As you may have heard, Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson has been having a rough time lately. Having to jump at every opportunity to get some attention for his third-party bid, Johnson’s been losing multiple hands of Trivial Pursuit with the media.
This week, he failed to supply the name “Kim Jong Un” in the proper fashion when The New York Times asked him to name the leader of North Korea. This called to mind his failure to properly identify the Syrian city of Aleppo on the set of “Morning Joe” (something that some of his media persecutors couldn’t do either). He was also the big loser of “Name your favorite foreign leader” week. (Fortunately for Johnson, nobody won.)
This is not to say that Johnson necessarily deserves some sort of robust defense ― though perspective demands that I point out that it’s far more valuable to be able to gauge how a politician thinks than it is to discover what facts he or she can recite at an instant’s notice. (I might also point out: There but for the grace of God go all of us.) But if Johnson feels, after these experiences, that he’s been hard done by, then he’s entitled to that opinion.
After all, let’s take a look at what’s going on in the great state of Nevada, with one of the major parties’ nominees, GOP presidential contender Donald Trump. Trump on Wednesday sat for a one-on-one interview with KSNV’s Jim Snyder, where this happened:
SNYDER: Can I ask about some local issues? If I say “Yucca Mountain,” you know what we’re talking about here in Nevada?
TRUMP: Oh, I do, I do.
He’d better. The Silver State has, in recent election cycles, been one of the Electoral College’s biggest battlegrounds ― a tipping point state par excellence. The state is diverse in all the ways that make diversity hot right now. Its residents have felt our nation’s recent economic turmoil harder and deeper than most Americans, and they’re still bearing it. “As the foreclosure rate receded nationwide last spring, Nevada’s went back up by 10 percent,” ThinkProgress’ Alan Pyke reported back in February. Don’t get into a post-crash scar-measuring contest with someone from Nevada, folks.
As the state’s dean of the political scene, Jon Ralston, often tweets about his home, “#WeMatter.” And the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository matters to Nevadans “bigly,” as Trump might say. It’s of particular concern to Nevadans because the repository would be within 100 miles of Las Vegas. It also factors in psychologically: Nevadans think, “After all the state has been through in recent years, lawmakers still imagine it as a toxic dumping ground?” It’s a deeply felt issue. As The Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan sums it up, “Yucca Mountain is an issue that every national political candidate has been asked about in Nevada in recent years.”
As a major presidential candidate, you best be prepared to talk about Yucca Mountain. Trump, to an embarrassing degree, wasn’t.
SNYDER: You’re a proponent of more nuclear power plants around the country. We have 100 now. None of them are here in Nevada. Why should we have to store the waste 90 miles from here in a city that draws 40 million tourists a year?
TRUMP: Right. Well, as you know, I’m very friendly with this area. In fact, I have big enterprises here. And especially my building and the hotel ― Trump International. I will tell you ― I’m gonna take a look at it because so many people are talking about it. I came into town and everyone is talking about it. So I will take a very strong look at it and the next time you interview me, we’ll talk about it for five minutes.
It’s classic Trump. First, he makes it about him ― As you know, I have “enterprises” here. Then he says he’s “gonna take a look” at the issue. No worries, it will be a “strong look.” So strong! Dude is gonna straight up use all his squinting muscles, really get in there, look the hell out of it. And then at some point in the future, the interviewer will get five whole minutes of time on the matter. It will be an honor, no doubt.
It makes you wonder if Snyder hadn’t gone through the trouble of briefly explaining the issue ― it’s about a nuclear waste site, dude ― whether Trump might have simply assumed that Nevadans were sitting on a mountain of cassava roots: “We’re gonna make so many fries out of it, it’ll be huge, we’ll sell them at the Sharper Image, we’re gonna make a lot of money for Nevada.”
Snyder, bless him, made a second attempt to draw out an answer:
SNYDER: But the concern is that if we had it here, that it would hurt the tourism industry, that people would be afraid of it. With your business interests here, do you share that concern?
TRUMP: Yeah, I’ve heard that. I’ve heard that. Well, I do ― I mean, I have a ― I have a very ― number one, you have to worry about safety. And it’s a little bit close to a very major population base so I’m gonna take a very strong look at it and I will come very strongly one way or the other. I will have an opinion.
Oh, well, that’s good to hear, ace.
It would seem beyond dispute that Trump just doesn’t know anything about the issue ― the only facts he has at his command are the ones he’s inferred from Snyder’s inquiries.
But this is more than just not having the command of an issue that presidential candidates have had to account for on the stump since the late 1980s. Like I said before, the real value in these kinds of interviews comes in gauging how a politician thinks. Snyder presents this issue as one of fundamental fairness ― Nevada isn’t contributing any nuclear waste, so why should it bear the brunt of the nuclear waste issue? Trump holds himself out as the deal-maker who’s going to make everything square for Americans who’ve been left behind. His whole schtick is supposed to be about critiquing the status quo and loudly proclaiming, “What’s in it for us?” This should be an easy answer for Trump. He’s supposed to be able to size up the two sides of a deal and rule on its merits immediately.
Instead, what you learn here is that on top of not knowing the facts of the matter, he can’t be bothered to give it any further thought beyond a promissory note to think about it at a later date. A problem with that arrangement: Trump has a bad track record of paying his debts.
What Trump has to offer is just a couple of paragraphs of drivel, served up the way a D student might try to fudge a book report in front of his fourth-grade class. It’s just a jejune filibuster containing repeat promises of “strong looks,” assurances that he knows “people are talking” about it, and a reminder that he’s a rich and powerful guy.
You have to imagine Johnson might be frustrated by this. For him, not knowing Aleppo was treated as grounds for automatic disqualification and relentless ridicule. And maybe that’s as it should be! But the extreme likelihood that Trump won’t be hit as hard for the way he blanked on Yucca Mountain as Johnson was for his “Aleppo moment” is a testament to the media’s willingness to let Trump just B.S. his way around everything he clearly doesn’t know and doesn’t care to learn.
You can say a lot of things about Johnson, but unlike Trump, the guy won’t try to bury you in a mountain of bafflegab. Hey, maybe that’s where we should put all the nuclear waste!
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.