Friday, January 16, 2015

The Ben Carson Swindle

In a speech to the Republican National Committee's winter meeting outside San Diego, the former neurosurgeon and conservative favorite praised American patriots for their willingness to give their lives for their beliefs. Then he mentioned the Islamic State group.
"They got the wrong philosophy, but they're willing to die for what they believe, while we are busily giving away every belief and every value for the sake of political correctness," he said as Republican officials from across the country interrupted him with applause. "We have to change that."
. . .
After the speech, Carson said it's "ridiculous" to suggest he was likening American patriots to the Islamic State.
Dr. Ben Carson has stated that by May 2015, he'll have a final decision as to whether he is running for president. Right now he's a rising star in conservative circles--a brilliant neurosurgeon, social conservative (to a degree, at least), and powerful speaker, he has been unflinching in his criticism of Barack Obama and what he sees as liberal values (political correctness) in general.

Lest you think he, a political first-timer, might not be able to raise capital, consider this: The National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee has raised over 2.4 million dollars. That's a massive amount. More than Hillary or Rand Paul in 2014. The donors, not surprisingly, skew towards anti-incumbents (that's "Tea Party" for those keeping score). They're not the super-rich--but there's enough support that he clearly has a fairly wide and very dedicated base.

So he's a contender, right?

The SuperPAC
The National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee is not run by Ben Carson--it's not even run by an affiliate of his. His official PAC is USAFirstPac which only filed in August of 2014 (the other is a SuperPAC which can raise unlimited funds--but cannot collaborate with the candidate). The Draft Ben Carson for President Committee is run by John Philip Sousa (apparently a descendant of the Sousa you've heard of), run by Vernon Robinson (known for running dirty, aggressive campaigns) and Ben Carson's business manager says:
"We have never met with [Robinson]," Williams said. "When he showed up at a function to take a picture with Dr. Carson, I blocked it."
Well then.

There's also the problem that while they raised 2.4 million, they spent 2.44 million dollars.
In this quarter the National Draft Ben Carson Committee raised, as noted above, nearly $2.4 million. However, the group spent about $2.44 million . The invisible presidential primary hasn't even begun in earnest – so where were they spending all that money?
The simplest answer is that they spent the money raising the money. Half of the total expenditures by the committee over the first three months of the year went to two companies: Omega List and Campaign Funding Direct.
They also paid Vernon Robinson 263,000.00 USD. A pretty good salary, thinks The Omnivore.

But the unofficial Ben Carson superPAC isn't the only thing making decent money off Carson: A company called Mannatech markets a supplement called "glyconutrient." Carson has spoken about them (they say he is not a spokesperson--but his image appears on their website). They have settled several million dollars in lawsuits for hawking dubious drugs and other bad behavior:
A 20/20 investigative report from the same year revealed a similar pattern, finding that Mannatech sales associates were hawking the company’s signature drug, Ambrotose, which “costs at least $200 a month,” as “a miracle cure that could fix a broad range of diseases, from cancer to multiple sclerosis and AIDS.
Despite a long history of lawsuits, Carson continued to interact with them until at least March 2014. Mannatech and Carson's business manager differ as to whether the relationship has been severed (Team Carson says their lawyers are on it, Mannatech says they've yet to hear anything and count him as a satisfied customer).

While we're here, let's note that Buzzfeed found out Carson plagiarized a bunch of his 2012 book America the Beautiful. While plagiarism is nothing new for politicians (Joe Biden?) and Carson counts it as a case of missing attributions alone, it's especially poignant that in the book itself Carson writes about being caught plagiarizing a paper in college and being given a chance to rewrite it.
When I stepped into his office, however, I could immediately sense the weight of the moment. He pointed out that I had plagiarized and told me that the consequences for doing so normally included expulsion. I could see all of my dreams of becoming a doctor dashed by my stupidity. Even though I did not know the implications of plagiarism, I certainly should have known inherently that what I was doing was wrong. I had done it before without consequences and probably would have continued doing it if I had not been caught. Fortunately for me, the professor was very compassionate, realized that I was naïve, and gave me a chance to rewrite the paper. This raises another question: Is ignorance an acceptable excuse for unethical behavior?
Maybe the professor taught the wrong lesson?

The Carson Weakness
There is a massive economic machine out there that's making money off the intellectual weaknesses of the conservative base. It sells over-priced freeze-dried food (FEMA doesn't want you to know), gold certificates (yeah: Lord Humongus is going to trade you food and ammo for your certificate after the apocalypse), and, yes, presidential candidates (remember Herman Cain?).

In the case of the former two, it's selling to their fear of collapse--the feeling that the country has already been stolen and the Takers (minorities, maybe the young? Loose women?) are making off with the American Dream held over their heads like a looted flat-screen. When those minorities and immigrants (illegals) take their Social Security, all that will be left is dehydrated rations and worthless greenbacks.

In the case of candidates, it sells them an imaginary shot at a voice and respect. Black candidates like Carson and Cain play to their absolute hatred of constantly being called racists ("Because they disagree with Barack Obama"). The ideological rhetoric these candidates are able to spout gives the words innate credibility because these men are:

  1. Black. Means they can't be racist--and they can confer their raceism-off to their donors and supporters!
  2. Self-made. They represent a living incarnation of conservative ideology.
  3. Aggressive. As outsiders, people like Carson can say shocking or absurd things (that Obamacare is worse than slavery, that no one cares about Uzbekistan)  and get away with it. These are things most other candidates won't say on a national stage. These people feel that all their actual elected leaders are inexplicably soft-headed and spineless. A man who talks like Carson, they reason, is a man who will stand up for them.
  4. Plain-spoken: the unpolished nature of both Cain and Carson marked them as outsiders--uncorrupted by Washington. It signals that they are people who say what they mean and do what they say (unlike, for example, Boehner).
For a slice of the electorate that feels constantly frustrated with their lack of a real voice, this is an easy sell. Consider: A massive GOP wave sweeps the 2014 elections and by January we have these headlines:
And it's not even like conservatives are surprised by this. They largely don't understand the mechanisms by which these things are pretty much guaranteed (if they did, they would not feel betrayed)--but they certainly expect their leaders to "sell them out." 

To the voter who has little idea why these things are happening and won't listen to explanations, only an uncorrupted TrueCon with rock-solid ideological convictions can possibly stand against the rapacious forces in Washington that have clearly taken over both parties. It's an illusion, of course, but it is a convincing and attractive one.

Carson, by no action of his own, is exactly the right kind of snake oil that sells to these people and sure enough, the machinery of capitalism has packaged his identity and rolled it out.

Ben Carson: Think of him as a Kickstarter that never launches.

The problem is not specifically Ben Carson--although he is unwise with his name, he would not be the first celebrity to get mixed up in marketing scams. The plagiarism thing is unfortunate--but, again, he's not the first major political figure to do it (you have to write a book, man--you have to. It's expected--but who's got time for that?). Yes: These things might, taken together, be indicative of bad character--but his lifetime as a pediatric surgeon suggests that there's a lot more to him.

On the other hand, these events taken with his penchant for saying absurd things that win him applause on the far right but raised eyebrows anywhere back towards the middle paint a picture of someone who is just not ready (or, maybe, just not fit) for the national stage. Carson, at the same speech where he made his ISIS comments, took the stage to tell the GOP establishment "I am not crazy." When you have to say it? There's a problem.

Even now he's making serious moves that suggests he thinks he can run and win. If that's really the case, he's delusional and the people feeding his campaign are almost entirely likely throwing their money away chasing an end-state he cannot deliver. As far as this has gone, all's fair: he may not have much political experience but he's picking up advisers and experience at a rapid rate.

In his book, on the issue of plagiarism, he asked: "Is ignorance an acceptable excuse for unethical behavior?"

The Omnivore isn't sure what answer he gave--if any--but pretty soon there will come a point where Carson will need to be taking a hard, objective look at the 2016 race and conclude, logically, that he is taking people's money with no significant possibility of return. If he continues to run after that, perhaps he has answered that question.

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