Dr. Ben Carson is the most dangerous man in politics. I'm not alluding to the facets of Carson's campaign that seem most alarming.
And there are many such facets.
Carson is a climate change denier. He is an anti-evolution religious zealot. He has absolutely no political experience. He has compared Obamacare and abortion to slavery. He believes the great pyramids were grain silos. He thinks a Muslim should not be allowed to be president. He believes that prison makes people gay.
His campaign is based almost entirely on his apparently embellished rags-to-riches tale. He has the distinctive sociopathic characteristic of lying without a hint of self-consciousness. On last Sunday morning's Face The Nation news program Carson appeared on a split screen - one side showing a prior interview during which he stated that he was offered a full scholarship to attend West Point. On the live screen he claimed that he never said he was offered a full scholarship to attend West Point. He didn't even blink.
He is surely the only presidential candidate in history to boast of having attacked his mother with a hammer. When the story was questioned, he angrily denounced the "liberal media" for doubting that he attempted matricide.
As I scan back over this very partial summary of Carson's presidential "qualifications" I shudder to think that 25-30% of Republican primary voters believe he is the best candidate. But those things may not be what make him most dangerous.
The greatest danger is that Carson is a black man conservatives can love. An MSNBC analyst suggested that Carson, if nominated, might win as much as 25% of the black vote. Barack Obama received 95% of the black vote in 2008 and 93% in 2012. Al Gore and John Kerry received 90% and 88% respectively in 2000 and 2004. These statistics reveal the real challenge Carson might represent to the Democratic nominee.
Carson's popularity among white and black conservatives is a dire threat to racial and social justice. Like Clarence Thomas and other black conservatives, Carson advances the myth that we live in a post-racist society. Aside from embellishments, his genuine rise from poverty to prestige is precisely the kind of narrative that keeps the foot of oppression on the necks of black men and women. His "up by the bootstraps" story is the very rare exception that allows conservatives to deny the rule. If he made it, anyone can. Carson is like a shipwreck's lone survivor who is used to argue that the shoals of injustice don't exist.
This presents a complex dilemma for the political opposition. Donald Trump trots out "political correctness" whenever diversity or racism is mentioned, but at least we can identify the source: a rich, white, clueless boor who insults everyone. When Carson calls anti-racist work "political correctness," how might one challenge him? Who knows the black experience better than a black man raised in poverty? When smug white intellectuals argue that affirmative action is reverse racism, we can challenge them to consider how their own white privilege might have stunted their capacity for empathy. When Carson says black folks are playing the "victim card," what can be said?
To some extent, Carson's presence in the GOP campaign inoculates the entire party against accusations of ignoring racial and social injustice. It is the political equivalent of "some of my best friends are black" played out on a grand scale.
I suspect that much flows from his title and resume: Dr. Ben Carson, celebrated neurosurgeon. Unlike Barack Obama, who was roundly dismissed as a "community organizer" and has been subjected to vile explicit and implicit racist taunts, Carson is beyond reproach because physicians are de facto smart. This stature has skewed his sense of the world around him. Even in the down and dirty world of politics, commentators are careful to introduce him as "Dr. Carson." He is granted a degree of automatic deference.
If Carson were neither black nor a physician, his candidacy would be a joke. Even among the pandering, far right, buffoonish collection of GOP candidates, his inexperience and irrationality would be glaring disqualifications.
In 1963, shortly after Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, the more radical Malcolm X warned about black men whose stature within the white community afforded a level of privilege, a phenomenon going all the way back to slavery. Such a man, he said, "doesn't identify himself with your plight whatsoever," and slows progress toward racial justice.
52 years later, "such a man" may stand at the threshold of the White House.