Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and why the ‘outsider’ candidate is killing American politics

The two frontrunners in the GOP race are the ones least ready to lead on day one.


Chris Osterndorf

Internet Culture

Published Sep 8, 2015   Updated May 28, 2021, 12:37 am CDT

According to their supporters, Ben Carson and Donald Trump aren’t your traditional presidential candidates. They’re “straight-shooters” and “self-made men,” but according to the Internet, they’re also “outsiders.”

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This is the narrative that’s been constructed around these two Republican contenders, and it’s clearly working. The latest findings out of the #IowaPoll put Trump and Carson neck and neck—or even tied. An NBC/Marist poll has Trump leading by 29 percent, and Carson just behind him with 22 percent. Traditional establishment candidates, meanwhile, have fallen behind. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is polling at a measly six percent, with all of the rest of the candidates at five percent or lower.

However, the promise of a candidate untainted by Washington isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. On the left, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has traded on his socialist-leaning cred to establish himself as an outsider in the 2016 race—especially in contrast to Hillary Clinton—but Sanders has actual experience in government, unlike Trump and Carson. That distinction is what makes the current GOP field such a mess. After all, in what other profession would having no training in the job you’re hired to do make you the best candidate for the position? Ben Carson was a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Would he have handed a scalpel to someone who never went to med school?

A candidate that’s too embroiled in the establishment is not a good thing, but a candidate with no political experience at all is, thus, even worse.

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Because of their non-political backgrounds, Trump and Carson certainly stand out from the pack, but as the New York Times’s Trip Gabriel put it, “in almost every other way, Mr. Carson is Mr. Trump’s opposite.” Next to like former Gov. Jeb Bush and Donald Trump, Carson feels like a different kind of politician. And his personal narrative—growing up poor in Detroit—has made him an inspiring figure on the right.

But while Ben Carson comes in a different package, he has the same flaws as the men around him—from his anti-Black Lives Matter politics to his own campaign. He’s had trouble with his Super PACs and has weathered significant staff exits.

In what other profession would having no training in the job you’re hired to do make you the best candidate for the position? 

According to the New York Times’ Trip Gabriel, this will continue to be a problem for Carson—as no one on his team seems to know what they’re doing. “The money for television ads and a campaign organization beyond the first nominating states will also be a challenge for Mr. Carson,” Gabriel said. “Although he raised a respectable $10.6 million through the first half of the year, most of it was from small donors… He has already burned through more than half the total money he has raised.”

Trump’s campaign has been no less tumultuous—with rampant staff bickering and the embarrassing termination of an advisor with a history of making racist remarks. Even though he’s running on his enormous wealth and success, Forbes’ Ralph Benko argues that, at the end of the day, he will have the same problem as Ben Carson: money. “While Trump could, in theory, reach out to big donors doing so would rupture his narrative of being uniquely his own man,” Benko writes. “He is likely to find himself in a squeeze play.”

Thus, running as an “outsider” means that Trump will likely have to make a choice between appealing to the mainstream and self-financing. The fact that Trump doesn’t care what anyone thinks may make him enticing to his fervent supporters, but it becomes a huge problem when it comes to trying to get elected.

According to Politico’s Rich Lowry, there’s no bigger issue than Trump’s actual platform—as like Carson, Donald Trump has no actual record, aside from the handful of political statements he’s made over the years—which have been all over the map. Lowry writes, “What [Trump and Carson] have in common is that they are political neophytes light on policy details who are memorable communicators precisely because they speak and carry themselves so differently from other politicians.”

This distinction is important. When other politicians pontificate about what they will or won’t do in the Oval Office, voters can fact-check their pledges based on their previous history. Carson and Trump have no history—they’re all rhetoric. As the Hill’s Shermichael Singleton reminds us, it’s easy them to make sweeping campaign promises, like a “tougher stance on immigration and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.” It’s hard to call BS when someone comes to Washington with a blank slate.

A candidate that’s too embroiled in the establishment is not a good thing, but a candidate with no political experience at all is even worse.

The irony of being a political outsider is that your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness. In 2008, the biggest criticism of Obama’s campaign was that he had served in Congress for just two years before he ran for the presidency; that made him fresh-faced, but for his detractors, it also meant he lacked the experience to know how the Washington system worked.

But in the case of Trump and Carson, they have even less knowledge about the D.C. political machine—and often politics itself. Donald Trump’s lack of basic foreign policy knowledge has made him a constant target for criticism. In a recent interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Trump evaded questions about the Middle East, arguing that Hewitt’s inquiries about the candidate’s familiarity with Hamas and Hezbollah were “gotcha” questions and that he would learn about the region “when it’s appropriate.” With his trademark bluster, Trump responded, “I will be so good at the military, your head will spin.”

Similarly, Ben Carson wasn’t sure what NATO was and didn’t know how Israel’s political system worked—long one of the United States’ key allies in the Middle East. And this ignorance is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a platform that’s just as dangerously uninformed on key social issues. Ben Carson has stated that being gay is a choice—pointing to prison populations as evidence. He has also referred to Planned Parenthood as a form of population control.

The Examiner’s Andrew Snow may have argued that the outsider is a “myth,” but it’s also a dangerous one. When it comes to Trump and Carson, we don’t just need presidential hopefuls that fit the “image” of a leader—we need candidates with the political acumen and knowhow to lead. At a time when the president will have to answer for the United States’ role in the burgeoning refugee crisis and the effort to combat global warming, do you really want to vote for someone who says they’ll just wing it? A learning curve is one thing—being so behind the curve that you’re not even on it is another.

Don’t buy into the hype. You might think Trump and Carson are the outsider candidates you’re looking for, but they aren’t. What they are is a sad indication that the state of American politics has become so dire that we’ll trust charlatans who mistake bold claims for actual ideas.

Chris Osterndorf is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on Mic, Salon, xoJane, the Week, and more. When he’s not writing, he enjoys making movies with friends. He lives in Los Angeles.

Illustration by Tiffany Pai

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*First Published: Sep 8, 2015, 3:01 pm CDT