Good country people 

Why Ben Carson's campaign appears to connect with Montana donors

In a world slightly different from our own, where Leibniz invented calculus and The Monkees changed rock and roll forever with Admiral Bacon's Spinster Orchestra, Ben Carson is winning the Republican nomination. In our world, he's on the verge of dropping out, partly due to rumors he already did. But in a different Republican Party, Carson would go like gangbusters.

It's weird that in this one he isn't, because he is so similar to the men in first and second place. Like Donald Trump, he is an outsider to politics, untainted and apparently uncoached. Like Ted Cruz, he came to prominence by lambasting President Obama, criticizing his health care plan while the president sat two seats away.

Lest you mistake him for an unsung genius, Carson's alternative to Obamacare was to start health savings accounts for infants. His other policy ideas, including a 10 percent flat tax, are similarly unworkable. But workable policy is clearly not what excites Republican voters in 2016. So why do they love those two other nuts and not him?

I ask because last week, the Federal Election Commission reported that Carson had raised more money from individual donors in Montana than any other candidate. These donors cluster around Kalispell and Billings, much like Montanans generally. But Carson's donors are also more widely distributed than anyone else's. They are out in the country.

These findings match the independent research I conducted over the holidays in Iowa. There I visited my great aunt and uncle's hog farm, where 100 percent of registered voters supported Carson.

It's a Republican-leaning district. But hog farm residents are not Cruz-style economic conservatives, bent on deregulation and getting government out of the economy. They strongly support farm subsidies. Nor are they Trumpian xenophobes. Eighty-four percent welcome Mexicans to their community and think the food is delicious. The other 16 percent find it too spicy.

What hog farm voters are is good country people. They pronounce "hog" to rhyme with "rogue" and schedule dinner after church. They would never call anyone a loser. Under no circumstances would they dress up as Uncle Sam and march around in front of the post office. They do have cable, though, and they watch a considerable portion of Fox News. These people are the Ben Carson constituency.

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Montana is full of good country people. They closely resemble the ones I grew up with, although they prefer pointy boots to round ones and routinely carry knives, which in Iowa is simply not done. But these are customs. The essence of good country people remains the same: they believe work is more important than money, they go to church or at least plan to next week, and they try not to show off.

The Christian term for that last quality is "meek." Ben Carson is meek, in a way that rapidly comes into relief when you put him onstage next to Trump and Cruz. Although his message is that he's smart enough to run the country with no prior experience in government, his demeanor is quiet and unassuming, the very image of humble piety.

Good country people admire that quality. It reflects the ambition to be good but not great, to do the right thing by avoiding opportunities to go wrong. I can't prove it, but I suspect the kind of good country people who support Carson do not call Rush Limbaugh to explain which offices of the federal government are unconstitutional. They have stock to vaccinate. They do not say we should bomb the Middle East and start over. They haven't met those people.

This demographic used to be the backbone of the Republican Party. The business wing has always shaped policy and run the urban centers, but good country people used to be the ones the party counted on to deliver the broad, flat swaths of America—all those places that have one-tenth the population of New York City but get just as many delegates.

If good country people were still the Republican Party's bread and butter, Carson might be the front-runner right now. His meek demeanor would compare favorably with Trump's bombast and Cruz's unctuousness; he would offer the same outsider appeal without the flaws. But in the Republican Party of 2016, acting crazy isn't a bug. It's a feature.

Whatever voters see in Trump and Cruz, it's not meekness. The two front-runners' rude insistence that everyone running the country is wrong takes a different tone from the one that has spoken to people in Montana and Iowa for decades. They speak to a different Republican base, one convinced it knows better than the people who have run both parties for decades. This base is something new and exciting—still people, certainly, but not country, and possibly not good.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and the decline of blackberry pie at

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