Why It Matters that Gary Johnson Doesn’t Know What Aleppo Is

by Benjamin Studebaker

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson made a big mistake. Asked what he would do about Aleppo, he responded with “What is Aleppo?”:

Once the point was clarified, he then proceeded to give a meandering answer in which he repeatedly called Syria “a mess”. He did not address the refugee crisis and the closest he came to offering any position on Aleppo was to suggest that we need to “join hands with Russia”. There was no indication of what goals Johnson might have in a negotiation with Russia nor any explanation of how he would pursue those goals. A lot of people, including Johnson himself, are making excuses for this. Their excuses are bad. Here’s why.

Gary Johnson released in which he attempted to do damage control:

In my view this statement insults our intelligence and makes the gaffe much worse. Aleppo is the largest city in Syria and it has been in and out of the news for years because it’s been contested by the regime and the rebels since 2012. This year the regime has finally succeeded in cutting the rebels’ supply lines, leading to a humanitarian crisis for the hundreds of thousands of people who still live in rebel-occupied territory. It is not just another city in Syria and you don’t need daily security briefings to know what it is.  Any person who pays any level of serious attention to the Middle East, to Syria, to this conflict, even to the news knows what Aleppo is immediately and could never mistake it for “an acronym”. Gary Johnson hopes that most voters don’t pay much attention to the Syrian conflict or the news. He hopes that they don’t know that this is utterly basic. He desperately wants us to be ignorant enough to not know how ignorant he is.

This is emblematic of the entire Gary Johnson campaign. Johnson repeatedly presents himself as the reasonable third party alternative to Trump and Clinton. He claims to have been this great governor of New Mexico who puts pragmatism before ideology. He tells this story in a down to earth way that makes people feel intuitively that he’s genuine. But none of it is true. Johnson was a crummy governor and a right wing ideologue, under-performing the national average on a wide variety of metrics while enacting reactionary economic policies.

When Johnson took office, the New Mexico unemployment rate was just half a point higher than the national average, but for most of his tenure the gap was much larger–New Mexico did not match the nation’s 1995 average of 5.6% until 1999. It only caught up when the dot com crash of the early 00’s hit states with better educated workforces and more developed technology sectors:

When Johnson took office, New Mexico had a per capita income that was 80.7% of the national average. When he left it was 80.3%. He didn’t catch up–he lost ground:

By the time Johnson left, New Mexico ranked 38th in high school graduation rate and second to last in health insurance provision. Only New Mexico and Texas had an uninsured population of 22% or higher–the next highest state came in at less than 19%. Even today, New Mexico arguably has the largest gap in the country between rich and poor.

The reasons why? Johnson spent his time in Albuquerque shredding public services. He privatized prisons, he promoted private schools, he rejected minimum wage increases, he tried to crush labor unions, and he even threw poor people off of welfare faster than was permitted by federal law, briefly raising poverty in New Mexico to the highest level in the country before a judge blocked him.

But if you punch Gary Johnson’s name into Google, it’s hard to find out what really happened in New Mexico. It takes digging, and because Johnson is a third party candidate most of the press hasn’t bothered to report on him critically. This lets Johnson get away with presenting himself as some kind of half-secret reasonable third party alternative to a dysfunctional two party system. So he stands a very good chance of getting the 5% he needs nationally to qualify the Libertarian Party for federal funding in 2020, which will enable it to field a much larger number of candidates and attempt to unleash its horrifying platform that nobody bothers to look at on the country.

The entire Johnson campaign is a confidence scam that only works if you don’t know anything about politics but nonetheless think that you do. It requires a heavy dose of the Dunning-Kruger effect–the tendency for people who know the least about a subject to drastically overestimate their knowledge, because they know so little that they don’t know how much they don’t know:


But wait–isn’t Trump doing the same thing? Some pundits claim that it’s hypocritical to highlight Johnson’s confidence game when Trump constantly lies and constantly flubs. But Johnson and Trump are very different kinds of liars. Trump lies pathologically–he lies about everything, all the time, and he keeps lying even when you point it out to him. It’s not that he won’t stop lying, it’s that he can’t. Because Trump lies so much, he paradoxically becomes an honest liar–lying is part of his authenticity, and at this point his supporters back him not because they honestly believe he tells the truth but because they love the way he lies. If he stopped lying, he’d stop being himself, and he’d paradoxically begin to feel less honest. Only 35% of Americans think Trump is honest, and I’ll bet a significant segment of that 35% only think he’s honest because he’s an honest liar. They’d have to, given he so publicly flipped and flopped and flipped again on immigration and his tax plan. Trump also lies about how little he knows. If you ask him a hard question, and he will assert that he knows exactly what to do–he alone can fix it–without at any point specifying what he would do or how he would do it, and the plans he does offer are full of holes that pundits and political writers relentlessly point out to little avail.

What Johnson does is very different–Johnson presents himself as a policy wonk, as a serious person who offers a serious alternative. His supporters don’t love the way he lies, they love the way he makes them feel like they’re smart people who pay attention. He makes them feel better than the Clintonites and Trumpeteers. Nobody checks Johnson’s facts or theories, and there’s a big libertarian internet echo chamber where Johnson supporters pat each other on the back and tell each other how smart and special they all are for refusing to choose a mainstream candidate. They’re political hipsters–they think they’re the smart people in the room when really they’re just in a bizarre little cult. This makes them far more ignorant than Trump supporters. Trump supporters know Trump is a liar and they know he’s not an expert. They love him anyway. Johnson supporters deceive themselves. They really do think Johnson’s brilliant, and they think they’re brilliant for recognizing it. This makes them infinitely more unpleasant than Trump’s people. Everyone likes knocking a smug prick off a high horse, and as far as gaffes go, “What is Aleppo” is the Gregor Clegane of unhorsing smug pricks:

The last defense Johnson supporters will offer us is that their man is against misguided military interventions in the Middle East. They’ll point out that he was against the Iraq War at the time. But “What is Aleppo” taints this, because it exposes Johnson’s foreign policy positions as a form of reflexive isolationism. He doesn’t look at the details of specific cases–indeed, he doesn’t even bother to learn the basic facts about the countries he pontificates about. Good foreign policy requires careful analysis of the conditions in specific countries and of the consequences of different courses of action. Even if most of the time intervention is a mistake, it’s important to consider the possibility that in any given case it might be the right thing to do, and you can only do that if you bother to learn basic things about how different societies are politically constructed. I have argued that Hillary Clinton analyses poorly, but Gary Johnson doesn’t analyze at all. Like a lazy kid in a high school honors class, he bullshits, making stuff up as he goes on the basis of very little reading or consideration. This kind of ignorance embarrasses and discredits opponents of Middle East intervention and helps Clinton portray all those who disagree with her on foreign policy as know-nothing neophytes. A comment like this from someone who is known to oppose intervention does immense and lasting political damage. Thankfully, 37% of voters still don’t know who Johnson is. But those of us who do object to Clinton’s Syria strategy have all the more reason to do everything we can to repudiate this unthinking troglodyte.