Editor’s note: We revised this post after Sen. Cory Booker’s representatives contacted us to say that T-Bone is a real person.
Donald Trump has an imaginary friend named Jim. Ben Carson not only invented a fake friend, but then he stabbed his fake friend in an argument.
In this new millennium, it’s become the way of the politician not only to create an imaginary friend but also to use said friend to advance a political agenda. And even after “the friend” is exposed and is proved to be as authentic as Kim Kardashian’s ass, it doesn’t seem to stop the politician’s advancement; on the contrary, the imagined political friend has just become the way of a real political life.
The imaginary friend as a political ploy works like this: There is no friend, but there is a point that needs to be made, and since someone around the country has experienced such hardship about said point, that experience is personified and personalized in the form of a friend—a friend who doesn’t exist but who suffers from real American, first world problems. This is the crux of how America has allowed the influx of imaginary friends into the political landscape and, thus, political lexicon.
During a speech in February at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland, Trump claimed that he had a friend named Jim.
“I have a friend; he’s a very, very substantial guy. He loves the City of Lights. He loves Paris. For years, every year, during the summer, he would go to Paris, it was automatic, with his wife and his family,” Trump said, CNN notes.
Trump added, “I hadn’t seen him in a while. And I said, ‘Jim, let me ask you a question: How’s Paris doing?” Trump recalled. “‘Paris? I don’t go there anymore. Paris is no longer Paris.’”
Turns out that Jim doesn’t exist.
Trump does this a lot, conjuring friends who don’t exist. He claims that someone close to him has something to say, and that something is always in alignment with Trump’s feelings. But that’s because Trump is pathological. He’s an ill-equipped communicator on the world stage and hardly trying to be loved. And never forget that Trump’s agenda is always to push separatism, so he uses his imaginary friends for just such a reason.
But not all imaginary friends are the same; nor do they serve the same purpose. While Trump’s friend Jim was used to send an anecdotal message about what happens when you open up the borders of a country, Booker and Carson have invented or embellished friends for quite a different reason: inclusion.
When Cory Booker, now a senator from New Jersey, was mayor of Newark, N.J., he spoke of T-Bone. T-Bone was a ruthless drug lord from Jersey’s Brick Towers low-income housing development who once threatened to kill Booker. T-Bone was also mentioned whenever Booker was trying to sell a story of how he understood the woes of growing up in a tough city like Newark. T-Bone became both Booker’s hood pass and his mentee.
Here’s how T-Bone was first introduced during a 2007 speech at the New School in New York City, according to NJ.com:
“I said hello to this guy and I’ll never forget he leaped off the steps where he was standing and looked at me and threatened my life,” Booker said.
“I later got to know this guy and his name was T-Bone and I’m a vegetarian so that was a particularly vicious threat,” Booker said to big laughs.
Booker would later claim that T-Bone would come to him for legal advice.
After being called out about T-Bone’s legitimacy, Booker noted that T-Bone was real. Whether or not his name is actually T-Bone, though, has yet to be proved.
“He is an archetype of so many people that are out there. He is 1,000 percent a real person,” Booker said in 2007.
When NJ.com explored why people didn’t call out Booker’s questionable use of T-Bone, a telling answer came from Rahaman Muhammad, a city union leader who at the time was one of Booker’s strongest critics.
“He actually has real experiences that he can share,” Muhammad told NJ.com. “To me this does not disqualify him from being a U.S. senator. These are urban stories that many of us have in this city. There may be different names, but there are many of these types of stories. Unfortunately, he made up a character for his story.”
No politician, however, has done as masterly a job of deploying this narrative as former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, now secretary of housing and urban development. During his failed run for the White House, Carson weaved tales of debauchery and street toughness as if he were the black Chuck Norris. He once claimed that he stopped a stickup merely by pointing the robber toward the cash register. Most black people knew he was lying because he said that the alleged robbery attempt happened at a “Popeyes organization.”
Here is how CNN described Carson’s tall tales:
In his 1990 autobiography, Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story, Carson describes those acts as flowing from an uncontrollable “pathological temper.” The violent episodes he has detailed in his book, in public statements and in interviews, include punching a classmate in the face with his hand wrapped around a lock, leaving a bloody three-inch gash in the boy’s forehead; attempting to attack his own mother with a hammer following an argument over clothes; hurling a large rock at a boy, which broke the youth’s glasses and smashed his nose; and, finally, thrusting a knife at the belly of his friend with such force that the blade snapped when it luckily struck a belt buckle covered by the boy’s clothes.
“I was trying to kill somebody,” Carson said, describing the incident—which he has said occurred at age 14 in ninth grade—during a September forum at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.
But nine friends, classmates and neighbors who grew up with Carson told CNN they have no memory of the anger or violence the candidate has described.
And this is from a Yale-educated brain surgeon! The saddest part here is that Carson didn’t feel that being one of the most decorated neurosurgeons was enough. He still needed a phoenixlike rise from the ashes of a hood like Baltimore to add legitimacy to his narrative.
Unlike Trump, who is habitually horrible and is using everything at his disposal to destroy America, Booker and Carson suffer from “nonhood-black-man syndrome”: They don’t feel black enough when talking about their American experience, so they embellish portions of their upbringing—blacken them up, if you will—for the crowd to show that they can move freely within both worlds.
It’s a conundrum that all educated black men face: What do degrees mean inside the barbershop, and what does barbershop talk mean inside the hallowed halls of an Ivy League school? The funniest part of both Carson’s and Booker’s tales is that even in their use, they actually show how removed both men are.
“Black men, almost by their very nature, have to perform. And Cory—to some extent, the blackest part of him is that performance ethos,” historian Clement Price told Esquire back in 2008 about Booker’s friend T-Bone. The same could apply to Carson.
The imaginary friend in Carson’s narrative and Booker’s exploratory use of T-Bone helps bolster their respective street cred, and in some regards, a politician needs street cred almost as much as a rapper does. When stumping for office, a politician needs stories that show not only that he will he lead the people but also that he is of the people. That he’s one of them. That he, too, has had to fend off drug dealers.
And so, in a weird, political way, the story of T-Bone becomes a Dickensian tale about the downturn of life, and serves as the foil to Booker the protagonist and his uplifting bootstraps. T-Bone serves an anecdotal purpose in the same way that we don’t know if there was ever a real Brenda in Tupac’s life, but we know that “she barely had a brain” and that is was “a damn shame that the girl could hardly spell her name.” The “life story” somehow becomes the life.
We don’t know Brenda, and nor do we care if she exists, but we know that Brenda speaks for a larger community, and that is what attracts us to Brenda’s story. We know that she has struggled; we know that she is unable to handle the rigors of raising a newborn baby while still being a child herself. We feel for her. But in the end, it’s a story, a fictional tale, an imagined hardship, a lie.
The political landscape is changing, but the anecdotal story of a friend who once did something bad is as old as America itself. It has been employed by parents and teachers who warn of the bad kid who didn’t listen and, as a result, ended up dead, so is it bad that politicians have not only employed fake friends but have mentored them, taken their advice, stabbed them in a rage-filled moment?
There is a theory that says it’s OK to talk to an imaginary friend, but seek help should that friend start talking back.
I think we may have jumped the shark.