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Ron Johnson’s line on vaccines takes a decidedly weird turn

When someone tells a senator that Covid vaccines lead people to get AIDS, the lawmaker probably shouldn’t respond that the person’s claims “may be true.”


It was about a year ago when The New York Times described Sen. Ron Johnson as “the Republican Party’s foremost amplifier of conspiracy theories and disinformation.” As the Wisconsin senator moved forward with his re-election plans in a competitive state, it was tempting to think he’d temper his more outlandish antics.

Clearly, Johnson has a different political strategy in mind.

As regular readers know, Johnson has spent the past few years becoming a far-right caricature who’s increasingly seen as more of a partisan clown than a serious policymaker. The editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has said he’s “unfit” for office and called him “the most irresponsible representative of Wisconsin citizens since the infamous Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy in the 1950s.”

The scope of his troubles is almost impressive, cultivating a dreadful record on everything from to the Jan. 6 attack to Russian disinformation to the 2020 presidential election.

But I continue to believe Johnson’s most dangerous rhetoric has focused on Covid-19 and vaccines. The Washington Post reported:

[A] video obtained by the site Heartland Signal demonstrates some ways in which Johnson’s outreach differs from other candidates. For one, he participated in a video conference that included attorney Todd Callender, a fervent anti-vaccination commentator who is part of a lawsuit against the Defense Department. For another, Johnson expressed openness to Callender’s idea that maybe the coronavirus vaccines are a conduit for deliberately giving people AIDS.

Callender shared a rather unusual perspective with the senator, including the idea that physicians who’ve promoted Covid vaccines “purposefully gave people AIDS.” (In case this isn’t obvious, let’s note for the record that such a claim has no basis in reality.) All of this, Callender added, should be examined “from a criminal point of view.”

Elected officials, regardless of party or ideology, often hear from voters with unusual ideas, and they tend to have a standard response: Officials thank these folks for their interest and wish them the best before moving on.

That is not, however, what Johnson did in this situation.

The Post’s report quoted the Wisconsin Republican telling the anti-vaccination commentator, “You got to do one step at a time. Everything you say may be true, but right now the public views the vaccines as largely safe and effective, that vaccine injuries are rare and mild. That is the narrative. That’s what the vast majority of the public accepts. So until we get a larger percentage of the population with their eyes open, to: Whoa, these vaccine injuries are real. Why? You’ve got to do step by step.”

I don’t mean to sound picky, but when someone tells a senator that Covid vaccines lead people to get AIDS, the senator probably shouldn’t respond that the person’s claims “may be true.”

It was also a reminder that the senator has apparently decided to forgo a shift-to-the-center-ahead-of-Election-Day strategy.

Just as notable is the larger pattern. Circling back to our earlier coverage, it was late last year, for example, when Johnson tried to argue that breakthrough infections prove there’s no “point” to getting vaccinated.

A few weeks earlier, the Republican suggested that people should use mouthwash as a coronavirus treatment.

Indeed, the senator’s rhetoric has been a mess since the pandemic began. In mid-March 2020, as the scope of the coronavirus crisis was just coming into view, the Wisconsin Republican went further than most in downplaying the importance of mitigation efforts. As part of his case, the senator told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “[W]e don’t shut down our economy because tens of thousands of people die on the highways. It’s a risk we accept so we can move about.” This was a tragically bad argument, for reasons he didn’t seem to fully grasp.

A couple of months later, Johnson was seen on the Senate floor without any facial covering. “I wear a mask when I go into grocery stores, that type of thing,” the GOP senator said. “I think around here, we probably won’t have to.” This, too, was wrong.

In July 2020, Johnson argued that the United States “overreacted“ in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which was unfortunate at the time, and which is a perspective that looks much worse now.

In late 2020, Johnson sank lower, holding multiple Senate hearings to promote pseudo-science and conspiracy theories. Dr. Ashish Jha, dean at Brown University School of Public Health, appeared as a witness at one of the Senate hearings and was amazed by the Wisconsin senator’s apparent suspicion that there’s a “coordinated effort by America’s doctors” to deny patients hydroxychloroquine because of a corrupt scheme involving physicians and the pharmaceutical industry.

In 2021, as vaccines and boosters became available to the public at large, Johnson — who claims he is not an opponent of vaccines — has gone to great lengths to discourage Americans from doing the smart thing, desperately trying to undermine public confidence in the vaccines.

Stepping back, it’s a problem that a prominent public official — who actually led the Senate committee responsible for domestic security policy for six long years — keeps pushing false information about public health during a deadly pandemic. But the bigger problem is that many Americans won’t necessarily know that Johnson has no idea what he’s talking about.