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OREO or REO, Carson is still Trump’s guy

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

When word leaked out that Trump would appoint Ben Carson as HUD Secretary, 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 a dizzying array of programs. HUD ladles out billions 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, anyone thinking 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 bigtime for all the abuse he gave him for being the lonely black running against him in the 2016 GOP presidential primaries. The other relates to the first reason: He is black and Trump needed him as a cover to prove he was not the racist that blacks, near universally, are amply convinced he is.

Then there was the other reason. By the time Trump took 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 and lampooning when Carson was simply private-citizen Carson or failed-presidential-candidate Carson. Few could imagine that Carson would ever be able to act on any of his rabid, antique ultra-right notions of how 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 lambaste housing discrimination suits and overdependence on “social safety net” programs, get government out of competition with private enterprise, and denounce 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. Carson’s ignorant gaffes such as his mix-up of REO with Oreo touch a dark, throbbing pulse among legions of Trump backers who frankly revel in his cracks, insults and name-calling of Democrats. The revelry in Trump’s personal mudslinging is in evidence at every Trump rally when he takes a personal shot at some Democrat whipping-person or another.

Calculated know-nothingness in 2016 did much to put Trump in the White House. Trump banks on dirt-slapping and name-calling to do the same in 2020. Given that, 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 well-versed on what an REO 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 government agency that needs to be privatized or scrapped. Carson recognized that his know-nothing confusion on what an REO is had some political shelf value. He quickly posed, with a knowing grin, holding a box of Oreo cookies. He took a crack at the committee member who posed the embarrassing question. The message seemed to be, “So what if I don’t know the difference between cookies from a piece of property foreclosed on by a bank?”

Trump understands the fundamental political axiom that self-interest rules politics. 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, 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’s past. He’s now simply a serviceable tool that Trump can use to play a version of the race card. That is, to depict him as a victim of allegedly closet-racist Democrats who seethe at the notion of a black man daring to express views that don’t parrot Democratic Party positions. Any attack on Carson plays to that, and that includes the lampoon and ridicule of 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 that counts. He’s still Trump’s guy.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. 

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