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Friday, December 9, 2016

Our question for the day: Does ignorance matter?

Our lead exhibit — you will not be shocked to hear this — is Donald Trump.

Last week, the billionaire real estate mogul who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination stumbled over a question about terrorism from conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. Specifically, he was forced to admit that he could not identify the leaders of Hezbollah and al Qaeda, among other terrorist organizations.

There is a pattern for how Trump reacts when cornered, and he was true to it last week. First, he made the usual vague, grandiose promises about how effective he will be once in office (“I will be so good at the military, your head will spin. … I’m a delegator. … I find absolutely great people and I’ll find them in our armed services”). Then he attempted to kill the messenger, bashing Hewitt on Twitter as a “very low-ratings talk-show host” and a “3rd-rate gotcha guy.”

As has also become part of the pattern, a gaffe that might have totaled another candidate’s campaign seems to have not even scratched the paint on this one. Or, as a Politico headline put it: “Trump bluffs past another crisis.” Indeed, Trump has come to resemble nothing so much as a real world “Sebastian Shaw” — a Marvel Comics supervillian who gets stronger every time you hit him.

After insulting Mexicans, insulting his rivals and insulting Fox “News” personality Megyn Kelly with a tasteless jibe that he claimed wasn’t about menstruation, though it transparently was, Trump continues to lead all contenders for the Republican presidential nomination. Nor is the ignorance of world affairs he betrayed on Hewitt’s show likely to change that.

It’s a fact that speaks volumes about the present state of the Grand Old Party. This is, after all, now the third presidential election cycle in a row in which one of its stars has shown him or herself to be spectacularly clueless on some relatively simple question of presidential readiness.

There is a straight line from Saran Palin in 2008 — unable to give coherent answers to questions about the economy, foreign policy and her own reading habits — to Herman Cain hemming and hawing and shifting in his chair in 2011 when asked about Libya, to Trump bristling and pouting because he was quizzed about major figures in Middle East terrorism.

One is reminded of the old political axiom that people want a president they could imagine having a beer with. And that’s fine. But you’d think they would also want to imagine him or her being able to find North Korea on a map. And, in the last few years, there have been some political contenders and pretenders you suspect could not do it even if you spotted them a hemisphere.

Since when did running for president become a reality show? How does Trump or anyone else figure that a presidential candidate should not be asked hard questions? And what does it say about us that fundamental ignorance about things a president should know does not automatically disqualify one from credibly contending for that office?

Perhaps it says that some of us want the world to be simple, and that they want a president who will not ask them to think too deeply, nor proffer any policy prescription too complex to fit on a bumper sticker.

Perhaps it says that some of us embrace an extremist resistance to social change and are willing to support whoever promises most loudly to drag the country back to an imagined yesterday of purity and strength.

But the world is not simple and never was. And yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.

Does ignorance matter? Well, Donald Trump is still the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination.

So obviously, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as it should.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL, 33132. Readers may contact him via email at [email protected])

Photo: Donald Trump talks with fellow candidate and former Jeb Bush during a commercial break at the first official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign in Cleveland, Ohio, August 6, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder