"What's Aleppo?" Breaking down the times Gary Johnson didn't know what he was talking about

The Libertarian presidential candidate has had a gaffe-filled campaign — so many gaffes it is hard to count

Published October 16, 2016 9:58AM (EDT)

Gary Johnson    (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
Gary Johnson (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


Gary Johnson’s entrance into the national spotlight hasn’t been the most graceful. The former Republican governor of New Mexico, who began his campaign in January, landed on the top of the ticket for the Libertarian Party alongside his perhaps better known running mate William Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts. Together, the two form the first ticket of any political party to feature two governors since 1948.

The Libertarian Party bills itself as a kind of “something for everyone” type of platform; Johnson wants to legalize pot and lower taxes, but he doesn’t care about global warming because the sun will one day encompass the Earth. See? A party for the people.

Why then, is the Libertarian Party having such a difficult time garnering support? With a populace this dissatisfied with their options, it’s surprising the third-party darlings have yet to break the 10-percent mark (Johnson’s poll numbers have been steadily decreasing in recent weeks, down to 6.6 percent from a high of 9 percent).

If you ask the candidate, the issue is name recognition. But while Johnson — who quit smoking pot in April so he could run on “all cylinders” during the election — definitely increased his name recognition in recent months, it also became clear that Johnson has no idea what he’s talking about.

We compiled the following gaffe-track of Johnson’s five most incredible blunders.

1. “What’s Aleppo?”

Johnson’s quirks wouldn’t be totally disqualifying were it not for the candidate’s unparalleled propensity for forgetting integral details about major foreign policy issues. In early September, Johnson gave his most jaw-dropping interview to date, featuring a gaffe tailor-made for reinforcing critics’ concerns about the third-party ticket.

"What would you do, if you were elected, about Aleppo?” MSNBC’s "Morning Joe" co-host Mike Barnicle asked the candidate.

Johnson, visibly shaken by the question, searched the host’s face for clues. “About?” he responded.

“Aleppo,” Barnicle repeated.

Johnson smirked, trying — as he would later admit — to parse together what acronym ALEPPO could stand for. Of course, Aleppo isn’t in acronym, it’s a place. And if you’re running for president in 2016, (and even if you are not), it’s a pretty important place.

"And what is Aleppo?” he asked.

Barnicle, genuinely stunned by Johnson’s glib response, explained that Aleppo is the name of the Syrian city currently serving as the epicenter of one of the world’s most dire humanitarian crises.

Johnson tried to recover, telling Barnicle he thinks Syria is “a mess,” but the damage was done; Johnson’s “Aleppo moment” quickly became the flub heard ‘round the world as critics and voters alike realized the Libertarian candidate lacked basic geographical knowledge pertaining to one of the biggest conflicts to date.

In an interview after the incident, Johnson blamed the error on being “human,” admitting he was “incredibly frustrated” with himself for blanking on details of Syria.

“I have to get smarter and that’s just part of the process,” Johnson said.

2. When he couldn’t name a single foreign leader he admires.

While the Aleppo flub certainly prompted Johnson to study up on the Syrian crisis, his late-night cram sessions apparently didn’t extend to the rest of the test material. In late September, Johnson had another “uh IDK” moment in a televised town hall alongside VP pick Weld.

Asked by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews to choose a favorite foreign leader (“anybody,” Matthews pressed), Johnson once again found himself stumped.

“Mine was Shimon Peres,” Weld said, attempting to back up his running mate.

“You gotta do this,” Matthews responded. “Anywhere. Any continent. Canada, Mexico, Europe over there, Asia, South America, Africa — name a foreign leader that you respect.”

“I guess I’m having an Aleppo moment,” Johnson said, before insisting the leader on the tip of his tongue is “the former president of Mexico.” Johnson’s callback to his previous gaffe would have been funny, except he’s running for president of the United States, and when you publicly cop to needing to “get smarter” and then awkwardly prove you shirked that responsibility, it’s not super funny anymore.

Johnson went on to search, unsuccessfully, for the name of Mexico’s former president, when Weld threw him a bone and named Vicente Fox.

A full day later, Johnson once again tried to make light of his screwup. “It's been almost 24 hours ... and I still can't come up with a foreign leader I look up to,” Johnson tweeted. Which again, would have been funny, but really isn’t.

3. When he declined to name Kim Jung Un.

In an interview with The New York Times last week, the Libertarian candidate attempted to sidestep another glaring example of his ignorance on foreign affairs.

Attempting to prove he for sure knows more about Syria than his “Aleppo moment” might suggest, Johnson drew a parallel between the United States’ direct and indirect killing of civilians in war zones and the deliberate execution of civilians by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

During that interview, The New York Times asked Johnson if he knew the name of North Korea’s leader.

“I do,” Johnson replied.

Asked to name the supreme leader, Johnson asked, “you want me to name… really,” before declining to do so.

Whether Johnson’s refusal to answer the question was another Aleppo moment or simply his response to feeling needled by the newspaper is unclear. Of course, the way to determine that was for Johnson simply to answer the question.

4. When he said his lack of knowledge of basic geography is good foreign policy.

In that same interview, Johnson argued that Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton is given more credit than she deserves because of her notoriously wonkish grasp of foreign policy issues, insisting she should be judged instead on her record of interventionism.

“Because Hillary Clinton can dot the i’s and cross the t's on geographic leaders, of the names of foreign leaders, the underlying fact that hundreds of thousands of people have died in Syria goes by the wayside,” Johnson said, adding Clinton “bears responsibility for what’s happened, shared responsibility for what’s happened in Syria.”

“I would not have put us in that situation from the get-go.”

In a separate interview with CNN’s Alisyn Camerota, Johnson repeated his point that his lack of geographical knowledge is, in fact, an asset to the presidency.

“But I guess because you can — you can dot the i’s and cross the t’s on foreign leaders and geographic locations, that now somehow you’re qualified to put us in that situation?” Johnson asked. “Hey, if that ends up to be the case, so be it. I guess I wasn’t meant to be president.”

There are plenty of arguments to make about Clinton’s penchant for interventionism, and Johnson would have plenty of ground to stand on if he’d put down the shovel and focused on the issue at hand. Instead, his bizarre interest in digging a bigger hole is clear. What other reason is there for basing an argument on your C-policy knowledge — especially when a president’s job, by nature, involves knowing foreign leaders and geographic locations? It’s great that Johnson doesn’t want to bomb other countries, but it’d be nice to know he could find them all on a map.

5. “Who’s Harriet Tubman?”

Some might excuse Johnson’s foreign policy blunders. Sure, he’s human, and foreign policy is hard, and there are a lot of people out there in the world — we get it. But this blunder from July is the kind of moment that makes it clear Johnson shouldn’t lead a fourth-grade history class, let alone the United State of America. Per the New Yorker:

“A few minutes later, an aide directed him to a room in the convention center that was named for Harriet Tubman. 'Who’s Harriet Tubman?' Johnson asked. (After the aide reminded him who Tubman was, Johnson recalled that she will appear on a new twenty-dollar bill.)”

Current political figures and important geographical locations are one thing, but not recognizing one of the most influential figures in U.S. history (so influential in fact that she will replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, as Johnson evidently remembered) is another thing altogether. Sure, gaffes happen. But with libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, gaffes happen liberally.

By Elizabeth Preza

MORE FROM Elizabeth Preza

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Alternet Elections 2016 Gary Johnson Libertarian Party Third Party Candidate