GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson has been roundly skewered for, if you want to be charitable, embellishing his supposed hardscrabble youthful past, or less so, flat out lying about it. But that made absolutely no difference in some national polls that showed him topping long standing front runner Donald Trump and, even more astounding, running neck and neck with Hillary Clinton in a hypothetical general election showdown. At first glance, it seems to defy conventional political wisdom and past history when some presidential candidates who were caught with their pants on fire lies were so badly tainted that they dropped out of the race, or their poll ratings plunged faster than the Hindenberg. But Carson seems so far at least to have a remarkable Teflon.
There are a couple of reasons for that -- disturbing to be sure, but reasons nonetheless. One is that presidents and presidential candidates do routinely bend the truth, doctor numbers, double-talk, deceive, and, yes, blatantly lie. Their lies and distortions have become not only routine, but expected. The lying, deceiving politician has been virtually encoded into the stock image the public has of politicians. They have been mocked by comedians, reviled by pundits, and fact checked to death by news sources. Yet, this hasn't made one politician cease from fudging a fact, distorting a statement, or making a promise that will never be kept whenever they think they can get away with it.
Carson can get away with his constant reinventions about his alleged bad behaving, bad acting, tough guy, troublemaker past in part because he's just doing what politicians do, and that's puffing up the narrative about themselves. If it takes a little creative fiction to do it, then where's the real harm? This adds more gloss to the narrative that got him national attention, made him the darling of GOP conservatives, and the object of endless awe and fascination by much of the media. That is of a black guy who pulled himself up from the alleged squalor and mean streets of inner city Detroit, and made himself into an exemplary figure of achievement. He supposedly did all of this through grit, spunk, and personal initiative, and not affirmative action or government hand-outs.
Carson gets a pass for his truth stretching for yet another reason: He's practically coined an industry out of spouting outrageous and outlandish quips, cracks, and inane statements about anything and everything that comes in his head. The more outrageous the remarks, whether it be Pyramids were grain stores, or calling the big bang theory of science a "fairy tale," are now not only standard Carson fare but indulged, encouraged, and then discussed as if they are even worthy of being discussed. It's entertaining and makes crackling good copy in a political season when Carson, Trump, Carly Fiorina, and to some extent Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders liven up what typically stacks up as drab political contests.
Then there's the serviceable role in the GOP that Carson plays. What other GOP presidential candidate would in their wildest and weirdest dreams ever consider cutting a rap video to promote their candidacy. The idea behind this is to showcase him as a candidate who can relate to the "hood." This seemingly gives lie to the notion that the GOP is strictly a know-nothing party chock full of unreconstructed bigots. The notion of Carson as a presidential candidate touches a deep, dark and throbbing pulse among legions of ultraconservatives who think that Obama and many Democrats are communists, that gays are immoral, and that the healthcare reform law is "slavery," as Carson infamously quipped, meaning a tyrannical intrusion by big government into Americans' lives. Mainstream GOP leaders can't utter this idiocy. They must always give the appearance that they are above the dirty, muddy, hate-slinging fray, so they leave it to a well-paid stalking horse like Carson to do their dirty work for them.
Carson hit the scene at the right time. He is the ultimate outlier candidate in a hyper politically charged period in American history when legions of Americans are fed up with business as usual campaigns and candidates, politicians deemed mouthpieces for big money, a Congress that reeks of polarization and dysfunctionality, and a seemingly never ending bloated federal government. He appears to be the fresh breeze of honesty in the sense of he says what he thinks, no matter what the subject, and says it in a way that seems believable, at least to him.
So Carson got caught wrapped up in fibs and inventions about his life. It got him even more ink and a spirited rebuttal that aimed to show there was no harm, no foul in what he said about himself, and then re-said about himself. What this shows is that if the polls are right, it did him no harm. It also shows that many Americans will back politicians who tell tall tales no matter how tall they are.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of Torpedoing Hillary: The GOP Plan to Stop a Clinton White House (Amazon ebook). He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network