Ben Carson’s hyperbole is a poor substitute for serious policy ideas

Dr. Ben Carson’s story is a remarkable one. Like many in my generation, I read his autobiography, Gifted Hands, in elementary school and remember being moved by Carson’s journey and impressed with his accomplishments. His story appealed to me.

But the Ben Carson I see running for president today is almost impossible to reconcile with the man who inspired my fourth grade imagination. He speaks in the measured, soothing tones I gleaned from Gifted Hands, but the content of his message relies far too much on hyperbole and seemingly intentional, and unthoughtful, “political incorrectness” than serious policy innovations.

Perhaps the single most obvious evidence of Carson’s philosophical shallowness is his persistent and intensely personal malice for President Obama, whom Carson labels a “psychopath.”

The problem with this approach is that it utterly misses the point of why Obama is a bad president. As I’ve noted at Rare, to so intently focus on the personality and habits of one White House occupant is to grievously misunderstand the fact of our institutionally imperial presidency. Arguing that Obama is a psychopath doesn’t address the bipartisan—even expected—abuses of power that are now so central to the executive branch. Instead of attacking the cult of celebrity that surrounds any president, Carson feeds it.

There’s also Carson’s general hyperbole: He has said American society is basically like Nazi Germany. That the IRS is like the Gestapo. Obamacare is a form of slavery. He even said that if Democrats had won the Senate in 2014, they might have cancelled the 2016 election.

I’m no fan of Obamacare, but we do not offer a legitimate critique when we compare it to the sale, rape, brutalization, and murder of human beings. I’d like to get rid of the IRS, but they’re not actually rounding up religious leaders, Jews, and gay people to put them in death camps. And I was hardly rooting for a Democratic triumph in 2014—though I can’t say I was super jazzed about a Republican win either—but I’m pretty sure they weren’t planning to cancel the elections (as if Hillary Clinton would have stood for that!).

Ultimately, this sort of hyperbole does statists’ work for them, making straw men out of anyone who also opposes what Carson critiques. For example, since it’s obvious to most Americans—even those of us who want to abolish the personal income tax altogether—that the IRS is not the Gestapo, it’s all too easy for progressives to mock our arguments about ending the income tax. Giving the left such an easy opening makes us irrelevant.

Much of the rhetoric I’ve addressed is no doubt, in Carson’s mind, a rejection of political correctness: In the National Prayer Breakfast speech which launched his political career, Carson argued that political correctness “muffles people” and “keeps people from discussing important issues.”

In a supposed effort to combat this phenomenon, Carson uses his platform to be intentionally politically incorrect; and thus we have utterly inappropriate discussion of psychopaths, Nazis, and slavery—discussions which are disrespectful to the victims of these tragedies and that serve to delegitimize the cause of limited government in the minds of the average Americans.

As Matt K. Lewis writes at The Week, it is certainly true that, when used as a form of censorship, political correctness is dangerous. But “simply declaring oneself ‘politically incorrect’… is not a license to throw off the shackles of protocol and politeness and say crazy, offensive things.” “It’s a cop-out—a get-out-of-jail-free card for someone who doesn’t want to discipline his tongue or learn to communicate effectively,” Lewis notes.

The politically incorrect “cop-out” mode Lewis describes is central to much of Carson’s rhetoric and how he functions politically. His measured manner may sometimes disguise his inflammatory statements, but if we look past his style to the substance—something Carson himself suggests we do regarding Obama—it becomes obvious that he offers little more than partisan criticisms couched in terms unbecoming of a man of his stature.

Carson’s campaign slogan is “Heal, Inspire, Revive.” But in politics, he’s doing less of the first two and none of the latter.

Bonnie Kristian is a columnist at Rare, weekend editor at The Week, and a fellow at Defense Priorities. You can find more of her work at or follow her on Twitter @bonniekristian
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