Ben Carson Is The Smartest Guy In The Room. And The Weirdest.

The man battling with Donald Trump at the top of the GOP polls brings his eccentric and paranoid brand to the campaign trail.
Mike Segar / Reuters

DURHAM, N.H. -- With all due respect to Donald Trump -- who is, like, a really smart person, OK? -- there is little doubt about which of the two candidates currently leading in the polls would win the Republican presidential nomination if the matter were being settled by an IQ test.

Put it this way: Around the time Trump was hatching plans to build a $4 million artificial waterfall in front of his soon-to-be hemorrhaging Atlantic City casino, Carson was performing the first-ever successful separation of twins conjoined at the head.

During a swing through the New Hampshire Seacoast region on Wednesday, Carson -- who has never sought political office before -- demonstrated a wide range of knowledge on national and world issues, at one point elucidating the differences between the YPG and PKK Kurdish factions as effortlessly as if he were explaining the groundbreaking surgery techniques that he once helped develop.

And like many intellectually gifted people, Carson tends to stand out from the crowd for another reason: He’s kind of an odd guy.

While Trump often appears to be playing a character, Carson -- who's currently second in national polls -- doesn’t have to pretend.

First, Carson has a penchant for wading earnestly into the realm of paranoia that is more commonly found on your estranged great-uncle's Facebook page than on the presidential campaign trail.

To take just one example, last year Carson outlined his concern to Fox News’ Chris Wallace that the 2016 election might not take place at all, because the impending anarchy in the U.S. would preclude it.

Carson also brings his heartfelt fearmongering to the campaign trail with a frequency that should be at least a little off-putting to anyone who’s not currently hoarding seeds, ammunition and precious metals in the bunker under their living room.

He warns of the kind of imminent financial catastrophe that makes the bottom of the mattress an appealing alternative to savings accounts.

“The good name, faith and credit of the United States is the only thing our money is based off of,” he warned a crowd at the University of New Hampshire this week. “That’s nothing. That could collapse overnight, and 1929 Wall Street could be a walk in the park compared to what could happen.”

The room, at this point, remained quiet, as it does most of the time when Carson is on stage. It’s the only way you can hear him.

Shortly after Carson began his remarks at a retirement facility in Exeter, the emcee cut in to request that the candidate move the microphone closer to his mouth, so that the elderly people in the back of the large room could hear him.

“I couldn’t get it any higher,” Carson replied at the same volume. “It’d be in my mouth.”

Carson's particular brand of campaign-trail oddity is the polar opposite of the herky-jerky, high-on-life, ever-calibrating barrage of staccato laughter and uncomfortable small talk that Mitt Romney employed during both of his presidential runs.

Perpetually languid in both movement and speech, Carson barely appears capable of keeping his eyes open at times. He speaks to large audiences in a near-whisper, the intonation of which sounds a bit like a late-career Michael Jackson telling a particularly terrifying ghost story.

And he does it all under the patently absurd but sincere-sounding pretense that he is running a positive campaign designed to bring ideologically diverse factions of America together.

Trump may take the most heat in the media for his fact-deficient and hypocritical pronouncements, but Carson is the only candidate in the race who, without batting an eye, can preach the need for "civil dialogue” mere minutes after drawing a “pretty clear” comparison between Nazi Germany and modern-day America.

Carson's contention, which he made during his speech in Exeter, was that politically apathetic Americans were similar to “those people [who] did not believe in what Hitler was doing” but “kept their mouths shut and kept their heads down.”

When HuffPost asked him later what exactly he’d meant by that analogy, Carson offered an answer that was less chilling than it was impossibly vague.

“I mean, if people don’t speak up for what they believe, then other people will change things without them having a voice,” he said.

But what does that have to do with Nazi Germany, exactly?

“Well, Hitler changed things there, and nobody protested,” Carson said. “Nobody provided any opposition to him, and that’s what facilitated his rise.”

So then, who is like Hitler in America?

“I’m not going to go into that. I think the example is pretty clear.”

When pressed by another reporter, Carson did say that he was not specifically comparing President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler. Beyond that, he left people to draw their own conclusions about his intended meaning.

Even Carson’s campaign manager is now publicly begging him to consider employing a different historical analogy. But Carson seems incapable of adjusting his “everything bad is just like Hitler” default setting.

Just who exactly could support for president of the United States such an indisputably gifted man, who is so up-front about his own apocalyptic anxieties?

Conversations with Carson’s diehard supporters -- who came out by the hundreds to see him in New Hampshire -- revealed a common thread: It was at least as much about who he was as what he actually believed in.

Mary Collins, a British immigrant who plans to vote in her first New Hampshire primary in February after passing her American citizenship test, drove an hour and a half from the town of North Sutton to see Carson on the stump in Durham. Collins said that just like the candidate, she grew up in poverty without a father in her home and went on to become the first member of her family to earn a college degree.

That a white woman from western England could identify so personally with a black American man says something about the resonance of Carson’s personal story.

“I like the way that he has traditional values,” Collins told HuffPost. “I like the fact that he wants to take this country back to being the great country it used to be. I like the fact that he’s a man of faith. I like the fact that he’s very truthful and honest about his opinions, and he doesn’t care about political correctness. He says what needs to be said."

As with Trump, Carson’s perceived authenticity (“he says what needs to be said”) is another key element of his appeal on the right. Carson never lets more than a few minutes go by without reminding his audiences that he is “not a politician.”

He certainly doesn’t act like one.

While a garden-variety presidential candidate might bend over backwards to marvel about how young and springy a 95-year-old woman in the crowd looks, Carson instead deadpans about the “reasonably old people” in his audience and the people he’s encountered who have told him they’re “just waiting to die.”

He typically obliges with an easy smile the autograph-seekers and well-wishers who hound him like a movie star after his events, but he doesn’t banter with them. They are the fans, and he is the celebrity.

“I don’t believe you’re here!” one older woman screamed after acquiring his signature, literally shrieking with delight.

“Hallelujah!” she shouted, before crying out again in unbridled triumph.

Carson’s candid self-awareness is one of the few instantly engaging facets of his demeanor. During an appearance before a group of fellow doctors in New Castle, for example, he drew knowing laughter when he mentioned that he had grown up wanting to be a missionary physician “until I turned 13 and decided I’d rather be rich.”

Unlike Trump, Carson comes across as self-effacing when he talks about his love of money --it feels like a personal and understandable human frailty and a reflection of a childhood spent in poverty, rather than an unquestionably positive trait.

And speaking of money, Carson has a lot of it.

His campaign raised more than $20 million in the last quarter -- a small donor-driven fundraising wonder and the biggest sign yet that Carson's high standing in the polls could last far longer than most had originally predicted.

Indeed, it is not for a lack of funds that Carson figures to fall short of the nomination. If and when he does ultimately flame out, it will more likely be due to greater scrutiny of his unwillingness to campaign with even a minimal amount of sensitivity.

Arguing on “Meet The Press” that a Muslim should not be president regardless of what the Constitution says about a religious test, can win you short-term points in a Republican primary race. But it is not a winning formula for broadening the tent.

“He’s very certain of what’s going on, and I don’t know whether he has any reason to be that certain,” said Sandra McKay, an undecided voter who attended Carson’s event in Exeter.

For the time being, however, Carson is not focused on winning over Sandra McKay.

Instead, he is more concerned about retaining the support of voters like the man at his Dover town hall who rose from his seat, ostensibly to ask Carson a question, but instead delivered a rambling and at times unintelligible soliloquy that included the assertion that he, too, was running for president.

Just about any other serious presidential candidate would pivot away as quickly as humanly possible in a moment like this. But as many in the crowd groaned at the audience member, Carson indulged his aspiring White House rival.

“I’m happy to hear all of the things you have to say,” the candidate told the man, who said he worked in the nursing home industry when he wasn't busy seeking the nation’s highest office.

Carson’s campaign-trail manner, weary as it is, also has an unpredictable quality. It makes him a lot of fun to cover as a reporter, but difficult to envision as a plausible Republican nominee.

“If you were in the White House, what would you be doing right now with Tropical Storm Joaquin?” a reporter asked on Wednesday when the Atlantic storm appeared ready to menace the East Coast.

Carson paused for a moment to consider his answer to this softest of softballs. Perhaps he’d get on the phone with FEMA? Or maybe talk to the governors of affected states? Turn on The Weather Channel, at least?

“Uh, I don’t know,” he eventually replied.

And with that, the most beguiling contender of the 2016 campaign smiled tightly, let out a little giggle, and walked out of the room.

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