To understand Ben Carson’s surge, you have to compare-and-contrast him with Donald Trump.
Carson and Trump are twins, fraternal rather than identical. On the surface, in terms of style, they appear as different as can be; more deeply, in terms of the content of their utterances, they are very similar. Both specialize in grand displays of egomania; turning the tables on anyone who gives them trouble; making great promises without any indications of how they would carry them out; making bombastic statements about history backed by less than no knowledge; bullying – Trump through direct verbal intimidation, Carson more subtly, by invoking the race card – there is the possibility hanging in the air that if anyone goes after him, he will attribute the attack to racism; as well as the Science card – i.e., he’s so brilliant! He couldn’t be wrong! For both, these strategies make them invincible.
Carson additionally has a word he uses to great effect: propaganda – which he uses with little regard to its normal meaning, to signify, approximately, “You have said something I don’t want to hear.” But “propaganda” is such a bad word that it causes the questioner to shrink from it. Like the other Trump/Carson strategies, this is a way of not answering questions by transferring the onus to the questioner and making him (or, even better, her) look bad and pipe down.
I think that Carson’s current success is directly linked to Trump’s earlier, and quite probably fading, success. Trump for some time was really exciting and compelling: he was loud, he was daring, he was hu-u-uge. He filled listeners and viewers with a sense of their own potential – if they went along with him, they too could be big and magnificent and successful. But hyperbolic content combined with over-the-top style in time becomes wearing. The listener/viewer gets tired and needs a break. Yet the message remains compelling: what to do?
Just in time, along comes Ben Carson, saying the same hyperbolic stuff but in a soft voice, in a monotone, somnolent and soporific. The viewer/listener paradoxically perks up: you need to lean in and pay attention to hear him. But when you lean in and listen closely, it is normally because something of importance is being said. So if Carson’s message is causing you to behave this way, it must be important. It must be true.
This understanding may call to mind William James’s theory: we don’t cry because we are sad, but because we find ourselves shedding tears, we experience sadness. So when Carson makes us listen up, we feel that something worth listening to is being said.
So Carson is stylistically the anti-Trump: The Donald’s loudness eventually turns hearers off, and Carson’s gentleness turns them back on. But the two are twins: same ultimate aim and ultimate message. But the Carson phenomenon would succeed had the Trump phenomenon not preceded it and made hearers long for it.
Gentleness is metaphorical and transferable. Carson’s calm demeanor makes him seem less dangerous. It also makes him sound presidential: he’s so authoritative that he doesn’t have to yell. And it also makes what he says seem true and important, because he doesn’t need to shout. And the low voice not only makes him seem modest (although what he says about himself is no more modest than what Trump says about himself), it makes him seem trustworthy. And so even when he tosses off bizarre bits of ignorance about slavery and Nazism, we are soothed into the belief that he knows something about them that we don’t know.
Despite all this, bear one thing in mind: the people telling the pollsters that they are for Carson are a minority of a minority, and perhaps need not be taken all that seriously.