With so many worries in the world today ― among them the possibility that our own election might result in the light of enlightenment thought being extinguished for several generations ― it’s nice that the political press has the luxury of taking time to put the world’s larger concerns aside and ask the men and women running for president the sorts of questions that America’s preteens are wondering about. This week, that question is apparently, “What world leader do you admire?” Next week, maybe we’ll get, “What is the best Wu Tang Clan solo project?” (The answer is Fishscale.)
At this point, the question has been put to four presidential candidates, and it looks like the big winner is ... German Chancellor Angela Merkel!
I genuinely don’t know how (or why) anyone would use this information to pick a president, but there’s one thing we can say about it: It’s piping hot content. So let me cut myself in on all this “favorite world leader” monetization, since in the end, that’s the most important thing.
Our world leader boomlet got started in what might have otherwise been an unlikely venue for a daylong political media curiosity ― a Chris Matthews-hosted town hall discussion with Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson and his running mate, William Weld. It was there that Matthews asked Johnson, “Name one foreign leader that you respect and look up to. Anybody.” And Johnson, in an electrifying moment that could change the complexity of the 2016 presidential election, could not call one to mind. “I guess I’m having an Aleppo moment,” quipped Johnson.
To be clear, the part of this answer that was unarguably bad was Johnson joking about an “Aleppo moment.” That he couldn’t think of a world leader he admired is fine. It’s fine. You don’t actually have to profess some sort of blanket admiration for a random world leader. The world is a complicated place and its leaders are complicated people. It’s not a deep or probing question, and it was silly watching Chris Matthews pretend that it was. “You gotta do this,” he exclaimed, “Anywhere. Any continent. Canada, Mexico, Europe, over there, Asia, South America, Africa, name a foreign leader that you respect.”
“You gotta do this!” No you don’t. “Name a foreign leader you respect” is an adolescent inquiry standing in for an adult one. What Matthews is trying to divine from Johnson, in this instance, is how his unique, libertarian point of view informs his foreign policy preferences. Libertarianism may not be your cup of tea, but there are ways of posing this question that demonstrate that you actually have a sincere interest in the answer and a baseline respect for the person to whom you’re putting the question. “Name a foreign leader you respect, you gotta do this,” isn’t one of them. Matthews just wanted to gawp at Johnson ― and Johnson, unfortunately, gave him more than he bargained for.
And that’s too bad, because it might have been interesting to hear his point of view on our foreign entanglements and old alliances, where he sees emerging ideas, what he thinks about tomorrow’s dangers. Might have been an interesting opportunity. Instead, we got this:
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.
So, that’s from Daniel Strauss at Politico, and it really gives a new twist to what Matthews started. For instance, this whole matter with Johnson and the MSNBC town hall was apparently an opportunity that could be “capitalized on” by another presidential contender. If only Stein had done so! So game-changing for her, potentially! Alas, she “flubbed” by naming three people! Silly goose! Pick one person, like a serious politician.
There is also the whole part where Strauss unilaterally rewrites the rules of this dumb game for all of us, strictly enforcing the notion that “world leader” must now explicitly mean “head of state.” Stein named U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, economist and labor rights activist João Stédile, and Canada Green Party leader Elizabeth May. All are ... world leaders, actually? (How pedantic do we want to get with this? Did Nelson Mandela stop being a world leader after he was succeeded in office in 1999 by Thabo Mbeki?)
By the evening, the major party candidates were getting in on the action as well. As The Hill’s Harper Neidig reports, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton “mocked” Johnson’s “inability to name a foreign leader by pretending not to be able to come up one herself when asked.” Oooh, that’s so world-leaderlike, you guys. Neidig goes on to report that Clinton did, eventually, have a (no doubt focus-grouped) response at the ready:
“I like a lot of the world leaders,” she added. “One of my favorites is Angela Merkel, because I think she’s been an extraordinary, strong leader during difficult times in Europe, which has obvious implications for the rest of the world, most particularly our country.”
Clinton added that she’s been impressed by Merkel’s handling of the European Union and refugee crises there.
Naturally, Donald Trump got the same question, and ― well ... here I must confess: I actually did find Trump’s answer fairly interesting. Obviously, I find any answer Trump gives to just about any random question interesting in the same way I find stunning a possum with a Taser to be interesting. You never know what might happen! Maybe the possum flops over unconscious, maybe it wanders off in a daze, accidentally leading you to the magical world where possum-kind keep their treasures. But Trump’s response was interesting for the answer he gave as well: Angela Merkel, the same as Clinton.
Yeah, so Trump admires and doesn’t admire Angela Merkel, which is a little weird. Back in 2013, Trump found it really easy to praise Merkel:
He’s since changed his mind (in part because he is titanically petty):
Trump isn’t being inconsistent: the German chancellor’s response to the Syrian migrant crisis (the very thing for which Clinton admires her), is an intolerable policy decision to Trump, and accounts for his flip-flop on Angela Merkel fandom in general. But the fact that Trump’s anti-migrant policies mean so much to him makes it genuinely weird to see him offer up Merkel’s name as his answer to this question.
Perhaps this is just Trump’s flatulent thought processes manifesting themselves once more. But maybe Trump is actually kind of in a bind, when it comes to talking about world leaders. It’s a real pity that former Turkmenistan leader Saparmurat Niyazov is dead, because he was the politician that Trump truly aspires to be. That dude installed a gold statue of himself in Ashgabat that rotated to face the sun, jailed and tortured his critics, forced everyone to read his book, and passed a litany of insane laws because who was going to stop him? No one, that’s who.
Absent Trump’s Turkmen soul brother, the GOP nominee is left to ponder a world of leaders he doesn’t know, doesn’t respect, or can’t risk praising because of his fanbase. He’s never going to speak fondly of our neighbors, Justin Trudeau of Canada or Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico. It’s no longer okay for him to continually crush on his main squeeze, Vladimir Putin.
The Brexit vote, to which Trump has likened his own electoral fortunes, led to Theresa May becoming the U.K.’s prime minister, but let’s face it, chances are Trump’s never heard of her. He called Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi a “fantastic guy” after meeting with him, but that didn’t really go over well. He also recently met with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ― why not name Bibi as a world leader he admires?
Instead, we get Trump telling reporters that he admires someone he no longer really admires, and at the end of this 24-hour period of pursuing a very silly inquiry, we’ve watched the media expend all this energy on a question that revealed very little beyond the fact that Angela Merkel is the big loser in all of this.
So, yeah. That was dumb.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.