Ron Johnson meant what he said, but now he doesn’t

June 4, 2021 6:30 am
Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin

Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin February 15, 2012 | Washington, D.C. Official Oversight and Government Reform photograph

It’s head-spinning to listen to Sen. Ron Johnson.

In a panel with state news media sponsored by the Milwaukee Press Club, the two-term Republican senator from Oshkosh took multiple, sometimes contradictory, positions on a host of issues. 

The most newsworthy had to do with whether he will run for re-election as the biggest ally of former President Donald Trump in the U.S. Senate. 

Johnson said he hasn’t yet made a decision about whether he will run for a third term in 2022. Reminded of his pledge not to seek another term by Craig Gilbert, Washington bureau chief for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Johnson said, “When I made that pledge I meant that pledge.” Unfortunately, times have changed. Now he doesn’t mean it anymore.

“I wish circumstances were as they were,” back when he ran on term limits, Johnson elaborated. “I wish we were on a more sustainable path here, both fiscally as well as culturally, but that’s not the case.”

“I ran in 2010 because I was panicked for this nation,” Johnson declared. “I’m more panicked today.”

President Joe Biden’s “incredibly divisive” leadership is taking the country down the wrong path, according to Johnson, who raised $545,000 in the first three months of this year and whose campaign has $1 million in cash on hand. Still, he figures he has “plenty of time” to make up his mind about the race and would not answer questions about which way he was leaning. (For now, both his aggressive fundraising and his political posturing point to “yes.”) 

“Biden is dividing this nation, same as Obama,” Johnson said (as if Donald Trump were, by contrast, a uniter and a healer).

As for divisions within the Republican Party, and the defection of suburban voters who were alienated by Trump, Johnson positioned himself squarely on the side of Trump and the “forgotten men and women of America” in rural areas.

One key question is whether the “forgotten men and women” can carry Wisconsin. As Gilbert pointed out, Johnson has relied on the support of the same suburban voters who did not turn out for Trump in 2020. Johnson pooh-poohed that existential dilemma for his party. “He energized and got a lot more votes than I ever got,” he said of Trump.

Asked about former House Speaker Paul Ryan’s speech on the crisis for conservatives after Trump, and particularly Ryan’s harsh words for the “yes men and flatterers flocking to Mar-a-Lago,” Johnson said Ryan is “misdiagnosing the situation.”

“I’m a Tea Partier more than a Republican,” Johnson added. If it comes down to a choice between the GOP and Trump, it’s clear where he stands.

 “Trump energized a whole different base of support,” Johnson said. He described that base as “God-fearing, country-loving, law-enforcement-supporting individuals.”

He doubled down on his statement that he wasn’t concerned about the pro-Trump protesters who believed the election was stolen and stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. The attack on the Capitol was exaggerated by the media, Johnson claimed, defending his vote not to allow a bipartisan commission to investigate the attack. He acknowledged meeting with the mother of deceased Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, but said there was no need for the commission she asked him to support to investigate her son’s death. He called for a review of security protocols at the Capitol rather than an investigation of the root causes of the violent insurrection.

Johnson recited Republican culture war talking points, saying voters are concerned about “what liberal radicals are teaching our children in our schools. Echoing state Republicans who held a press conference on Thursday, he also denounced the teaching of “critical race theory.” 

Biden’s speech commemorating the 100th anniversary of the infamous massacre of Black citizens in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was “awful,” he said. He summed up  Biden’s comments as, “things haven’t changed; we’re still the same hate-filled systemically racist nation.”

Likewise, he blamed the left and the media for exacerbating the partisan divide. Among the factors that led to the Capitol insurrection, in Johnson’s estimation, were Black Lives Matter protests during the summer and the impeachment of Donald Trump, all of which stoked Trump voters’ anger.

On the election itself, Johnson insisted that he has always recognized that Biden was legitimately elected president of the United States. But in the next breath he called for a full investigation of election “irregularities” which he termed an “unsustainable state of affairs,” praising efforts to stamp out voter fraud through restrictive voting measures proposed by Republicans in Wisconsin and claiming that we don’t yet know how much fraud there was.

Some of Johnson’s most headline-generating statements to date have to do with COVID-19, including his early insistence that preventing deaths from the pandemic was not worth the economic cost of keeping people home and his promotion of dubious alternative remedies. In his session with reporters, he continued to sow confusion and promote disinformation.

Masks, he said, are “not particularly effective” to stop the spread of COVID-19. He claimed that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top medical expert on infectious disease, didn’t believe in masks, either: “He didn’t think masks would work for a virus because particles are way too small,” Johnson explained. “Masks stop the spread of flu and colds,” he added, but not COVID-19 (never mind that flu, the common cold and COVID-19 are all caused by viruses, or that Fauci has said that as scientific understanding of COVID-19 evolved, he became convinced that wearing masks prevents the spread of the disease.)

Johnson also lamented that the public has been denied the benefits of early treatments including hydroxychloroquine (which has proven ineffective against COVID). Worldwide studies of alternative COVID treatments are “still being suppressed,” and people are “justifiably” questioning Fauci’s integrity for rejecting hydroxychloroquine, he added.

On the topic of vaccination, Johnson described himself as “a big supporter of Operation Warp Speed,” calling the Trump Administration’s push to develop a COVID vaccine “brilliant.” But he warned against “indiscriminate mass vaccination,” and suggested that vaccines are linked to thousands of uncounted deaths.

All of these comments are likely to generate new headlines. But Johnson’s most outrageous positions are the ones he has taken against the people of Wisconsin — those “forgotten men and women” he is supposed to represent.

They include: 

  • His vote on March 6 against $1,400 stimulus checks and the American Relief Plan Act, denying Wisconsinites and the state’s businesses much-needed pandemic relief. Johnson didn’t just vote against the bill, he tried to obstruct its passage by requiring Senate clerks to read all 600 pages on the floor, pushing back the vote by several hours.
  • His vote on March 18 as one of only a handful of senators to oppose the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which included free coronavirus testing, expanded family and medical leave, paid emergency sick leave, unemployment benefits, food assistance and protections for health care workers. It passed the Senate 90-8. Johnson was one of the eight.
  • Before that, in December 2017, Johnson was the deciding vote on the 2017 Trump Tax Bill — a $1.4 trillion handout for the wealthiest Americans and big corporations. Johnson lobbied for, and got changes to the bill that helped his own business.
  • Throughout his Senate career, Johnson repeatedly voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which would strip health care coverage from hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites who get coverage through the marketplace and jeopardize another 1.2 million Wisconsinites with pre-existing conditions. 


Johnson has run on his image as a hard-nosed businessman, but his grasp of economics is no more encouraging than his weird beliefs about science. He opposes the Biden administration’s expansive plan to rebuild American  infrastructure, calling it “trillions of dollars we don’t have,” and instead proposes austerity — no increase in infrastructure spending and balanced-budget requirements that would make recovering from the pandemic nearly impossible and would push the country toward a depression.

He remains a staunch opponent of federal extensions of unemployment insurance. “When you extend unemployment benefits, you extend unemployment,” opined the millionaire executive who works for his wife’s family business.

If Wisconsin voters are listening, Johnson may soon be unemployed himself.

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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. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.