There was that curious moment in the Bloomberg focus group of Donald Trump supporters in New Hampshire in July that continues to baffle me. After extolling the virtues of the bombastic Big Apple billionaire, they were asked who their second choice was. Half of them said Ben Carson.
Last week, I tried to explain the rise of Carson in the age of Trump. The Republican strategists I spoke with agreed that the retired and renowned neurosurgeon was the exact opposite of The Donald.
The former appeals to hopes and aspirations while the latter appeals to populist anger. But I posited another theory that I want to explore further.
The one that believes part of Carson’s poll vault might be due to eagerness among many Republicans to show that they have have their own brilliant black man to support. It’s a not-so-subtle rejoinder to those of us who have recoiled at the racism and other forms of disrespect endured by the nation’s first black president and his family.
Leah Rigueur is assistant professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. She is also the author of “The Loneliness of the Black Republican.” That makes her the the perfect person to talk to about Carson’s appeal to an overwhelmingly white party.
“I think you’re right about Carson and Republicans saying, ‘See, we can’t possibly be racist!’ But there’s also a level of nuance, that’s hard to pin down with white Republican voters,” Rigueur told me via e-mail.
“Many of them believe this truly isn’t about race but at the same time, if you look at the language surrounding support of Carson, a lot of it is racial/racialized .
It’s the awkward nature of colorblindness; when you claim that you don’t see race, when in actuality you do.”
But there is something else to the appeal of Carson among white Republicans. According to Rigueur, the lone African American Republican in the presidential nomination quest rhetorically goes where they dare not go.
“I’d argue that a good portion of [Carson’s] popularity stems from his ability, as a black man, to say things that conservative [white] audiences get attacked for.”
A prime example is Carson’s criticism of President Obama and the Affordable Care Act at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast.
“This is actually not a new strategy — there’s a long history of African Americans rising in popularity and in esteem among white right-wing Republicans, so long as they are willing to say the controversial and uncomfortable things that white conservatives can’t say, especially along racial lines.”
“I think it is also important to recognize that Carson is surging in the polls at the same time that ‘Black Lives Matter’ is gaining nationwide prominence.”
“For the conservative public, not only is Carson a stark contrast to the Black Lives Matters crowd — he’s also willing to disparage that movement, which again, comforts conservative voters.”
Rigueur told me that Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, who died on Jan. 3, used the same approach in 1966. That’s the year he made history by becoming the first African American popularly elected to the U.S. Senate.
“He publicly denounced Black Power advocates and advocated for ‘respectable’ protest (i.e. The Civil Rights Movement). His popularity among white Massachusetts voters immediately surged,” Rigueur said. “And despite his relatively liberal stance on open housing, he even gained the support of white anti-housing advocates; they overlooked his entire political agenda and simply honed in on what they liked.”
In fact, Rigueur sees a lot of overlap between Carson and Brooke.
“The strongest overlap that I see is that Carson has adopted the same moderate and middle-class approach to racial uplift, one that suggests that equality rests on behaving properly (or as I say in my book, “equal citizenship rested on an established moral code of acceptable black behaviors that fit within societal norms”),” she said in her e-mail.
Of course, Democratic politicians practice respectability politics. But Rigueur told me the way Carson articulates his positions is “unique.”
“Unlike other black politicians,” she said, “[Carson] has little interest in the broad societal reasons for inequality. For him, a lot of this boils down to personal accountability (with a little bit of racism). Which partly explains why he continues to reject ‘Black Lives Matters’ as a valid political movement.” Rigueur said another area of overlap between Carson and Brooke is how they tend to their base. But she noted one critical way they differ.
Much like Brooke, early in his career, Carson’s actions are guided by voting base (in this case, white conservatives). He has no intentions of alienating that base, which means he really can’t appear sympathetic to racially conscious movements.
He can attack safe targets – ie things that we, as a country, have agreed are taboo, like vicious forms of racism (ie the Charleston shootings). But to take on implicit bias as a form of racism? That would alienate his white conservative base.
Where he and Brooke fundamentally differ is that Brooke believed he had an obligation to his race to fight for civil rights and racial justice, and therefore walked a delicate tightrope between color-blind rhetoric and race-conscious action.
There is another aspect to Carson’s rise that Rigueur said we must not overlook, his religious appeal. “This is a man who opened his campaign in May with a full-fledged black choir!
Carson’s religious nature really comes out when he speaks and I think the idea of a religiously devout, “trustworthy” and brilliant doctor is appealing to a lot of potential voters,” she said.
“He’s also incredibly safe. And by that I mean, Carson is far more mild-mannered and civil when compared to Donald Trump.”
That’s for sure.
But Rigueur told me the appeal Carson generates in the GOP “fall[s] by the wayside” once you look at the national electorate.
“He doesn’t have the same appeal as say, Barack Obama in 2008. His politics and policy proposals render him unappealing to white liberals, nonwhite millennials, and women of all races,” she said.
That being said, Rigueur said the future political prospects of “Gifted Hands” might be pretty good. The GOP has debated for DECADES about having an African American on the ticket.
In 1968, Nixon considered tapping Brooke as his running mate (he ultimately went with Spiro Agnew); in 1974, Gerald Ford put Brooke on a short list for vice president (along with George H.W. Bush; the position ultimately went to Nelson Rockefeller). Colin Powell has come up again, and again, and again as a contender.
So yes, I think the party would be open to the “right” person, at the “right” time. Is that person Ben Carson? I have mixed feelings on that.
On the one hand, I think establishment politicians are skeptical of Carson. That being said, he’s a much more viable option than Trump *and* he’s incredibly popular among the Republican base.
I don’t see him getting the presidential nomination, but I think a vice presidential nod is a possibility.Poll after poll shows Carson coming in second to Trump. But they also show him rising and leading his Republican-establishment competition by double digits.
Many believe his poll vault is the result of his performance at the first GOP debate. I don’t know. I found him mumbly and dull at the Aug. 6 gathering.
With his solid standing among the Republican Party base, Carson has a chance at next week’s debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library to show that he is worthy of the support he has garnered.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj