The 2016 Stump Speeches: Ben Carson

Dr. Carson is the calm and authoritative voice of conservative truthiness.

[This article is part of a series on the speeches of 2016 presidential candidates.]

More than even Donald Trump, Ben Carson’s appeal — and he has appeal; numerous recent polls have him second to Trump both nationally and in key states — derives from not being a politician. When he talks, he does not seem to be giving a speech. If a typical politician sounds like a minister preaching on Sunday, Carson sounds like the same minister chatting with his Bible-study class on Wednesday evening. It is easy to imagine him in his previous life as a pediatric neurosurgeon, describing a particularly difficult case to a roomful of colleagues.

A second piece of his appeal is his life story: He came out of poverty, got an education, and reached the top levels of a challenging profession. Other candidates may talk about the struggles of their parents or grandparents to achieve the American dream, but Carson can point to his own rise out of poverty. (He doesn’t harp on it, though, because in the conservative circles where he travels, his story is already well known.) He is black and clearly must have experienced some racism in his life, but he projects no bitterness about it. America has been good to him, and he is grateful.

In the same way that his life embodies the American dream, his candidacy embodies a common conservative dream: that we don’t need policy experts or even political parties, we just need to turn our government over to good people with common sense. Carson expressed it like this in his announcement speech [video, transcript]

We have to get the right people in place. We need, not only to take the executive branch in 2016, and when I say we, I’m not talking Republicans – I’m talking about anybody who has common sense, you know. We have to have another wave election and bring in people with common sense, who actually love our nation and are willing to work for our nation and are more concerned about the next generation than the next election. That’s what’s going to help us. [1]

More than any other candidate, Carson communicates the truthiness of the conservative movement. [2] He has a Reaganesque ability to sound convincing while saying wild things that conservatives know in their hearts must be true, even if they aren’t.

Outline of the speech. [video, transcript] Carson announced his candidacy on May 4. He begins by introducing his wife and children, and then makes his low-key announcement.

Now, I have introduced my family. You say, well who are you? I’ll tell you. I’m Ben Carson, and I’m a candidate for President of the United States.

He then starts telling his mother’s story, as evidence that “America is a place of dreams” and in refutation of “a lot of people” who “are down on our nation”. Carson’s mother married his father at 13 to escape her family. But her husband turned out to be a bigamist, so they got divorced, leaving her as a single mother with a third-grade education. She worked as a domestic and they lived with relatives in a Boston tenement.

Boarded up windows and doors, sirens, gangs, murders. Both of our older cousins, who we adored, were killed.

But she after consulting God (“She asked God for wisdom. And you know what? You don’t have to have a Ph.D. to talk to God. You just have to have faith. And God gave her the wisdom.”), she instilled good values in Ben and his brother, and they succeeded.

From his mother’s desire to stay off welfare, he segues into a discussion of how welfare creates dependency.

there are many people who are critical of me because they say Carson wants to get rid of all the safety nets and welfare programs, even though he must’ve benefited from them. This is a blatant lie. I have no desire to get rid of safety nets for people who need them. I have a strong desire to get rid of programs that create dependency in able-bodied people. And we’re not doing people a favor when we pat them on the head and say, there, there, you poor little thing, we’re going to take care of all you needs; you don’t have to worry about anything.

And a denunciation of socialism.

You know who else says stuff like that? Socialists. … They say it’ll be a utopia and nobody will have to worry. The problem is all of those societies end up looking the same, with a small group of elites at the top controlling everything, a rapidly diminishing middle class, and a vastly expanded dependent class. [3]

Which is not what America was intended to be.

And I’m not an anti-government person by any stretch of the imagination. I think the government, as described in our Constitution, is wonderful. But, now we’ve gone far beyond what our Constitution describes, and we’ve begun to just allow it to expand based on what the political class wants, because they like to increase their power and their dominion over the people, and I think it’s time for the people to rise up and take the government back.

The “political class” is the villain of Carson’s story. [4]

I’ll tell you a secret. The political class comes from both parties and it comes from all over the place.

He paints an idealized picture of early America.

You’ve got to remember it was the can-do attitude that allowed this nation to rise so quickly. Because we had people who didn’t stop when there was an obstacle. That’s how those early settlers were able to move from one sea to the other sea across a rugged and hostile terrain. [5]

That can-do attitude contrasts with the timidity of today’s Americans, who are intimidated by political correctness.

We’ve allowed the purveyors of division to become rampant in our society and to create friction and fear in our society. People are afraid to stand up for what they believe in because they don’t want to be called a name. They don’t want an IRS audit. They don’t want their jobs messed with or their families messed with. But isn’t it time for us to think about the people who came before us? … We dare not soil their efforts by being timid now and not standing up for what we believe.

Belying his humble tone, Carson presents himself as the kind of brave man we need.

I’m not politically correct, and I’m probably never going to be politically correct because I’m not a politician. I don’t want to be a politician, because, politicians do what is politically expedient, and I want to do what is right. We have to think about that once again in our country.

When he talks about fixing the economy, he starts with the national debt:

You need to know who your representatives are. And you need to know how they voted, not how they said they voted. And if they voted to keep raising that debt ceiling, to keep compromising the future of our children and our grandchildren, you need to throw them out of office. [6]

He attributes to “economists” the view that:

when the debt to GDP ratio reaches 90%, at that point economic slowdown is inevitable. [7]

He goes on to talk about how “the most dynamic economic engine the world has ever known” won’t work “when we wrap it in chains and fetters of regulations” and “when you have high taxation rates”. The only specific policies he mentions involve cutting corporate taxes: He wants to cut the corporate tax rate, and have an even cheaper rate to induce companies to repatriate profits held overseas (though he doesn’t specify either rate). He then closes by coming back to the notion that expertise is not necessary:

The real pedigree that we need to help to heal this country, to revive this country: Someone who believes in our Constitution and is willing to put it on the top shelf. Someone who believes in their fellow man and loves this nation and is compassionate. Somebody who believes in what we have learned since we were in kindergarten. And that is, that we are one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

The myth of America. Whenever American history comes up in Carson’s speech, it’s the kind of history most Americans want to believe, rather than the kind that actually happened. I’ve already mention the “can-do attitude” that built America without needing to steal Indian land or enslave African workers.

He talks about freedom of the press like this:

You know, the media, the press, is the only business in America that is protected by our Constitution. You have to ask yourself a question. Why were they the only ones protected? It was because our founders envisioned a press that was on the side of the people, not a press that was on the side of the Democrats or the Republicans or the Federalists or the Anti-Federalists.

Again, it would be nice to think so. But  pamphlets were the main method of debate in early America, and “freedom of the press” meant nothing more to the Founders than the right to own a press yourself or hire somebody who could print your pamphlets. It did not refer to an institution of “the Press” as we think of it today. And such newspapers as existed in the early days of the Republic were more partisan than the present New York Times or Wall Street Journal, not less. (Wikipedia: “Nearly all weekly and daily papers were party organs until the early 20th century.”)

The idea that journalism should be a profession with professional standards of public responsibility really starts in the 1920s with Walter Lippmann.

Social truthiness. Carson’s race and up-from-the-ghetto life lend authenticity to a number of social myths conservatives like to believe. For example, his explanation of the Baltimore riots is not that anybody actually cared about Freddy Gray or police abusing their power in the black community; poor blacks just saw an opportunity to go wild and take stuff.

This past couple of weeks, there’s been a great deal of turmoil in Baltimore – where I spent 36 years of my life. … The real issue here is that people are losing hope and they don’t feel that life is going to be good for them no matter what happens. So when an opportunity comes to loot, to riot, to get mine, they take it.

And government anti-poverty programs just create dependency.

My mother was out working extraordinarily hard. Two, sometimes three, jobs at a time, as a domestic. Trying to stay off of welfare. And the reason for that was she noticed that most of the people she saw go on welfare never came off of it. And she didn’t want to be dependent. … I have a strong desire to get rid of programs that create dependency in able-bodied people. [8]

In Carson’s idealized American past, federal programs weren’t necessary, and they wouldn’t be necessary now if we recovered traditional values.

There were many communities that were separated from other communities by hundreds of miles, but they thrived. Why did they thrive? Because people were willing to work together, to work with each other. If a farmer got injured, everybody else harvested his crops. If somebody got killed, everybody else pitched in to take care of their families. That’s who we are. We, Americans, we take care of each other.

But we should do it as individuals, not through the government. And people who don’t succeed? It’s their own fault: If they’re not disabled, they must be lazy or stupid.

You don’t have to be dependent on the good graces of somebody else. You can do it on your own if you have a normal brain and you’re willing to work and you’re willing to have that can-do attitude.

People focusing on racial issues aren’t exposing problems, they’re creating problems.

We’ve allowed the purveyors of division to become rampant in our society and to create friction and fear in our society.

What we need instead is colorblindness. In an interview after touring Ferguson this week, he said:

A lot of people perceive everything through racial eyes, but my point is that we don’t have to do that. What we have to do instead is to begin to see people as people. [9]

Conspiracy theory dog whistles. A lot has been made of Carson’s ability to rise in the polls without getting the kind of media attention that has fueled Donald Trump’s candidacy. But this ignores the extent to which Carson is a darling of the alternative conservative media: talk radio, evangelical conferences, and web-based empires like Alex Jones and Newsmax.

Carson’s speeches are littered with references that the alternative-conservative-media audience will recognize and regard as established facts, when they are nothing of the kind. For example, that the IRS is being used to persecute conservatives:

People are afraid to stand up for what they believe in because they don’t want to be called a name. They don’t want an IRS audit.

On Planned Parenthood (which isn’t mentioned in the announcement speech) Carson has said:

I know who Margaret Sanger is, and I know that she believed in eugenics, and that she was not particularly enamored with black people. And one of the reasons that you find most of their clinics in black neighborhoods is so that you can find a way to control that population.

That’s debunked here and in more detail here. (I never knew that one of those “racist” Sanger quotes floating around the internet was originally said by W.E.B. Du Bois.) And he has totally bought the claim that Planned Parenthood is “harvesting” and “selling” baby parts.

Thanks largely to Glenn Beck, Saul Alinsky (who has been dead for 43 years) has become famous as the grand strategist of the Great Liberal Conspiracy, and Rules for Radicals as important as Chairman Mao’s little red book. (Take any bad thing and use it in a sentence with “Saul Alinsky” and “George Soros” and you’re halfway to a right-wing conspiracy theory.) So Carson says:

You have to recognize that one of the rules in Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, is you make the majority believe that what they believe is no longer relevant and no intelligent person thinks that way and the way you believe is the only way intelligent people believe. And that way they’ll keep silent. Because I’ll tell you something. They don’t care if you don’t believe what they believe, as long as you keep your mouth shut.

Is anything like that true? If you google “Saul Alinsky” and look for recent references, they’re almost all from conservative sources, because he’s actually not that important in liberal discourse. Half of liberals have never heard of him, and to the rest of us Rules is one of those books we think we ought to get around to reading someday, but never do.

Consequently, people like Carson can attribute anything they want to Alinsky, and who’s going to say they’re wrong? Well, I guess I am: Fact-checking Carson gave me one last push to read Rules for Radicals. (It’s short, flows well, and you can find it free on the internet.) It doesn’t contain anything resembling the rule Carson mentions. Whether he got his “rule” from some fabricator like Beck or made it up himself I can’t say. But Alinsky’s book is all about how to get powerless people to speak up, not shut up. (The subtext is Alinsky’s disgust with the late-60s student radicals, whose rhetoric was designed to shock and piss off blue-collar workers rather than make common cause with them against the establishment.)

Conclusion. In tone and manner, Ben Carson is the anti-Trump — calm and collected, not aggressive or even particularly animated most of the time. He avoids conflict, even when baited by an expert like Trump.

But in many other ways, he’s a Trump alternative: an outsider brought in to fix our broken government; appealing to “common sense” rather than expertise in law, economics, foreign policy, the military, or any other relevant field; almost completely lacking specific proposals [10]; and free to say what white conservatives think ought to be true, unencumbered by actual facts.

[1] What I find amazing in that quote is the “actually” — as if it would be remarkable to find in our government people whose love for our country is genuine. But this is a common belief in conservative circles. In February, a poll asked Republicans whether President Obama loves America. By a 69%-11% margin, they said no.

[2] Truthiness, defined by Wikipedia as

a quality characterizing a “truth” that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.

was coined by Stephen Colbert in one of his show’s most memorable segments.

Face it folks, we are a divided nation. Not between Democrats and Republicans, or conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No. We are divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart.

[3] If you compare the United States to actual socialist countries like Denmark or Sweden, Carson has it exactly backwards. A person born poor under Scandinavian socialism has a far better chance of achieving prosperity than a poor American — the exact opposite of what you’d expect if America were the land of opportunity and socialism trapped people in a “dependent class”.

And “a small group of elites” dominating “a rapidly diminishing middle class”? That’s us, not them.

[4] “The political class” is an interesting spin that allows Carson to be pro-business and pro-wealth while sounding populist. “Politicians” have betrayed us, but Carson never discusses who they’ve betrayed us to. So his proposals — a flat tax, lower corporate taxes, less regulation, a tax holiday for repatriating overseas profits — all further the interests of what Bernie Sanders calls “the billionaire class”.

[5] I find this passage particularly odd. First, because Carson’s focus on the “can-do attitude” obliterates the role of slave labor and land stolen from the Native Americans in building this country. And second, because “we” are the heroic “early settlers”. Carson identifies with them, and not with his slave ancestors, who were driven like cattle across that “rugged and hostile terrain”.

[6] Note the focus on the debt ceiling, as if we could solve the problem of rising government debt by simply outlawing it. (His web page promotes a similar gimmick, a balanced budget amendment that he doesn’t bother to state. It’s an amendment that will balance the budget; what else do you need to know?)

Business Insider‘s Henry Blodgett has a clear explanation of what happens if we don’t raise the debt ceiling:

On that date, if the debt ceiling has not been raised, the United States will begin to default on payments that it is legally obligated to make, payments that Congress has already promised that we will make. … The Treasury will only be able to pay about 60% of the bills that are owed. In relatively short order, therefore, the United States will stiff about 40% of the people and companies it owes money to.

… To not raise the debt ceiling is to say that it is totally okay to stiff people and companies we owe money to–and, more importantly, to actually stiff them. This is astoundingly reckless and irresponsible behavior (not to mention illegal).

Apparently, refusing to pay bills you have already run up constitutes doing “what is right”.

If you honestly think that the national debt is our country’s worst problem — I don’t — then you need to talk about the budget, which Carson has not done. You need to specify which spending you’re going to cut, where the revenue is going to come from, and how the math works out. That’s the hard work of governing, which Carson has shown no interest in.

[7] Actually that’s a single team of two economists, they didn’t really say “inevitable”, and their results depended on a spreadsheet error that was exposed over two years ago. Economist Dean Baker summarizes:

When the error is corrected, there is nothing resembling the growth falloff cliff associated with a 90 percent debt-to-GDP ratio that had been the main takeaway from the initial paper.

[8] Notice he says only that she was “trying” to stay off welfare, not that she did stay off it, or that he didn’t benefit from other government programs. We know that his family received food stamps and that he got free glasses from a government program. What additional government help Carson or his mother received is conjecture.

So his life story could be told with the exact opposite spin: Government help kept his family from falling through the cracks of society, giving him the chance to work hard, get an education (at public schools), and succeed.

[9] So the situation is a little like kindergarten, when a kid would say shit or fuck. You couldn’t report that to the teacher because then you’d have to say the word yourself.

Similarly, if racists are mistreating people of a different race, how would you even notice that unless you are making racial distinctions yourself? Being truly colorblind means not just that you don’t treat people of different races differently, but that you can’t see racism at all.

[10] Looking around Carson’s web site reminds me of Ezra Klein’s comment about Mitt Romney in 2012: that he had presented “simulacra of policy proposals”, avoiding any details that would allow outside experts to analyze them. But Carson makes Romney look like a wonk. His issue-focused pages each contain about one relevant buzz-phrase that hints at Carson’s intentions.

On the health care page, that phrase is “health savings accounts”. (And that’s his field; he’s a doctor!) His tax system would be “fairer, simpler, and more equitable“. Here, at least, he has given a few more details in speeches: At the first debate, he endorsed “tithing”, which seemed to be a reference to a flat tax. Elsewhere, he elaborated: He does want a flat tax, one that applies even to the poorest people, because “we all need to have skin in the game“.

In order to raise the same revenue as the current system, he believes the flat rate would need to be “between 10 and 15 percent”. That range is an indication of how much thought he has put into this: If you make $50,000 a year, will you pay $5,000? $7,500? More if Carson’s assumptions — whatever they are — prove too optimistic? He doesn’t know.

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  • Roger Green  On September 14, 2015 at 9:09 am

    Thanks. He’s a “nice” man who I wouldn’t vote for if he were unopposed.

  • Anne Lacy (@annelacy94)  On September 14, 2015 at 9:52 am

    He is very naive and has a problem understanding how the world truly works (as you noted above he lives in a “fairy tale” land). His lack of knowledge and unwillingness to take a deep and honest look at the world around him as well as his bigotry and fears are a weakness, not a strength, and make him unqualified for any political position. His “attribution” to “economists” (of which I am one), is false, misleading and shows his general lack of knowledge, and again naivety of the world around him. He is no better than any of the other conservatives running and, while I can understand why he appeals to some, he doesn’t appeal to those that are willing to think deeply, willing to research issues outside of their comfort zone and who have knowledge in areas he clearly lacks, as well as those who closely follow national and world affairs.

  • busterggi  On September 14, 2015 at 10:16 am

    Yes, he’s an alternative to Trump – Trump is a narcissistic clown, Carson is a quiet theocrat who wants to destroy the system that allowed him to be successful.

  • coastcontact  On September 14, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    Ben Carson is a sincere honest man who has no experience in either business or government. His attack on Donald Trump’s religiosity was utterly inappropriate. Religion or religious belief is not a qualification for presidency. He should have known that. When he suggested that eastern European nations should join NATO he told us how disconnected he is to the world. As the GOP candidate, his Democratic rival would eat him alive for his lack of governmental knowledge. Anne Lacy is correct in calling him “very naïve.”

  • janinmi  On September 14, 2015 at 4:42 pm

    Thank you for your examination of Ben Carson’s presidential candidacy. My dad is supporting him, and I can now understand why Carson appeals to him. We don’t discuss politics because we’re so far apart on where we stand with respect to how our country should be governed. If I told him I was leaning toward voting for Bernie Sanders, I think his head would explode.

  • Abby Hafer  On September 14, 2015 at 5:18 pm

    “You’ve got to remember it was the can-do attitude that allowed this nation to rise so quickly. Because we had people who didn’t stop when there was an obstacle. That’s how those early settlers were able to move from one sea to the other sea across a rugged and hostile terrain.” So settling the continent and rising as individuals and as a nation had nothing to do with free land provided by the government by the Homestead Act; land for railroads taken by eminent domain by the government; canals for irrigation being provided by the government; land grant colleges being provided by the government; the GI Bill being provided by the government; etc. Who knew?

  • Larry Benjamin  On September 14, 2015 at 9:18 pm

    Carson is living proof that a man can be a world-renowned expert in his chosen field, and a rank ignoramus in another. Like Trump, his appeal is that he’s an “outsider;” if you don’t trust professional politicians, and find Trump to be an obnoxious buffoon, Carson’s quiet dignity can be very attractive.

  • Brent Holman  On September 14, 2015 at 11:07 pm

    Ben Carson thinks that by speaking very softly, people will listen closely to the crap he spews out. He must have read that somewhere decades ago…I think it may have been Dale Carnegie…I’ve understood the technique for 40 years, & it does work, but one still needs to be coherent.

    • Larry Benjamin  On September 15, 2015 at 6:15 am

      Many years ago, I lived with a Scientologist who was deeply involved in the church – he owned that machine they use for “auditing,” and had bookshelves filled with L. Ron Hubbard’s works. Once, I was involved in a minor traffic accident, and he advised me, when negotiating a settlement with the other party, to remain calm and speak slowly and softly. This was, he said, a technique taught in Scientology. It’s interesting that Carson does the same thing. Coincidence?

  • redheadedfemme  On September 15, 2015 at 3:30 pm

    Holy crap, I think this guy is scarier than Donald Trump. He’s quiet and mild, and sounds reasonable…and his policies, to the extent that he has any, would wreck America.


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