Sen. Ron Johnson may be the single greatest purveyor of Trumpian disinformation in the U.S. Senate. As such, defeating the Wisconsin Republican in 2022 is already a highly pressing matter. But Johnson just offered a new defense of the former president’s incitement of the Capitol riot that makes ousting him even more imperative.
Johnson’s defeat wouldn’t just choke off some of the most toxic disinformation currently poisoning our politics. It would also show that a certain style of deranged fictionalizing about Democrats and the left — a style that Donald Trump amped up to 11 — is seeing its appeal shrink. That could constitute a step toward GOP deradicalization.
Johnson, who hasn’t said whether he’ll run for reelection, recently ignited a huge blow-up by suggesting he “never felt threatened” by the rioters, because they were “people that love this country.” Instead, he said, if they had been “tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and Antifa protesters, I might have been a little concerned.”
Now Johnson has tried to clean that up in a new interview with the New York Times. Johnson noted that he’s attended “a lot of Trump rallies” where he’s spent time with “thousands of Trump supporters.”
“I think I know them pretty well,” Johnson continued. “I don’t know any Trump supporter who would have done what the rioters did.”
This slippery rhetoric — Johnson personally doesn’t know any Trump supporter who would have stormed the Capitol — advances an actual claim. It’s that those who committed the violence — which resulted in several deaths and numerous injuries — couldn’t possibly have been functioning as real Trump supporters and couldn’t have been genuinely incited by Trump himself.
This is nonsense from top to bottom. A Post examination found that more than two dozen people charged in the attack specifically cited Trump and/or his call to arms — which he delivered amid weeks of falsely claiming the election had been stolen from him — as a key reason they massed outside the Capitol.
Some rioters have explicitly said they were operating on what they understood to be Trump’s direct orders. Many pictures and videos of rioters show Trump paraphernalia everywhere. One man arrested in the killing of police officer Brian Sicknick was photographed in a Trump cap.
Meanwhile, Johnson has also been defending himself by claiming Black Lives Matter and Antifa caused extensive deaths and property damage during last year’s protests. But as Glenn Kessler shows, Johnson has tortured the facts beyond recognition, baselessly attributing all deaths and damage to those groups and by distorting the data itself.
All of which gets to a larger point about the need to oust Johnson.
In this new media tour, Johnson has become a leading purveyor of two big stories. The first is the endless hyping of Black Lives Matter and Antifa into an organized and terrifyingly monolithic internal terror threat. The second is the claim that Trump never actually incited political violence or any effort to subvert U.S. democracy with intimidation and force.
Both are central to the Trumpist mythology and its hold over large swaths of the GOP.
It’s important to fully appreciate what the first really amounted to. Trump set the tone in 2020 with two big July 4th speeches declaring full scale war on that fictional internal enemy by dubbing it a “new far-left fascism.” Trump’s top law enforcement officials then used their official positions to validate this manufactured reelection agitprob.
Republicans have of course spent decades tarring mainstream liberals and Democrats as captive to a mythologized all-powerful radical left. But under Trump’s influence, this has gotten even more poisonous and has assumed central importance in many races, such as the Georgia Senate runoffs.
Then, after the assault on the Capitol, Trump’s propagandists pushed the entirely baseless claim that Antifa was really responsible for the violence, to sanitize away Trump’s role in all of it. All this comes together in Johnson’s mythologizing.
Indeed, as the Times piece on Johnson details, he has taken the lead in promoting a broader “revisionist effort” about the attack, downplaying violence and hinting that a false-flag operation sought to smear Trump supporters. On other fronts, he has cast doubt on vaccines and spread nonsense about Biden’s son Hunter that has been unmasked as Russian disinformation.
What would a deradicalized GOP look like? One step might be for leading Republicans to just stop telling all these ridiculous lies already. There is no organized violent leftist terror threat tipping the country into civil collapse. In reality, a broad, mainstream Democratic center-left alliance is working hard to solve extremely pressing national crises while Republicans exit the conversation entirely.
Meanwhile, Republicans need to stop obscuring the fundamental truth about the Capitol riots, which is that Trump just did incite an effort to violently overthrow U.S. democracy, after trying to subvert the election through illicit means in order to remain in power illegitimately.
All these tendencies need to be thoroughly repudiated. Defeating Ron Johnson might help start us down a path toward doing that.
Greg Sargent writes The Washington Post’s The Plum Line blog.