KITCHENER, Ontario — Never let it be said that any candidate in the United States miscalculated when relying on the ignorance of the U.S. voter. When nearly 25 percent of the population happily celebrates Independence Day every July 4, without knowing from whom the U.S. gained its independence, there doesn’t seem to be much for a serious candidate to work with.
And now we have renowned neurosurgeon Ben Carson and millionaire entrepreneur Donald Trump leading the pack in the run for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. Both of them, it seems, understand that whatever they say that appeals to the more ignorant wing of the GOP will swell their poll numbers, along with donations to both Mr. Trump and Mr. Carson’s campaigns.
Nowhere is this more strongly evidenced than in their comments about the United States’ latest invented “enemy,” Islam. While the government hints darkly that “jihadists” threaten society — similarly, one might add, to the way communism was said to threaten it a generation ago — and with the corporate-owned media only too happy to jump on the anti-Islam bandwagon to dehumanize victims of endless NATO wars, white, Christian evangelicals around the country are lapping up Messrs. Carson and Trump’s remarks against Muslims.
Trump: Not discriminating in his discrimination
In September, a gentleman at a question-and-answer session in New Hampshire said:
“We have a problem in this country, it’s called Muslims. We know our current president is one — you know he’s not even an American. But anyway, we have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That’s my question, when can we get rid of them?”
This question raises several concerns that a serious candidate more interested in truth than sensation (do such candidates even still exist?) might address: Singling out an entire religious group in a negative manner; Saying that President Barack Obama is a Muslim, as if that is some terrible offense; Proclaiming, after all these years, that Mr. Obama was not born in the United states; Stating that there are training camps in the U.S. where Muslims are being trained to kill non-Muslims, and Asking when the country can “get rid of them.”
In 2008, when the rich, elderly, white Arizona Sen. John McCain was the Republican candidate for president, there were allusions to Mr. Obama being Muslim or Arab, and, therefore, a threat to all the U.S. holds dear. To his credit, Mr. McCain defended his opponent. At one campaign rally, while acknowledging disagreements with Mr. Obama on fundamental issues, he said: “But I have to tell you, I have to tell you, he is a decent person, and a person that you do not have to be scared as President of the United States.” His response was met with jeers from his own supporters.
Mr. Trump, however, did not rise to the occasion as Mr. McCain did seven years earlier. His response to the questioner, who wants to rid the U.S. of all Muslims, was: “We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things. You know, a lot of people are saying that and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening. We’re going to be looking at that and many other things.” There was no defense of an entire religion that was being criticized; no correction of the fact that Mr. Obama has always belonged to a Christian religion, let alone a comment about his religion being of no importance in the political sphere. And no refutation of the ridiculous statement about Muslim training camps established to teach Muslims how to kill non-Muslims.
But Mr. Trump is not discriminating in his discrimination. After an offensive speech in June about Mexicans, he added insult to injury when he clarified his remarks the following month: “The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.” This characterization does not seem to reflect the reality of most of the Mexican immigrants currently residing in the U.S., but it fires up the base, so it is obviously worth saying.
And Mr. Trump remains in the lead in most public opinion polls, not, presumably, despite his own ignorant statements, but because of them.
Carson: Jumping on whatever bandwagon seems like a winner
Now let us turn to Mr. Carson, he with the inspiring rags-to-riches story, the distinguished surgeon who, by his own admission, led a hardscrabble youth, prone to violence, fits of rage, and general antisocial behavior. This all ended, he proclaims in his 1990 autobiography, “Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story,” when he read a passage of scripture emphasizing the importance of keeping one’s temper in check. He prayed immediately, he said, and was instantly changed.
This kind of inspirational story tugs at the heartstrings of fundamental Christians who believe in a God who only requires one to ask, and sweeping changes will be made. Yet some aspects of Mr. Carson’s inspiring story prior to his conversion don’t seem to add up. A Nov. 5 report by CNN questions the violent, uncontrolled behavior Mr. Carson describes as characteristic of his youth. Nine of his childhood friends were interviewed. Here is how a few of them remember him, along with some of their thoughts about the violent incidents related in “Gifted Hands”:
- Robert Collier: “He got through his day trying not to be noticed, I remember him having a pocket saver. He had thick glasses. He was skinny and unremarkable.”
- Dorian Reeves: “I personally do not have knowledge of those incidents. … I wondered, ‘When did that happen?’”
- Gerald Ware, discussing a time when Mr. Carson allegedly stabbed a friend he’d grown angry with: “Nobody ‘knew anything about that happening. Take my word for it: Everyone at Southwestern would know about it if something like that happened.’”
- Jerry Dixon: “He was a quiet, shy kid, not too outgoing. … Bennie stayed home a lot or went to the library to work. We would have been at the ballfield, so maybe he would have come by to watch.”
But when the story of divine redemption plays so well, why not just go with it?
Mr. Carson, obviously happy to jump on whatever popular bandwagon is rolling by at any given moment, was not outdone by Mr. Trump in his disdain for Muslims. On Sept. 20, in an interview with NBC, he said: “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.”
Looking back to the 60s, and ahead to 2016
Let us go back 55 years, to the second time in history that a Roman Catholic was nominated by a major party. Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy was opposed by many who believed that his election would cause the U.S. to be run by the Vatican. Speaking to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a group of Protestant ministers, Mr. Kennedy said, in part:
“But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured — perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in — for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.”
This statement does have a ring of truth to it. Religion is a very private matter; governance, a very public one. But the magnanimous Mr. Carson does provide a little wiggle room for any Muslim with the temerity to aspire to the White House. In a Sept. 27 interview with Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union,” this exchange took place:
“Mr. Tapper: ‘You are saying there is something specific about being a Muslim. You have to reject Islam to be president.’
“Mr. Carson: ‘You have to reject the tenets of Islam. Yes, you have to.’”
Even in 1960, while people were suspicious of Mr. Kennedy’s religion, no one suggested that he reject it. Apparently, the U.S. has not come too far over the intervening decades.
The U.S. presidential election is a year away, and yet the political field is littered with candidates. A few of the outrageous statements of the two current GOP frontrunners are all that have been discussed here, but with the candidates running to the right, where the money for their campaigns seems to be stored, we can expect more of the same.
Prejudice against religious and ethnic minorities plays so well to those who believe that, as Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly laments, “it’s not a traditional America anymore.” The fear that, as Mr. O’Reilly put it, “the white establishment is now the minority,” gets the votes of that white establishment, desperate to hold on to their power. And an ego-fed campaign for the presidency, with all the publicity, fawning crowds and television appearances, seems to become the end, of which the means can be as ugly as necessary.
As demonstrated in 2012, a candidate must be able to appeal to the moderate middle — not just one extreme or the other. The Republican candidates will try to outdo each other in condemning anyone not white, Protestant or Jewish, and then will need the votes of those they marginalized to win the presidency. It didn’t work in 2012; history is likely to repeat itself in 2016.