There’s something tragic about Gary Johnson’s present situation. Late last week, the Libertarian presidential candidate and former New Mexico governor went on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. Upon being asked what should be done about the seemingly unending violence and destruction in the Syrian city of Aleppo, he pointedly replied, “And what is Aleppo?”
The response itself is tragic—it’s appalling that a man seeking command of the largest armed forces on the planet doesn’t know the first thing about one of the worst military and humanitarian crises of our time. That same ignorance also reflects general American indifference to the plight of the people of Aleppo, an indifference that allows Donald Trump to suggest blocking all Syrian refugees from entering the United States without inciting universal condemnation and disgust.
But what really got Johnson in trouble was that he admitted to not knowing. When politicians are confronted by their own flaws, we’re used to this dissembling mode of communication that is deeply familiar to anyone who has ever faked their way through a high school English test, or watched Mr. Trump speak. Indeed, Trump basically lives in the rabbit hole of negations, distractions and vagueness that politicians use to conceal their ignorance. Even when politicians are eventually forced to admit what they don’t know, they usually take a while to get there. We’re used to the 72 agonizing seconds it took Rick Perry, once Texas governor, twice a candidate for president and future champion of Dancing With the Stars, to get to “oops” during his infamous meltdown in the middle of a GOP presidential debate.
But Johnson’s reckoning came swiftly and immediately. It was short, too. Here’s a good rule for politicians committing gaffes: If you’re going to say something stupid, try not to make it reducible to three words, or worse, a Twitter hashtag. #WhatIsAleppo practically writes itself.
So no, Gary Johnson really didn’t know where or what Aleppo is. Yes, at least he directly admitted it. Unfortunately, that’s not enough. The only solace Johnson has is in the fact that this could have happened to nearly any candidate this year. It’s hardly the first display of shocking ignorance this election season. Trump wants to round up 11 million people and deport them from the country, has flirted with the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons, seems to resent our NATO allies and has praised the leadership of Vladimir Putin. Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, equals and expands upon Trump’s ignorance on foreign policy and has called the issues of vaccines and homeopathy “complex.” Hint: They’re not, at least to the extent that one clearly works while the other doesn’t.
Johnson’s Aleppo gaffe could have come from any candidate this year, but that excuse amounts to the plea of a student who, in an attempt to assuage the disapproval of his parents, insists that everyone failed the test. In other words, it’s not good enough. In an ordinary person like the student, ignorance may just be a practical failing. However, in someone who seeks the highest office in the land, no matter how openly admitted, it is a moral one, and people voting for Johnson because they perceive moral failings in the two major party candidates should take notice.
Groves is a government sophomore from Dallas. Follow him on Twitter @samgroves.