In the fevered political moment captured so well by the second Republican presidential debate, Dr. Ben Carson has improbably emerged as the leading challenger to the improbable Donald Trump. Recently asked to distinguish himself from his rival, Dr. Carson humbly singled out his faith-based humility. One must assume that he equates humility with the disarming persona he once again displayed on Wednesday evening -- his soft-spoken manner seemingly detached from the conflict around him, his most memorable response a pleasing tribute to his hard-working mother. But that muted volume shrouds pronouncements which, in both their strangeness and self-certainty, are stunning even by Trumpian standards. For little in Dr. Carson's campaign thus far suggests the slightest awareness of the feeble qualifications, rhetorical excess, and monumental self-regard he brings to his pursuit of the presidency.
His rise began at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast. He began by noting: "My role model is Jesus," a statement which might have given pause to a man less humble. With President Obama two seats away, he then proceeded to critique Obama's health care plan and offer up his own. Even some evangelicals felt that he had hijacked a religious event with unseemly arrogance. But Carson knew better. He then went on television to criticize the president's own remarks, saying that they made him "feel that perhaps we're being betrayed, perhaps we don't have a leader who feels the same thing as most of us do," adding that, "we will have another opportunity, coming up in 2016, looking at all the senators and congressmen who rabidly support this man." With this, movement conservatives began urging him to seek the presidency. And, much like his role model, Dr. Carson was prepared to sacrifice himself for the higher good.
His subsequent self-evaluations suggest why. "I'm ready for leadership on the world stage," he has assured us, "not just sitting around waiting to see what other people do." When asked about his lack of knowledge of that stage, he countered that "the most important thing is having a great brain" -- his own, it would seem. After all, as he remarked in closing out the first debate, "I'm the only one [onstage] to separate Siamese twins." That last statement, at least, is beyond peradventure.
On one level, this serene self-assurance is not wholly surprising. For a superb surgeon, which Dr. Carson surely was, self-confidence is a prerequisite. But it is an unsettling leap for a brain surgeon to suggest that staving off global disaster is not, well, brain surgery. And it is outright unnerving when this lofty self-concept is fused with the certainty on which fundamentalism so often rests -- as recently illustrated by the Kentucky County clerk who rejected same-sex marriage applicants "on God's authority." Even in less dangerous times than these, one hopes for a president who, before making momentous decisions consults, not just God, but advisers with deep intelligence and experience -- especially when that president is so inexperienced himself. But Carson's tidy solution to the protean dangers posed by ISIS -- that he would "order the military to destroy the group" -- did not, to put it gently, seem to reflect a meaningful consultation with military experts, let alone a comprehension of the poisonous complexities of the Middle East. In this matter, as in others, divine inspiration should be infused with worldly wisdom.
But there is disturbingly little sign of that in Dr. Carson. Think what one will about Obamacare, it is surely not "the worst thing that has happened in the United States since slavery." However quiet Dr. Carson's voice, he sounds more than a bit like Trump -- not to mention un-Christian -- when he suggests that President Obama is "sitting there saying, 'These Americans are so stupid they'll believe anything I say.'" It is passing strange for a man of science to disdain the scientific community by repudiating the theory of evolution, and labeling any discussion of man-made climate change "irrelevant." And when his intellectual cul-de-sac propels the workings of his mind to interplanetary levels -- asserting that Americans "live in a Gestapo age," then paradoxically proposing a "covert division" of civil servants to spy on their fellow workers -- one can only question the operating manual for this particular great brain.
Like Trump, Dr. Carson appeals to those for whom loathing of government suffices as policy; unlike Trump, he channels this rage through a mien of self-effacement which has religious resonance, deepening his appeal to evangelicals and others uncomfortable with bombast. But our long campaigns are as grueling as a marathon, as telling as a microscope -- even now, the residue of this last debate may be of a candidate only tenuously connected to the larger discussion. In the end, even many of Dr. Carson's would-be admirers may conclude that they have seen this man before -- perhaps in an airport bar, or on a park bench. He has a gentle demeanor, a kindly aura, a soft and pleasing voice. And then we come closer, and realize that he is speaking in tongues.
Richard North Patterson is the author of 22 novels, and a frequent commentator on national and international issues.