Donald Trump vs. Ben Carson: Energy vs. Ideology

Republican presidential hopefuls Ben Carson and Donald Trump participate in the Republican Presidential Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California on September 16, 2015. Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump stepped into a campaign hornet's nest as his rivals collectively turned their sights on the billionaire in …
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

We have a long way to go in the Republican primary, but it’s certainly been an interesting journey so far. It’s still the season of the outsider, with Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina in the top tier.  

In the latest round of polls, Fiorina slipped a bit behind Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who is shaping up as the strongest Establishment-friendly-but-conservative alternative – a tough break for Jeb Bush. Rubio was the outsider in a major Senate race just a few years ago, a bit of history he’ll probably be reminding Republican primary voters of as the race heats up.

Trump and Carson are way out front, and the startling new Fox News poll has Dr. Carson obliterating Hillary Clinton in an 11-point landslide, after weeks of intense media pounding designed to “otherize” him for his comments about hypothetical Muslim presidential candidates and the importance of self-defense. One of the big knocks against Carson, in the early days of his presidential exploration, was weakness on the gun control issue. He seems to have addressed that rather deftly, by taking the initiative and becoming the point man in a heated argument about the importance of armed citizens taking responsibility for self-defense.

Carson is running a laid-back campaign that seemingly involves a nice man who knows nothing about politics making things up as he goes along.  

Looking at how he turned the gun control debate around, one suspects the genius neurosurgeon has been studying politics and learning a few lessons. He makes campaigning look easy sometimes, but he always knew it wasn’t.  He also saw the value in allowing both Republican and Democrat adversaries to believe they were up against a well-meaning amateur with no strategic vision.

Trump and Carson present a fascinating contrast between energy and ideology. Trump is pure energy. He’s selling himself more than any particular set of ideas. He drops policy proposals from both Left and Right, feeling free to reshuffle his ideological cards and deal himself a new hand whenever necessary.

It works because of the force of Trump’s personality, his celebrity, his nearly miraculous ability to hold an audience – nobody works a hostile crowd like he does – and the simple truth that many voters, including Republican primary voters, aren’t truly ideological.

Ideology gets a bad rap sometimes, because people think of it as somewhat sinister. That’s only true when ideology is hidden. Whenever voters demand to know what a candidate truly believes, and how he or she intends to act on those beliefs, they’re asking about ideology.

Ideology is principle in motion.  

People with similar principles may approach them through radically different ideologies. They may agree on certain realities, but dramatically disagree about how those situations came to pass, who was responsible, and what should be done to correct problems. Most of us agree with the principle that poverty is bad and should be reduced, but we couldn’t disagree more strongly about how “poverty” is defined, what causes it, and what “reducing” it would mean.

If Trump is energy without much ideology, Carson is one of the most relaxed ideologues American politics has ever seen.

Carson, as we’ve learned over the past few months, has given some thought to the causes of nearly every domestic policy problem, and he has ideas for translating his principles into action. The speech that made him famous, at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013, included such profoundly ideological notions as the immorality of progressive confiscatory taxation. We generally think of ideology as the business of fiery table-thumping rabble-rousers and slick packaged politicians, but it can be expressed quietly and thoughtfully, as Carson prefers.

Both Carson’s and Trump’s approaches can resonate with voters, as their tight race for first place in the primary makes clear. Non-political people usually don’t think of themselves as interested in political ideology, but they respond to it when it’s presented in a compelling way. Sometimes they’ll even support a compelling ideological argument that seems to violate their own principles, because the candidate making such a case appears sincere and seems to know what he’s doing. Barack Obama enjoyed no small degree of success in that regard, persuading people who would probably say they disagreed with many of his ideas to accept his overall vision.

Conversely, Trump’s appeal as a sort of trans-ideology wrecking ball who intends to shake up everything that’s wrong with Washington resonates with people who dislike the entrenched political class. People who aren’t interested in disciplined political thought are willing to cut a candidate like Trump some slack, thanks to his perpetual projection of confidence and success.  It’s tough for professional politicians to present themselves as trans-partisan problem-solvers, and it’s rare for a non-politician to command a position as strong as Trump’s has been. Perhaps he really has come up with a political formula that works, but only for him.

The intriguing similarity between Trump and Carson is that both continually defy conventional wisdom and flourish despite coordinated media/Democrat attacks. That’s partially because so many voters have come to despise the corrupt system, and they’re weary of hyper-sensitive freakout-prone popular culture. With their very different styles, both Trump and Carson have shown that standing their ground and facing down the media/Democrat complex is possible. Signs of weakness are what get candidates devoured by the beast.

The other reason Trump and Carson are both defying conventional wisdom is that people identify with them. It’s too easy to scoff at that notion by saying that people shouldn’t be able to connect with a rich reality-show celebrity or a neurosurgeon, but that would display a misunderstanding of how identification works. People can connect on a profound level with those who don’t pretend to be just like them.  

Trump and Carson, in different ways, display a degree of empathy that doesn’t involve the silly pretensions of middle-class identity made by politicians like Obama. Yes, a lot of people think Trump empathizes with them. They think he’s going to bat for them. He talks the way many of them feel. Carson appeals to their moral sensibilities and craving for common sense in the trillion-dollar madness of Washington.  

The remaining Republican candidates would do well to find their own balance between energy and ideology. Haunted by what was done to Mitt Romney – a smart and decent man who didn’t seem to have enough of either energetic ammunition or ideological armor to fight back against Obama’s attacks – the Republican electorate wants someone who can go the distance in 2016.