An American Lamentation (Two by “Huh?”)

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks to supporters in Everett, Washington, 30 August 2016. (Detail of frame via YouTube)

Americans often lament the fact of their essentially two-party political league, and the top of the Libertarian ticket, Gary Johnson, is capable of providing spectacular reminders of why we tend toward the binary. The former New Mexico governor and middle-tier celebrity stoner has managed to reduce a human atrocity to yet another icon of American stupidity, which really is no good legacy to build. Yet it is true, in the American discourse, “Aleppo” is … well, Matthew Kitchen tries to explain for NBC News:

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson struggled to name a single foreign leader when asked who his favorite was during an MSNBC town hall Wednesday night.

“Any one of the continents, any country. Name one foreign leader that your respect and look up to. Anybody,” host Chris Matthews pushed during the event, causing Johnson to sigh loudly as his VP pick Bill Weld tried to jump in.

“I guess I’m having an Aleppo moment,” Johnson finally said, referring to his recent gaffe on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” when he asked “What is Aleppo?” after he was questioned about how he would handle the conflict in the Syrian city.

So, yeah. Aleppo is … Gary Johnson being inexcusably stupid. (Look, dude, I mean, you’re, like, running for president, you know, like, aren’t you?)

And then there is Donald Trump.

A bit of trivia: In 1996, Bill Clinton―then referred to colloquially, albeit with some effective weight, as the first black president―dug himself one of his infamous holes; if you look around, it is possible to find later references to other politicians having their “Sister Souljah Moment”. And while it was a dumb enough gaffe, the moment when Bubba’s infamous talent for compromise landed him in league with the supremacist right, there was Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS) to dig him out. The Republican nominee boasted to the press that when he was president he would make that kind of music illegal. And when we get right down to it the Sunflower stalwart and soon to be erectile dysfunction pitch man bailed the president out of one of the most ridiculous moments of his public life not involving his necktie. Because there’s nothing like a smug, tubby white Democrat throwing racist meat to Southern voters, you know? But if a presidential candidate responds to his opponents woes by standing up and boasting about how, when he is elected to the White House, he will use his office to wreck the Constitution of the United States? Yeah, that will do it. And Bob Dole did just that, promising that when he became president he would make that kind of music illegal. What should have been a genuinely damaging moment, when the man people would risk a volatile colloquial label on, the “first black president”, pitched a white supremacist talking point in order to shore up Southern crossovers and swingers, just sort of disappeared into the noise because his opponent made a point of letting him off the hook.

Which brings us back to Donald Trump, who is, of course, not only one of the next President Clinton’s best advocates nearly every time he opens his mouth, but also Gary Johnson’s safety net or landing pad, or how about that big airbag stuntmen use when they jump off tall buildings? Yesterday, Steve Benen explained, of the Libertarian candidate:

As recently as Monday, Johnson told reporters how concerned he is about current U.S. foreign policy, which he described as “horrible,” and how eager he would have been to discuss the issue with the major-party nominees had he qualified for this week’s official debate. Of course, presidential hopefuls who care deeply about foreign policy can usually name one foreign leader they like.

The broader problem, meanwhile, is Johnson failing to take advantage of the opportunity that’s been presented to him on a silver platter.

But in practice, Johnson can’t seem to get out of his own way. His campaign antics are often clownish and confusing; his campaign platform is radical in a way that alienates potential progressive allies; and when given the opportunity to make a good impression before national television audiences, the Libertarian has “Aleppo moments” that suggest Johnson’s presidential candidacy isn’t altogether real.

If Gary Johnson was actually a contender―you know, a serious candidate capable of promoting a reasonable platform and running a somewhat competent campaign―then … er … ah … okay, so he wouldn’t be having “Aleppo moments”α. Even as such, consider the discussion of how Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are historically unpopular candidates―and here’s a key frustration for the HRC camp―and for the moment the Democratic nominee, being a thoroughly qualified presidential candidate, falls away into the background because the sensational awfulness of the moment has little to do with her. If Gary Johnson was actually a contender, you know, a presidential candidate who was something other than a bad joke unto himself, he would still have Donald Trump to bail him out.

Steve Benen, again, today, and, sure, about Gary Johnson, but mostly about Donald Trump. The setup:

It was, to be sure, painful to watch. But the exchange, which generated quite a bit of media attention, also served as a reminder to the other national candidates: you’re bound to get the same question, so have a good answer ready.

Somehow, Donald Trump flubbed it anyway.

And, yes, the fact of the flub is part of the setup. Mr. Benen focuses on the nature or manner of Mr. Trump’s utter failure; the punch line runs about six paragraphs:

“Well I think Merkel is a really great world leader but I was very disappointed that, when she, this move with the whole thing on immigration,” Trump told the New England Cable Network. “I think it’s a big problem and really you know to look at what she’s done in the last year and a half. I was always a Merkel person. I thought, really fantastic, but I think she made a very tragic mistake a year and a half ago.”

Look, it wasn’t a trick question. Asked to name his favorite international leader, Trump had plenty of credible choices and plenty of time to come up with a compelling answer. If he was tempted to point to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose authoritarian style Trump has repeatedly praised, his staff had an opportunity to steer him away from the answer.

But the fact remains that Trump doesn’t like Merkel at all. We know this with some certainty because Trump said so in a big speech on his foreign-policy vision―delivered just last month―in which he complained bitterly about Hillary Clinton, insisting she “wants to be America’s Angela Merkel.” It wasn’t a compliment.

The German chancellor’s approach to immigration, Trump added, has been “a disaster.” This isn’t ancient history; this was just 46 days ago.

Soon after, the Republican presidential hopeful even tried to start an anti-Clinton hashtag campaign: “#AmericasMerkel.” (As Rachel noted on the show at the time, the label was popular on fringe, right-wing websites, but the hashtag did not catch on.)

A month later, after having accused Merkel of “ruining Germany” and being a “catastrophic leader” for her country, Trump now chooses her as his favorite international leader? Did it not occur to him or anyone of his staff to come up with a more coherent answer?

Say what we will of Gary Johnson’s unfortunate decision to run for presidentβ, but the fact remains that by comparison, he is not actually as incompetent as Donald Trump. As farcical as the Libertarian ticket might be, at least Gary Johnson’s legacy as a presidential will be merely unfortunate. As much scorn as we might pour on Mr. Johnson’s grotesque Americanization of the word “Aleppo”, it was the sort of humiliating accident of the moment inexorably set in motion by the luckless and lamentable decision to actually run for president.

Donald Trump’s incompetence, by contrast, is actually dangerous. It is worth noting, too, that it is really easy to push the point that the Republican nominee is the candidate of the internet trolls when he demonstrates their behavior. Say what we might about Mr. Trump’s age, his state of mind, his range out of touch, or whatever; that we might suggest he is not paying attention to the words he is saying is, as many already know and pretty much everyone else might reasonably expect, right in line with internet trolling.

Hillary Clinton, for her part, pretty much aced the question, which is why we hear so little about her role in it. As Benen noted, it’s not a trick question. To be fair, we ought to include Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. Politico ran the headline, “Stein trolls Johnson on world leaders gaffe, also fails to name world leaders”, which Daniel Strauss explains to mean―

Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein tried to capitalize on Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson flubbing a question on world leaders by listing three figures she liked.

But none of the ones she listed are leaders of their respective countries.

―she still did better than Messrs. Johnson and Trump. Not that Stein should be anywhere near the presidency, but, you know, to put it cynically, if the antivax vandal can do a better job than the Republican nominee … then … er … ah … fill in the blank, really. It’s Donald Trump. The fact that he is the Republican nominee ought to be sufficient to raise some significant alarm about the American existential condition. True, the Republic will survive Donald Trumpγ, but Mr. Trump’s nomination should have been filed under the proverbial, “Let’s not, and say we did”. We could learn the lesson, anyway. Models and projections. Simulation. And, really, could somebody please explain why we need the remedial course in the first place?

Something goes here about American lamentation of the two-party outlook. And, yes, something goes here, as well, about the apparent difficulty the American people experience maintaining even two functioning political parties. And, yes, a certain amount of this really is on conservatives unto themselves. But, yes, there is a share that falls to American voters in general. Whatever one thinks of the candidates―including the extraordinarily ahistorical yet predictable mistrusting mythopoesis orbiting Hillary Clintonδ―we Americans have built this, all of us together.

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign event in San Jose, California, 26 May 2016.  (Photo: Stephen Lam/Reuters)When Hillary Clinton is president, we will be tempted to shrug and offer wry grins as we reassure each other that the Donald Trump Experience wasn’t that bad, and we get it insofar as, well, the world didn’t end, but we really ought not try this sort of stunt again. Still, though, the prospect of President Hillary Clinton does remind that these United States have not entirely lost their minds nor devoured their own souls.

You want perfection? Keep asking God. You want a good president? This is possible: Her name is Hillary Clinton. Doesn’t let Gary Johnson off the hook, nor especially Donald Trump. And our Republican neighbors really do owe the rest of humanity an explanation.

Americans might not be able to field two viable presidential candidates, and this is a problem, but we’re reasonably positioned to get away with it this time. Still, though, we have in recent days seen plenty of reminders why, despite our lamentations, Americans remain stuck with an essentially two-party contest.


α The infamous perryoops, for instance, merely denigrated its namesake, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and the strange Republican pitch whereby one applies for a job by denouncing the company; self-inflicted wounds are what they are. The “Aleppo moment”, in contrast, no longer has anything to do with the atrocity taking place in Aleppo particularly and Syria in general. Mr. Johnson’s farcical presidential campaign has at the very least achieved that much.

β It is not so much that we are forgetting Mr. Weld, the former Massachusetts governor, but, rather, that he would probably prefer to forget his decision to join the Libertarian ticket. As easy as it is to pick on the inefficacy or even idiocy of many of these minor political parties and their candidates, it just doesn’t seem unreasonable that one governor should trust another to have some clue what he’s doing. Bill Weld wouldn’t be the strongest candidate at the top of the Libertarian ticket, but he likely wouldn’t be an embarrassment to Party and nation alike.

γ Most likely, so will the Republican Party; even under the most dire circumstances, brand recognition ought to be sufficient to ensure that whatever would come next also bore the name. Well, you know, unless Trump somehow wins the election and runs these United States to unspeakable infamy. Which, you know, is supposed to sound like hyperbole, but, hey, it’s Donald Trump, and he’s the Republican presidential nominee; we actually need to consider the question of what it looks like if a President Trump follows through on his rhetoric.

δ Really, we are getting a good, fine, even excellent president in Hillary Clinton, and here’s irony: I still have an unfinished post sitting on my desktop about how hard it is to build an affirmative pitch for the Democratic nominee. The problem isn’t HRC’s lack of policy discussion; the problem is that our discourse now so closely, enthusiastically, and vociferously orbits spectacle, it is easy enough to make the mistake of spending too much time fending off the stupidity instead of actually reminding people of Clinton’s policy, fluency, and capability. There really is that much noise. October looms. But, yes, President Hillary Clinton will do just fine, and even better than that. None of us get our idyll, yet having spent how many years apologizing for Hillary Clinton’s political prowess, perhaps it is time to make the point that it feels pretty good when the compromise point isn’t merely settling for something less. The mistrusting mythopoesis takes place in a hazy context largely polluted with manufactured smoke that never produced the requisite fire; its powerful effect reminds that our parents weren’t wrong about squeaky wheels and grease―Republicans have spent the last couple decades, at least, testing the hypothesis that if you repeat it enough you can make it come true, or, if not so much that, at the very least people will believe you.

Image notes: Top ― Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks to supporters in Everett, Washington, 30 August 2016. (Detail of frame via YouTube) Left ― Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign event in San Jose, California, 26 May 2016. (Photo: Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Benen, Steve. “Gary Johnson hurts himself with another ‘Aleppo moment'”. msnbc. 29 September 2016.

—————. “Gary Johnson isn’t doing himself any favors”. msnbc. 23 September 2016.

—————. “Trump flubs ‘favorite world leader’ test in a surprising way”. msnbc. 30 September 2016.

Drum, Kevin. “Why Are There Any Liberals Supporting Gary Johnson?” Mother Jones. 17 September 2016.

Gearan, Anne. “Clinton skirts question on Gary Johnson’s qualifications, but she does have a favorite foreign leader”. The Washington Post. 29 September 2016.

Kitchen, Matthew. “Gary Johnson Has ‘Aleppo Moment’ at MSNBC Town Hall, Struggles to Name a Foreign Leader”. NBC News. 29 September 2016.

Strauss, Daniel. “Stein trolls Johnson on world leaders gaffe, also fails to name world leaders”. Politico. 29 September 2016.

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