On the nightearlier this year that Barack Obama stepped before the nation to deliver his sixth State of the Union address, Ben Carson—a political newcomer who harbors dreams of soon giving his first—settled into a sofa just a few blocks away. He was eager to hate everything the president was about to say.
Carson had come to the Capitol Hill home of Armstrong Williams, a conservative media impresario who officially serves as Carson’s business manager and who lately has functioned as Carson’s unofficial image-maker and political adviser as well. As the two men turned to the TV, they began dissecting Obama’s performance.
"He looks good," Williams said. "He looks clean. Shirt’s white. The tie. He looks elegant."
"Like most psychopaths," Carson grumbled. "That’s why they're successful. That’s the way they look. They all look great."
For those unfamiliar with the mood of America’s far right, casually branding the president a psychopath is exactly the sort of talk that strikes a chord—and just the thing that has made Carson a sensation in the GOP. Today the former pediatric neurosurgeon—who’s never run for elected office—is suddenly besting candidates like Jeb, Marco, and Rand in some 2016 polls and preparing to announce his campaign for the White House. As for the current resident, well, Carson is sometimes encouraged to cut him just a little slack before he hands over the keys.
"He faces the same challenges you will face," Williams said of Obama as he spoke. "He’s gotta convince people to believe him. That’s all he’s doing: selling his narrative."
"But he knows he’s telling a lie!" Carson vented. "He’s trying to sell what he thinks is not true! He’s sitting there saying, ’These Americans are so stupid I can tell them anything.’ "
Since his inadvertent entry into politics two years ago, Carson has defined himself chiefly as a rhetorical bomb-thrower. He’s invoked bestiality and pedophilia while arguing against gay marriage, and earlier this month, during an appearance on CNN, he argued that homosexuality is a choice, "because a lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight, and when they come out, they’re gay." (After an uproar, Carson issued an apology and declared he would no longer talk about gay rights.) With equally provocative flair, he’s railed against the forces of government, declaring that Obamacare is "the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery" and, in fact, "is slavery, in a way." Similarly outrageous was his contention that "we live in a Gestapo age" and that America today is "very much like Nazi Germany."
This time next year, in the thick of the primaries, such wild statements could sink a candidate. Not so in these hurly-burly months before the race begins in earnest. Indeed, it’s in these early days of the campaign—before armies of political professionals descend and campaign contributions skyrocket—when a familiar sort of long shot can thrive. And among a certain segment of the GOP, Ben Carson is thriving. Yes, his chances for winning may be slim—only two presidents have reached the White House without electoral experience or high military rank—but activists on the right hope that, at the very least, Carson will give voice to a conservative anger and resentment that’ll influence the rest of the GOP field. "He’s like a messenger," Williams says of Carson. "He might not be king, but he will have the ear of the king."
Of course, one big way Carson differs from most quixotic right-wing ideologues is his race. Conservatives, long frustrated that their disgust with Obama and his policies is regarded as racist, no doubt find it politically advantageous—and psychologically helpful—to have a black person offering those critiques. As one GOP fund-raising guru told Time__, "There’s nothing they love more than a black candidate who agrees with them on conservative views."
Carson’s restrained manner helps a lot, too. Though his outrage can be excessive, it’s never spittle-flecked. Rather, he speaks in the dulcet and intelligent tones of a surgeon reassuring parents that, although their child has brain cancer, he has the power to heal her. He shrewdly camouflages his vitriol as wisdom, dismisses those who disagree as fools, and, perhaps more than any other far-right candidate in recent years, gives establishment Republicans heartburn. They are, after all, eager to coronate an electable candidate to run against Hillary Clinton, not get drawn into a fractious fight with a Tea Party rock star who forces the eventual GOP nominee to the unelectable fringe. "When I call my mom back home, she asks me, ’What do you think of Dr. Ben Carson?’ " one top Republican operative lamented to me. "I tell her he’s not ready to be president, and she gets so mad at me."
Even among Carson’s political team, though, there’s some recognition that he could benefit from a little more polish. The day of the president’s State of the Union, Carson had spent five hours getting briefed on domestic and foreign policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank; the next morning, he would travel to Texas for two days of media training. But on the night of Obama’s speech, the task of getting Carson ready for the White House fell to Williams alone. He’d arranged for Carson to appear on cable news to offer some post-speech commentary and was busily prepping the doctor.
"We don’t have to call him a psychopath. I don’t want you to go to CNN with that kind of mood," Williams cautioned.
To groom Carson in more literal ways, Williams had also hired a barber to come to his home and cut Carson’s hair. That way, when he offered his assessment of Obama on TV, he’d look, as Williams put it, "presidential." With Carson perched on a stool in the dining room, the barber took maybe a millimeter off the top before he asked Williams about the doctor’s goatee. "I’m gonna leave that alone," Williams said. "We’ll revisit it one day, but not today. I pick my battles. He likes that goatee. But do you know a president who’s been elected with a goatee?"
"In the United States, we have Republicans, Democrats, and independents. What do you have?" Carson asked.
It was about a month before the president’s State of the Union speech, and Carson was in the first-class lounge at the Newark airport, waiting for a flight to Tel Aviv. He’d never been to Israel before, but a trip to the Holy Land has become, in recent years, a prerequisite for presidential aspirants. When Governor George W. Bush went in 1998, he was given a helicopter tour by Ariel Sharon. Ten years later, Senator Barack Obama met with the Israeli prime minister as well as the leader of the Palestinian Authority. Now, as Carson sat across from the young Israeli woman who’d be his guide, he was getting a head start on what he called his own "fact-finding mission." The more basic the facts, the better.
The woman answered Carson’s question about political parties, telling him that there were Labor and Likud and a host of other factions in the Knesset. "And what is the role of the Knesset?" he interjected. This prompted a tutorial on Israel’s legislature. Carson is a tall, dignified-looking man with a placid, almost sleepy face. As he tried to concentrate on his Hebrew Schoolhouse Rock primer, he seemed even more fatigued. "It sounds complex," he finally said. "Why don’t they just adopt the system we have?"
Sparse as Carson’s foreign-policy bona fides may be, the trip was devised to bolster them. And although he wasn’t able to secure a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Carson and his entourage—consisting of his wife, Candy; Williams; and a handful of aides and their spouses-visited the Western Wall, lit a menorah with the mayor of Jerusalem, and drove to the Golan Heights for what was billed as a "geopolitical strategic briefing." But the three members of the Israeli Defense Forces assigned to give it-a portly male lieutenant colonel in the medical corps and two twentysomething female soldiers from the public-affairs unit—didn’t seem to be at risk of revealing classified information. Adding to the low-key vibe, the briefing took place at an observation deck on Mount Bental, a popular tourist destination with a gift shop and coin-operated binoculars, where a group of high school students on a field trip were making a ruckus.
In some early GOP polls, Carson—seen here in Kentucky—has run ahead of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Ted Cruz.
"Perhaps we can move over here," the lieutenant colonel suggested, steering Carson’s group to a quieter spot to discuss the nearby Syrian civil war. He claimed that most of the Islamist fighters weren’t Syrian but came from Morocco and Europe. "It’s just like the troublemakers in Ferguson," Carson said, betraying a habit of wedging the unfamiliar into a context he understands.
The lieutenant colonel tried to direct Carson’s attention to a Syrian city in the distance, where some of the war’s fiercest fighting has raged. But Carson seemed just as interested in his own location—and whether he was safely under the cover of Israel’s vaunted missile-defense system. "Is this area right here protected by the Iron Dome?" he wondered.
The next day, Carson was standing on a pleasant hillside outside Jerusalem that overlooked a grove of olive trees; a shepherd tended his flock of sheep in the distance. Carson heard some noise from a construction site, and he flinched. "Was that machine-gun fire?" he asked.
How Carson wound up in Israel contemplating the hazards and intricacies of the Middle East is one of the unlikelier stories in recent American politics. A little more than two years ago, he was nearing retirement as the head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Although Carson was only 61, he wanted to leave medicine behind while he could still enjoy life. He and Candy had bought a house on a golf course in West Palm Beach, Florida. He was looking forward to lowering his handicap and learning to play the organ.
But then he was asked to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual apolitical gathering that Carson, a devout Seventh Day Adventist, had addressed once before, in 1997, when he gave a typically anodyne speech. It was expected he’d do the same in 2013. But Carson struggled for months to formulate his thoughts. "When I woke up the morning of the speech," he says, "I felt very clear on what I should talk about." Carson decided he’d discuss what a mess the United States had become under Barack Obama. With the president sitting just to his right on the dais, Carson railed against progressive tax policies and Obama’s signature health care law, comparing America to ancient Rome. "Moral decay. Fiscal irresponsibility. They destroyed themselves," Carson warned. "If you don’t think that can happen to America, you get out your books and you start reading."
Obama, naturally, didn’t take too kindly to Carson’s speech, his thin smile gradually turning into a frown as he sat through all twenty-seven minutes of it. Although Carson couldn’t see Obama’s face while he was giving the speech, he’s subsequently studied the president’s reaction on video. "I thought in the beginning he was much more animated," Carson told me. "He was laughing along with his wife. She continued to laugh while he got quiet beside her, and then it looked like he was texting. I think he was texting her, because after he did that, she stopped."
Carson hadn’t uttered anything that countless Republicans hadn’t said before. The difference was that Carson delivered his message mere feet from Obama—and that his skin is the same color as the president’s. Hours after the speech, Rush Limbaugh was playing excerpts on his show and telling listeners, "I love this guy!" That weekThe Wall Street Journal ran an editorial titled "Ben Carson for President." A month later, Carson was invited to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he met Sarah Palin, who greeted him with the bowing "We’re not worthy" routine from Wayne’s World. (Carson, for his part, thought Palin "looked anorexic.") "Would you ever run for president, sir?" Sean Hannity asked Carson during what would become one of his countless Fox News interviews. "I’d vote for you in a heartbeat." Not long after that, the network signed up the neurosurgeon as a paid political commentator, and Carson, who says he’d previously turned down entreaties to run for office in Maryland—as well as feelers from both the Bush and Obama administrations about serving as surgeon general—began thinking about the White House.
His 2012 book, America the Beautiful, which sold fewer than 2,000 copies in the six weeks before the Prayer Breakfast, sold almost 60,000 copies in the six weeks after. He hastily wrote—or rather, dictated—another tome, One Nation, which outsold Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices. "God speaks through him, and it goes into that Dragon"—Carson’s voice-recognition software—"and we have a best-seller," Candy, who serves as her husband’s book researcher, told me. Armstrong Williams offers a less exalted rationale. "He is a hot property. His brand is huge right now."
But long before he was a mega-star to the Tea Party, Carson was a bona fide hero in the black community. He grew up poor in Detroit, raised by a single mother who had dropped out of school after the third grade and was married at 13. Nonetheless, she required her two sons to read two books a week and write reports (never mind that she could barely read them). Her boys quickly became star students. Not that there weren’t other challenges. Carson had a terrible temper. When he was in high school, he got into an argument with a friend over the radio station they were listening to. In a flash of anger, Carson tried to plunge a camping knife into his friend’s stomach. But the knife hit the boy’s belt buckle instead and snapped in half. As Carson tells it, the moment was a turning point. He ran home and prayed for patience. "God heard my deep cries of anguish," Carson later wrote in his memoir Gifted Hands. "A feeling of lightness flowed over me, and I knew a change of heart had taken place. I felt different. I was different."
Carson eventually went to Yale and then on to med school at Michigan. In 1984, when he was just 33, he became the head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, the first African-American to run a division at the prestigious hospital. He quickly earned a reputation as a daring surgeon, and in 1987 Carson performed one of the most storied operations in medical history by separating a pair of Siamese twins joined at the head. It was the first time such a surgery had been successful, and it made international headlines. "I knew that my life was going to change after that, because the media isn’t completely stupid," Carson says now. "They’d start looking at my background, and they’d say, ’Whaaaaaat?’ " He soon received the first of his sixty-two honorary degrees. Not long ago, I overheard a woman ask Carson if he still had roots in Michigan. "My roots there are there’s a high school in Detroit named after me," Carson replied.
For all of Carson’s medical renown, his greatest fame came in the African-American community. Even as a young resident, Carson spent many of his precious few hours outside the operating room visiting inner-city Baltimore schools. "I can’t even count how many times I saw Ben Carson when I was a kid," the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who grew up in inner-city Baltimore in the ’80s and ’90s, told me. "Any time anyone wanted to bring out any sort of inspirational figure for young black kids, especially young black boys, in Baltimore, you turned to Ben Carson." In those days, Carson and his family were something like a real-life version of the Cosbys: The doctor’s three sons played around town in a string quartet with Candy called the Carson Four.
He started an educational foundation to help black students, and across the country Carson’s memoir Gifted Hands—which was later turned into a TV movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr.—became required reading for African-American kids. "My mother gave me a copy," recalls Joshua DuBois, the Obama White House’s former director of faith-based initiatives, "and said, ’This man is a symbol of how you need to be looking at your life.’ "
In the summer of 1994, when Essence decided to pay tribute to an elite group of male role models, the magazine packed the theater at Madison Square Garden with a Who’s Who of black America. Up onstage, the handful of icons selected to be honored that night included Jesse Jackson, Spike Lee, Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington, and Ben Carson.
On a cold January morning in Des Moines, Ben Carson gazed out into a crowd that had crowded into an historic theatre—an audience that looked nothing like the ones he used to draw for events like the Essence Awards gala. He had come to Iowa for a cattle call of Republican presidential hopefuls, joining a group of white candidates competing for the affections of (almost entirely) white conservative activists. As he paced the stage with a wireless microphone clipped to his jacket, he looked more like he was giving a TED Talk than a political stump speech. He told his inspirational life story interspersed with the stray political thought.
"Ben’s unlike any national political figure I’ve ever met," the influential Iowa conservative talk-radio host Steve Deace told me. "He’s less a politician and more like a life coach." And the activists at the Freedom Summit were eminently coachable, awarding Carson one of the loudest and most prolonged ovations of the day.
Since embarking on his political journey, Carson has received more than just applause. He’s generated plenty of cash. The Draft Carson Super PAC, which was founded in late 2013 by the conservative activist John Philip Sousa IV (yes, the composer’s great-grandson), has raised more than $13 million from over 150,000 donors who want to see Carson run for president. (By comparison, the pro-Clinton Super PAC Ready for Hillary raised $9 million last year.) Meanwhile, the American Legacy PAC enlisted Carson to fund-raise for efforts to repeal Obamacare; since the program was launched in early 2014, it’s brought in $6 million. "The fire hose got turned on, and the money came so fast," says Mike Murray, American Legacy’s founder and a Republican direct-mail guru who’s worked with Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, and a host of other leading conservatives. "In terms of direct marketing, I’ve never seen anything like Dr. Carson."
Terry Giles, a trial lawyer with no political experience whom Carson will tap to run his campaign, predicts his candidate will have financial resources not typically available to far-right challengers. He expects that, between the various conservative causes Carson has lent his name to (or had his name appropriated by), the campaign will have a mailing list with upwards of 2 million potential supporters on it—all of whom have expressed their interest in Carson in the past two years. "If I can get $100 from 1.5 million people," Giles told me, "I’ll have $150 million for the first four primaries, and we’ll be extremely competitive."
While it’s true that Carson possesses rare attributes his opponents can’t claim, the doctor’s résumé is glaringly thin in certain spots. But Carson believes his lack of political experience is an asset, not a failing. "We’re at a point in time where it’s been demonstrated fairly dramatically that political experience doesn’t seem to help a whole lot and perhaps may be hurtful," he told me.
I pressed him on this point. What if Barack Obama, I posited with a bit of hyperbole, decided to change careers and said that he now wanted to be a neurosurgeon—and, what’s more, that he wanted his first operation to be separating conjoined twins? Did Carson see any parallels between that hypothetical and his situation? "No," he said emphatically. "Just the fact that you would ask that question tells me that you don’t understand all that’s involved in becoming a neurosurgeon. There’s so much more than becoming a political figure, it’s not even in the same ballpark."
Carson is rarely shy telling others that they’re foolish. With both the stereotypical arrogance of a surgeon and the understandable brio of a self-made man, Carson seems to harbor an unshakable belief that he knows more than most anyone else. But while being president may seem simple to him, running for the job is invariably tough—and already the limits of Carson’s political acumen show. For instance, though he’s answered criticism about his lack of experience by promising to rely heavily on his advisers, he has little notion of who or what he’d be looking for in his cabinet. When I asked him which secretary of state he most admired, he replied Condoleezza Rice—who, of course, happened to be the most recent person to hold that post in a Republican administration. Similarly, Robert Gates was Carson’s favorite secretary of defense. And when I asked Carson to name his favorite secretary of the treasury, he was stumped. "Andrea Mitchell’s husband," he eventually offered. I reminded him that Mitchell’s husband, also known as Alan Greenspan, had actually been chairman of the Federal Reserve. "I don’t know that there’s anybody that really stands out to me as an outstanding treasury secretary. I mean, that’s a pretty hard place to be outstanding," he finally said. "Secretaries of the treasury, for the most part, are not big policy people."
By his own admission, Carson’s serious interest in Republican politics is rather recent. As a young man, he was a "radical, wild-eyed, left-wing Democrat" who crossed over to the right during the Reagan years. After the impeachment of Bill Clinton, he was so sickened by the hypocrisy of adulterous congressional Republicans that he became an independent. He only rejoined the GOP last year as a matter of convenience. "If I weren’t thinking about running for office, I would remain an independent," he told me.
And yet today’s GOP has proven to be a comfortable fit. Carson, to be sure, is a longstanding conservative in both temperament and ideology. His message of self-empowerment is part of a black-conservative tradition that dates back to at least the nineteenth century and Booker T. Washington. But Carson—who was understandably busy with his medical career, not to mention his philanthropic efforts aimed at African-American youth—didn’t begin paying serious attention to broader issues until more recently. Which, of course, is right around the time that large portions of conservatism went insane. As a result, Carson’s ideology of late appear to have been formed in the fever swamps of right-wing websites and Fox News—where Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are portrayed as Manchurian candidates sent by Saul Alinsky to undermine the United States. He’s taken the same sincere up-by-the-bootstraps message that he once preached to black children and grafted it onto a worldview promulgated largely on conservative talk radio, validating many of the most provocative sentiments popular on the far right by repeating them in his mellifluous tone. He’s that rarest of breeds: a soft-spoken demagogue.
Carson is so certain of the rightness of his views that he’s practically incapable of admitting error. The controversies he’s ignited with his overheated rhetoric are, in his telling, the result of "political correctness run amuck." He complains, "We’ve reached a point where if you say the word ’slavery’ or you say the word ’bestiality,’ it’s like you’ve sprayed a fly with Raid—people start spinning, and they just can’t function anymore."
On several occasions, I tried to get Carson to concede that his analogy likening the U.S. to Nazi Germany was out of line (he’s said that Americans under Obama are as intimidated and afraid to criticize their government as Germans under the Third Reich). But he refused to give any ground. Our longest discussion about the matter came in Jerusalem, in the cafeteria of the Holocaust museum at Yad Vashem. We’d spent the previous ninety minutes touring the museum, followed by Carson entering Yad Vashem’s Hall of Remembrance and, black kippah atop his head, laying a wreath made of red, pink, and orange poppies that read "Courage and Truth Will Win: In loving memory the 6 million." Given all this, I asked Carson, did it make him reconsider his analogy?
"Not at all," he said. "It makes it even stronger."
The most discomfitingpart of Carson’s coming campaign, and the one that holds the most peril, will be his handling of race. For as much as race has made him a star in Republican politics, the way he’s courted that attention is what most threatens his standing among African-Americans. What’s more, unlike Herman Cain, Michael Steele, and the parade of other black conservatives who have burned bright during the Age of Obama before ultimately fading away, Carson, when it comes to his place in African-American life, actually has something to lose.
Already he’s adopted positions that vex the black community. He’s become a booster of GOP-backed voter-ID laws—which many African-Americans view as an effort to disenfranchise them but that Carson, citing largely discredited anecdotes of voter fraud, argues are necessary. And then there’s Barack Obama, whose 95 percent share of the African-American vote Carson mainly attributes to ignorance. "I remember one of the man-on-the-street interviews with Jesse Watters"—the Fox News producer who does ambush interviews for Bill O’Reilly—"where he went to Harlem and he was asking people about Obama’s policies, except they were all McCain’s policies," Carson says. "And they were like, ’Oh yeah, it’s brilliant!’ ’What do you think of his vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin?’ ’Oh, she’s the best!’ I think a lot of people are like that."
(Like those voter-fraud anecdotes, this appears to be a figment of Carson’s imagination: Fox News denies that such a segment ever aired.)*
These stances are painful for African-Americans like Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of America’s most celebrated writers on race, who credits Carson with providing an example to young blacks. "I’ll always be in debt to him for what he did, but in terms of who he is now, I don’t quite understand that," Coates says. "It seems like Barack Obama is the exact sort of person he’d have wanted us to grow up to be." When I mentioned Coates’s criticism to Carson, he betrayed no discomfort. "It doesn’t surprise me," he said, "because people grow up and they listen to propaganda."
One morning in Israel, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Carson crossed paths with a dozen or so members of a black Baptist church from Brooklyn. Upon the discovery that the man in the North Face fleece was none other than Dr. Ben Carson, all heck broke loose. Carson was besieged. He posed for pictures and doled out hugs. "Is it all right if I touch you?" one woman said.
As the rest of the church ladies continued to fawn over Carson, I asked Nadine Clarke, the group’s leader, how she knew who he was. "I’ve known about him for years!" she exclaimed. I inquired if she was similarly enthused about Carson’s new political career. I watched the smile vanish from her face, replaced by a look of worry, as if she now remembered some of the things Carson had said in the past two years. "He’s a Republican?" she asked.
Carson and the church group said their good-byes, and Carson headed to a skiff that would take him out on the Sea of Galilee. As the boat puttered along, he fell into a reverie about how Jesus had walked on these waters and taught his disciples to be fishers of men here. I interrupted with my own more earthly concerns. What had he thought of the church group?
"They seemed like typical Brooklyn folk. Very nice," Carson said. He was unfazed by all the fuss. "I’m pretty used to that reaction, once they figure out who I am."
Do you think any of them will vote for you? I wondered.
He paused for a moment and looked out on the water. "No," Carson said, "I don’t imagine that a lot of them would."
After this story was published, a reader notedthat Carson was likely referring to interviews that aired on the Howard Stern Show.