Ron Johnson was determined to make a point. It was absolutely impossible, he insinuated to a friendly audience on July 31, that the FBI “didn’t know squat” in advance about the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, implying that the agency was complicit in staging the insurrection.
He was caught on videotape making this fabricated-out-of-thin-air charge.
Zero-evidence claims are nothing new for Sen. Johnson. He has promoted a host of them in the last two years alone, providing deadly misinformation about how COVID-19 is spread, endorsing unproven treatments for the virus, and supporting the Big Lie that we cannot trust the results of the 2020 election, which in fact yielded a more than 7 million vote margin for Joe Biden over then-president Donald Trump.
Johnson entered the U.S. Senate in 2011 lacking a single day of public service. He explained his vault into high office this way: “I sprang from the Tea Party, and have great respect for what it represents.”
Johnson launched his first senatorial campaign in April 2010 at a Madison Tea Party rally where he denounced “mainstream media,” instructing those attending to get their news instead from right-wing radio talk show hosts.
In January 2017, Johnson began his second term, concurrent with the start of Donald Trump’s presidency. Johnson has echoed many of Trump’s 30,573 documented false or misleading statements made as president.
The most dangerous of the Trump-Johnson techniques is the use of the Big Lie, where the scope of the allegation is so large one cannot begin to logically refute it. Its use in American politics goes back more than 70 years, initiated in 1950 by Wisconsin’s Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
McCarthy’s war on truth, like Johnson’s, began with a speech. Addressing an audience in February 1950 in Wheeling, West Virginia, he denounced the State Department, alleging, without evidence, that a massive number of its employees were taking “treacherous actions” to promote communism.
McCarthy’s speech was placed into the Congressional Record. For the next four years, his conspiracy theory-laced press conferences and public statements dominated the political landscape. The U.S. House held witch hunt hearings on “un-American activities” and brought to an end the careers of an untold number of loyal Americans, whom McCarthyism succeeded in painting as traitors.
Explaining McCarthy’s rise to national power and infamy, McCarthy biographer Richard Rovere declares that “from time to time, some of us become frightened by vague and shadowy menaces, haunted by the fear that somewhere a hidden group of evil men is pulling strings that will decide our destiny.”
Ron Johnson’s McCarthyesque conspiracy theories involve a humongous number of players. Over the course of his horrific time in office, Johnson has stated or implied that all of the following are conspiring and concealing acts of dishonesty and treachery: “the mainstream media,” the FBI, the CIA, the CDC, internet platforms that reject his dishonest postings, environmental scientists worldwide, Big Pharma, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden and his son Hunter and, of course, Hillary Clinton.
Joe McCarthy was stopped when he tangled with the U.S. Army, a fatal misstep that pitted him against an institution with enormous popularity among Americans in the years following World War II. How will Johnson be stopped?
Political psychologist Aleksandra Cichocka argues that conspiracy theory spreads can be prevented and points to the leadership of New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who tackled COVID-19 by stressing solidarity and transparent decision making, and offering people a sense of purpose. Despite an increase in distress during lockdown, data indicates that New Zealanders showed no increase in conspiracy thinking and put more trust in science.
Political messaging to prevent an increase in adherents to the Trump-Johnson cult of personality must focus on how America’s institutions, and its Democratic officeholders, are rallying America to Build Back Better.
Ron Johnson, like Joe McCarthy and all other fabricators, will inevitably fall. Positive messaging that builds trust and social cohesion could make that happen in November of 2022.
Ron Malzer is a member of the La Crosse County Democratic Board.