I’d rather have Trump

Who expected that when the Republicans anointed a new front-runner, it would be somebody worse?

Ever since he announced his candidacy last summer, political insiders have been telling us that Donald Trump was a fluke of the season: It was early in the process, and people weren’t serious yet. As the primaries got closer, Trump would fade and a more acceptable mainstream candidate like Bush or Rubio or Walker would emerge. Pundits recalled the 2012 cycle, where boomlets for far-out candidates like Michele Bachmann or Hermann Cain came and went every few weeks, but the establishment eventually nominated its man, Mitt Romney. As John Podhoretz put it:

Most of those who are telling pollsters they support the outsiders are basically dating Trump and Carson. They’ll likely settle down with someone else.

And Ross Douthat predicts GOP primary voters will soon start saying this to themselves:

The Donald is fun and I admire Carson, but let’s get real: I’m going to vote Rubio.

Well, according to the Real Clear Politics poll average, Trump replaced Jeb Bush as the front-runner on July 20, and stayed on top not for just a few weeks, but until November 4. And then, it wasn’t Bush or Rubio who passed him (Walker being long gone, along with fellow mainstream GOP candidate Rick Perry). No, in the November 4 average, Ben Carson took the lead with 24.8% to Trump’s 24.6%. [1]

To me, that’s a sign not that things are settling down, but that they’ve wobbled even further off course.

The Music Man. When I think of Donald Trump, the word that comes to mind is huckster. He’s a darker version of Harold Hill from The Music Man, spinning a vision of how fantastic things will be if people do what he wants. Right now we’re looking at trouble in River City, but after we elect him America will be great again. There will be lots of good jobs for real Americans, because he’ll throw out all the Mexicans who are stealing them now, and build a big, beautiful wall to stop any more from coming in. Don’t worry about what that wall will cost, because Mexico will pay for it (from its vast storehouse of wealth). China will stop dumping cheap stuff into our economy, Putin will behave, and we’ll finally crush ISIS. Taxes will be low, and we won’t have to do without any important government service, but there won’t be a deficit.

What’s not to like? [2]  After I hear Trump speak, I can’t get “76 Trombones” out of my head.

It’s hard to be a good huckster, though, if you don’t also know a lot about how the real world works. So if you look inside Trump’s business empire, I’ll bet somewhere you’ll find a legal department that hires lawyers and an accounting department full of accountants. Middle management probably includes a lot of MBAs. I haven’t noticed any of his flashy buildings falling down, so I suspect they are designed by architects and built by engineers.

That’s why, although I would expect a Trump administration to do a lot of things I wouldn’t like, I picture it doing them in a fairly sensible way. Whatever crazy things he had to say to get elected, once he was in office he’d get his economic advice from economists, his military advice from generals, and so on. His priorities would be misguided and some people would get hurt, but we’ve survived bad presidents before.

Carson is different. When you watch Ben Carson, it’s tempting to view him through the lens of Trump, as this Nick Anderson cartoon does: They say similarly crazy things, but in different styles.

But this week Carson had two major bursts of bad publicity, and in one of them [3] we see a personality type very different and far more dangerous than the huckster: Ben Carson is a crackpot.

Now, we’ve had reason to suspect Carson of crackpottery for some time, because his whole campaign has been a fountain of strange notions: The Holocaust wouldn’t have happened if Germany’s Jews had been armed; anarchy might force the 2016 elections to be cancelled; Russian president Putin, Palestinian leader Abbas, and Iranian leader Khamenei were all students together in 1968; Medicare and Medicaid fraud amounts to half a trillion dollars; Satan motivated Darwin to create the theory of evolution; and the signers of the Declaration of Independence had no elected office experience. He found fault with the victims of a mass shooting. He told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly: “I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.” He wants to use the Department of Education to police liberal (but not conservative) bias at colleges and universities (and justified the need for such policing by citing an event that didn’t quite happen the way he claimed).

But even the odd sound bites don’t capture the weird vibe you’ll pick up if you listen to longer chunks of Carson’s speeches. He has the crackpot’s way of saying certain common phrases as if they had an occult meaning. Political correctness, for example, is far more sinister than just an exaggerated fear of giving offense, and secular progressives are much more dangerous than just liberals who don’t go to church. Why? I haven’t been initiated into that priesthood, so I can’t guess.

Many of his stranger ideas come from a Cold War era kook, W. Cleon Skousen, a man that even the conservative National Review has characterized as an “all-around nutjob“. In an interview with Alan Colmes, Carson recommended reading Skousen’s 1958 conspiracy-theory screed The Naked Communist as a way to see the connections between Hitler’s Mein Kampf, the writings of Lenin, Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, and the Obama administration. [4]

Pyramids. This week all doubt about Carson’s crackpottery was removed when Buzzfeed unearthed a 15-minute clip from the commencement speech Carson gave at Andrews University in 1998.

At around the 3-minute mark, he starts talking about the career of the Biblical patriarch Joseph as prime minister of Egypt, building up a grain surplus from the seven fat years to eat during the seven lean years. Andrews is a religious institution (associated with Carson’s own Seventh Day Adventist denomination), so recounting a famous Bible story is a perfectly reasonable thing for a commencement speaker to do. But then Carson goes off the rails and starts talking about the pyramids. As you listen, bear three things in mind:

  • The pyramids aren’t any part of the Joseph story as recounted in the Bible. Nor do they figure in any other Bible story; the Bible is pyramid-free.
  • Nobody asked Carson about the pyramids.
  • The pyramids don’t seem to have anything to do with the overall themes of his speech.

In other words, he just saw a microphone in front of him and decided to lay this bit of wisdom on his audience:

My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids in order to store grain. Now, all the archaeologists think that they were made for the pharaohs’ graves. But, you know, it would have to be something awfully big — when you stop and think about it, and I don’t think it would just disappear over the course of time — to store that much grain. And when you look at the way the pyramids are made, with many chambers that are hermetically sealed, they would have to be that way for a reason.

And, you know, various scientists have said, “Well, you know, there were alien beings that came down, and they had special knowledge and that’s how [garbled, maybe ‘they arose’].” And, you know, it doesn’t require an alien being when God is with you. And that’s really the key. People may not even be able to explain what it is that you’re accomplishing. But they don’t have to be able to explain it when God is there. All you have to do is accept His presence, and His total understanding of everything and link yourself with that.

All the archaeologists think one thing, but I’m a smart guy, so why shouldn’t I have a different opinion and include it in my commencement speech, even though I have no idea what I’m talking about? (He’s not joking; nobody laughs.)

And the competing theory Carson rejects — and attributes to “scientists” — is that aliens built the pyramids. (Though, I suppose, if you imagine the pyramids being built during a seven-year period, you’d need more-than-human tech.) I mean, run the experiment yourself: Google “aliens built the pyramids”. You don’t get references from Nature or Scientific American. You get a rival camp of crackpots.

This is not some unfair reference to Carson’s misspent youth. (Every interesting person has believed something weird if you go back far enough. Heck, I used to be a libertarian.) When asked, Carson verified that, yes, he still believes Joseph built the pyramids. Present-day Ben Carson attributes criticism of his pyramid theory to those ubiquitous “secular progressives”, and so tries to turn it into an argument about religion and exploit the persecution complex many conservative Christians share: Are we saying a Biblical literalist can’t be president? How is that different from a statement Carson took heat for, that a Muslim shouldn’t be president?

But the point is far simpler than that, and doesn’t depend on bias against any particular religion or even religion in general: A crackpot shouldn’t be president. I don’t care if he or she is Christian, Muslim, atheist, or whatever. If (as Paul Waldman puts it) your beliefs are “impervious to evidence” and you hold them with an “an alarming lack of what we might call epistemological modesty”, then you shouldn’t be president. [5]

Contempt for expertise. Carson’s I-thought-about-this-for-five-minutes opposition to “all the archaeologists” is a symptom of a larger problem: his contempt for people who study things and know them more deeply than Carson does. Consider this recent Carson tweet:

It is important to remember that amateurs built the Ark and it was the professionals that built the Titanic.

In the context of the pyramid quote, you realize that this isn’t just a quip. Carson really means it: Noah’s Flood is a historical event, and the Ark is one of the great achievements of ancient engineering — more evidence of what you can accomplish when God is with you.

In interview after interview, Carson proves that he hasn’t bothered to study for the presidency; he seems to believe that a president doesn’t need to understand things any better than he already does. Marketplace‘s Kai Ryssdal interviewed him on economic issues, and the transcript makes scary reading. When asked about raising the debt ceiling, Carson seems not to grasp what it is, talking instead about refusing to increase the budget. And when asked what he would cut to balance the budget, he offers nothing, and doesn’t even seem to think it would be his job to do so.

Take every departmental head, or sub-department head and tell them, “I want a 3 to 4 percent reduction.” Now anybody who tells me there’s not 3 to 4 percent fat in virtually everything that we do is fibbing to themselves. … They would have to find a place to cut. … I would provide the kind of leadership that says, “Get on the stick guys, and stop messing around, and cut where you need to cut, because we’re not raising any spending limits, period.”

Because, apparently, no previous president has thought to tell Congress or the bureaucracy to “get on the stick”.

He has proposed a flat tax (based on the Biblical notion of tithing), but doesn’t know what the rate will be. When challenged during the CNBC debate by moderator Becky Quick, who thought his plan would blow a hole in the budget even at the highest rate he has considered (15%), he told her that her math was wrong. It wasn’t.

The Carson cabinet. Think about what all this portends for a Carson presidency. Unlike Trump, he wouldn’t be looking for advice from economists or generals or constitutional lawyers, or from people who speak foreign languages and study foreign cultures and know the history of the conflicts we’re getting involved in. Those “experts” are like the builders of the Titanic. Instead, President Carson would be looking at potential cabinet members and asking “Is God with them?”. If so, then he’d count on them to build whatever arks or pyramids America needs.

That doesn’t sound like The Music Man, it sounds like the Children’s Crusade of the 13th century.

A boy began preaching in either France or Germany claiming that he had been visited by Jesus and told to lead a Crusade to peacefully convert Muslims to Christianity. Through a series of supposed portents and miracles he gained a considerable following, including possibly as many as 30,000 children. He led his followers south towards the Mediterranean Sea, in the belief that the sea would part on their arrival, allowing him and his followers to march to Jerusalem, but this did not happen. They were sold to two merchants (Hugh the Iron and William of Posqueres) who gave free passage on boats to as many of the children as were willing, but they were actually either taken to Tunisia and sold into slavery by the cruel merchants, or died in a shipwreck on San Pietro Island off Sardinia during a gale.

A crackpot president poses a far greater danger than a huckster president. The huckster knows that he’s spinning a yarn, and understands that he’s going to have to finagle something when his story starts meeting the real world. But the crackpot doesn’t grasp this. He’ll walk right onto his invisible bridge and plunge into the abyss. And anybody who follows will plunge in after him.

[1] By Saturday, Trump had regained a similarly tiny lead. It’ll probably take a week or so for this to settle out.

[2] Unless, of course, you’re one of those Mexicans he’ll throw out, or care about any of them. So Trump’s vision looks good — to steal a phrase from a recent novel — “not counting the people who don’t count”.

[3] The kerfuffle I’m not going to say much about centers on a variety of anecdotes contained in Carson’s autobiography Gifted Hands. CNN went looking for other people who might have remembered these incidents, and couldn’t find any.  Politico claimed Carson had admitted one of them was false, but then had to tone down its headline, though it claims it stands by the story.

Let me explain why these reports don’t bother me: When Carson wrote Gifted Hands in 1992, the point was to tell an inspiring up-from-poverty story, not to build a case for becoming president. He wanted black kids in dodgy situations to realize that it wasn’t too late to turn their lives around and do something fantastic. So if he exaggerated how bad his life got before he turned it around to become a famous surgeon, that’s like a perfectly trim fitness instructor fibbing about how fat a slob she used to be.

I’m not inclined to hang him for it, because the overall story of Gifted Hands is still true: He was born into a bad situation and succeeded anyway. (But the NYT’s Charles Blow takes a harsher view.)

Now, his response to these criticisms — attributing them to “the liberal media” or “secular progressives”, and shooting back by referring to weird theories about Obama’s past that the press supposedly let slide — does bear on the crackpot question.

[4] Having finally read Rules for Radicals, I suspect Carson gets all his information about it from somebody else, probably fellow Skousen fan Glenn Beck. The book itself bears no resemblance to what Carson says about it.

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.

There is no way that Carson has actually read the book, if this is what he thinks it says. A more accurate summary of Alinsky’s views is in his Playboy interview, done shortly before his death.

My only fixed truth is a belief in people, a conviction that if people have the opportunity to act freely and the power to control their own destinies, they’ll generally reach the right decisions. The only alternative to that belief is rule by an elite, whether it’s a Communist bureaucracy or our own present-day corporate establishment.

[5] As a further example of “lack of epistemological modesty”, Waldman references a later part of the commencement address, when Carson relates how he stumped a scientist with a simple question:

Would you just reconcile those two things for me, the Big Bang and entropy? Well of course he has no answer for that.

Carson repeated that anecdote almost word-for-word this September, which caused FactCheck.org to produce the answer Carson’s scientist couldn’t. It’s not that complicated, for people who want to understand it. I sincerely doubt that the conversation Carson describes really happened, because no scientist worthy of the name would be flustered by Carson’s question.

This stumping-the-scientist-with-an-obvious-question story is one of the mythic anecdotes you will hear often if you hang around in fundamentalist and evangelical circles. Others include the-famous-atheist-who-converted-on-his-deathbed and the-skeptic-who-set-out-to-list-all-the-Bible’s-contradictions-and-instead-found-God. The names and circumstances in the stories change, but the motifs have been around for centuries. They are basically religious urban legends. (So no: Christopher Hitchens did not convert on his deathbed; neither did David Hume or Thomas Paine.)

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  • Anonymous  On November 9, 2015 at 9:04 am

    Thank you, a great analysis coming at just the right time. All thinking people, regardless of their political party, need to read your blog!

  • Bob Idstein  On November 9, 2015 at 9:30 am

    Outstanding piece.

  • JELC  On November 9, 2015 at 9:41 am

    “stump the scientist” often means the scientist said “I’m a biologist, I don’t really know much about the big bang or entropy, so you’d do better to ask a physicist” or something like that.

    I have seen this exchange happen so many times it’s infuriating:
    “skeptic”: “prove to me that this is true”
    person who is informed on the topic: “well, you could look at these studies/experiments/first hand accounts that show it”
    “skeptic”: “I knew you couldn’t prove it”

    • Jacquie Mardell  On November 9, 2015 at 2:38 pm

      Or “skeptic”: We can’t really know for sure because research can be faulty.

  • Jacquie Mardell  On November 9, 2015 at 2:37 pm

    I look forward to this post every Monday. How do we explain Carson’s apparent willingness to accept the medical science he had to learn to become successful – also not to kill people on the table – alongside his unwillingness to accept scientific rigor in all other areas. Could he really just be trolling us all? Also, one assumes that since surgeons generally pick their surgical teams, Carson’s OR is staffed with people who know what they are doing, similar to Trump’s companies. If his team were no good, he would not have been as successful as he was, and even he must know that.

    • jh  On November 10, 2015 at 7:48 pm

      We have computer aided surgery units. I envision a future in which computers will play a greater role in surgery. It’s not that the computer has to accept or acknowledge the theory of evolution. It merely has to do the jobs within a particular parameter.

      Carson is just a walking machine who was programmed to do surgery. He is no different from a mechanic who fixes my car. I doubt my mechanic needs to know the law of thermodynamics in order to fix what’s wrong with my engine. Carson is a human brain mechanic. No more, no less. (And personally – of the two, I think my mechanic is far more intelligent than Carson.)

  • Abby  On November 9, 2015 at 9:17 pm

    I have been posed a similar stump-the-scientist question, which is about reconciling evolution and entropy. This is also an very easy question to answer. But I have found that I tend to get multiple interuptions while I’m trying to give my (very short and easy to follow) answer, and if I become impatient with multiple interuptions then I’m told not to be so angry. In other words, the subject gets changed to how the scientist (me) is badly behaved. I’ve usually found that telling them that I get pissy about multiple interuptions is a surprisingly effective response. But then they just want us to be friends, so they rarely hear the actual answer to their original question.

  • Larry Benjamin  On November 10, 2015 at 6:23 am

    If Carson is nominated, his first real test will be who he picks as his VP. If he’s taking advice from the same people he is now, it should tell us a lot – whether he goes with common sense and picks someone like John Kasich, or if he does what he really wants and picks Rush Limbaugh or the guy from “Duck Dynasty.”

    • weeklysift  On November 10, 2015 at 7:29 am

      My prediction is in between: He picks a white Tea Party senator who is outside the McConnell establishment. Probably either Ted Cruz or Mike Lee.


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