When I saw the CNN and Politico stories about Ben Carson allegedly having exaggerated parts of his most famous memoirs, I turned to a friend and declared that I foresaw the imminent end of his candidacy. How could a candidate whose public stature is based on his personal story survive such a direct blow to the source of his legitimacy?
This is why no one pays me to predict politics (although if anyone would like to discuss an arrangement…).
So Carson stayed atop the polls for ages after, and the revelations seem to strengthen his support. This is in spite of the fact that in the book that I’ve read, and I presume, his other books, Carson writes in the register of an American preacher, using anecdotes to make loose connections to larger spiritual and moral points. Theoretically, if the anecdote falls, then so does the legitimacy of the moral point. This doesn’t seem to be the case. Why?
Part of it is certainly that Carson has been really smart about how he’s reacted. In the CNBC GOP debate, Ted Cruz very clearly won the room by attacking ‘the media’ for their ‘attacks’ on the candidates. Similarly, Carson has turned the narrative around these revelations toward a purported liberal media crusade against him. Attacking ‘the media’ for their asking difficult questions about the candidate’s ability to lead seems to be counterproductive in a primary, the point of which is to evaluate the fitness of candidates for office. However, selling oneself as an underdog apparently counts for more than selling oneself as a good candidate for the office at hand.
This underscores the fact that American presidential elections are not necessarily about the next administration. Which candidate we support is deeply rooted in the narratives we use to make sense of our country and where we belong in it. Because of this, how much we actually want a candidate to win—or not, even if we support them—is a reflection of what we want to see happen in a larger American drama. And this is hardly new.
In the summer of 1925, America followed the radio broadcast, one of the first of its time, of what came to be known as the Scopes Monkey Trial. This is largely seen as the origin point for the distinction between the ‘fundamentalists’ and the ‘modern,’ or the ‘progressive’ in US political culture. The distinction between ‘fundamentalist’ and opposed groups originated among American Protestants. However, it gained momentum in the early 20th century with the passage of religious laws, including one in Tennessee outlawing the teaching of evolution as contrary to the story of creation in the book of Genesis in public schools. The State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes was the prosecution of a substitute teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, for teaching evolution after the passage of this law.
Alan Mencken’s reports from the scene depict the backwoods South as another world, and moreover, a world of ignorant bigots in a carnival of the absurd. This was the view from the northern, coastal, ‘modern’ America that increasingly articulated itself as opposed to the fundamentalists as they appear in Mencken’s writing. As this kind of educated liberal viewpoint controlled the newly-ubiquitous and real-time news and commentary, it became the hegemonic voice in the mainstream American media. The ‘Fundamentalists’ saw themselves depicted as a caricature of ‘anti-Modernity’: the media representation, but more than that a reaction to the media’s clear tone of fascination and scorn, came to define a ‘Fundamentalist’ identity (for more and a really fascinating article, see Susan Harding, 1991).
Reading accounts of the Scopes trial now, it’s hard not to see parallels with other issues that have split the Right from the Left and Center in modern US politics. The Scopes trial demonstrates three characteristics of this division, but with some caveats. First, the articulation of ‘fundamentalism’ vs. its converse creates the image of a conflict that has an air of finality, leading to a once-and-future end battle. The conflict itself is therefore larger than any individual issue, and so conflict is valued over compromise. Second, the Scopes trial was a battle between two figureheads, but ones that stood as symbolic of two equally opposed sides. While there are still figures on both sides, I think it’s safe to say that the figureheads are self-styled on the right and constructed as adversaries by the Right on the Left. Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, and others claim to speak for a silenced group, attacking Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as emblematic of the silencing group; Obama and Clinton, I think, don’t perform the individual hero quite as much. Third and finally, the drama of the Scopes trial depended on the supposed equality of the battle, with the neutrality of the law making the trial a place where each side had an equal chance, even if the majority of the country was on Scopes’ side. Today, I think the right-wing narrative actually depends on the idea of a stacked deck, with the fight never being in the fundamentalists’ favor. Claiming media bias reinforces the counter-hegemonic part of the fundamentalist identity. It also opens up new meanings in defeat.
Back to the present day.
Carson’s supporters are not evaluating their candidate as a potential contender for office, but as part of a larger cultural battle. Victory in the election was never actually the aim, since, as anthropologist Susan Harding says, after the Scopes trial, Orthodox Protestant self-awareness has always included “a sense of the inevitability of their defeat, at least on earth.” Attacks like the CNN and Politico stories targeting Carson’s credibility as a public figure only reinforce the existence of this Manichaean conflict; defeat in the present world means victory in the hereafter. Blows to Carson, even if they cost him the nomination now, can only strengthen him as a cultural figure in the future.
In conclusion, I think the shift in US political discourse since the November 13th attacks on Paris reinforce this point.
In response to a recent political rally held for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at London’s Wembley Stadium, political anthropologist Mukulika Banerjee draws a distinction between political ‘fans’, and citizens. Politicians who draw ‘fans’ stand at the head of groups engaged in pitched battles, like football teams. Fans don’t evaluate politicians on their fitness for anything except winning battles, and battles in rivalries and wars staked out long before the individual match.
American consciousness most of the time seems to be inward-facing, looking at the ‘culture wars’ as the main conflict at hand. In this context, Americans are ‘fans’ because the only thing at stake is winning a cultural battle. However, when the main conflict at hand seems to be global, pitting the American nation-state[/empire] against an external threat, citizens are almost activated as political actors, and evaluate candidates as politicians. Candidates with stronger foreign policy backgrounds are suddenly performing better than they have yet in the polls—even Lindsay Graham has been getting airtime. This shows that Americans are shifting from a fan-like loyalty of a cultural leader, arguably what’s been driving Trump and Carson, to an evaluation of a potential Commander in Chief.
I’m not sure if this is necessarily a good thing, but it definitely changes the climate in which these books are received and interacted with. I’ll be curious to see which anecdotes and which skills are highlighted in the coming weeks and months.