In 2004, then-Senator Barack Obama burst onto the national political scene with his stirring speech at the Democratic National Convention. Since then, the GOP has been in search of a “Great Black Hope” to counter Obama’s supposed racial appeal to Black voters. From Alan Keyes to Herman Cain, various Black candidates have been floated in hopes that they held the keys to a GOP victory among Black voters (and promptly shunted to the side once they prove otherwise).
The latest in this parade of short-lived political celebrities is Dr. Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon and former head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. Carson’s celebrity status has been on the rise since he lambasted the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or “Obamacare”) in front of President Obama at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast. Since then, Carson has become a sought-after speaker on the conservative political circuit, including the 2013 Values Voters Summit, and both the 2013 and 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) convenings. Carson received a warm welcome at CPAC 2014, where he delivered a well-attended and well-received speech, landing him in third place in CPAC’s straw poll of possible 2016 presidential candidates. (Carson received 11% of the CPAC vote, just shy of Ted Cruz’s also 11% second-place finish and well behind winner Rand Paul’s 31%. Carson received 4% of the straw poll vote at CPAC 2013).
Part of Carson’s appeal is his validation of the GOP base through the use of fear-mongering and persecution fantasies validates the GOP base At CPAC 2014, Carson took the opportunity to revisit his controversial comments at Values Voters 2013, where he declared the Affordable Care Act:
The worst thing to happen in this nation since slavery… It is slavery in a way, because it is making all of us subservient to the government, and it was never about healthcare. It was about control.
Carson’s CPAC 2014 speech mocked the “PC police” for allegedly misrepresenting his remarks at Values Voters, as well as his March 2013 comments which implicitly equated being gay with pedophilia and bestiality (The comments touched off a media firestorm that culminated in Carson withdrawing as commencement speaker at the Johns Hopkins 2013 graduation ceremonies). “Of course slavery is worse [than Obamacare],” he scoffed, and anyone who believes “Carson said gay marriage and bestiality are the same thing … is a dummy.” He described criticism of his comments as tactics taken from “the principles of Saul Alinsky” and the only resort of people who have only “ideology” and “cannot argue the actual facts.”
Among his other red-meat rhetoric at CPAC, Carson denounced “extra rights” for LGBTQ people; lectured “minority communities” on the “need to learn how to turn over [a] dollar … and create wealth” and “not [be] a victim”; touted self-determination and faith in God as the keys to “mov[ing] up”; and my personal favorite: declared that America “is about to sail off Niagara Falls, and we’re all going to be killed.”
Perhaps the most intriguing parts of Carson’s comments were his hints at plans for a more overt political role, and further efforts at organizing and recruiting Black conservatives. Carson urged attendees to sign a petition against the ACA, created by Newt Gingrich’s American Legacy PAC— part of a “Save our Healthcare” campaign with Carson as the chair and public face of the project. (See Media Matters on the extremely dubious finances of the American Legacy PAC.)
Carson also announced the imminent launch of a Black conservative digital magazine, which will offer a “different point of view … [not] about being a victim [but] about how we use our collective intellect and our resources to move up.” The magazine will be backed by the Washington Times, where Carson has been a weekly columnist since July of 2013.
Further indication of Carson’s rising celebrity: the “National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee.” Founded by Black conservative Vernon Robinson, the PAC works to raise money and support for a potential 2016 presidential run by Carson (the PAC may also need to convince their would-be candidate to run, as Carson has repeatedly denied having any plans to do so). Last week, the PAC reported in a press release that it had raised $2.8 million in contributions from “nearly 47,000 individuals” in its first six months of operation, “outpacing similar efforts designed to draft other high-profile candidates into the 2016 presidential race” (namely, the Ready for Hillary PAC).
Robinson has argued that Carson is “the only guy who can broaden the GOP base, get 17 percent of the black vote, get a healthy number of Hispanic voters, while still staying true to conservative ideals”— and therefore the only candidate who can defeat Hillary Clinton, because 17% is, by his calculations, the percentage of Black voters the GOP needs to persuade to make a Democratic presidential win “mathematically impossible.”
It’s clear from such reasoning that race is a huge part— if not the primary reason for— Carson’s appeal to conservatives. As I’ve written elsewhere for PRA, he and other Black conservatives give the political Right a convenient, “color-blind” cover for its racism, homophobia, and historical revisionism. Words that out of Paul Ryan’s mouth are lambasted as racist—such as his recent comment about “inner cities” having a “culture problem … of men not working”—get a very different reaction when Black conservatives (or, to be fair, even President Obama) make similar statements. And, of course, there’s the obvious usefulness of a famous world-class surgeon as the face of opposition to the first Black president’s healthcare reform.
Carson and other Black conservatives are also useful to the conservative establishment for the bootstrapping narratives they often tell about their own personal histories. In his media appearances, Carson frequently speaks of his upbringing by a single Black mother who, despite being poor and functionally illiterate, accepted “no excuses” about his education. Carson cites this “no excuses” attitude, coupled with faith in God, as the reasons for his considerable accomplishments.
Similar stories can be heard from Black conservatives like Star Parker, whose authority and appeal rests on her history as a single mother on welfare who found God and swore off “dependency” on the government (which she describes as leaving “Uncle Sam’s plantation”). Senator Tim Scott regaled the CPAC audience with his often-told story of being a “poor kid growing up in a single parent household” who nearly failed out of school before turning his grades and his life around when he found a mentor who taught him that “you can think your way out of poverty” (the takeaway: Scott’s “Opportunity Agenda,” which promotes “school choice”).
These personal accounts of rising from poverty, ostensibly through sheer effort and positive thinking alone, are touted by Black conservatives and the conservative establishment as embodied proof that GOP ideology is somehow pro-Black, and that racial disparities have nothing to do with institutional racism or any systemic injustice. When Carson and other Black conservatives speak before overwhelmingly white audiences like CPAC’s, they serve as living rebukes— and often offer literal rebukes, as Carson did— to Black Americans and minority communities for failing to make it as they have done. Unsurprisingly, such rhetoric falls flat with the majority of Black voters.
Nor has the political hype around these Black GOP stars materialized into serious campaigns for national office. Carson has generated buzz and considerable money as a potential candidate despite his zero political experience at any level of government. And there lies the true utility and appeal of Carson and the Great Conservative Black Hopes who have come before him: Not in their potential to win votes or elections, but rather in how they validate and energize the base. If Carson does choose to run for president in 2016, his campaign is unlikely to last long, much less be a serious contender. But in the meantime, his rising star continues to provide credence to racist GOP ideology and opportunities for PACs with dubious finances to cash in.