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May 15, 2014 1:43 PM The Cain Train of ‘16

By Ed Kilgore

Every presidential cycle, Al Franken’s 1999 comic account of an imaginary presidential campaign, Why Not Me?, gets a little less funny in its absurdities, and not just because Franken is now a U.S. Senator who could plausibly run for president. The bar for a “viable” presidential candidate was most dramatically lowered in 2012, when pizza entrepreneur and radio gabber Herman Cain briefly led the polls for the Republican nomination to become Leader of the Free World. (Yes, Donald Trump led a couple of early random polls the same cycle, but that’s mainly because he was a mega-celebrity with close to 100% name ID).

There’s no telling how many dramatically underqualified people will run for president in 2016 and ascend from the anonymous ranks of cranks and perennial candidates whose campaigns toil in perpetual obscurity. Some, like former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, may even have minimal on-paper credentials and thereby muscle his way onto debate platforms. But the candidate of that nature most likely to make a splash is Dr. Ben Carson, a distinguished neurosurgeon and philanthropist (and also a conservative Christian motivational speaker and writer) who’s become the Latest Big Thing on the conservative defying-the-left circuit.

As you may know, Carson got his first big push into the political spotlight by giving a National Prayer Breakfast speech in 2013 that seemed to many delighted conservatives to represent an extended nose-thumbing gesture aimed at President Obama, who was sitting nearby. Most importantly, he articulated two “big ideas” (a justification of a flat tax via the biblical idea of the “tithe,” and a cradel-to-grave health savings account) that led the Wall Street Journal to run an editorial of praise with the self-consciously whimsical headline: “Ben Carson for President.” Next thing you knew, Carson was wowin’ em at a CPAC conference, writing a political book and hitting the above-mentioned circuit of conservative speaking opportunities to celebrate his and his audiences’ collective courage in standing up to Obama and “the left.”

Now that reliable expositor of the conservative CW, the Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes, reports that Carson is getting serious about a presidential run, which he describes more or less as a trip down the road to Golgotha:

“It’s a daunting thing,” he told me. “I know how vehemently the left will come after you, try to destroy you, try to destroy your family. But at the same time I recognize that people like Nathan Hale - he said, ‘My only regret is I have but one life to give to my country’ … And if everybody runs for the hills because they’re afraid that somebody is going to attack them or their family, then [the left] will have won.”

And again:

[I]f you believe that life begins at conception and that that is a wonderful progression from that fertilized egg to a human being who is active and interactive in only nine months time, then you’re anti-woman. And if you believe in traditional families and the strength of traditional marriage then you have to be a homophobe. And of course none of those things are true by any stretch of the imagination, but by stoking those fires, you shut people up and they’re afraid to say what they believe because they don’t want to be labeled with those labels. It’s intimidation, that’s all it is, intimidation. I’ve just decided that I’m not going to be intimidated, and of course they don’t like that very much. And they’ve tried to intimidate me into silence but it’s just not going to work, because the more they do it, the more vocal I’m going to be.”

Now before you fall down laughing over the idea that antichoice and anti-marriage equality conservatives—who are rather heavily represented in the ranks of those who run the U.S. House of Representatives, a majority of state governments, and may well run the U.S. Senate after November—are a persecuted sect who rely on Carson to stand up for their silenced beliefs—it’s important to observe that Dr. Carson is also an African-American. Among African-Americans, of course, many (though hardly all) of Carson’s opinions are distinctly unpopular, which means he can by some transitive property loan his alleged persecution to heavily white conservative audiences who like to imagine they are endangered because Phil Robertson lost his TV show. Even better, people like Carson can and do absolve them of any racist motives when they complain about those people on welfare, and indeed accuse white liberals of being the real bigots.

Herman Cain played exactly the same “reverse race card” in 2012. But at least he had a signature tax idea, bad as it was. Unless Carson is going to make the HSA For Life his own equivalent of 9-9-9, it seems likely he will be even more overtly than Cain a pure instrument for conservative resentment and—if you will forgive the unavoidable term—whitewashing.

Because of the good Ben Carson has done in his life, I sincerely hope he decides that God has not, after all, called him to a presidential campaign where he will inescapably be cast in a morally dubious role as the Black Avenger for White Self-Pity. At the very best, he can launch the next version of the Cain Train, momentarily thrilling and frightening the political world with the prospect of a presidential nominee whose main qualification for office is being the anti-Obama.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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