Why Carson and Trump Aren't Fading Away

It looks as if the Republicans are stuck with the strange truth that, now more than ever, their leading candidates are Ben Carson and Donald Trump.

The perception of the members of a key focus group was that Carson is “wise” and a “gentleman.” He might be more immune than Jeb to the Trump allegation that he’s “low energy.” While he did seem nervously lacking in assertiveness during the first two debates, his tone is inspirational on the stump and at times on the talk shows. He excels at quietly but firmly articulating American exceptionalism as a mixture of economic liberty and Biblical faith. For better and worse, Ben Carson isn’t much like Jeb Bush.

Now Carson isn’t wise in the sense of being a philosopher or a public policy wonk. He can’t even be credited with the Socratic insight that he knows that he knows nothing in such areas as foreign policy and taxation and regulation.

His wisdom would seem to be in knowing how to live, having his priorities straight, loving God, country, and family, and in having had the confidence and determination to have achieved a deeply impressive record of personal accomplishment. And he’s sold a significant part of the electorate  on his claim that there are ways of life better than the life of politics, and that he’s seeking the presidency out of duty, not personal ambition. He might also be called wise in the sense of knowing himself well enough to stay in character and stick with his authentic convictions, even when they are imprudent and/or misinformed.

And there’s no denying Carson has conducted himself as a gentleman throughout his career; he’s been humble and generous, and he now genuinely believes it’s his time to be magnanimous.

I could go on to list a dozen reasons why Carson’s real ignorance and lack of relevant experience disqualify him from serious consideration for the presidency. He’s surely less prepared to be President than any other candidate of either party (including Trump). But that doesn’t mean his campaign lacks passion or purpose. It certainly has an almost uncanny while not uncalculated capacity to resonate with the longings of a growing number of Republican voters. For now, we have to agree with Henry Olsen that Carson knows what he is doing.

(Well, one more thing, if there were a separate ballot for First Spouse, I might well vote for Candy Carson.)

Let me say one more time that the only way the Republicans can stop Carson (and Trump) is to actually learn from why these political beginners are doing so well.

The wise lady Julie Ponzi has tried to explain to her Facebook audience that the key to their success isn’t their “outsider status.” They both “very clearly (through different modes of expression) love their country.”

An oversimplified way of looking at the situation would be to call Trump the candidate of the Republican blue-collar voters and Carson the candidate of the evangelical Christians. To oversimplify even more: Those who identify with those two groups vote Republican not mainly because they have confidence in a pro-growth agenda that cuts taxes and deregulates for the benefit of “job creators.” Neither is it that they, as Ilya Somin assumes, suffer from ignorance concerning economic issues (for example the counterproductivity of the minimum wage, or the effects of loosening or tightening immigration policies).

They certainly love the American idea of liberty. When they think of liberty, however, they don’t think first of the autonomous individual, defined as the worker, the producer, or the consumer. They think more in terms of the republican freedom of citizens and the equal freedom that all creatures have under God. They also think of themselves as gratefully bound by their loving responsibilities as husbands and wives, parents and children.

Trump and Carson (again, in their particular ways) think in terms of the American nation. That doesn’t mean they’re nationalistic in some fascist sense, although they might seem so to those cosmopolitan enough to believe that citizenship is just another form of rent-seeking. I’m saying this not to endorse their schemes on immigration—as G. K. Chesterton so astutely observed, the American “romance of the citizen” is about a nation that can be “a home for the homeless,” for displaced people from everywhere. Rather, these candidates deserve credit for hitting, or at least getting near, the singularly American theme: that ours is the nation, as the British philosopher Roger Scruton reminds us, that most effectively provides a home for the protection of rights, through law but also through civic habituation.

And I’m grateful to the proud and loving new parent John McGinnis for reminding us that even a country devoted to the rights of free individuals needs children. People can’t live well or perform even the minimal duties of citizenship that every country requires without a loving limit to individual self-interest or utility maximization or preference satisfaction. Of course, simply to have a future as a people or a species, we need children, and it’s not clear how a society could remain technologically innovative if it ages beyond a certain point. (Well, if the Singularity kicks in—if we simply free ourselves from biological necessity—all bets are off. But most Americans are far too sensible to go in for transhumanism. And certainly no wise lady or gentleman would do so.)

But I do have to note that John, in making his case to a libertarian audience, seems to put things backwards. Economic and political freedom—libertarian means—are, in the view of most Republicans, there for the pursuit of non-libertarian ends. They are the means by which we pursue our relational joys and responsibilities that make life worth living. They can’t be reduced to mere preferences. Libertarian means (which I mostly embrace) have to be understood by free and relational persons as conducing to, and dedicated to, non-libertarian ends.

I actually agree with George Will and others who say that part of the soul of the Republican Party is to favor policies that promote economic growth, with the confidence (which becomes misguided only when it turns into a kind of dogmatic overconfidence) that most Americans’ lives will likely be more prosperous and secure as a result. But there has to be more to the American Republican Party if it is to prevail, or to deserve to prevail, at the ballot box.

So the other, more politically experienced GOP candidates need to learn more than a little something, although far from everything, from the unexpectedly enduring appeal of Carson and Trump.