How Ben Carson Uses “Secular Progressives” as a Shield

Scrutiny of the veracity of Ben Carson’s account of various events in his youth continues, with the Wall Street Journal casting doubt on Carson’s claim to have sheltered white students in his high school biology lab during riots following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and on his claim about events in a psychology class at Yale.

Some conservatives (including Carson himself) lashed out at Politico yesterday over its reporting on Carson’s claim to have been offered a full scholarship to West Point—a headline in the Federalist even referred to the essential read for Beltway insiders as a “leftist rag.” (Someone, please, send the Federalist a subscription to the Socialist Worker.) But today some reliably conservative outlets seem more chastened. “WSJ: More Ben Carson Narratives Can’t Be Confirmed,” reads the sober Newsmax headline. “More stories from Ben Carson’s past that no one can authenticate,” Hot Air reports dispassionately.


As Paul Waldman writes in an astute piece at the Washington Post, this scrutiny of the accuracy of Carson’s autobiography tells us little about what kind of president he’d be. But Carson’s wild claims, say, about the purpose of the pyramids, the origins of the universe, or his rejection of evolution, Waldman contends, “suggest not only that his beliefs are impervious to evidence but also an alarming lack of what we might call epistemological modesty.”

“Some parts of his personal story are irrelevant to that assessment” of his suitability for the presidency, Waldman concludes, “but some parts aren’t. And it’s those that should really give us pause.”

But there’s a way to see Carson’s apparent dissembling on a variety of issues, from his personal story to his views on science and history, as of a piece. That piece consists of a very simple frame: that Carson, through his faith in God, the grit exemplified in his life story, and the smarts evidenced by his success as a neurosurgeon, sees the truth and, as a presidential candidate, is conveying that truth to the American people. Questioning his claims about history and the universe’s origin are akin to questioning Carson’s own origin story.

Ben Carson believes he has seen the enemy, and casts himself as a prophet warning America of it. Carson’s method of disarming his critics is to portray them as that enemy in a cosmic battle over that truth. The enemy is people Carson facilely refers to as “secular progressives.”

Secular progressives, to Carson, are not mere political adversaries. In Carson’s usage, the term seems to encompass any sort of person or entity that might fall into categories as varied as liberal, secular, religious liberal, religious progressive, communist, socialist, feminist, LGBT rights activist, civil liberties advocate, Someone Who Disagrees With Ben Carson, atheist, agnostic, dormant and dead moderate Republicans, and, oh, I don’t know, CNN? Yesterday, as the Huffington Post’s media editor Gabriel Arana reports, a Carson interview on CNN turned “strangely combative” as anchor Alisyn Camerota “pressed him on a number of his recent controversial comments, including the claim that ‘many’ Americans are stupid and that ‘we’d be Cuba if it weren’t for Fox News.‘”

Camerota reminds Carson she used to work at Fox News and still has many friends there, but this appears to be of no moment to Carson, who lectures her (emphasis mine):

the general mainstream media all seems to move in the secular progressive direction, and you know, they would like to create a narrative that certain things are good, and certain things are bad, according to the way that they see them. And by being able to be the bully pulpit, so to speak, and to be the only voice that’s out there, you can get a lot of people to start thinking the way that you do. Along comes Fox News and presents an alternative, a different way of thinking.

Not only do “secular progressives” try to discredit Dr. Ben Carson; he maintains they are trying to silence him and maybe even harm him. Last month, Carson claimed he needs Secret Service protection because “I’m in great danger because I challenge the secular progressive movement to the very core.”

Carson also appears to see himself as a prophet warning of the subterfuge used by “secular progressives.” As is evident if you watch the exchange with Camerota, or Carson’s hectoring news conference yesterday, questioning him is trying to “change the subject.” For Carson, “changing the subject” is “secular progressives'” way of silencing him. As he wrote in his 2014 book, One Nation: What We Can Do To Save America’s Future (emphasis mine):

It is particularly important when dealing with adversaries to know what points you want to make while remaining focused. This makes constant interruptions, attacks, and attempts to change the subject more difficult. If you are an effective representative of American values, the secular progressives will make every attempt to destroy your character by exposing any mistakes, misstatements, or misdeeds from you past. Naturally, there are no perfect people, present company included, which makes the threats of exposure extremely potent.

In the book, Carson offers examples of these alleged secular progressive efforts to destroy not only his character but the country. He claims, broadly, that “secular progressives have zoomed past the intent of the [First Amendment] and tried to replace it with their anti-God propaganda reinforced by bullying tactics.” They have attacked him in particular, arguing, for example, that “secular progressives seized upon the opportunity to distort what I said” about same-sex marriage.

In Carson’s mind, though, he’s not a victim but an embattled hero. “I have been spreading the word that we must have enough backbone to stand up to secular progressives who insist on fundamentally changing America into something we would not recognize,” he wrote in One Nation. He keeps speaking out, he continued, “despite the many efforts of secular progressives to discredit and silence me.”

What’s funny (not really) about Carson’s litany of alleged “secular progressive” sins is that he seems oblivious to his own failures to live up to the very demands he makes of others. In yesterday’s news conference, for example, he was asked about President Obama’s decision to reject the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Carson, who believes in creationism and rejects evolution, criticized Obama for basing his decision on “ideology” and “not on evidence.” While he boasts of being a protector of the Constitution and the First Amendment in particular, Carson questioned the assembled journalists whether they would “sing my praises” and promise “none of this stuff will ever go on again” if he would reveal the name of the person he allegedly tried to stab as a teenager—another story from his autobiography that lacks corroboration. A free press, apparently, is just another secular progressive tool.

Carson seems certain that using the “secular progressive” straw man to insulate himself from criticism will work with voters. “All you guys trying to pile on is actually going to help me,” he predicted confidently at yesterday’s news conference. It may work with a Republican base conditioned to distrust the media as shills of the left and enemies of religion, the same people who might believe, as Carson does, that America would be like Cuba if it weren’t for Fox News. As Ed Kilgore and David Corn have documented, many of Carson’s beliefs have long roots in the conspiratorial American right dating back to the Cold War, so he’s tapping into a deep well.

But as Heather Parton has repeatedly pointed out, Carson’s method of attacking his perceived enemies (even the National Review!) undermines his reputation as a soft-spoken, reliably nice guy, the crucial underpinning of his candidacy. Since he’s so—shall we say—liberal with his use of the “secular progressive” indictment, the question now is whether he accuses so many enemies that he runs out of targets.