Ben Carson probably won't become president. He's dropped from first to fourth place in Iowa in little over a month, and there are no signs he's regaining momentum. But win or lose, his candidacy matters. More than any candidate in 2008 and 2012, Carson was a true Tea Party candidate — not because he courts the votes of Tea Partiers, but because he is a Tea Partier, and came into politics as a part of that movement. In fact, everything about Carson makes more sense when you mark 2009 as the year in which his current political ideology came together. And Carson's candidacy makes way more sense when you consider that the most influential conservative in 2009 was Glenn Beck.
I don't mean to suggest that Carson wasn't right of center before 2009. He served on George W. Bush's Council on Bioethics, an overwhelmingly conservative body that allegedly dismissed a future Nobel Prize winner for her support of stem cell research; he was reportedly courted by Maryland Republicans to run for office; he told his friend, Yale classmate, and Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke that he was skeptical of the theory of evolution.
But he wasn't then who he is now. He wasn't going around talking about how gun rights could've prevented the Holocaust, proposing a biblically inspired flat tax, or arguing that the pyramids were built for grain storage. The mystery is how Carson went from a conservative but moderate and largely apolitical figure to the right-wing zealot he's known as today. And I think that has a lot to do with the particular pathologies of popular conservatism in 2009.
Why 2009 matters
In 2007, Carson appeared to hold views on health care not dissimilar to Barack Obama's. During at least two meetings of Bush's Council on Bioethics, he expressed support for an individual mandate requiring Americans to buy health insurance. "So the question becomes: Are there ways that we can perhaps get those costs down to a reasonable level?" he asked on June 28, 2007. "And by doing so, make insurance something that people can afford to buy? And if they can then afford to buy it, there is where the government perhaps comes in and makes it mandatory, just like it's mandatory for you to have automobile insurance."
According to New Yorker writer Kelefa Sanneh's excellent profile of Carson last month, things started to change when Obama was elected president, the Bioethics Council was disbanded, and Carson no longer had a voice in government. Carson tried and failed to get a meeting with Obama on the issue; the conservative columnist Armstrong Williams, a close friend and adviser of Carson's, told Sanneh that Obama's rebuff left Carson "very disappointed, and devastated." When Carson emerged as a right-wing darling in 2013 after assailing Obama's policies at the National Prayer Breakfast, Sanneh writes, it was "an expression of frustration, and also a final attempt to get through to a President who seemed intent on ignoring Carson’s expertise."
So if one were being radicalized in a conservative direction in 2009, what kind of ideas would he encounter? Well, among others, he'd encounter the ideas of Glenn Beck. The TV personality had jumped ship to Fox News just as the Obama administration began, and quickly emerged as the network's leading voice of opposition to the White House. Beck was different from Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity or the network's other conservative personalities. He was more conspiratorial, and more apocalyptic. O'Reilly would call a liberal he didn't like a "pinhead"; Beck would patiently explain how, using a plan drafted by Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven and carried out by ACORN and other allied groups, that liberal planned to undermine the Constitution and install a socialist dictatorship.
What Carson shares with Beck
Carson's presidential campaign has been marked by a procession of right-wing quips that mirror, sometimes precisely, claims that scandalized establishment media types when Beck was making them in 2009. Both of them like to imply that the Obama administration's policies could lead to a Nazi-style authoritarian regime. According to the Washington Post's Dana Milbank, during the first 14 months of Beck's show, he and his guests referenced fascism 172 times, Nazis 134 times, Hitler 115 times, the Holocaust 58 times, and Joseph Goebbels 8 times.
Amber Phillips, also at the Post, has compiled a similar list of over-the-top Nazi analogies from Carson. In January 2014, he urged, "There comes a time when people with values simply have to stand up. Think about Nazi Germany. … And if you believe the same thing can't happen again, you're very wrong." In March 2014, he reportedly told a crowd that the government today is "very much like Nazi Germany." Phillips found that as a candidate, Carson warned that "it could happen here" three separate times over the course of just over a week. Intriguingly, the first item on Phillips's list comes from 2009, just as Carson was veering right, per Sanneh's account.
It's not just the Nazi stuff. In April 2010, Beck condemned Obamacare as "the first step towards socialization — total government control of our health care system." In March 2013, Carson told Fox News viewers, "Vladimir Lenin, one of the founders of socialism and communism, he said socialized medicine is the keystone of the arch to the socialist state." (This is not a real Lenin quote.)
On November 6, after being called out for misrepresenting an alleged "offer" from West Point, Carson unloaded with this:
I do not remember this level of scrutiny for one President Barack Obama when he was running. In fact I remember just the opposite. I remember people saying, ‘Oh, we won’t really talk about that. We won’t talk about that relationship. Well, Frank Marshall Davis, 'Well, we don’t want to talk about that.' Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, 'Well, he didn't really know him.' All the things that Jeremiah Wright was saying, 'Oh, not a big problem.'
This is like a greatest hits of baseless Glenn Beck smears. Here's Beck railing against Obama's "communist mentor" Frank Marshall Davis. Here's him on Dohrn and Ayers. Here's him on Jeremiah Wright. He wasn't the only figure making these kinds of points, of course. Sarah Palin attacked Obama on Dohrn and Ayers during the 2008 campaign. Hillary Clinton made an issue of Wright. But Beck fixated on them long after most people had moved on.
On the origins of Constitution fetishism
The real clincher is Carson's reliance on the work of Cleon Skousen, a late Brigham Young University professor whom the journalist Ed Kilgore once aptly described as "an extremely sketchy right-wing character who lived on the far fringes of the conservative movement and of Mormonism." Skousen died in 2006, but his book The Five Thousand Year Leap shot to the top of Amazon's best-seller lists in March 2009, following aggressive promotion by none other than Glenn Beck. Beck biographer Alexander Zaitchik describes Skousen as Beck's "favorite writer" and Leap as the "bible" of Beck's 9/12 Movement.
Skousen's theories read like a prophecy of Beck rants to come. Leap, per Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, "assembles selective quotations and groundless assertions to claim that the U.S. Constitution is rooted not in the Enlightenment but in the Bible, and that the framers believed in minimal central government." This is, of course hogwash, as Wilentz notes: "Either proposition would have astounded James Madison, often described as the guiding spirit behind the Constitution, who rejected state-established religions and, like Alexander Hamilton, proposed a central government so strong that it could veto state laws."
Decades before Leap, Skousen wrote his first conspiracist classic, The Naked Communist. It envisioned a world in which Joseph McCarthy was, if anything, underselling the threat: Leftists the world over, but especially in the United States and within the Democratic party, were trying to undermine the nation from within. Skousen, anticipating the novel The Manchurian Candidate, which would be published two years later, claimed that the commies were assembling "a regimented breed of Pavlovian men whose minds could be triggered into immediate action by signals from their masters." He claimed FDR aide Harry Hopkins had given uranium to the USSR, that Sputnik was built with intelligence stolen from the US.
Later, in a book called The Naked Capitalist, he tied this Communist conspiracy to other traditional conspiracy theorist targets: the Ivy League, the Rockefellers, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Federal Reserve. Wilentz explains: "The conspiracy had begun, Skousen wrote, when reformers like the wealthy banker Edward M. (Colonel) House, a close adviser to President Woodrow Wilson, helped put into place the Federal Reserve and the graduated income tax."
And as Mother Jones's David Corn explains, Skousen thought the process through which the communists sought to capture America was mostly cultural:
Skousen listed dozens of the goals of the commies and their useful idiots, including pushing free trade, promoting coexistence with the Soviet bloc, capturing "one or both of the political parties in the United States," winning control of schools ("use them as transmission belts for socialism and current Communist propaganda"), and infiltrating the press ("get control of book-review assignments, editorial writing, and policy making positions"). He said they wanted to control "key positions in radio, TV, and motion pictures," weaken American culture by degrading artistic expression (and substituting "good sculpture from parks and building" with "shapeless, awkward and meaningless forms"), and present homosexuality as "normal, natural, and healthy." What's more, he claimed, they wanted to discredit the Bible, eliminate prayer in schools, demean the American Founding Fathers as "selfish aristocrats who had no concern for the 'common man,'" and support "any socialist movement to give centralized control over any part of the culture—education, social agencies, welfare programs, mental health clinics, etc." He said they also wanted to encourage divorce and promiscuity, incite "special-interest groups" to "rise up…to solve economic, political or social problems," and seize control of unions and big business.
All the components of Beckism are here. The Five Thousand Year Leap lays out Beck's positive belief system: The Constitution is an almost holy document, the bedrock securing America as a godly nation of free markets. It should be not just instructive but the final word in most important pursuits. Beck once memorably defended the 3/5 clause as an indication of the Founders' sincere commitment to abolishing slavery. The Constitution isn't a human document. It's an inerrant one.
The Naked Communist lays out the negative end of Beckism. There are threats everywhere. Leftists and Marxists have made their way into universities, into Hollywood, into important cultural and political institutions, without Americans noticing. They loathe the Founding Fathers, and want to seize government control over as much of the economy as possible. The problem started with Beck's frequent target and patient zero of the strain of "progressivism" Beck preached was ruining America: Woodrow Wilson.
Carson is a Skousen-ite
And Carson is very much on board. In July 2014 he declared, "There is a book called The Naked Communist that was written in 1958. Cleon Skousen lays out the whole agenda, including the importance of getting people into important positions in the mainstream media so they can help drive the agenda. Well, that's what's going on now":
In November 2014, he elaborated to Fox News's Megyn Kelly: "There was a guy who was a former CIA agent by the name of Cleon Skousen who wrote a book in 1958 called The Naked Communist, and it laid out the whole agenda. You would think by reading it that it was written last year — showing what they're trying to do to American families, what they're trying to do to our Judeo-Christian faith, what they're doing to morality."
This is not normal stuff. This is not even normal conservative base stuff. It's sort of normal Mormon stuff — relatively moderate Mormon Republicans like Mitt Romney and Orrin Hatch have spoken respectfully of Skousen — but the church officially rebuked Skousen in 1979, and Carson is, in any case, not Mormon. Skousen's is a very particular brand of conspiratorial conservatism that happened to flourish just as Carson was getting into politics.
And it helps make sense of less outwardly wacky parts of Carson's persona. Carson's latest book, A More Perfect Union, takes the form of a constitutional exegesis. There are chapters on Articles 1 through 3, another on 4 through 7, more on the Bill of Rights and Amendments 11 through 27. Much of it consists of ponderous recapitulation of seventh-grade civics lessons (did you know the Third Amendment was passed due to "the resentment that Americans had felt when British soldiers invaded the homes of Americans during the revolution"?), but in many cases, especially in the six (6!) chapters breaking down the Constitution's preamble, Carson tries to ground Tea Party ideology in the text of the Constitution.
In chapter six, "Provide for the common defense," Carson writes, "In the spirit of the preamble, the country must meet threats like ISIS with wit and strength." In chapter four, "In order to form a more perfect union," he argues, "Under an imperfect union, we have steadily increased the diet of taxpayer money and grown the government to an unmanageable and inefficient size." In chapter three, "We the people," he writes, "Today the political correctness (PC) police are the biggest threat to America's freedom of speech, and they are doing their best to squelch the opinions of 'we the People.'"
This is pure Skousen. Skousen was big on the idea that the preamble reflects several deep, biblically inspired principles of the founders that can be used to guide policymakers centuries later. In chapter nine of his book The Making of America — intended to be used as a textbook on the Constitution and the founding — he lays them out:
- Principle 1 (from the preamble): This Constitution is ordained and established by "We the people."
- Principle 2 (from the preamble): The first goal of sound government is to provide a more perfect union.
- Principle 3 (from the preamble): This Constitution is designed to provide equal justice for all.
- Principle 4 (from the preamble): The Constitution is designed to ensure peace, security, and domestic tranquility among the people.
- Principle 5 (from the preamble): This Constitution shall provide for a common defense against all enemies, both internally and externally.
- Principle 6 (from the preamble): This Constitution is designed to promote those practices and policies which shall be for the general welfare of the whole nation.
- Principle 7 (from the preamble): The Founders said the purpose of the Constitution would be to secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity.
Emphases mine. Compare this with Carson's six chapters on the preamble:
- Chapter 3: We the people
- Chapter 4: In order to form a more perfect union
- Chapter 5: Establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility
- Chapter 6: Provide for the common defense
- Chapter 7: Promote the general welfare
- Chapter 8: Secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity
Emphases mine. Carson merged Skousen's principles 3 and 4. But otherwise, he's echoed Skousen's breakdown of the preamble exactly. And just like Skousen, he's used it to argue that the Constitution, correctly applied, just happens to mandate that leaders enact the platform of the Republican Freedom Caucus.
It's not about Beck the person. It's about Beck the moment.
I don't know Ben Carson. I don't know how much time he spent watching Glenn Beck in 2009 and 2010. And for his part, Beck has had an ambivalent relationship with Carson. He conducted a largely respectful interview with Carson in February 2013, after Carson's breakout National Prayer Breakfast speech, but in March 2015 he called Carson a "lunatic" and declared his presidential career over after Carson said, "A lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight — and when they come out, they're gay." Just last month, Beck worried, "I really like Ben Carson. I see why people are attracted to him. But is it possible that we’re making the same mistake that the Democrats made with Jimmy Carter? … I’m concerned that he doesn’t have the facts down strongly enough."
But Carson did turn rightward at a moment when Beck was a dominant voice on the right. He did read and embrace Cleon Skousen, the source of Beck's most out-there, conspiratorial thinking. He did write a book on the Constitution of which Skousen would've approved.
If we're asking the question, "How could this celebrated neurosurgeon turn into a Tea Party crank seemingly overnight?" I think this is the most parsimonious answer. Carson happened to be alienated from the Obama administration when this was the zeitgeist on the right. And so Carson embraced a Beckist narrative just as millions of other Americans did, and used that narrative and the ideas surrounding it to define himself as a political figure.