I Was A High School Debate Coach. My Students Could Answer: "What is Aleppo?"

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Gage Skidmore.

A few weeks ago I wrote an editorial for The Sacramento Bee urging conservatives who absolutely couldn’t stomach Hillary Clinton to embrace libertarian nominee Gary Johnson as an alternative to Donald Trump.

And then, this morning, Gary Johnson responded to a question from MSNBC’s Mike Barnicle as if Aleppo (a city in Syria) were a brand of cholesterol medication or the title of a forthcoming Game of Thrones episode. Three thoughts immediately came to mind: One: I vastly overestimated Johnson’s potential. Two: It was a bad gaffe, but no worse than the many made by Johnson’s counterpart, Donald Trump. Three: The many bright students I had a chance to work with when I was a high school debate coach, some of whom prepared seven to eight minute speeches with only thirty minutes advance notice of the topic, could likely tell me more about Aleppo than either candidate combined.

It was undoubtedly a disqualifying moment for Johnson. Syria has been engulfed in a horrendous civil war for several years, with Aleppo at the center. An understanding of the region (that begins with geographic knowledge of the most basic kind) is a necessary prerequisite for anyone seeking our nation’s highest office, especially since the Syria-based rise of the Islamic State is arguably the biggest foreign policy challenge facing our next leader.

But the buck does not stop there. While Johnson likely won’t make the presidential debate stage, his brain fart provides yet another occasion to reflect on the extreme propensity for the untrue and utter lack of intelligence of Donald Trump, the man who will be on the debate stage, and the man who beat out the Republican party’s arguably most diverse and intelligent field of potential presidential candidates in modern history.

While Johnson’s gaffe might be excused as a harmless slip up, Trump has closed the polling gap with Clinton this week (including leading a CNN poll this week by 2 points) and deserves constant scrutiny for his continuing parade of patently untrue and inflammatory statements. At the time this article was published, the non-partisan, Pulitzer prize winning fact checker Politifact had rated ‘false’ four times as many of Trump’s statements as Clinton’s (26), and rated “pants on fire” 7 times as many of Trump’s statements (44) as Clinton’s (6).

How many disqualifying Aleppo-esque moments has Donald Trump had? Let us count four of the seemingly innumerable ways:

1) Trump has repeatedly lied (most recently last night at the NBC Commander in Chief forum) about his support for the war in Iraq and the NATO-led intervention in Libya, saying he never voiced support for either mission. Whether you agree or disagree with Hillary Clinton’s vote for the war in Iraq, at least she has repeatedly acknowledged it was a mistake, rather than denying that it ever happened.

2) Trump reportedly asked a foreign policy advisor why the United States can’t use nuclear weapons, a question that belied his severe under appreciation of the devastating (and potentially world-ending) consequences of the use of those weapons in the 21st century. In a Republican primary debate last December, when asked about the United States’ nuclear triad (the infrastructure used to launch land, air, and sea-based nuclear weapons), Trump appeared clueless as to what the nuclear triad is or how it functions. John Noonan, a former Minuteman III nuclear launch officer, argued quite persuasively that these basic lapses alone disqualify Trump from the presidency.

3) Trump has called women ”dogs” and “fat pigs,” and Mexican immigrants “rapists and murderers.” He has mocked a disabled reporter (and then claimed he never did). He has suggested Arizona Senator John McCain, a decorated veteran who was captured and tortured in Vietnamese prison, was not a real war hero because he was captured. These are not just lies. They are offensive smears that represent the scum of humanity’s worst common denominator.

4) Immediately following Trump’s first meeting with a foreign leader, the President of Mexico, he insisted they did not talk about whether or not Mexico would pay for the construction of a wall along the United States’ southern border, an absurd proposition in and of itself. Hours after the meeting, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto tweeted that they had talked about the wall, and that he had made clear Mexico would not pay for it.

My point is not that every day Americans should know about all of these things. Every day Americans are not running for President of the United States. While amusing to think that I worked with high school students who who knew more about Syria than either Trump or Johnson, any individual seeking to lead the free world should know the answer to questions like, “What is Aleppo?”, or “What is the nuclear triad?”

That’s because running for President is not running to acquire, at some later date, the basic knowledge necessary to be President.

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