Image credit: TIME

If Ben Carson was too silly, why wasn’t Donald Trump?

Image credit: TIME
Image credit: TIME

Ben Carson is mad.

The famous retired neurosurgeon, who entered the race to become the nominated Republican candidate for the 2016 Presidential Election in January 2015, believes that evolution is a fairy-tale. Both abortion and the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) are comparable to slavery. Joseph, said Carson, was the builder of the Pyramids, which were used to store grain and the archaeologists who say otherwise are mistaken.

I don’t wish to criticise Dr. Carson just because his beliefs aren’t mainstream. No one’s politics is ever wholly in coherence with ‘the mainstream’ – indeed, we could debate what really is mainstream. Nor do I like calling people ‘mad’ – it’s ungentlemanly to assume someone who disagrees with you is irrational. But Ben Carson’s beliefs are fundamentally incredible, flying in the face of conventional science and knowledge and operating in a world of their own, and he would be mad to be unrelentingly confident in them – which he is.

Until December 2015, Dr. Carson was, by and large, Republican voters’ second-most popular choice behind Donald Trump. In October, the retired neurosurgeon received 20% of the support of polled Republicans. But Dr. Carson did not receive a pleasant political Christmas, with his popularity entering its decline. In his last weeks in the campaign, when Donald Trump received around 40% of Republicans’ support, winning caucus after caucus, the good doctor struggled to keep above last place. Other candidates who bombed in the caucuses departed the race, some of them pledging their support to a survivor, but Dr. Carson continued to campaign to be the Republican presidential candidate for quite some time. Finally, on the 2nd of March 2016, he threw in the towel.

Last term, one York academic informed me that, in his opinion, there was no sane Republican candidate standing for the presidential nomination. All of them have crazy ideas about something, even the ones who appear the most normal or moderate. But, if you were to line the candidates up, Dr. Carson would stand out.

Dr. Carson’s expertise ends in brain surgery; it would be an understatement to say that politics is not his thing, especially with regard to foreign policy. It seemed that the Republican voters were aware of this and rejected him. Why, then, did another madman do so well? Why did the champion of divisive, all-talk-but-no-trousers populism and farcically nonsensical claptrap Donald Trump win not just the most delegates but the fight for the White House?

Donald Trump has said just as many incredible things as Ben Carson. Everyone is aware of something outrageous that Trump, or his campaign team, have suggested, whether it’s a ban on non-American Muslims entering the country; a great wall against the USA-Mexico border; and making formal inquiries into Barack Obama’s birth certificate, (joining the long line of conspiracy theorists who believe that the current president’s time in the White House is wholly unconstitutional). Like the majority of the other candidates, Trump mocked climate change, everything to do with the Obama administration and anything that Hillary Clinton has ever done.

One disaster candidate departed the race but another won primaries and caucuses as if they were tiddlywink contests. If both men lacked political expertise, what made Ben Carson unelectable but Donald Trump the most popular candidate?

Dr. Carson regularly discussed the decline of the establishment, calling for the people to be properly represented; but few of his statements could be interpreted to be deliberately inflammatory. He was simply owning up to what he really thought. Donald Trump, however, believes that there are enemies of America who willingly hold it back. Mexico sends its lumpenproletariat across the border, Muslims don’t regulate their mosque visitors and check them for dodgy beliefs, and so on. In short, Trump was willing to blame; he was willing to tell America where things are going wrong and who he thinks is responsible for it. For doing so, Trump earned smiles and cheers. His victories were fuelled by the frustration that ordinary voters have at the economy, the government and immigration, but are catalysed by the addition of irrational, prejudiced anger against individuals and groups – foreigners, Muslims, Democrats, same-sex marriage proponents et al.

Perhaps Carson’s redeeming quality is his benevolent, gentle nature which kept him from harnessing rage to win votes. But between Trump and Carson, one was prepared to point the finger of blame at politicians, the media, “crooked Hillary” and the establishment – and the gamble paid off.

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Jack Harvey

Jack Harvey

Alumni & Public Relations Officer at The Yorker
Comment and Politics Editor 2015/2016, Editor 2016/2017, Alumni & Public Relations Officer 2017/2018. History and Philosophy graduate, studying for MA in Philosophy at University of York.