Ben Carson's Gay-Making Prisons, and the Insurgent/Petulant/Crusader Split Among GOP Anti-Establishmentarians

Why not all 'outsiders' are built the same, and how that might benefit Ted Cruz.


Today the neurosurgeon Ben Carson is coming under political fire, including from conservatives, for giving this answer to a CNN question about whether being gay is a choice:


Because a lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight—and when they come out, they're gay. So, did something happen while they were in there? Ask yourself that question[.]

Uh, let's not and say we did?

First of all, I think the correct answer to that question, from any presidential candidate, is "Why are you asking me that weird-ass question?" (The reply to which, if given honestly, would be "Because we're hoping you'll say something stupid, ya freak!")

Secondly, it's both mildly notable and wholly predictable that Carson lived down to the stereotype. This is, after all, the political naif and recent Republican convert who said in January that Americans should aspire to ISIS-style commitment to defend their cause, who said in 2014 that U.S. government and institutions are "very much like Nazi Germany" (an assertion Carson has made and defended over and over again), who said about national health care in 2009 that "the first thing we need to do is get rid of for profit insurance companies," who said in 2013 that "Obamacare is really I think the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery," and who also said in 2013 that "my thoughts are that marriage is between a man and a woman. It's a well-established fundamental pillar of society and no group, be they gays, be they NAMBLA, be they people who believe in bestiality, it doesn't matter what they are, they don't get to change the definition."

In other words, Carson saying weird things is not some kind of aberration extracted by gotcha-hunting journalists, but rather a demonstrated component to his conservative appeal. That the media sneers at his statements just adds to his cred—after all, the number-two opponent during the Conservative Politial Action Conference (CPAC), just shy of Hillary Clinton, was the capital-M Media. Given that he just finished 4th at the CPAC straw poll with 11.4%, that he was at a 2nd-place 18% in a national PPP tally a week ago, that he's tied for 3rd in Iowa and 4th in New Hampshire, it's worth asking what Republican itch Carson scratches.

Here's my guess: The Republican Party in 2015 has a huge and unsated anti-Establishment passion, one that's only stoked by the primacy of elite characters like Jeb Bush (and Mitt Romney before him). Establishment vs. anti-Establishment has been the internal GOP divide since at least spring of 2010 (when Tea Party types began primarying Republican darlings in earnest); led to just a brutal parliamentary smackdown of grassroots activists at the 2012 Republican National Convention, and is as inevitable in the 2016 presidential campaign as water flowing downhill. This fight will be had, no matter how hard RNC Chairman Reince Priebus tries to schedule it out of existence. Candidates who figure out how to channel anti-establishmentarianism will punch above their weight during primary season (something Ben Carson and Ted Cruz in particular seem to understand); candidates who fight against it (Bush most openly) are in for a rude surprise.

But not all GOP anti-establishmentarians are built the same. Below the jump, a preliminary taxonomy of three main types:

1) The Petulants: These are candidates, typically though not always from far outside the corridors of power, whose very existence in the race, however theoretical, is a thumb in the eye of both the media and the Establishment. They tend to be unpolished culture warriors who make constant headlines with provocative and hyperbolic statements, often about matters of next to zero concern for the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania. If they are in Congress, they're the ones periodicially grinding the wheels of government to a near-halt over some Quixotic fight which they are virtually guaranteed to lose. They have zero demonstrated crossover appeal to non-Republicans.

Ben Carson is this year's pre-eminent Petulant thus far, with the ghost of Donald Trump's hair long behind him (you could make a case as well for perpetual California political gadfly Carly Fiorina, who got a vigorous standing ovation and 3.0% of the straw-poll vote at CPAC). Ted Cruz has more than a toe in this camp as well, but we'll talk about more him below. Prior Petulants have included Hermain Cain and post-2008 Sarah Palin, also Michelle Bachman. (See Nick Gillespie's acerbic "The GOP's Long Love Affair With Schmucks" for more about the type.)

2) The Insurgents: These are energetic champions of mi

nority strains within the Republican big tent, who often got there by successfully challenging the GOP Establishment, and/or providing a markedly different example of governance in one of the 50 states. They have a demonstrated appeal to at least some non-Republicans, even though they can be a bit quirky, and have already taken turns being hate-figures on MSNBC.

Rand Paul is the prototypical Insurgent this time around, representing the rising but still outnumbered libertarian strain within the GOP. Marco Rubio and Chris Christie had that mojo circa 2010, but both are now seen as much more establishmentarian figures (particularly since Rubio championed the grassroots-despised effort at comprehensive immigration reform, and Christie palled around with President Barack Obama). Rick Perry has a "Texas model" to contrast himself with; more compellingly, at least in the national narrative, than Bobby Jindal's record in Louisiana. But the best gubernatorial fit might be Scott Walker—just quirky/inexperienced enough to give the Establishment pause; undoubtedly accomplished in the minority GOP strain of anti-labor pugilism/public-sector reform, yet with enough crossover appeal (in his own blue state, anyway) to win three elections in four years. Walker doesn't fit as neatly here as Rand Paul, but he also has potential access to Establishment money that Paul will likely only dream about.

3) The Crusaders: These are social conservatives fighting a lonely, uphill battle against a fallen culture. They are doing what's right, regardless of what's popular, and their longshot nature (and grassroots organization) is a core part of their appeal. Rick Santorum starred in that role in 2012, Mike Huckabee in 2008 (Gary Bauer in 2000, Pat Buchanan in 1996 and 1992), but it's unclear who if anyone will take the mantle this time around.

This lack of star power may provide a huge opening for Ted Cruz. The most aggressively populist (by far) speaker that I saw at CPAC, Cruz alone can talk like an Insurgent, Petulant, and Crusader in the same breath. In conservative rooms he sounds like the growly-voiced son-of-an-Evangelist-preacher that he is, talking about "reigniting the miracle of America" and standing "for life and marriage"; I've seen him go full God-and-flag at a California Club for Growth meeting. Combine this with his explicitly anti-Establishment rap and record of congressional Petulance, and Cruz has a pretty clear path to the GOP Final Four. His act also, FWIW, comes off as nails on a chalkboard to just about everyone who isn't positively inclined toward him, which the Establishment will certainly exploit if he becomes a real threat.

I'm sure there are blatant holes and biases with my categorizations here that you will improve upon in the comments—for example, there is a long list of Republicans who would classify Rand Paul as a "Petulant" or something more pejorative. But I'm equally confident that even candidates backed by Establishment money had better figure out how to sound anti-Establishment soon, or face a hastier-than-expected exit.