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Why Ron Johnson is peddling ridiculous Jan. 6 conspiracy theories

Let's not miss the forest for the trees: the problem is not just that Johnson is peddling absurd Jan. 6 conspiracy theories, it's also why he's doing this.
Image: Senate Homeland Security Committee Holds Hearing On Government's Interagency Response To Coronavirus
Chairman Ron Johnson, R-W.I., speaks at the start of a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on the government's response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in Washington on March 5, 2020.Samuel Corum / Getty Images

The Senate yesterday held its first public hearing on the deadly insurrectionist attack on the U.S. Capitol, and as the proceedings came to a close, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) published a notable message online.

"As our hearing concludes," the Minnesota Democrat wrote, "I want to make one thing clear: 'provocateurs' did not storm the Capitol. They were not 'fake Trump protestors.' The mood on January 6th was not 'festive.' That is disinformation."

There was a reason, of course, that Klobuchar felt the need to make such a declaration: one of her far-right colleagues had just used the hearing to promote this precise disinformation. As Vox explained:

One of the Republicans who pushed "the big lie" about the 2020 election — namely, that President Joe Biden's victory was illegitimate — used the first congressional hearing about the violent January 6 attempt to overthrow Donald Trump's loss to amplify a fantastical conspiracy theory aimed at exonerating Trump and his supporters from any responsibility. That senator — Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — used his questioning time during Tuesday's Senate hearing to read excerpts from a January 14 article published by the Federalist that argues "agents-provocateurs" and "fake Trump protesters" were behind the assault on the Capitol, rather than actual Trump supporters, as was the case.

It was almost cartoonish in its inanity. Johnson, the former chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, could've used his time during the hearing to question witnesses and gain valuable information. Instead, the Wisconsin Republican spent much of his allotted time reading from a post published on a far-right blog, as part of a larger effort to argue that the pro-Trump riot shouldn't necessarily be blamed on pro-Trump rioters.

This comes on the heels of Ron Johnson making the case that armed insurrectionists may not have actually been armed, as part of a clumsy effort to downplay the seriousness of the deadly violence, which came on the heels of Johnson trying to redirect blame for the attack onto, of all people, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

In case this isn't obvious, the GOP senator's latest rhetorical efforts are not rooted in reality. Notwithstanding what Johnson may have read on a right-wing blog, Trump supporters carried out the Jan. 6 attack. We know this to be true, not only because of the witnesses who testified yesterday, but also because of the criminal charges brought against those who committed the violence.

As a political matter, Johnson's willful ignorance is counter-intuitive. The incumbent senator is, after all, representing one of the nation's most competitive states, where he'll be up for re-election next year. Common sense suggests he'd want to be seen as a responsible and effective senator, not a ridiculous conspiracy theorist whose hostility toward facts has made him a laughingstock.

Perhaps Johnson doesn't intend to seek a third term, freeing him to do as he pleases, or perhaps he's convinced the key to success is impressing as many far-right voters as possible.

But let's not miss the forest for the trees: Johnson is part of a larger Republican effort to rewrite the history of last month's attack on the U.S. Capitol. The senator clearly sees political value in trying to shift public perceptions away from what actually happened -- events that make Donald Trump and his most violent supporters look monstrous -- and toward an alternate reality that partisans might find more ideologically satisfying.

And as twisted and unhealthy as such tactics are, they appear to be having their intended effect: a Suffolk University/USA Today poll released this week found a majority of Trump voters believe the Jan. 6 riot was "mostly an antifa-inspired attack that only involved a few Trump supporters."

That's bonkers, but it's a problem Ron Johnson appears eager to make worse.