When word leaked out that President Donald Trump would appoint Ben Carson as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, no one seemed more taken aback than Carson.
He publicly declared that he had no experience running a government agency. Many took this to mean that even Carson knew that he was way over his head in trying to run an agency tasked with overseeing and administering the dizzying array of programs.
How dizzying? HUD ladles out billions of dollars annually in public housing subsidies, rental assistance, and housing finance activities, employs more than 8,000 workers and administrators and operates more than 100 subsidy programs. HUD’s task is to shore up America’s perennial housing needs, especially for the poor.
Still, people who though that Carson might say no to the job, misread Carson and Trump. Trump wanted him for two obvious reasons, and one less obvious.
One, he owed Carson big time for withstanding all the abuse heaped on him for being the lonely black to back Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. The other tracked back to the first reason. He is black and Trump needed at least one name black as a cover to parade around to prove he was not the racist that most blacks are amply convinced he is.
Then there was the other reason. By the time Trump took the oath of office, Carson had carved out a well-documented reputation as being a first-class ignoramus with a litany of off-beat, nonsensical quips on anything that came to mind such as calling the Affordable Care Act the worst thing since slavery.
This was the stuff of snickers, chuckles and lampooning when Carson was simply private citizen Carson, or, the mercifully brief, failed Republican presidential candidate Carson. Few then could ever imagine that Carson would ever be able to act on any of his rabid antique ultra-right notions of how a government should be run.
However, as Trump’s HUD boss, he was in the perfect position to give free rein to his basest impulses about government.
He could a lambast housing discrimination suits, over-dependence on social safety net programs, getting government out of competition with private enterprise, and denouncing anything that supposedly deadens individual initiative.
He could talk about kicking undocumented workers out of public housing, while scrapping investigations into civil rights abuses in public housing. This is more than political theater of the absurd. It gets even more attention for Trump.
But more importantly, Carson’s laughable forays into ignorant gaffes touches a deep, dark and throbbing pulse among legions of Trump backers who frankly revel in his digs, cracks and insults and name calling of Democrats. The revelry in Trump’s personal mudslinging is on dramatic evidence at every Trump rally when he takes a personal shot at some Democrat whipping person or another.
This calculated know nothingness in 2016 did much to put Trump in the White House. Trump banks on the same dirt slapping, name calling to do the same in 2020.
Given that, just think how would it look for Carson to go before the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services and sound erudite, polished and knowledgeable on the fine details of housing policy. That, of course, would include being thoroughly versed on what real-estate owned housing is.
This might draw some praise and grudging respect from some Democrats. But it wouldn’t mean a thing to Trump’s base since many of them already think that HUD is just another bloated, wasteful government agency that needs to be privatized or simply scrapped.
Carson recognized that his know-nothing confusion on what REO stood for had some political shelf value. He quickly posed with a knowing grin on his face holding a box of Oreo cookies.
He topped that by taking a crack at the committee member who posed the embarrassing question to him. The message seemed to be so what if I don’t know the difference between cookies and a piece of property foreclosed on by a bank.
Trump understands the fundamental political axiom that self-interest rules politics as well, if not better, then the Democrats. Party leaders have long known that many blue-collar white voters, especially male voters, can be easily aroused to vote and shout on the emotional wedge issues: abortion, family values, anti-gay marriage and tax cuts.
Carson again fits neatly into this script. He’s an African American with name identification who once had some admiration among blacks. But that is past.
He’s now simply a serviceable tool that Trump can use to play a version of the race card. That is to depict a black man as a victim of allegedly closet racist Democrats who seethe at the notion of a black man who dares have the express views that don’t parrot the Democratic Party’s positions.
Any attack on Carson plays to that, and that includes lampooning and ridiculing him by Democrats for his Oreo-REO mix-up.
So, Oreo or REO, it’s all the same. Carson is just being Carson. And for Trump and his fervent backers, that’s all the counts. He’s still Trump’s guy.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of “Why Black Lives Do Matter” (Middle Passage Press). He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.