The Authentic Alliance of Donald Trump and Ben Carson
Former rivals find common ground by suggesting that in politics, people and events aren’t always what they seem.
Standing shoulder-to-shoulder on stage in Palm Beach, Florida, Donald Trump and Ben Carson buried the hatchet.
On Friday, Carson, the retired neurosurgeon and former White House hopeful, enthusiastically endorsed Trump, the former reality television star who is now the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. Gone were the bitter insults.
When asked by reporters how exactly they managed to mend their relationship, Carson and Trump effectively offered up the same answer: Any animosity that might have existed was in the past, and it was just politics.
“Some people said ‘But, well, he said terrible things about you, how can you support him?” Carson said. “That was political stuff.” He added: “That happens in American politics, the politics of personal destruction. All that is not something that I particularly believe in or anything that I get involved in. But I do recognize that it is a part of the process.”
And Trump? How did he feel about receiving the endorsement of a man he once suggested had a “pathological” temper, a condition he likened to being a child molester? Trump assured the audience that any spat he once had with Carson was simply part of the political game. “It’s politics. It’s tough stuff. It’s a tough business,” Trump said when a reporter asked if the two men apologized for “the nasty things you said to each other on the trail.” Trump went on to say: “A lot of things happen in politics that don’t happen anywhere else. We understand that.”
On the surface, Trump and Carson are quite different. Carson is soft-spoken. His presence is under-stated. In a primary season peppered with insults, Carson seemed far less eager to attack than many of his rivals. Trump can be loud and boisterous. He has been quick to deploy creative invective on the campaign trail. But both Trump and Carson have relied on stories of personal success to build powerful political personas that they sold to the American public. Both have stumbled on the campaign trail when pressed for policy specifics, but have proven adept at advertising their own brands. Trump trots out his business record, while Carson holds up his life story as a lauded neurosurgeon, as evidence that they have what it takes to turn the United States around. The pitch, in both cases, is pragmatic—and it sounded like the two men recognized, and appreciated, that quality in one another standing on stage Friday.
Trump and Carson are interesting case studies in political authenticity. They both shun political correctness, casting themselves as political outsiders, and are praised by their fans as authentic. But on Friday, both men candidly admitted that not only are they steeped in politics, but they also understand what it takes to win. Trump even acknowledged that he tried to undermine Carson’s campaign simply because he believed that Carson was a political threat. “I have such respect for Ben,” Trump said, recalling he didn’t like seeing Carson rise in the polls. “I said this guy is unbelievable, and so I started going after Ben. It’s politics. Ben understands it,” Trump declared.
That avowal is, in its own way, quite authentic. Trump and Carson effectively admit that certain things are required to achieve political success. For Trump, that meant attacking a rival solely to score political points. For Carson, it meant endorsing a candidate who once excoriated him on the national stage. Maybe the most authentic thing a person can do in politics is admit they’re making calculated moves for personal and political gain.
Of course, both Trump and Carson are also likely to claim there are more noble considerations at stake. Carson insisted that part of the reason he decided to “move on” and stand with Trump was “because it’s not about me. It’s not about Mr. Trump. It’s about America.”
For Trump, pulling back the curtain on politics, and telling voters he knows how to play the game, has long been a part of his pitch and a central element of his appeal. He disdains the influence of money in politics, then talks about how he, too, has bought loyalty. “I will tell you that our system is broken,” Trumpdeclared at a Republican debate. “I give to everybody. When they call I give, and, you know what, when I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me. That’s a broken system.” Trump doesn’t sugar-coat the ugliness of politics. He even stakes his understanding of it on first-hand experience. Rather than registering disgust, his fans love what they perceive to be radical honesty.
Further complicating the question of authenticity, Trump and Carson raised the possibility that there’s a private version of Trump, and a public one. As Carson put it, “there are two different Donald Trumps.” He went on to say: “There’s the one you see on the stage, and there’s the one who is very cerebral, sits there and considers things very carefully.” Trump initially seemed to agree, saying, “I think there are two Donald Trumps. There’s the public version, and people see that and I don’t know what they see exactly, but it seems to have worked over my lifetime, but it’s probably different, I think, than the personal Donald Trump.”
Later on, he backpedaled. “I don’t think there are two Donald Trumps. I think there’s one Donald Trump, but certainly you have, look, all of this and you have somebody else who sits, and reads, and thinks,” Trump said. “Perhaps people don’t think of me that way because you don’t see me in that forum.” Even as Trump appeared to reverse course, he still acknowledged that there are at the very least different sides to him, and suggested that the public may not see every side.
Trump’s presentation of authenticity offers a striking contrast to Hillary Clinton’s. The Democratic presidential candidate has made the opposite argument, suggesting she’s bad at playing the game, while Trump argues he knows the game all too well and is exceedingly skilled at playing it. Clinton was asked at the Democratic debate on Wednesday how she feels about the fact that so many Americans view her as untrustworthy. Clinton responded by saying that running for president “is not easy for me,” adding that she’s “not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed.” Clinton’s acknowledgement might have been candid, but so far, Trump’s inverse pitch for authenticity seems to be going over far better with voters.
Of course, there are plenty of people who aren’t buying Trump’s version of authenticity, and not everyone thought the endorsement on Friday was a match made-in-heaven. “Dr. Carson, I am shocked and heartbroken that you have made this decision,” a commentator lamented on Carson’s Facebook post endorsing Trump this morning. There are also contradictions inherent in Trump's pitch, not least of all the fact that he paints himself as a political outsider while at the same time claiming to understand politics well and be highly skilled at it. Still, when Trump suggests that he is unlike the political establishment, there is certainly something to that. Most Washington politicians would be reluctant to so candidly speak about buying and selling influence, and admit that they have taken part in it. Trump breaks the mold. That may appeal to voters who feel that Trump won’t condescend by pretending the system is anything other than broken. For the Republican front-runner that has, at the very least, proven to be a path to political success.