Token brain surgeon Ben Carson is the current front-runner in the GOP nomination race, but Jonathan Chait wonders if his campaign isn’t just an elaborate self-promotion.
Carson is doing a lot of things that seem puzzling for a presidential campaign, but quite logical for a brand-building exercise. He is taking weeks off the campaign trail to go on a book tour. His campaign itself is structured much more like a scamming venture than a political one. An astronomical 69 percent of his fund-raising totals are spent on more fund-raising. (Bernie Sanders, by contrast, spends just 4 percent of his intake on fund-raising.) In addition to direct mail, Carson seems to have undertaken a massive phone-spamming operation. Spending most of your money to raise more money is not a good way to get elected president, but it is a good way to build a massive list of supporters that can later be monetized. Perhaps it is a giveaway that the official title for Armstrong Williams, the figure running the Carson “campaign,” is “business manager,” as opposed to “campaign manager.” It does suggests that Carson is engaged in a for-profit venture.
Modern conservative politics are indeed an easy scam full of willing marks. Carson flat-out lied when he claimed to have never sponsored quack nutrition company Mannatech during last week’s debate, but the crowd cheered his falsehood enthusiastically, which tells us that the conservative grassroots don’t seem to mind being made into suckers. Carson doesn’t really seem offended by the super PAC profiteering done in his name, either.
But I don’t think he has ‘crossed a line’ in his presidential bid; rather, any line that once separated purely mercenary scamming from serious right wing political organizing has been completely erased during our post-campaign finance law era. Power and profit are now seen as the same thing in a Citizens United world, so from Carson’s point of view it makes perfect sense to sell books and raise cash instead of traditional campaigning. After all, he’s only just pulled ahead of Donald Trump, whose main self-selling point seems to be how much money he’s made. Nearly half the Republican voters surveyed in recent polls think one of these two guys should be president.
There’s also a flip side to this argument. As demonstrated by the bizarre 2013 Prayer Breakfast appearance which launched his current stardom on the right, Carson is a deft communicator of the modern conservative orthodoxy even in his soft-spoken style, and that orthodoxy is essentially just a series of quack cures for every sort of policy problem: Laffer curves ‘prove’ that tax cuts will reduce the deficit. Food stamp cuts will make people more self-reliant. Criminalization will solve homelessness. More guns will make students safe. When you take a long, hard look at the state of conservatism today, it actually makes sense that the most pathological liar would be the most popular choice. Ben Carson is everything they want because he says what they want to hear with true conviction, no matter how untrue it is.