Pretend Trump, Carson, and Cruz were your only choices for president.

Pretend Trump, Carson, and Cruz Were Your Only Choices for President. Who Would You Pick?

Pretend Trump, Carson, and Cruz Were Your Only Choices for President. Who Would You Pick?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Dec. 15 2015 4:21 PM

Let’s Play “Trump, Carson, or Cruz”

Pretend they were your only choices for president. I know who I’d pick. Do you?

Candidates for president
It’s time for Trump, Carson, or Cruz!

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images and Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

I have a game I like to play with my friends. It’s called “Trump, Carson, or Cruz.”

Here are the rules: You have to pick one of these men—Donald Trump, Ben Carson, or Ted Cruz—to be president. You’re not picking the Republican nominee. You’re picking the president. No, you can’t have any of the Democrats, or any of the Republicans you “could live with.” You have to pick one of these three guys. Whichever one you pick will be president for the next four years.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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The rules don’t stipulate whether Congress will stay in Republican hands after the election. But you ought to assume it will, since, under this scenario, the electorate that showed up voted for Trump, Carson, or Cruz. The only other rule is that you have to explain why you picked your guy, or at least why you didn’t pick either of the other two.

Over the course of the year, I’ve played this game with small groups of friends, colleagues, or family. Each time, just about everyone picks Trump. That surprises me. Most of my friends are liberal, and some are outright leftists. But some are moderate, and at least a couple have, at one time or another, voted for a Republican for president. Still, they all pick Trump.

Why? In general, they don’t think Trump is serious about the crazy stuff he says. They see Cruz as a clever ideologue. They think Carson is a nut job. But Trump? He’s a businessman. He cuts deals. He understands that there are other points of view and that to get things done, he’d have to negotiate. There’s no crazy campaign promise, no scary position, that he’d refuse to negotiate away.

Plus, Trump is a New Yorker. He used to be pro-choice, pro-privacy, and cozy with Democrats. My friends think he probably still is. The redneck shtick he’s using in this campaign is phony, they figure. He’s a pragmatist. God forbid he should win. But if he did, at least he could be reasoned with.

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That’s the case for Trump. But I don’t buy it. I’m not convinced that a cynical opportunist—and I agree, that’s what Trump is—is less dangerous than a gentle dogmatist. So I don’t pick Trump. I pick Carson.

I’d better explain why. Let’s start with Trump. He’s mean. He picks fights with everyone. He insults people for no reason. Watch his interview a couple of days ago with Fox News Sunday moderator Chris Wallace, in which, out of the blue, Trump dismisses Wallace as a “politically correct” wimp and compares him unfavorably with Wallace’s father, the late CBS newsman Mike Wallace. Or watch Trump’s interview a week ago on Face the Nation, in which he calls the interviewer, Slate’s John Dickerson, “dishonest.” Anybody who knows anything about Wallace or Dickerson knows these charges are bizarre. But they’re part of a pattern that runs through everything Trump says, from journalists to Mexicans to Muslims to Megyn Kelly. The pattern is Trump. He’s a mean, angry, vicious person.

When Trump targets journalists, we can brush off his hateful remarks. But when he goes after Muslims, immigrants, or Seventh-day Adventists, that’s a pathology of a different order. There are no visible limits on the cultural buttons Trump would push in order to gain and maintain power. He treats fear and tribalism as just another pair of tools. To sweep America to the brink of fascism, he doesn’t need to believe any of the bigotry he espouses. He just needs to be a remorseless expert in manipulating that bigotry. And he is.

That’s my argument against Trump. Now I need to explain why I pick Carson.

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My friends dismiss Carson as crazy. Among other things, he has said that 1) he tried to stab a friend when he was younger; 2) “Joseph built the pyramids to store grain”; 3) “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation”; 4) Obamacare is “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery”; and 5) “A lot of people who go into prison straight, and when they come out, they’re gay.”

Most of these statements are insignificant. The thing about the pyramids is harmless ignorance. It doesn’t touch on policy, and it probably wouldn’t take more than five minutes to persuade Carson he’s mistaken. The line about prison turning people gay does have problematic implications. But again, it’s just ignorance, and Carson, unlike Trump, has never shown any interest in exploiting that kind of ignorance. It’s better to elect a president who doesn’t know things but is willing to learn than to elect a president who knows better and doesn’t care.

The line about Obamacare is stupid, but it’s just over-the-top rhetoric, which is pretty common among people running to be president. It doesn’t affect what Carson would do or what the public thinks. The story about Carson trying to stab his friend actually makes me respect him more, because it’s obvious that as an adult he has rejected violence and has devoted his career to healing people. Some journalists have accused Carson of making up the story, as though he should be disqualified for not having stabbed anybody. Give me a break.

The only thing that really worries me about Carson is that statement about Muslims. He doesn’t seem to understand the text or the spirit of the Constitution with regard to religious tests. And if you read his comments carefully, you’ll see that he misunderstands Islam: He thinks the only true interpretation of the faith entails placing Islamic law above the laws of the United States. But Carson didn’t bring up this issue; it was raised by an interviewer. Unlike Trump, Carson isn’t running against Muslims or any other ethnic or religious group. So my bet is that his ignorance about Islam is just as remediable as his ignorance about homosexuality and the pyramids. Carson has a track record of revising elements of his platform as he learns more. That’s a feature, not a bug.

The case for Carson over Trump, in short, is that when you’re choosing a president, character matters more than knowledge. Trump knows that much of what he’s saying is false, but he doesn’t care. He’s a demagogue, and there’s no sectarian conflict he wouldn’t exploit. Carson is ignorant about many things, but they’re all products of having lived in a bubble of right-wing or religious dogma. He has the intelligence to change his mind when presented with contrary information. But what’s far more important is that he has the will. He has a good heart. And unlike many of my friends, I also believe he has an open mind.

The safe pick, if you share my distrust of Trump and think I’m naive about Carson, is Cruz. Cruz seems to be a demagogue with limits. He pushes the boundaries of the Constitution, but he understands them. When I look at Cruz’s record, watch him speak, listen to his words, and stare into his eyes, I see pure calculation. I see a man who believes in nothing but himself. To some liberals, that’s a comfort. To me, it’s chilling. I’d rather have a president who strives to serve God and others, and who is willing to learn what that means.