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Gary Johnson Doesn’t Know What Aleppo Is, but Neither Does the New York Times

"What is Aleppo" is the 2016 election's greatest catchphrase

There are a few big questions that any U.S. presidential contender should be able to answer convincingly. For one: “How can the American government best balance collective responsibility with individual liberty?” For another: “What’s the deal with taxes?” A third: “What is Aleppo?”

Gary Johnson, former New Mexico governor and long-shot Libertarian Party presidential candidate, performed miserably in a pop quiz on the third of these questions while appearing on MSNBC’s Morning Joe today.

Say it with me now. Savor it on your tongue. That is the sound and the taste of a candidate thoroughly destroying his own campaign in three seconds flat. Emphasize each individual word; experience every possible inflection of the phrase. What is Aleppo? What is Aleppo? What is Aleppo?

It’s likely that you, as someone who picks up a newspaper every once in a while, know all about Aleppo. Aleppo is a city in Syria. In fact, it is one of the largest and most important cities in Syria, and one of the oldest inhabited cities in the entire world. Aleppo once was the single biggest Syrian city, until it began suffering massive destruction in the Syrian Civil War that began a few years ago. That last point gets at the reason why Johnson might be expected to know something about Aleppo: it is the epicenter of one of the bloodiest and most complicated conflicts on the planet, and as president he’d be expected to have some ideas about how to solve that conflict, or at least to be aware of that conflict’s existence.

But Gary needn’t worry too much: Even the New York Times is a little confused. When it ran a story about Johnson’s big gaffe on the website this morning, America’s paper of record initially identified Aleppo as the de facto capital of the Islamic State, which it most definitely is not. (That would be Raqqa, another Syrian city.) Then it softened the blow, calling the city an Islamic State stronghold, which doesn’t quite work either. Now, the Times story carries its own embarrassing correction.

For all his foreign policy ignorance and bad ideas about Obamacare, Johnson is a likable candidate in his bumbling way, and it’s hard not to feel a little bad for him. The guy’s signature policy proposal is weed legalization, for one thing, and he’s the rare right-of-center candidate who supports gay marriage and abortion access. The only reason he was on Morning Joe talking about Syria in the first place was the hope of boosting his poll numbers enough to appear on the national debate stage, and he would have been a welcomely goofy presence on TV alongside Hillary and Trump had he managed to do it. With “What is Aleppo?” he almost certainly torpedoed those debate hopes forever.

Goodbye, sweet Gary. It was good while it lasted.