Ron Johnson’s star turn

October 8, 2019 7:58 am
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc) on stage

Sen. Ron Johnson (Photo by Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons 2.0) .CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On Sunday, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, the highest ranking Republican official in Wisconsin, appeared on Meet the Press advancing conspiracy theories, attacking the media and avoiding questions with a barrage of nonsense so thick it propelled host Chuck Todd to yell back in exasperation.

“Sen. Johnson, please! Can you please answer the question that I asked you instead of trying to make Donald Trump feel better?”

It was no use. The Trump team has found the perfect surrogate in Johnson, who is reading right out of Trump’s playbook: When confronted with an unpleasant reality, make up your own reality, go inside it, and refuse to come out.

The question Todd asked him, which Johnson reacted to with sputtering outrage, was about Johnson’s own words, quoted in the Wall Street Journal. Todd read him his own quote, and asked what he meant when he said he “winced” when he heard the president was holding up military aid to Ukraine until the Ukrainian government agreed to investigate Joe Biden’s son. 

There was no getting Johnson to talk about his own recent statement, though. He was too busy talking about Hillary Clinton and the Deep State.

Johnson doesn’t trust the FBI or the CIA, he told Todd. The president has been wronged. The 2016 election might have been tampered with by Ukraine to try to help Clinton. He just wants to get to the truth.

“Ron Johnson showed a national television audience he’s willing to ignore the Constitution, undermine law enforcement and endanger national security to please Donald Trump,” said Mike Browne of One Wisconsin Now, a group that has tracked Johnson’s record throughout his Senate career. “His behavior is emblematic of the Republicans nationally and here in Wisconsin … partisan power is the only thing that matters.”

The unprecedented presidency of Donald Trump has been marked by a series of new lows. In that context, Johnson’s star turn does not stand out.

But it’s not a good sign for the country that Johnson’s word salad is, as CNN’s Chris Cillizza put it, “the GOP Trump defense in a nutshell”.

The crux of that defense is that there was no quid-pro-quo in Trump’s conversation with Ukraine because, when Johnson asked him about it, Trump “angrily denied it.” That doesn’t even make sense, given that Trump himself has, by now, publicly admitted the relevant details of the conversation. Switching positions, changing the subject, and substituting an aggressive tirade for clear answers is the Trump approach, executed on live TV by Johnson. 

Worse, Johnson embodies what Todd called the “Fox News conspiracy” mindset.

Back in 2015, during a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Johnson grilled Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, an M.I.T. physicist, on his knowledge of “electro-magnetic pulse weapons.” This was a true tin-foil-hat internet conspiracy theory. Moniz allowed that he didn’t know anything about the matter, to which Johnson replied the he was “highly concerned” and would forward crucial information, presumably from rightwing blog sites, to the nuclear physicist.

It was not a glorious moment for Wisconsin.

More recently, during the Mueller investigation, Johnson claimed that “an informant” had presented evidence of a “secret society” within the FBI working to overthrow Donald Trump.

When he rolled out the secret society theory on Fox News, the host asked if he knew more. “No,” Johnson responded, “we have to dig into it.”

Isn’t that always the case with conspiracy theories? On Meet the Press, Sen. Johnson said a lot more investigation needs to take place to get to “the truth.”

“Senator, it’s pretty clear we’re only dealing with the facts that we have, not the facts as you wish them to be,” said Todd.

But Johnson doesn’t deal in facts.

For the most part, the senator flies under the radar in Wisconsin. He doesn’t talk to the press much, and is generally recognized for his business background more than his record of extreme partisanship. That record includes blocking Supreme Court nominee Merick Garland as well as an Obama appointment to the federal 7th circuit court of appeals, in what became the longest court vacancy in the nation. On the 7th circuit, Johnson’s obstructionism helped tip the balance in favor of upholding Wisconsin’s strict voter ID law,  to the dismay of plaintiffs, who had successfully argued at the trial court level that the law was a significant obstruction to voting for students and people of color. 

Not just in style, but also in pure destructiveness, Johnson represents the Trump wing of the Republican Party, and that’s bad news for our state and our nation.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.