to support a black candidate. So when one comes along who seems good enough, they love him! (It’s always him, right?) I know that I’ve seen this in my father. He wants to vote for black candidates because it makes him feel better about his belief that racism is mostly a thing of the past. Rich corporate CEOs and famous brain surgeons fit that bill. So I think there is always going to be a good 15% of the Republican Party who will support whatever black candidate shows up — as long as that candidate has the basic conservative qualification. And often not even that. There is one qualification that trumps all others: the belief that if these black kids would just pull up their pants and get a job, everything would be fine.
Ben Carson is the Valium for Republican racial anxiety.