The New York Times noted last March that Republican Sen. Ron Johnson "has become the Republican Party's foremost amplifier of conspiracy theories and disinformation now that Donald Trump himself is banned from social media." The Wisconsin senator has spent an inordinate amount of time proving the assertion true.
And while Johnson has peddled nonsense about a great many subjects — Russian disinformation, the Jan. 6 attack, the 2020 presidential election, et al. — his most dangerous rhetoric has focused on Covid-19 and vaccines.
Take this week, for example, when the GOP senator — who's up for re-election this fall — appeared on a radio program to discuss his ideas about the pandemic in more detail.
Johnson began by noting that he was infected, but didn't have symptoms. "How do you explain that?" he asked, as if this were evidence of an important larger point. Of course, explaining this is pretty simple: Some people have asymptomatic infections. One need not be an epidemiologist to understand such a simple concept.
But as HuffPost noted, the confused lawmaker didn't end there.
During a familiar rant Monday on a conservative radio show about the merits of relying on the body's "natural immunity" to COVID-19 after being infected with the virus, the senator asked, "Why do we assume that the body's natural immune system isn't the marvel that it is? Why do we think that we can create something better than God in terms of combating disease?"
Let's unpack this a bit, because I think it's important.
First, when Johnson talks about "natural immunity," he's describing an approach to a public health crisis in which people get infected with a dangerous contagion and then develop immunity to the virus as a result of the infection. Part of the problem with this is that many people who get infected with the coronavirus die. That should be a strong incentive to avoid such a health care strategy.
Another part of the problem is that there's a safer solution: There are safe, effective, and free vaccines readily available. Instead of protecting yourself from Covid-19 by getting infected with Covid-19 — in the process, running the risk of serious illness or death — you can get vaccinated. Again, this really isn't that complicated.
Which leads to the second problem: As far as Johnson is concerned, the human body's immune system is such a natural "marvel" that it's foolish to believe scientists can "create something better than God in terms of combating disease."
Of course, this isn't just an argument against vaccines, it's also an argument against any medical treatments for any diseases.
Making matters worse is the degree to which these bizarre public comments are the latest installment in the strange senator's greatest-hits package. It was just last week 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.
Circling back to our earlier coverage, 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 sunk 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.