The curious case of Benjamin Carson

While I was traveling, I read various foreign newspapers and many of them had articles about Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson. While they were generally baffled by the rise of Donald Trump as a leading presidential contender, Carson’s rise to the top seemed to leave them utterly astounded. There is no question that he is the most fascinating candidate in the field because there is something really weird about him, and I am not just talking about the way he speaks, with his eyes often closed and giving the impression of one who is either sedated or stoned.

When he is described in the media he is almost invariably described as being ‘humble’ and ‘smart’ when it is clear that neither is true. People seem to mistake being soft-spoken with humility and a high level of formal education or skills in a narrowly focused area with being generally smart.

The humility myth is dispelled when it is apparent that Carson is about as narcissistic a personality as one can imagine. For evidence, one needs to look no further than his home which seems to be a shrine to himself. A humble person does not commission a huge painting of himself to hang over the fireplace in the main lounge area. A humble person does not commission another painting of himself with Jesus standing behind him to hang on the wall in the same area. A humble person does not create an entire wall of testimonials to his greatness.

Is he smart? Having lived a life among people with both of his attributes of high levels of formal education and narrowly focused expert skills, I know that these do not translate to general smartness even though I have personally benefited from this misconception. When people hear that I am a theoretical nuclear physicist, they immediately think I am smart and no amount of disclaimers on my part seems to shake their belief. It is quite possible to be an expert in one esoteric area and be utterly ignorant about almost everything else. The saving grace is to be aware that you don’t know everything because that prevents you from making a fool of yourself and also motivates you to learn. Carson seems blind to this. His combination of arrogance and ignorance is a personification of one kind of the Dunning-Kruger effect, not knowing what he does not know and blissfully thinking that what he believes must be true and thus not making any effort to check.

But more than his affect, it is what he says that is both fascinating and disturbing. Attention has been focused on three areas. One consists of the details of his biography. The second consists of his beliefs. The third consists of statements of fact that he throws out. I don’t want to go into all the details but unearthing all the problems has turned into a cottage industry and you can read more here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

As regards his life story, the stories he has told have come under scrutiny because the evidence does not back them up in all their details. It is not uncommon for us to misremember something from our distant past. What is unusual in his case is that there are so many things that he says are so inextricably tied to making him the great person he thinks he now is that seem to be either made up of whole cloth or contain kernels of truth that have been embellished beyond all recognition. The list is almost endless: his violent and murderous rages as a boy, his story about being rewarded for honesty during a hoax exam, the offer of a West Point scholarship, and his encounter with an assailant at Popeye’s, to list just some of the better-known ones.

Whether the stories are true or not, they do share one feature and that is that they all serve to aggrandize him and make his life into what evangelicals Christians love, and that is a redemption story modeled on that of Paul on the road to Damascus. When younger I had evangelical friends and occasionally attended their programs and services. I remember being astounded when they would respond to the ‘altar call’ and give their testimonies. People whom I had always known as perfectly ordinary people would ‘confess’ to being awful monsters before Jesus transformed them. The worse you could claim to have been, the better you were perceived as now. After doing this many times, it may be that they began to really believe their own exaggerations and this may be what happened with Carson. This explains the curious situation where instead of downplaying the problematic events of his youth as is the usual practice, we see Carson insisting that he was a psychotic who was a danger to anyone around him, and accusing the media of wrongly portraying him as being pretty much the same person he is now.

As to his beliefs, he thinks the Earth is 6,000 years old and he thinks the pyramids in Egypt were built to store grain by the biblical Joseph of the Technicolor dream coat. He thinks climate change is irrelevant. Josh Marshall suggests that he seems to have been influenced by that well-known purveyor of crackpot theories Erich von Daniken. What’s next? Theories about the lost city of Atlantis?

As for his penchant for saying things that are easily shown to be false. Politifact has looked at 20 statements that he has made and 16 of them are rated as mostly false, false, or ‘pants on fire’ false.

What is clear that Carson is relentlessly focused on his image and using it to make immense amounts of money, which may be why it is the attacks on his personal brand that have shaken him, at least partially, out of his lethargic persona and made him animated when it comes to defending his honor. Many of the candidates likely had no realistic expectation of actually winning but were after brand building for future lucrative opportunities. It may be that his whole presidential campaign was seen by Carson as a branding opportunity to generate more money except that lightning struck in his case and that even he is surprised by this turn of events where he is tied with Donald Trump for the lead.

Jeb Lund gave a brutal but accurate recounting of the last debate and here is what he said about Carson. (His analysis of Rubio is also worth reading.)

Carson himself now defies categorization. Describing his answers as naive and “something you hear in junior high” insults an educational institution teeming with spontaneous aggression and fervid masturbators. His replies invariably start out sounding like something printed in a book with hard cardboard pages toddlers can chew on with impunity and end up as something orbiting a distant planet. It is impossible to diagram the connective tissue between a Carson idea and conclusion, because causation is dependent on things existing in reality. Ben Carson not only doesn’t know the answer, he may not be able to recognize most of the nouns in any question.

He believes that the United States became the world’s number-one economic power by 1876 because “we had an atmosphere that encouraged entrepreneurial risk-taking and capital investment,” apparently unlike all the other countries. He claims that “putting the special ops people in [Syria] is better than not having them there because they — that’s why they’re called special ops, they’re actually able to guide some of the other things that we’re doing there.” We can also defeat jihadists by making them look like losers by “destroying their caliphate.” Oh, so only that? OK. Somewhere in there, he talked about a general telling him, “Outside of Anbar, there’s a big energy field.” He probably meant a field above a lot of untapped oil or natural gas, but you never know with Ben Carson. It could be a giant invisible barrier to trap a gas being or imprison a false god who will then take over the starship Enterprise. It could be the sort of thing our phasers are totally ineffective against.

It is not unusual for politicians to have big egos and to promote themselves and to embellish their biographies. In this season, it seems like Republican candidates can even flat-out lie with impunity (Trump and Carly Fiorina being prize examples) but Carson seems to have do it to a degree that puts even both of them to shame.

And that is really saying something.


  1. raven says

    Sarah Palin showed the way. Running for president (or VP) is an easy job that pays huge amounts of money. Winning isn’t important.

    AFAICT, Satanorum, Huckabee, and Carson are all just in it for the big bucks. They get paid lots whether they have a chance to win or not. It’s just business.

    In Carson’s case, he kept saying “jesus” and ended up in front. And front runners get a lot of critical attention.

  2. lorn says

    Listening to Carson’s story of redemption it strikes me that it sounds far less like a story of ‘coming to Christ’ and more like a story about finding an anti-psychotic medication that worked. His overall blank affect, his lack of expression when he doesn’t know he is in the public eye, the delay in reaction and answering, the stilted and disjointed answers — that often lose power and are lost — all seem to me to be very much like the expected side effects of some medications.

  3. karmacat says

    With his stories, Carson often tries to show how he is better than other people.
    lorn -- don’t try to diagnose a person. We really don’t have enough information.

  4. lorn says

    Well. of course Carson is going to play the ‘redeemed sinner’ card , and part of getting the most out of that gambit is to present yourself as more of a hot mess so the change is highlighted. Granted, but it also seems that many years ago Carson didn’t look like he had just finished off a joint. He was sharper and more lucid.

    Perhaps it is the pressure of the campaign, and we most of us slow down a bit as we age, but we already had a mentally challenged president in Ronald Reagan’s second term, and look where that got us.

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