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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

Dear Gary Johnson: Please Stop Fucking Up

If the Libertarian presidential candidate wants to be taken seriously, he should stop embarrassing himself—and his cause—in major interviews.

by Harry Cheadle
Sep 29 2016, 6:46pm

Gary Johnson at a campaign event in Indiana. Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

I really want to like Gary Johnson. I voted for the Libertarian presidential candidate in 2012 because I was disenchanted by Barack Obama's drone strikes and continuation of the drone wars. Johnson walked around in a T-shirt with a peace sign on it and talked about legalizing marijuana and cutting military spending, and unlike many third-party candidates had actual experience, as the former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico. When many conservatives say they want to get government off of your back what they really mean is "we want to get government off the backs of rich white people." Johnson, on the other hand, identified specific cruelties the US government was inflicting at home and abroad, and promised to end them. Sign me up!

Johnson is running again in 2016 and is getting even more attention than he did the last time, thanks mostly to the disdain many voters have for both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. He's been polling between 5 and 10 percent nationally, far above the 1 percent of the vote he got in 2012 but short of the 15 percent he'd need to get into one of the final two presidential debates. Even if he never hits that threshold, it's clear Johnson is the most legitimate third-party candidate in a generation. His running mate, William Weld, is another former Republican governor; there have been calls to get him into the debates from across the political spectrum; he's even received multiple newspaper endorsements, which is impressive even if those papers were just looking for a way not to back Trump.

So I really mean it when I say that it's such a shame that Johnson keeps fucking up.

His latest blunder came during a Wednesday interview on MSNBC, after host Chris Matthews* asked him to name a foreign leader he respected. Johnson came up embarrassingly empty, hopelessly forgetting the name of "the former president of Mexico." He couldn't even mask his brain fart by going into a spiel about, say, how there are no leaders who would do what he would do as president. Instead, he said he was having an "Aleppo moment," reminding viewers that, oh yeah, a supposedly serious presidential candidate didn't recognize the name of the city at the center of the most famous civil war in the world.

Even Matt Welch of Reason, as dyed-in-the-wool a Libertarian as you'll find, wasn't defending Johnson's performance. "As a communicator, he is uneven, goofy around the edges, and prone to the occasional WTF moment," Welch admitted in a Thursday-morning chiding of the candidate.

Everyone running for president has the occasional gaffe, but the ones that hurt the most are those that confirm some negative narrative about you. For Johnson—for any third-party challenger—the narrative he has to overcome is that he's unserious, better about dreaming vague dreams than the actual business of governing. "Libertarians and other marginalized groups have a weird man's burden in which they are frequently held to even higher standards than the two-party dolts who actually hold power," Welch wrote. But having a basic knowledge of foreign policy isn't a "higher standard"; it's a requirement for the job of president.

Earlier this week, Johnson held a press conference before the first presidential debate. The first question was aggressive but fair: Given your confusion about Aleppo, how would you handle some of the detailed foreign policy questions that any debate moderator would ask? In response, Johnson seemingly got pissed off, standing up and denouncing the whole premise of the question as well as America's interventionist foreign policy: "I would be angry that people would be calling me out on names, geographic locations, names of foreign leaders, when the underlying policy has thousands of people dying, and that is unacceptable!"

It's frustrating that the two candidates on the debate stage Monday were the hawkish Hillary Clinton and Donald "Take the Oil" Trump, and it would be nice to have a candidate arguing against both of them on the subject. But to argue foreign policy you have to know foreign policy. Johnson has repeatedly called out Trump, but the idea that it's not important to understand the specifics of geopolitics is inching dangerously close to the Trumpist idea that expertise doesn't matter.

But Johnson's habit of coming off as amateurish isn't limited to questions of foreign policy. During a friendly Fox News town hall held last month, Johnson—flanked by VP candidate Weld—was asked whether he supported anti-discrimination laws that prohibited Christian bakers from refusing to sell cakes to gay weddings.

"I think that supporting discrimination is the wrong thing to do," Johnson replied.

"The Muslim entrepreneur must sell pork?" host John Stossel asked.

"You don't have to sell pork!" Weld interjected, which is the correct answer—in America, you can sell any legal product you want, you just can't choose not to sell to someone because you're prejudiced. That's not just a Libertarian view. It's a fairly simple legal concept.

Johnson, though, just made things more confusing: "Well, you're talking about potentially opening up discrimination that, in my opinion, maybe businesses discriminate against, a quarter of businesses discriminate against Muslims, because 'let's just be safe.'"

Being anti-discrimination is good, but this answer is a mess. At once Johnson is ignoring the question, contradicting his running mate, and botching the chance to explain how the freedoms of businesses intersect to the freedoms of individuals.

Maybe the problem there is that, strangely for a Libertarian, Johnson doesn't seem to have thought a lot about religious liberties. Earlier this year, he surprisingly supported a French-style ban on Muslim headgear, which was so obviously un-Libertarian (not to mention anti–First Amendment) that he was roundly denounced by his supporters and had to embarrassingly reverse himself. It was just another hiccup in a campaign that can't afford them.

"I have to get smarter," Johnson told an interviewer after his Aleppo fuck-up, which may not be the most presidential thing he's ever said, but it's true. I may not agree with him on everything these days—his single-minded devotion to a consumption tax strikes me as regressive—but his anti-tax, anti-war, anti–drug war, pro–criminal justice reform, anti-discrimination views are a potentially potent cocktail of policies. They deserve a candidate who seems like he could actually serve as president.

Update: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Chris Wallace interviewed Johnson. In fact it was Chris Matthews.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.