By Christopher Hooks
Ben Carson is having a bad night of it on the GOP debate stage. It’s four days before the Iowa caucuses, and seven candidates are facing off in Des Moines to make one last pitch before the primary’s first results come in. Donald Trump is absent, creating space for the others to maneuver. Yesterday, Carson promised Fox News that this time he would be “even more aggressive.”
But he speaks only five times. As in previous appearances, he seems by turns sedate and a little loopy. He calls Russian president Vladimir Putin a “one-horse country” and blows easy chances to score points. When he’s asked to respond to a video message from an immigrant, a chance either to talk tough on the border or express compassion for new Americans, Carson seems … surprised? He drowsily pipes up, then starts talking about ISIS.
Following a late-summer bloom — he briefly led polls in Iowa — the Carson campaign is imploding. Predatory figures are sucking money from his supporters and lining their pockets. Top staffers have quit, or been fired, and defected to rival campaigns. A week before the debate, a 25-year-old Texas Tech student named Braden Joplin lost his life in a car accident on his way to Iowa to help Carson. The campaign itself is a punch line, spinning its bus wheels in Middle America. It’s humiliating, almost hellish. There will be no happy ending. Why is Ben Carson still here?
The idea that Carson could actually be elected president seems self-evidently ludicrous to nearly everybody. No person in American history has attained that rank without previously holding elected office, a top government post, or a high-ranking military commission. Carson was, until recently, a surgeon whose dressing-down of President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast went viral among conservatives. He’s a YouTube star, in effect.
Carson’s only hope now is to transcend the path of failure traveled by former “outsider” candidates like Fred Thompson in 2008 and Herman Cain in 2012. Somehow, Carson retains the loyalty of 7 to 10 percent of likely Republican caucusgoers, according to most polls. Most years, that wouldn’t matter, but it has left some of his fellow candidates worried. Less than a week out, Donald Trump looks like he might win Iowa, which, coupled with his huge leads in the next states to vote, could set him on a path to the nomination.
The only other candidate with a reasonable chance is Texas senator Ted Cruz, but he trails Trump by a few points in most polls. He’ll need votes from evangelicals, who make up the majority of Carson’s supporters. In the debate spin room, Congressman Steve King, Cruz’s most prominent surrogate in the state, tells the media it’s time for Carson’s run to end. He’s a nice guy, Ben. But the sooner he wakes up to reality, the better for everyone.
“We know he is a decent and a faithful man,” he says. “But it isn’t going to work for him.”
What must make this particularly painful for Carson is the damage it has done to his reputation. Before he entered politics, Carson enjoyed a sort of civil sainthood in Michigan, where he grew up in extreme poverty, and in Baltimore, where he was the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins from 1984 to 2013. An archetype of a particular kind of self-made man, he made millions telling and retelling his inspirational story to others.
Now, most of the country knows him solely for this strange and ineffective run, along with the mountain of opposition research dug up by rival campaigns and spread gleefully on social media. The blows keep coming, in surprising places. Electronic billboards around the state flash social messages about the candidates. On the day of the debate, one pops up on I-80: "It seems like Ben Carson learned everything he knows about foreign policy from playing Call of Duty."
The next day, 115 miles east of Des Moines at the University Athletic Club in Iowa City, Carson seems to be trying to remind himself why he’s still at it.
“People say to me, is it really worth going through all the things that you have to go through to run for president of the United States? People attacking you, attacking your character, attacking your family? It’s a tremendous grind. Is it all worth it? And the answer is — no.” The audience laughs, and then Carson does too. “Not if you’re doing it for yourself. However. If you have a bigger purpose, it is definitely worth it.”
Carson has the attention of a few dozen residents and a scattering of reporters, at the beginning of a multi-day tour to close out his campaign in the state. Today he’ll visit eastern and southeastern Iowa; tomorrow the northwest; the next day, the north; and he’ll close out his campaign in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines. It’s not the most grueling schedule for a presidential candidate, but it’s a lot of effort to expend for what will almost certainly be a crushing loss.
Almost as surprising as Carson’s sustained presence in the race is his popularity, modest as it is. He doesn’t have a deep political background from which to grow a network of partisans. His perpetual calm doesn’t stir crowds to a frenzy like his louder and more successful opponents can. To say that he’s not angry is not to say that he’s moderate: He hits many of the same points as Trump and Cruz, indicting “political correctness” and flirting with hardline positions, like his willingness to consider denying treatment for PTSD to non-citizen veterans.
But he’s unrelentingly pleasant, packaging every position with a serene smile. On TV, he can come off like a weirdo. In person, Carson sometimes seems like an old-fashioned Chautauqua speaker, traveling the land advocating for a particular kind of American exceptionalism. In Iowa City, his terrible debate showing behind him, Carson is outwardly unperturbed. Introduced by Senator Chuck Grassley, he wanders out and begins speaking in almost hypnotic tones.
As a pediatric neurosurgeon, Carson says, he operated on generations of children in the city of Baltimore. He’d fix them, or try to, but what came after wore on him: He’d watch them grow. “You put them back into an environment that’s not healthy,” he says. “And I couldn’t stand the thought of retiring, knowing that.” Carson's life’s work was healing bodies; now, in retirement, he would nurse the American soul. His campaign event signage would make just as much sense above the entrance to a spa or on a bottle of vitamin tonic: “Heal — Restore — Revive.” His campaign bus ambles around the state emblazoned with a similar promise: “Dr. Carson: Rx for America.”
Despite fevered claims to the contrary, politicians don’t generally set out to fix America. Rather, they look to exploit openings with which to further ideologies. Trump found a seam of anger to exploit in the Republican base, so he did. Cruz sees the conservative movement like Carson sees a brain — as a living system susceptible to incisions, manipulations, and alterations. Next to the front-runners, Carson’s stated goals seem old-fashioned, even silly.
But Carson’s more mystical objectives seem to be sincere, and they are totalizing. At events, this feeling is amplified by Secret Service protection. In the lead-up to Iowa, Carson is one of just two candidates, along with Trump, to be accompanied by a little black-suited platoon everywhere he goes. When he hops on a stage, they’ll stand with him, or just to either side, visible to all. They watch you watching him. Campaigns like to have Secret Service protection to make their candidate look presidential. But in Carson’s case, their presence also conveys visually that here is something worth saving, as if they are the ritual honor guard of a prophet. They also prevent Carson from talking to the people freely; he’s always behind a rope line, like a museum piece.
What is it that Ben Carson is selling, exactly? A miracle cure for America’s ailments: himself. It’s not the first time he’s done this kind of pitchwork. For nearly a decade, up until 2013, Carson offered his services and reputation to Mannatech, a shady Texas company that peddled snake-oil medicine with a biblical gloss. He even credited Mannatech for helping to cure his prostate cancer. Now, instead of shillling Mannatech’s proprietary “glyconutrients,” he’s selling his version of America, a more formidable product.
Carson’s standard pitch has a couple of key components. One is the story he tells about America, a children’s treasury pop-up book with rounded edges and soft colors. “We declared our independence in 1776. Less than 100 years later, we’re the number one economic power in the world. And 100 years, 500 years, 1,000 years, 5,000 years before America came on the scene, people did things the same way,” Carson says. “Within 200 years of America coming on the scene, men were walking on the moon. Think about that. We completely changed the trajectory of mankind.”
It’s not quite right, is it? Did America get rich solely because of its values, or also because of ample resources, stolen lands, subjugated populations, and the Industrial Revolution? Does the Soviet space program justify the cruelties of the czars? But his version is the story people want to hear.
The central tenet of Carson’s gospel is his belief in common sense, which exists in a symbiotic relationship with his grasp of history. You might believe that the problems facing this country — the problems of the world today — are complicated. Other candidates try to win you over by demonstrating their deep and specialized knowledge, or their pretensions to it.
Carson believes that the problems are simple, and that the country is in trouble only because its leaders lack common sense. It’s the attitude of a very able man in his field, dipping into another discipline for the first time, convinced he’s cracked it. Several times in Iowa, Carson compares himself to King Solomon, the biblical avatar of god-given wisdom. (Solomon famously threatened to split a baby in half, and Carson has separated conjoined twins. Coincidence?)
In Carson’s telling, American leaders used to have common sense. He flattens them for his purposes, folding them into his grand national narrative. On immigration, he says, “I believe in the Teddy Roosevelt philosophy: Anybody's welcome as long as they accept our principles, our values, and our laws. And if they don’t, then they should stay where they are. I don’t see anything wrong with that. I don’t think that’s prejudicial in any way.”
Of course, Roosevelt’s views were a bit more complex. He thought white people were the “forward race,” and he worried white women who refused to reproduce were committing “race suicide,” ceding the country to alien cultures. He was in some ways a nativist — part of the same nativist tradition that colors our immigration debate today, and important to remember. Carson omits those strains of Roosevelt’s ideology and renders him a kind of modern-day compassionate conservative.
There’s one bit in particular that Carson trots out at every event in Iowa. Here’s how he told it in Iowa City:
“Joseph Stalin said, if you want to bring America down, you have to destroy her from the inside. You have to do that by attacking three fundamentals. Her faith, her patriotism, and her morality,” he said. “Do you notice those are the exact things that are going on in our society today? The enemy of stopping that is political correctness.”
Stalin never said this: It’s the kind of anecdote that gets passed around in chain emails. But Carson’s soft approach and warm voice makes him a particularly effective propagator of conservative truths — and “truths” — in front of small crowds.
At Iowa Wesleyan University in Mt. Pleasant, 51 miles south of Iowa City, in an auditorium straight out of the old-time religion of The Music Man — muted colors, dark wood, a U-shaped balcony, the feeling of a little church — Carson’s sermon burbles out again.
“Is it worth it? Well, no. Not if you’re doing it for yourself.” The Stalin thing, then on to socialism: “All those [socialist] countries end up looking the same way. A small group of elites that control everything. A rapidly vanishing middle class. And a vastly expanded dependent class.”
It’s a curious description of the American present, inasmuch as it could be given by Bernie Sanders, complaining about capitalism. Carson’s cure: Return as many government functions as possible to the “private sector.” That and the restoration of America’s moral universe would set people right.
“America is a land of dreams,” he tells the crowd, almost purring now. “An incredible place.”
Voters want simple answers. But it’s hard to travel Iowa and ignore the wounds that drive this anger and desire for change. The nation’s injuries have complex causes. Across the railroad tracks, on Mt. Pleasant’s main city square, there’s a sparse bar called Rumors. A friend and I sit to wait for the next event, and a woman named Tammy comes up to talk about the town.
So many factories have closed in the last 10 to 15 years that she has trouble remembering them: She keeps repeating their names and describing them, trying to remember others. Heatilator, which made fireplaces; the Motorola plant; an electronics plant owned by Celestica; and a Bluebird factory that made big yellow school buses, where she once worked. Jobs have evaporated, and Mt. Pleasant is a small town. “I think it sends more people to the military,” she says. “There’s nothing else to do.”
Perhaps the worst for the community, though, was the closing of the local state-run psychiatric facility, ordered in 2015 by Iowa’s long-serving Republican governor, Terry Branstad. “You have to go up to Iowa City to get mental health care, and if you don’t have health insurance you don’t get help. I tell you what, there’s a lot of crazy people out there,” Tammy said. “A lot of them ended up in jail.” She buys us a round of Budweisers to take back to our hotel.
Is Carson’s candidacy a scam? It’s not an unfair question. All kinds of campaigns in America are started and run with no hope of victory, their primary impact being to make money for the consultants that work on them. Carson appears to be surrounded — both among friends and in the outside groups that have emerged to support him — by a variety of unscrupulous types, most notably Armstrong Williams, a venal and compromised man who once took $240,000 from the second Bush administration to promote its education policies on his TV show.
When it comes to the running of his campaign, Carson does not seem, from the outside, to be a particularly good judge of character, an effective manager, or a strong political mind. That’s the most charitable read. At worst, he’s getting his friends rich at the expense of his fans. A number of people who are not especially political love Carson, and they donate to causes that support him. Their personal information, collected by groups not with the campaign, can be a lucrative asset. One PAC supporting Carson is selling this information to pay consultants and friendly vendors. Another PAC raised money off the death of the young Carson volunteer.
The question persists: Why bother? Carson’s family doesn’t want for money: He’s worth some $26 million. The life of a losing candidate sucks, and he doesn’t particularly seem to enjoy the spotlight. In Baltimore, he went out of his way to avoid political attention: In 1992, he appeared in an ad for some pro-life campaigners in Maryland. Soon after, he held a press conference to apologize for it. "I don’t believe that it is appropriate for a public figure of my nature to try to tell people how to vote," he said.
The next day, Carson makes his way to Algona, 268 miles northwest of Mt. Pleasant, stopping first at a public school. In keeping with the Chautauqua theme, the inscription above the door of this building reads: “These doors are open to all who wish to learn.” Secret Service agents are everywhere. The speech is much the same as before, but when the Q&A comes around, the first questioner asks, politely: Who will you support if the time comes to drop out?
“As far as who represents my values, I have a difficult time with that one, because I know a lot of stuff that you don’t know,” Carson says. The audience laughs. “About people, and what they do, and how they try to sabotage you under the covers. I’ve become a little disillusioned with a lot of people that I used to think were OK. I’ll just leave it at that.”
Carson’s professed political innocence is a motif that comes up again and again. Can you believe, he asks audiences, that his fellow Republicans attack him? It seems to boggle his mind that they play hardball. A little later, Carson’s Iowa campaign director, Ryan Rhodes, picks up a faulty mic to haltingly explain that other campaigns have lied about Carson’s pro-life credentials. He’s effectively reminding Carson to talk about it, which works. It’s a weird moment that wouldn’t happen at a Rubio or Cruz rally, where the stump speeches are machined and seamless.
But to the faithful, that’s a core part of Carson’s appeal. “I felt like he was talking directly to us. He wasn’t talking above us,” says Algona resident Mike Kirby after the event. The only other candidate he’d seen was Rubio. “He says all the right things but it’s like he’s part of a package. Dr. Carson seemed like he’s talking from his heart.”
Carson next stops in Sioux Center, 121 miles to the west, at Dordt College. It’s a freezing and windy day, and the college grounds have a pristine and sterile feel. The event is held in the student center, a beautiful multi-story building whose windows and ambient white light give it the feel of a church, with Carson’s murmuring voice and the clipped sounds of his consonants echoing off the walls.
He starts by telling the audience, filled with college students and young families, that he grew up “very poor.”
“In the ghetto. Sirens and gangs. Broken glass. Winos. Murders. Rats. The thing that really impressed me were the roaches, though,” he says. “Not only would they crawl on your table, they’d crawl in your cereal box. So if you were eating Raisin Bran, you really had to know what those brown things were.” It’s not a typical stump speech. Some of the students onstage with Carson seem shocked.
Afterward, Carson takes a question from a confident young woman in the front row, who quotes the Bible and then asks: “How do you feel about candidates who use their faith to gain voters?” She’d come off like a plant in another campaign, but the idea of Carson’s outfit being that organized seems far-fetched.
“I think it’s abominable, quite frankly,” says Carson. “I’m not using any names. But some of the people who claim to be great, righteous religious people: Look at their lives.” He quotes the Bible passage he uses repeatedly to describe Cruz. “Jesus said, you will know them by the fruit that they bear. Some of my colleagues that run for president have done some pretty despicable things.” In particular, other campaigns had done much to spread what he deemed misinformation about Carson’s pro-life credentials. They knowingly told lies, Carson said. “I just don’t respect people who would do something like that.”
Voters claim to want authenticity from all candidates. But the candidates that are doing the best in Iowa are among the least authentic. Cruz, who seems to have played the character of a man running for president since the moment he was born, is among them. Carson’s Sioux Center event ends at 4:30. At that moment, across town, the Cruz campaign is kicking off a rally, headlined by Glenn Beck and Phil Robertson, better known as Duck Dynasty’s Duck Commander. One of Cruz’s supporting PACs prints up sharply designed posters for the event in the style of a wrestling promotion.
Later, in Sioux Center, Cruz holds another rally. He speaks to about four times as many members of the press as have joined Carson in total the last two days. He gives the same mechanical chuckle to every tough question. Once the rally begins, it takes 11 introductory speakers and 100 minutes to properly prepare the stage for Cruz. Representative King turns up, again warning people in explicit terms not to vote for Carson or other non-Cruz social conservatives.
The Duck Commander leads the crowd, outfitted with complimentary branded duck whistles, in a duck call. Beck totes what he claims is George Washington’s copy of Don Quixote and talks at length about the American Revolution. Only then does Cruz, a Harvard- and Princeton-educated lawyer whose first campaign for Senate was partially bankrolled by Goldman Sachs and Citibank, deign to appear. The audience roars. He’s heading for a win.
Caucus day gets off to another bad start for Carson. He’s been doing little events here and there — a steak joint in Manchester, population 5,000; a pizza place in Decorah, population 8,000. Carson’s last big chance to make a mark before the caucuses start is at a GOP event in downtown Cedar Rapids. All of the candidates have been invited, and Carson is scheduled to speak just after one of Trump’s rallies. But a thick layer of fog descends on east central Iowa, preventing Carson’s little plane from getting through. A blizzard is coming. His volunteers sit idly around the lobby of the conference center. There’s a solitary table loaded with Carson swag, and five tables selling unofficial Trump gear.
Afternoon turns to evening. The caucuses begin at 7 p.m. Just after 6:45, a story breaks on social media: It looks to many like Carson, after months of thankless campaigning here, is effectively quitting before the first vote is tallied. He had been previously scheduled to take a brief trip home after the caucus ended, but now he’s flying early and speaking before the results come down.
The source of the story turns out to be CNN’s Chris Moody, who tweeted that Carson wouldn’t immediately be going to New Hampshire or South Carolina, in favor of a few days at home, before appearing at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. But by the time Moody’s report gains critical mass, it’s being reported and shared on social media that he’s effectively not going to campaign at all in the next primary states.
Immediately, the Cruz campaign and its supporters leap into action, including Representative King. The message is dispersed to surrogates: Carson is dropping out. In each caucus, a representative for each candidate speaks on their behalf before votes are counted. Cruz surrogates warn Carson’s supporters that their votes will be wasted.
Carson’s campaign, which doesn’t have the infrastructure and technical abilities of Cruz’s, can’t rebut in time. They tell reporters that Carson is going home just for a day, to get some “fresh clothes,” which precipitates a new round of mocking. At Carson’s caucus watch party, in a West Des Moines Marriott between a Motel 6 and another Marriott, full-on panic sets in. Carson’s campaign manager bursts into the press room just after the caucuses start. I’m the only one inside. He rushes over and tells me the CNN report is an “abject lie,” begging me to get the word out.
It’s too late to do much. After a while, Carson’s supporters begin to filter into the ballroom. They’ve come from all over to help the campaign, and they’re a surprisingly diverse bunch. They weren’t expecting a win here, but events of the night leave them feeling robbed anyway. They have similar stories about being undermined at the caucuses they attended, facing Cruz supporters armed with bad information, and they’re united by a new hatred for the senator.
There’s Kathy Steveson, from Tulsa, who’s been driving an RV around the state with her husband to help out the campaign. At the caucus they attended, they say, Cruz supporters tried to prevent them from speaking at all, exaggerating the CNN report. “[Cruz is] a snake. He’ll use any kind of tactics to win. I’ve always felt that way, and tonight confirmed it.”
Then there’s Lateresa Jones, from Detroit, who had a similar experience at the caucus she spoke at. Cruz’s character? “It ain’t shit. You can quote me on that.”
At a press conference to discuss the night’s events, the start of a feud that will be much discussed in the coming week, Iowa state representative Rob Taylor, a Carson supporter, threatens an investigation in the legislature. “This is horseshit,” he says.
Carson isn’t scheduled to appear at this presser, but he ambles in anyway. I wonder if he’s finally willing to talk about his opponent by name, so I ask: Is this the first time the Cruz campaign has tried to undermine you? Carson pauses. “I would say that a good investigative journalist should be able to find the answer to that.” The people around him are furious: He’s half-smiling, as always.
“This makes me more determined than ever to keep going,” he says. The battle for America’s soul is too important. The healing has yet to begin, and it must." What’s next? “I’m going to go and get a fresh change of clothes.” Then he’ll be back on the road.
When Carson takes the stage in the main room, he asks his supporters: “Do any of you think this is acceptable?” There’s shouts of “no” in the audience. But then he’s off into his dreamlike cadences again. He talks about Stalin. He talks about Mohammed and the history of Islam. He talks about Italian pension reform.
The networks aren’t covering it, but Carson doesn’t care. He’s got a room full of people and a message they need to hear. On Twitter, jokes fly about Ben Carson’s change of clothes. By the time Carson has finished speaking, Cruz has been declared the victor. Carson finishes a distant fourth. The medicine didn’t take this time, but the doctor would carry on.