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Yelling "cancel culture" won't erase Sen. Ron Johnson's racist comments

For someone being silenced, we sure are hearing a lot from Ron Johnson.
Image: Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) at Senate committee hearing in Washington.
What happened to you, Ron?Toni Sandys / Reuters

Ron Johnson wants you to know that he is a victim.

The cancel culture and left-wing media are trying to silence him, he said this week in a series of appearances on national television, in talk radio interviews and on the floor of the U.S. Senate. He also said so in multiple newspaper interviews and in an op-ed piece in one of the nation's most-read newspapers, The Wall Street Journal, where he boldly declared: "I Won't Be Silenced by the Left."

The latest attempt to silence him, he says, is the criticism that he has received for his racist comments about the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

In a radio interview this week, the senior senator from Wisconsin described some of the very fine people who rallied on Jan. 6 as "people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law." So, he told host Joe Pags, he wasn't worried when they converged on the Capitol to block the counting of electoral votes.

"Now, had the tables been turned — now, Joe, this will get me in trouble — had the tables been turned and President Trump won the election and those were tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and antifa protesters, I might have been a little concerned," Johnson said.

This was, he now insists, absolutely, positively not racist. "I completely did not anticipate that anybody could interpret what I said as racist," Johnson said on a local talk radio show. "It's not. This is about rioters."

Striking a Trumpian note, he complained that reporters "are willing to lie, twist, distort, omit, censor and cancel anything or anyone with an opposing view."

But Johnson's real problem isn't that he has been censored. In fact, as noted, Johnson is a ubiquitous presence on national television, and the voluble senator's words have been reported at great length.

Indeed, his penchant for conspiracy theories has become so pronounced that it has earned him the sobriquet RonAnon, a fitting nickname for a senator who has trafficking in everything from Obamagate to Hunter Biden's laptop to lies about fraud in the election and vaccine skepticism.

A quick confession: I go way back with Johnson, so his evolution from maverick legislator to performative crank has been difficult to watch.

Johnson's problem isn't that he's being shut down — it's that he won't shut up.

Until Republicans lost control of the Senate, he was the chairman of its Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, a position that gave him oversight over pretty much anything he wanted to focus on. Instead, he chose to obsess over a bizarre stew of Trumpist delusions.

In 2018, he charged that an informant had told his committee that a "secret society" was set up within the FBI and the Justice Department shortly after Donald Trump was elected president. Johnson claimed that it constituted "corruption at the highest levels of the FBI." (He later backed off the claim.)

While denouncing what he called the "Russian collusion hoax," he demanded the declassification of a memo from former national security adviser Susan Rice that Trump World imagined was at the center of "Obamagate." (It turned out to be a dud.)

Throughout 2020, he also downplayed the dangers of Covid-19. "Right now," he said in March, "all people are hearing about are the deaths. I'm sure the deaths are horrific, but the flip side of this is the vast majority of people who get coronavirus do survive."

In August, as the death toll passed 157,000, Johnson said the pandemic isn't "that much worse" than the flu and accused the media of peddling what he called "panic porn."

As the death toll mounted, Johnson turned his committee into a platform for vaccine skeptics and boosters of unproven drugs, including hydroxychloroquine. This week he announced that he wouldn't take any vaccine, because he had already had the virus and was therefore immune, a position at odds with sound medical advice.

For much of 2020, Johnson obsessed over Hunter Biden's laptop and the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. Even though Just Security reported that his "investigations involving Ukraine have become a conduit of Russian disinformation," Johnson pushed ahead with issuing subpoenas in the midst of the presidential campaign.

After the election, Johnson played a central role in advancing disinformation about the outcome. "There was fraud in this election," Johnson claimed without evidence. "I don't have any doubt about that." This included "fraudulent votes and ballot stuffing" and "corruption of voting machines and software." All of the allegations were debunked.

After the attack on Jan. 6, Johnson embarked a convoluted and often confusing attempt to rewrite the history of the event. He questioned whether insurrectionists were armed (they were), and at one point he seemed to blame House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for the attack. When the House moved forward with impeachment, Johnson asked: "Is this another diversionary operation? Is this meant to deflect away from potentially what the speaker knew and when she knew it?" He said, "I don't know, but I'm suspicious."

At a recent Senate hearing, Johnson used his time to read an article from the far-right Federalist website suggesting that the attack on the Capitol was executed by left-wing provocateurs rather than Trump supporters (a claim he later abandoned).

A few weeks later, he forced Senate staffers to read aloud the entire 700-page Covid-19 relief bill to an empty Senate chamber, a gesture notable for its tedium and pointlessness.

And then this week he contrasted the white Trump supporters (not scary) with Black Lives Matter protesters (very scary).

At no point was Johnson silenced, canceled or deprived of forums to make his case. To the contrary, he was given every opportunity to expose himself — which he did with great abandon. Despite his complaints, he never seems to pass up a chance to get in front of a camera. And he never misses a chance to keep digging a deeper hole for himself.

The media will not censor him, nor will his critics silence him. But there may be other consequences.

If he does go ahead and run for re-election next year, the voters in my home state of Wisconsin get to decide whether to cancel RonAnon's third term. I suspect they will.