To hear Rupert Murdoch tell it, what America needs is a “real black president.” In a string of tweets Wednesday, the chairman and CEO of the News Corp signaled his support for Dr. Ben Carson, who is among the top tier of 2016 GOP candidates. The media mogul’s use of the word “real” was met with outrage on social media and particularly offensive to the sitting president (Murdoch quickly apologized).
Murdoch might be a troll with a billion dollars, but he is not alone in celebrating Carson’s political fortunes. In recent weeks, on the heels of controversial remarks about Muslims, a head-scratching deluge of money—said to be in the millions—poured into Carson’s campaign coffers. He has watched his poll numbers triple. He bounced from one warmly lit television studio to another—unfamiliar territory for a man most renowned for his heroics in a Baltimore operating room.
Can he actually win the Republican primary? The answer—depending on whom you ask—varies between “damn right, he can” and “hell-to-the-nawl.”
“Everywhere pundits keep underestimating Ben Carson,” tweeted Murdoch. “But [the] public understand[s] humility as admirable, listen to the multi-faceted strong message.”
Carson is quick to confess that he is no politician. His genial tone is so low and comforting that it’s easy to miss how closely he aligns with far right-wing activists. Though his style could not be more different than Trump’s over-the-top ranting, both men appear to be benefitting from widespread Republican angst about topping the ticket with another D.C. insider. Grassroots activists are looking for someone they can trust in the proverbial foxhole: one who won’t bend on Republican principles. No one expected the soft-spoken, retired neurosurgeon to eclipse former Florida governor Jeb! Bush or Sen. Marco Rubio.
“I don’t think he has ever met or had a conversation with [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell or [Speaker of the House John] Boehner,” said conservative radio host and commentator Armstrong Williams, who serves as Carson’s business manager and personal adviser. “The establishment doesn’t know what to do with him. He’s baffling to them.”
That may well be, but the lure of a Carson candidacy could not be more appealing to some party leaders, Republican influencers like Murdoch, and rank-and-file voters—all of whom have been looking for a way to attract more non-white voters. For them, Carson is the perfect ambassador: an American success story, who spares no breath in deriding liberal economic policies, is ardently pro-life, and knows his way around a Bible.
These people will tell you that Carson, raised by a single mother in hard-knock Detroit, is proof positive that the American Dream is alive and kicking, much like the conjoined twins he brilliantly separated as a surgeon. “You can’t question his intellect. You can’t question his accomplishments,” Williams continued. “He loves this country. He’s the genuine article and people are in tune to that.”
If Williams is right, his candidate is polling “around 17-18 percent” among black voters. In a general election, that’s game over. Those numbers come as no surprise to Joy-Ann Reid, a national news correspondent for MSNBC.
“I think the black community, writ large, and particularly those of us who are Generation X and older, viewed Dr. Carson as an icon,” Reid recalled. “[He was] a favorite son who made good, and reflected glowingly on the potential for black folk to excel, even from humble beginnings.”
However, if history is any indication, black conservatives do not draw any more support from the black community than their white counterparts. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) trounced his Democratic opponent to become the first African-American senator elected from the South since Reconstruction. But he did it with marginal backing from black voters. That hasn’t stopped Scott from becoming a critical voice on key issues, such as criminal justice reform and police body cameras, and working to earn the support that has eluded him.
“Scott is the real deal,” said former South Carolina lawmaker Bakari Sellers, who is a Democrat. “Ben Carson is no Tim Scott.”
To be sure, there is a solid conservative streak running through the African-American community, especially among people of faith. Many, however, still consider the Republican brand toxic and find many tenets of the national platform antagonistic to their interests. Then too, the GOP owes much of its modern-day success as a national party to its stronghold in the South, gained largely through acts of defiance against the Civil Rights movement.
Against that backdrop, Reid is skeptical about how much black support Carson can actually deliver.
“Now, I think many black Americans look upon Dr. Carson with a mix of puzzlement and disappointment,” Reid said. “The fact that he has made himself nationally prominent by insulting the first black president of the United States, and that he is now building on that with strange utterance after strange utterance leaves many African-Americans just shaking their heads.”
That might not be the real point, Reid said. As Murdoch’s messages seem to suggest, Carson may in fact hold the keys to attracting more white voters who may have been previously turned off by some of the more extreme, virulently racist voices in the discourse.
“Ben Carson is the ideal candidate of color for the right,” Reid said. “He rejects race as a construct for explaining social and economic mobility, just as white conservatives do; and he even rejects the public programs that helped his own family survive, mirroring the donor class of his party who want to get rid of those programs.”
“[Carson is a] vessel that alleviates some aversion guilt,” Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher asserted. “Most mainstream, middle-class Americans don’t want to vote for racists. There is something inoculating about Carson.”
Williams rejects that and says Carson’s appeal within the GOP is based on the fact that “his life story is more like most Americans’ than anyone who is seeking the GOP nomination.”
While Trump is out “Making America Great Again,” the man who hopes to topple the current GOP frontrunner is quietly holding a roving tent revival of the party faithful. In at least one national survey, Carson now leads the billionaire casino magnate by seven points.
Yes, it’s too soon to take a victory lap around an Iowa cornfield. Though, maybe somebody should gas up the truck just in case. And while they are at it, they should change Murdoch’s Twitter password.