Why Gary Johnson's Aleppo Comment Sums Up The Presidential Election

Our political system is seriously broken.
Libertarian candidate for President Gary Johnson speaks at a rally outside the New Hampshire State House in Concord, N.H.
Libertarian candidate for President Gary Johnson speaks at a rally outside the New Hampshire State House in Concord, N.H.

This morning Libertarian Presidential candidate Gary Johnson made an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe to discuss his platform and positions. Asked about what he would do about the refugee crisis in Syria, specifically in the large city Aleppo, Johnson replied in a dead-pan: “And what is Aleppo?”

He recovered, somewhat, going on to discuss the issues facing Syrian refugees in the ongoing fight against ISIL. But the damage was done, and the internet had a field day. Unlike with mainstream candidates Clinton or Trump, however, the response was almost universal: Johnson was unqualified to be president.

This isn’t Johnson’s first such gaffe. Back in July, Johnson reportedly failed to recall the identity or importance of anti-slavery icon Harriet Tubman, according to a story in The New Yorker. The candidate has also been criticized (and celebrated) for his openly admitted use of marijuana edibles - albeit limited in frequency. Essentially, Johnson is eccentric, entirely apolitical, and he’s running for the highest office in the nation.

The idea that someone who is unaware of the location, or even the name, of Aleppo is not just a gaffe but a serious red flag that the candidate who displayed such ignorance is incapable of leading our nation forward. Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein are running on platforms that essentially boil down to “I’m Not Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.” That is their pitch for why they should be in charge of The Federal Reserve system, the United States military, appointing new Supreme Court justices, and making key decisions about how the United States interacts with its allies and enemies abroad.

Of course, both candidates have platforms more elaborated than that. Both Johnson and Stein have promoted visions of an America under their leadership: one that is isolationist, live-and-let-live, and uninterested in regulation (unless, as Jill Stein argues, you’re a Wall Street financial institution). Neither seems particularly interested in developing a foreign policy platform. One of Stein’s points on her website calls for the freezing of the Saudi Arabian royal family’s bank account ― something I’m not sure any United States President has control over. Johnson doesn’t even have a foreign policy platform on his site. While Johnson was the Governor of New Mexico back in the ‘90s, Stein has never held elected office apart from her local city council.

Hillary Clinton, who has a political resumé longer than some people’s life achievements, and Donald Trump, who was at one point a business and culture magnate (notwithstanding his numerous bankruptcies) are the two main party nominees and yet each is fielding questions about their ability to handle the pressures of the presidency. Sure, some of those questions are warranted in the case of both. But with a party infrastructure that incorporates down-ticket candidates on the federal, state, and localized levels, they have a whole network behind them working on all kinds of issues. Regardless of whether you agree with their policies or not, both Clinton and Trump are people who have some idea of what kind of responsibility the presidency carries.

I’d like to think I’m a capable individual. I could see myself running for president, in a self-indulgent, egotistical way that we all succumb to every now and again. But I’m not foolish enough to think that I have nearly enough experience to do that job and not completely break under the pressure. My ignorance and unpreparedness should not be attractive traits, much less qualifications. How does being wholly unqualified for a position count as a qualification? It simply can’t.

When a woman who seriously tweets a picture of Harambe as evidence of her commitment to racial justice (and I’m not even going to go into what a terrible idea it is to talk about race while using images of silverback gorillas) and who thinks that we need to raise serious questions about vaccines in their relation to autism is considered a viable presidential candidate, what does that say? When a man who is so uninterested in understanding America’s role in the world, something we cannot magically un-do no matter how hard we try, doesn’t know the name of a city where bombings and violence are so horrible that images of children who survived them are too heartbreaking to share thinks he can lead our nation’s diplomatic force, what does that say? When we promote someone’s lack of understanding of basic tenets of American democracy as their primary selling point, what does that say?

It says that our political system, our understanding of that system, and the way that we learn about that system are all seriously broken. There is a reason that presidents grow gray and their faces add wrinkles faster than the average person: it’s because there is so much stress, so many issues, and so much conflict to deal with when it comes to running the day to day operations of our government that it’s not just for anybody. We want candidates who can prove that they’re up to the job, and ready to take this massive, unwieldy ship we call American democracy and steer it into the future without falling apart at the helm. This election has been a battle over who is most like the people. Disturbingly, that often means searching for someone who displays a complete lack of awareness of how to lead. 2016 has been a battle over ignorance, and, in a lot of ways, for a claim to it.

Maya Angelou once said something along the lines of “When people show you who they are, believe them.” If a presidential candidate tells you that they are unaware of the issues facing America and, worse, unwilling to learn them, believe them. And don’t vote for them. Because when the captain falls apart at the wheel or things start to get difficult, you’ll start to wonder what was so attractive about that ignorance in the first place.



Aleppo, Syria