It shouldn’t have been a hard question.
On Sunday’s Meet the Press, Chuck Todd asked Ben Carson, “Should a President’s faith matter?”
Carson’s answer was comfortingly banal. “Well, I guess it depends on what that faith is,” he replied. “If it’s inconsistent with the values and principles of America, then of course it should matter. But if it fits within the realm of America and consistent with the Constitution, no problem.”
But Todd had a follow-up. “So do you believe that Islam is consistent with the Constitution?”
And then Carson went off the rails. “No, I don’t, I do not,” he said. “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.”
Carson’s remarks were noxious enough — and bizarre enough — that even Ted Cruz joined in the backlash. “The Constitution specifies that there shall be no religious test for public office, and I am a constitutionalist,” he said in Iowa.
It was left to Carson’s spokesperson, Doug Watts, to try to soften Carson’s claim — a tricky task, given the definitive nature of Carson’s statement. “He did not say that a Muslim should be prevented from running, or barred from running in any way,” Watts said.
In other words, the defense of Carson from Carson’s own campaign is that while the candidate “absolutely” would not support a Muslim president, he does not think it is currently illegal for Americans of Muslim faith to run for president.
But Carson’s comment was more than a gaffe. It came after Donald Trump indulged a supporter who said, “We have a problem in this country, it’s called Muslims.” It comes amidst a sharply rising tide of Islamophobia in America. And it comes in context of a presidential campaign where Republican candidates are being rewarded for bigoted comments.
Carson’s statement is being treated in the press as a disaster for his campaign. But no one should be surprised if his poll numbers rise in its aftermath.
Todd’s question was predictable. A few days before, Donald Trump had held a rally that included this memorable exchange:
MAN IN AUDIENCE: 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. Birth certificate, man!
DONALD TRUMP: We need this question!
MAN IN AUDIENCE: But anyway, we have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That’s my question: when can we get rid of ’em?
DONALD TRUMP: We’re gonna be looking at a lot of different things. And you know that a lot of people are saying that, and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there. We’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.
Trump’s campaign later clarified their candidate’s answer this way: “Christians need support in this country. Their religious liberty is at stake.” Which suggested that the kind of support Christians need is a president who will indulge, and even encourage, conspiratorial Islamophobes.
But these kinds of comments have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign — and his appeal — thus far. Trump spent much of the Obama administration as the nation’s most prominent birther. He began his presidential campaign by calling Mexican immigrants “criminals, drug dealers, rapists.” He defended a series of misogynistic comments about women by saying “I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either.” Shortly thereafter, he retweeted people calling Fox News’s Megyn Kelly “a bimbo” for asking him the question in the first place.
Through all of this, Trump has been rewarded with ever-rising poll numbers. The message from the Republican electorate has been perfectly clear: they want a candidate willing to say things about that the Republican establishment — to say nothing of the media — would usually consider disqualifying.
Ben Carson is more soft-spoken than Donald Trump, but no less outspoken
Trump currently leads the Republican primary field. But Carson — who doesn’t have Trump’s name recognition or fortune — is in second place is most polls. And Carson’s rise has been powered by many of the same dynamics that have led to Trump’s dominance. Like Trump, Carson is a political outsider unafraid to say things that make the GOP establishment blanch.
This is easy to miss because Carson doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would say anything particularly provocative. Trump has the affect of a man who says offensive things: he’s loud, blustering, red-faced. But Carson’s demeanor is gentle and polite. His words, however, aren’t.
Carson first rocketed to political fame as an opponent of Obamacare, which he called “the worst thing that has happened to this nation since slavery.”
Since then, he’s shown an affection for conspiracy theories, suggesting on Fox News that “perhaps some of the things that are going on right now which could be easily remedied are not being remedied in order to keep the economy depressed because there would be no appetite for many of the social programs if people were doing well.”
And then, of course, there’s Carson’s comparison of the US, to, well, guess: “I mean, [our society is] very much like Nazi Germany. And I know you’re not supposed to say ‘Nazi Germany,’ but I don’t care about political correctness. You know, you had a government using its tools to intimidate the population. We now live in a society where people are afraid to say what they actually believe.”
Part of Carson’s appeal to a certain segment of Republican voters is that he’s not afraid to say what they actually believe. Unlike career politicians, he’s not constrained by the Republican establishment. Unlike white politicians, he’s not afraid of being race-baited by the Obama administration or the media. If you like Donald Trump’s fearlessness but dislike the fact that he’s kind of a jerk, Carson is the perfect candidate.
Which brings us back to Carson’s comments about Muslims and the Constitution.
Carson’s belief that Islam is somehow unconstitutional, and a Muslim president would somehow be dangerous, is an extreme manifestation of a much broader problem: rising Islamophobia in both politics and the media.
While Islamophobia is not new in America, it has grown since the rise of ISIS. The Iraqi and Syrian terrorist group claims to represent true Islam (though the vast majority of both its victims and its enemies are Muslim themselves), and segments of the US media have decided that they’re right. CNN, for example, has run a series of segments asking if Islam “promotes violence,” which is sort of like asking if Judaism promotes greed.
On Fox News, Andrea Tantros, in making a point about “the history of Islam,” argued, “You can’t solve it with a dialogue. You can’t solve it with a summit. You solve it with a bullet to the head. It’s the only thing these people understand.”
Bill O’Reilly has declared that “Islam is a destructive force” and that the US is in a holy war with certain groups of Muslims. Host Jeanine Pirro once issued a breathtaking seven-minute monologue calling for the United States to arm death squads throughout the Muslim world to kill all Islamists and members of Islamist organizations, though many of those organizations are avowedly peaceful and have millions of members, including women and children.
Fox News has also promoted a far-right conspiracy theory claiming that Muslim American communities are organizing secret paramilitary “training camps.” This conspiracy theory helped inspire a Tennessee man named Robert Doggart, who was arrested for plotting to lead a far-right militia to attack a predominantly Muslim community in upstate New York. And the anti-Muslim Donald Trump supporter who started this current news cycle appeared to reference this theory as well, citing “training camps” in his question to Trump.
And the rhetoric gets less responsible as you move from Fox news to the conservative talk-radio fringe.
The results of all this are increasingly visible in conservative politics. In late January, a Republican Texas state legislator protested the state capital’s Muslim Capitol Day, meant to promote tolerance, by demanding that any Muslim “publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws” before entering her office. “We will see how long they stay in my office,” she said.
Louisiana Gov. and presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal has falsely claimed that Muslims in the UK have set up “no-go zones” that police refuse to enter and where Sharia law prevails, and that Muslim immigrants coming to the US are an “invasion” and “colonization.”
Conservative state legislatures are routinely passing laws banning “Sharia” or “foreign law,” a barely veiled expression of official legislative hostility toward Islam and Muslim-American communities.
This is the broader context for Carson’s remarks: many grassroots Republicans see Islam as not just suspicious but a clear and present danger to America, and think the media and the political establishment are too bound by political correctness to admit it — much less fight it. What Carson said on Meet the Press is proof that he isn’t.
So expect that the Carson campaign will come under attack from the usual political suspects over the next few days. But don’t be surprised if Carson’s numbers rise in the polls. Like Trump, he’s proving that he’ll give voice to ideas that have a broad constituency among grassroots conservatives, but horrify the Republican establishment.