My heart goes out to Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor and Libertarian candidate for the U.S. presidency. He’s made more headlines by sincerely asking a TV host, “And what is Aleppo?” than by anything else he’s said or done during the campaign. This is wrong on a number of levels.
The most basic of these levels is the treatment of presidential candidates as quiz show contestants. An ambitious player of a quiz show like Jeopardy or 500 Questions must know what Aleppo is and will pinpoint it on a map immediately after being woken from a deep sleep in the middle of the night. The same is demanded from a politician, who has to answer hundreds of questions, most of them on domestic issues, but is not allowed to fail when hit with the occasional foreign affairs inquiry. If an area of ignorance emerges, the candidate gets hammered; he or she can lose the game, and that’s what appears to be happening to Johnson. Some Republican voters considered him a viable alternative to less-than-wonky Donald Trump, but now “there is no hope” is a frequent message under the merciless #WhatIsAleppo hashtag.
I suspect a lot of this is media hubris: Journalists expect a candidate for political office to be up to speed on the agenda they set. “Crazy idea: When running for president, occasionally look at a newspaper,” political journalist Alec MacGillis tweeted. Questions often test a candidate’s ability to keep up with news coverage, and a passing grade is given for answers in line with the media orthodoxy on the matter. This rule is captured by a spur-of-the-moment cartoon in which Johnson asks, “Who does know what Aleppo is?” and the grimy Syrian boy rescued from the city’s rubble, known to millions from an iconic news photo, raises his hand. The implication is, you’re not qualified to be U.S. president if you haven’t seen the image and internalized the narrative that went with it.
It could be argued that being versed in these narratives might actually be an impediment to a top office-holder. I’ve actually been to Aleppo, and I have no idea what it’s like today. The numerous warring factions’ views on the drama unfolding in what used to be Syria’s biggest city and commercial center differ greatly, and even to someone with extensive contacts in the area, it’s difficult to get a bird’s-eye view. I would fear Johnson if he had a competent-sounding answer to the question of what he’d do about Aleppo. People on the ground and current leaders receiving information from lots of different sources have spent years looking for solutions and haven’t found good ones, and the little boy’s memetic image is proof of that.
Trivial knowledge is overrated. It may be completely wrong, too. It’s much more important from a leader to exhibit cool common sense and an ability to ask the right questions to get to the bottom of a situation. If the public wants to test candidates’ aptitude, it would be best served not by quizzing them but by asking them to solve cases about which they have no previous knowledge, the way consulting companies do when interviewing job applicants. “As governor, there were many things I didn’t know off the top of my head,” Johnson said in his defense. “But I succeeded by surrounding myself with the right people, getting to the bottom of important issues, and making principled decisions.” That’s the claim that should be tested, not Johnson’s necessarily superficial knowledge of the Syrian conflict.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Americans shouldn’t be troubled by Johnson’s apparent lack of interest in foreign affairs. It confirms a cliche about U.S. libertarians’ isolationism, which can’t really work in a world largely shaped by their free trade principles. And it shows that you can be a top elected official in the U.S. — a two-term governor of a border state — and rarely have to think about anything that goes on outside the country’s borders, a provincial mindset that doesn’t fit America’s oversized place in the world.
That Johnson momentarily couldn’t place Aleppo is troubling if it’s a sign of a lack of curiosity rather than a lack of knowledge. What if this candidate is as genuinely uninterested in global affairs as millions of American voters? Should they trust him to do the necessary research they can’t be bothered to do? Johnson’s abject apology at least suggests that troubling thought occurred to him as well.
It’s also worrying to an outside observer that after all the Aleppo-related publicity, most people who have no idea about Johnson’s views on other matters will know him as the ignorant guy who thinks Syria is a function on the iPhone. In a year when the two main-party candidates are the most unpopular ones in decades, a strong third-party bid could have serious consequences for the U.S. political system. It could speed up the breakdown of the duopoly of power that has hurt representation and disillusioned many in a country where more voters identify themselves as independent than as Democrat or Republican.
Yet the campaign coverage is geared toward the main candidates because the election is viewed as a sports event: Only those with a real chance of winning this year merit any attention. Johnson isn’t helping himself or the third-party cause much but, to be fair to him, he is stuck in the sideshow role and there’s little he can do to break out.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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