The Tyson zone, Dr. Ben and The Donald

The ‘Tyson Zone‘ is something the sportswriter Bill Simmons came up with to describe certain train-wreck celebrities. It’s named after the boxer Mike Tyson, and it essentially describes someone who has made such a public mess of his life that there’s almost literally nothing you wouldn’t believe if you heard it about them. Let’s suppose someone said to you ‘hey, did you hear about Mike Tyson? He’s converted to Scientology?’ or ‘He’s having himself surgically turned into an iguana?’ Or ‘he’s become a cannibal.’ You’d sigh and then you’d say something like ‘well, it was just a matter of time.’ You wouldn’t question it, no matter how preposterous it might be. Lindsay Lohan is in the Tyson zone, I think, as are most of the Kardashians.

So is Dennis Rodman. Remember when you first heard that Dennis Rodman, the former Chicago Bull basketball star, had befriended Kim Jong Un, recruited a pickup team of former NBA basketball players, and was in North Korea, playing pickup ball with a North Korean team of stiffs? That Dennis Rodman had become the closest thing America had to a diplomatic contact with the world’s most reclusive and insane dictator? It seemed, uh, implausible. But Rodman’s in the Tyson zone. There’s literally nothing we won’t believe about him. And of course it turned out to be true.

Anyway, I got to thinking about the Tyson zone while laid up the last few weeks, watching the American presidential campaign, and especially the Republican side. I think both Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson are in a kind of political Tyson zone. They’re certainly the two Republican frontrunners, despite the fact that neither has any political experience whatsoever, and despite the fact that neither seems to have the vaguest notion what exactly the President of the United does in our system of governance. But they’re doing well, playing the contrasting roles of id and superego–bombast vs. somnolence, braggadocio vs. self-effacement.

They’re both Tyson-zoners in this sense: the popularity of both continues to strain credulity. It doesn’t seem to matter what they promise, or propose, or stand for. They stay popular, no matter what. That’s why the Republican debates are appointment television. We really, genuinely, don’t have any idea what the candidates (and especially the two poll leaders) are going to say next.

It started when Trump questioned John McCain’s military heroism. That was it, the pundits all said. That was the blunder that would end Trump’s campaign. Instead, he got more popular. He offers no policy specifics, except ‘it’s going to be awesome,’ about some program he clearly hasn’t thought through at all. It doesn’t matter. A substantial percentage of the Republican electorate has decided they like Donald Trump, and it doesn’t matter what he says; he’s in a political Tyson zone.

Same thing with Dr. Carson. The pyramids were grain silos? I figured it for a gaffe. It wasn’t; his base liked the notion just fine.  I understand that he’s a committed Christian evangelical, and that he doesn’t believe in evolution, but gravity? But it doesn’t matter; Dr. Carson is bullet-proof. We need the Department of Education to spend its time investigating universities for liberal bias? Sure, why not.

And that’s why the Republican debates are so entertaining. In a sense, they’re all in a Tyson zone.  The new holiday coffee cups used by Starbucks aren’t sufficiently Christmas-y? They are red and green, after all. But no. Raise the minimum raise? No, actually, it needs to be lower. Because: robots. When the entire field seemed intent on debating the relative moral merit (and financial prospects) of welders and philosophers, the debate veered off the shoulder and into the ditch.

Still I’m not sure anything quite matches the preposterous absurdity of the media digging into Ben Carson’s past, and discovering him to have been an exemplary youth and upstanding citizen, to which scurrilous allegations Dr. Carson furiously calls ‘foul,’ as it’s exactly the kind of smear we should expect from biased liberal media types. He did too try to stab people! Don’t believe all those lies about him being an A student overachiever! He was a hard-core pre-teen gangbanger, yo!

That’s where Dr. Ben becomes so marvelously entertaining as a candidate. Take, for example, the Popeye’s Chicken story. In this story, he was standing in line at a Popeyes, trying to order, when a gunman stuck a gun in his ribs. According to Dr. Carson, he said to the guy “I believe you want the guy behind the counter.” And that’s what the thug did; he went for the counter guy.

So various media outlets tried to confirm that story, and found nothing. And Dr. Carson was furious; they were questioning his veracity. But what’s so weird about the story is how bad it makes him look. He doesn’t come across as remotely heroic; quite the contrary. And he’s the only source for the story! He told his very unflattering story about himself, then seems to have taken umbrage when the media questioned whether it really happened or not? What? Seriously?

So in a way, Dr. Carson’s in an opposite/Tyson zone. Every time he tries to make himself sound like a gangsta, it turns out, he was actually a good guy. And that, for some reason, infuriates him. How dare you call me exemplary! Whereas Donald Trump continues to pull screwy ideas out of his hat, and that doesn’t seem to matter either. And there’s every possibility that one of these two guys could be President. May you live in weird times.


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