I've been struggling for months trying to figure out: who the h-e-double-hockeysticks is this Ben Carson dude and why the hell is he polling so well? All I know that the guy ever did was he dissed Obama to his face at a prayer breakfast a couple years back.
Then, standing around yakking with friends, it hit me. It hit me in kind of a half-formed way, and I don't understand the dynamic well enough to ask the question in search-engine format.
And that's actually kind of part of the problem, and part of the story. Ben Carson is a big celebrity within a subculture that mainstream America, and especially mainstream media, doesn't get.
It's surprisingly hard to figure out how many people are evangelical Christians. Oh, a lot of people use the term, but that includes a lot of churches that are, demographically and culturally, old-line mainline Protestant (example: Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.)
What I'm looking for here is for people who are culturally and politically Evangelical Christians. I'm thinking less about Sunday morning and more about the rest of the week. And I'm going to guesstimate that maybe 20, 25% of the country, more in the South but present everywhere, are in the demographic.
The news mainstream notices Cruz and Santorum and Huckabee because of
their conventional credentials of past or present elective office. But Carson? Kind of an enigma in the Beltway world.
You know those stations you skip past on the radio dial, those channels
on the high end of the cable lineup, those book stores you've never been
in? Think for a minute: SOMEbody is listening and watching and buying.
There's an entire Christian conservative subculture that we don't notice in the big cities or in academic enclaves like my own Iowa City, and which the mainstream media, which leans secular, doesn't catch. We only notice when the rare mega-hit, like "Duck Dynasty" or The Passion Of The Christ, is so big that it crosses over into mainstream consciousness. (I may be completely wrong with my examples - which, if true, just proves the point even more.)
And in that media subculture, Ben Carson is a star. Maybe not as big a star as Donald Trump is in the secular world after being ubiquitous for 30 years. But definitely someone who's known and noticed.
So in a paradox of 21st century, infinite channel America, where everyone can stay in their own comfort zone and commune only with their own increasingly narrow niche, Carson is an invisible celebrity, simultaneously famous and an unknown.