BROOKFIELD, Wisconsin – Senator Ron Johnson sparked widespread outrage when he recently said he would have been more afraid of the January 6 rioters who ravaged the Capitol if they had been members of Black Lives Matter and Antifa.
But his insightful and up-to-the-minute comment, which quickly led to allegations of racism, came as no surprise to those who have followed Mr. Johnson’s career in Washington or at home in Wisconsin. He is the Republican Party’s main booster on conspiracy theories and disinformation after Donald Trump himself was banned from social media and appearances on cable television were largely avoided.
An all-access provider of misinformation on serious issues like the pandemic and the legitimacy of American democracy, Mr Johnson relies on Greenland’s etymology to downplay the effects of climate change.
For the past few months, Mr Johnson has expressed doubts about President Biden’s victory, arguing that the January 6 attack on the Capitol was not an armed insurrection. He promoted discredited Covid-19 treatments. said he saw no need to get the coronavirus vaccine himself and claimed that the United States could have ended the pandemic a year ago with the development of a generic if the government had wanted it.
Last year he spent months as the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee seeking evidence that Mr Biden tried to pressure Ukrainian officials to help his son Hunter Intelligence Community report released on Monday It was misinformation spread by Russia in support of Mr Trump’s re-election.
Mr. Johnson has also become the leading Republican proponent of a revisionist effort to deny the motives and violence of the mob who broke through the Capitol. At a Senate hearing to investigate the day’s events, Mr. Johnson read a report from a far-right website on the file attributing the violence to “agent provocateurs” and “fake Trump protesters”. On Saturday, He told a conference of conservative political organizers in Wisconsin that “there was no violence on the Senate side, in relation to the Chamber.” In fact, Trump supporters stormed the chamber shortly after the senators were evacuated.
His ongoing assault on the truth, often under the guise of simply “asking questions about established facts,” helps diminish confidence in American institutions at a dangerous moment when the health and economic well-being of the nation is gravely declining Depend on mass vaccinations and when belief in democracy is shaken by right-wing lies about voting.
Republicans say 27 percentage points less than Democrats that they plan to get, or have already received, a vaccine. A study from the Pew Research Center was published this month found. In an interview, Mr Johnson repeatedly refused to say that vaccines are safe or to encourage people to get them and instead resorted to insinuations – “There is still so much we don’t know about all of this” – which undermine efforts to defeat the pandemic.
The eardrum of distortion, false theories, and lies reminds some Wisconsin Republicans of a figure from the state’s past who also rarely allows facts to get in the way of its agenda: Senator Joseph McCarthy, their witch hunt for communists In and out of government in the 1950s ruined lives and bitterly divided the country.
“Wisconsin voters love outsiders, they really love outsiders – you go way back to Joe McCarthy,” said Jim Sensenbrenner, a longtime Republican congressman from the suburbs of Milwaukee who retired in January. “They love people who rattle a lot in the cage and bring up topics that people may not want to talk about.”
For Democrats who have never forgotten Mr Johnson’s defeat to liberal darling Russ Feingold in 2010 and again in a rematch in 2016, regaining the Senate seat in 2022 is a top priority. Although he has not yet announced whether he would seek a third term, Mr Johnson recently said that the anger the Democrats had shown him had led him to stay in the fight. Still he has raised only $ 590,000 in the past two years – a meager sum for an incumbent senator.
Mr. Johnson’s most recent provocation came on March 12, when he confronted Black Lives Matter protesters with Trump supporters “who love this country” and stormed the Capitol. The slaughter resulted in 140 and more police officers injured 300 arrests by federal agencies. During one Interview with a right-wing radio host, Joe PagliaruloMr. Johnson said, “Joe, this is going to get me in trouble. Had the tables been turned and President Trump had won the election, and there were tens of thousands of Black Live’s Matter and Antifa protesters, I might have been a little concerned. “
Research into the summer protests against racial injustice has shown this They were largely non-violent.
In an interview with The Times, Mr. Johnson declined to make comparisons with McCarthy. And he insisted that he had no racial intent to advance his argument.
“I didn’t feel threatened,” he said. “So it’s a true statement. And then people said,“ Well, why? ”Well, because I’ve been to a lot of Trump rallies. I spend three hours with thousands of Trump supporters. And I think I know them pretty good. I don’t know of any Trump supporters who would have done what the rioters did. “
On Sunday, Missouri Republican Senator Roy Blunt condemned Mr. Johnson’s distortion of the January 6th events. “We don’t have to try to make statements or find alternate versions,” he said on NBC. Meet the press. “” We all saw what happened. “
In an interview with The Times, Mr. Johnson also accused the federal government of calling a Covid-19 vaccine a “tunnel vision” while failing to further investigate treatments like hydroxychloroquine – the anti-malarial drug promoted by Mr. Trump – that the Food and Drug Administration says, is not effective against the virus. That strategy, he said, cost “tens of thousands of lives”.
Conspiracy theories and defiant disregard for facts were a fringe element of the Republican Party when Mr Johnson entered politics in 2010 – particularly when Sarah Palin ran for vice presidency two years earlier. But under Mr. Trump the fringe became mainstream. The president’s factual claims, from the size of his first crowd in 2017 to the “big lie” of a stolen election in 2020, have required Republican officials to match his gas light or lose the support of the party’s grassroots voters.
Mr Johnson proved remarkably adept at coping with the misinformation that was increasingly animating Fox News commentators and right-wing talk radio.
“Over the years as the party turned into muscular ignorance, he has followed the Q-Anon sect,” said Christian Schneider, a former Wisconsin Republican political agent who interfered with the Johnson campaign in 2010, to write a brilliant report for a local conservative magazine. “Now he’s a perfect example of that kind of politics.”
Mr. Johnson was the managing director of a plastics company founded by his wife’s family When he ran for the Senate for the first time in 2010, he advocated federal spending and debts as a new political businessman He spent $ 9 million of his own money on the race.
But in that first campaign there was evidence of Mr. Johnson’s predilection for anti-intellectualism. On several occasions he stated that climate change was happening not made by humans, but caused by “sunspots”“And said excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere” helps the trees grow. “He also offered a false history of Greenland to discard the effects of global warming.
“You know, there’s a reason Greenland was called Greenland.” Mr Johnson told WKOW-TV back in Madison. “At one point it was actually green. And it’s gotten a lot whiter since then, so we’ve seen climate change throughout geological time. “
In the interview on Thursday, Mr Johnson was still misinformed about the etymology of Greenland, which got its name from the The discoverer Erik the Red tries to lure settlers to the ice-covered island.
“I might be wrong about that, but my assumption has always been that these early explorers saw green at some point,” said Johnson. “I have no idea.”
Just as Mr. Trump later used Fox News to build a national political figure, so did Mr. Johnson on Wisconsin’s broad network of conservative talk radio shows. His political rise would not have been possible without the support of Charlie Sykes, then an influential Milwaukee radio host who once read a full 20-minute speech by Mr. Johnson in the air.
Mr Sykes, who has been a harsh critic of Trump-era Republicans since 2016, told Mr Johnson last week, “I don’t know how he went from being a chamber of commerce guy to someone who sounds like he is read gateway pundit every day. He’s become Joe McCarthy. “
This month alone, Mr. Johnson has made at least 15 appearances on 11 different radio shows.
On Tuesday he appeared with Vicki McKenna, whose right-wing show is popular with Wisconsin Conservatives. She began by attacking health counseling, wearing a mask and keeping social distance, arguing that it was a democratic conspiracy to control Americans. Mr Johnson agreed with Ms. McKenna and her assessment that public health experts in the federal government are misleading the country in promoting the coronavirus vaccine.
“We are committed to all of these other potentially useful and cheap therapies, all of which are based on the holy grail of a vaccine,” he said. Dr. Fauci, he added, was “not a god”.
In the interview, the senator said it was not his responsibility to use his public profile to encourage Americans to get vaccinated.
“I don’t have all the information to say ‘do this’,” said Mr Johnson.
His false theories about the virus and vaccine are reminiscent of other misinformation that Mr Johnson has reinforced. During an appearance on Newsmax TV in 2014 He warned of militants from the Islamic State who were infected with the Ebola virus and then travel to the United States. In 2015 he did Introduction of laws to guide the federal government protect yourself from the threat of an electromagnetic pulse, a conspiracy theory that has long been right-wing American politics.
Mr. Johnson’s month-long investigation into the Bidens and Ukraine by the Homeland Security Committee last year was concluded with the G.O.P. Majority report finds that the former vice president has not committed any wrongdoing. An intelligence community rating The clearance and release on Monday concluded that Russia had spread misinformation about Hunter Biden in order to damage his father’s election campaign and help Mr Trump get re-elected.
Mr. Johnson, who was not named in the evaluation, insisted that his work was not directly or unintentionally influenced by Russians.
“Read the report – show me where there is Russian disinformation,” he said. “Anyone who thinks I’m spreading disinformation is not informed because I didn’t.”
Weeks after the November election, Mr Johnson refused to recognize Mr Biden as the winner while repeating Mr Trump’s false statements about rampant fraud. He convened his committee in December to spread unsubstantiated allegations of fraud and ballot mistreatment, despite dozens of fraud allegations raised by the Trump campaign being thrown in court across the country.
In a cascade of interviews with friendly conservative media, Mr. Johnson recently portrayed himself as a victim of the “radical left” campaigning against scorched earth to move his Senate seat.
“The best way to maintain power is to destroy your political opposition and it is targeting me.” he told Oshkosh radio host Bob Burnell on Tuesday. “This is obviously a vulnerable Senate seat in a swing state, so they think I would probably be Target # 1. And I am Target # 1.”
Mr Johnson’s defense lawyers say he is fighting against attempts by the liberal media to silence him.
“I see the same thing happening to Senator Johnson as it is to Donald Trump,” he said Gerard Randall, chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party African American Advisory Council. “I know Senator Johnson personally and I know he’s not a racist.”
If Mr. Johnson goes for a third term, the race will likely be decided in the Milwaukee suburbs, which earlier sparked Republican landslides but have moved away from the party since the Trump era.
The city of Brookfield, for example, backed Mr Trump by just nine percentage points in November, after voting for him in 2016 with 20 points and President George W. Bush with 39 points in 2004.
“There was a lot of winking” at Mr. Johnson’s recent comments on the Capitol Siege, said Scott Berg, a conservative who has served on the Brookfield city council for 20 years. “If I were in the leadership of the Wisconsin Republican Party, I would be looking for candidates,” he added for the Senate in 2022.
Still, in 2016, Mr Johnson was 10 percentage points ahead of Mr Trump in Brookfield. Voters there suggested that the suburb might not deviate from Republicans as quickly as some Democrats had hoped.
“I’m a Johnson supporter – I voted for him twice – but I think he’s going down a rabbit hole that I don’t want a part of,” said John Raschig, a retiree who walked out of a Pick’n Save supermarket . “It’s like Trump: I would vote for him because the other side is terrible, but I would prefer someone else.”
Travel Gabriel reported from Wisconsin, and Reid J. Epstein from Washington, D.C. Giovanni Russonello Contribution to reporting.