BROOKFIELD, Wis. — Senator Ron Johnson incited widespread outrage when he mentioned lately that he would have been extra afraid of the rioters who rampaged the Capitol on Jan. 6 had they been members of Black Lives Matter and antifa.
But his revealing and incendiary remark, which rapidly prompted accusations of racism, got here as no shock to those that have adopted Mr. Johnson’s profession in Washington or again dwelling in Wisconsin. He has change into the Republican Party’s foremost amplifier of conspiracy theories and disinformation now that Donald Trump himself is banned from social media and largely avoiding appearances on cable tv.
Mr. Johnson is an all-access purveyor of misinformation on severe points such because the pandemic and the legitimacy of American democracy, in addition to invoking the etymology of Greenland as a technique to downplay the consequences of local weather change.
In current months, Mr. Johnson has sown doubts about President Biden’s victory, argued that the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol was not an armed revolt, promoted discredited Covid-19 therapies, said he saw no need to get the coronavirus vaccine himself and claimed that the United States could have ended the pandemic a yr in the past with the event of a generic drug if the federal government had needed that to occur.
Last yr, he spent months as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee searching for proof that Mr. Biden had tried to stress Ukrainian officers to help his son Hunter, which an Intelligence Community report released on Monday mentioned was misinformation that was unfold by Russia to assist Mr. Trump’s re-election.
Mr. Johnson has additionally change into the main Republican proponent of a revisionist effort to disclaim the motives and violence of the mob that breached the Capitol. At a Senate listening to to look at the occasions of that day, Mr. Johnson learn into the file an account from a far-right web site attributing the violence to “agents-provocateurs” and “fake Trump protesters.” On Saturday, he told a conference of conservative political organizers in Wisconsin that “there was no violence on the Senate side, in terms of the chamber.” In reality, Trump supporters stormed the chamber shortly after senators had been evacuated.
His persevering with assault on the reality, usually below the guise of merely “asking questions” about established information, helps to decrease confidence in American establishments at a deadly second, when the well being and financial well-being of the nation depends closely on mass vaccinations, and when religion in democracy is shaken by right-wing falsehoods about voting.
Republicans are 27 share factors much less doubtless than Democrats to say they plan to get, or have already obtained, a vaccine, a Pew Research Center study released this month discovered. In an interview, Mr. Johnson repeatedly refused to say that vaccines had been secure or to encourage individuals to get them, resorting as a substitute to insinuations — “there’s still so much we don’t know about all of this” — that undermine efforts to defeat the pandemic.
The drumbeat of distortions, false theories and lies reminds some Wisconsin Republicans of a determine from the state’s previous who additionally not often let information get in the way in which of his agenda: Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose witch hunt for communists in and out of presidency in the Nineteen Fifties ruined lives and bitterly divided the nation.
“Wisconsin voters love mavericks, they really love mavericks — you go way back to Joe McCarthy,” mentioned Jim Sensenbrenner, a long-serving Republican congressman from the Milwaukee suburbs who retired in January. “They do love people who rattle the cage an awful lot and bring up topics that maybe people don’t want to talk about.”
For Democrats, who’ve by no means forgotten Mr. Johnson’s defeat of the liberal darling Russ Feingold in 2010, and once more in a 2016 rematch, regaining the Senate seat in 2022 is a high precedence. Though he has but to announce whether or not he can be searching for a 3rd time period, Mr. Johnson lately mentioned that the fury that Democrats had directed his means had made him wish to keep in the struggle. Still, he has raised just $590,000 in the past two years — a paltry sum for an incumbent senator.
Mr. Johnson’s most up-to-date provocation got here on March 12, when he contrasted Black Lives Matter protesters to the Trump supporters “who love this country” and stormed the Capitol, the carnage ensuing in 140 injured law enforcement officials and greater than 300 arrests by federal authorities. During an interview with a right-wing radio host, Joe Pagliarulo, Mr. Johnson mentioned: “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.”
Research on the protests in opposition to racial injustice over the summer time confirmed that they were largely nonviolent.
In the interview with The Times, Mr. Johnson rejected comparisons to McCarthy. And he insisted he had no racist intent in making his argument.
“I didn’t feel threatened,” he mentioned. “So it’s a true statement. And then people said, ‘Well, why?’ Well, because I’ve been to a lot of Trump rallies. I spend three hours with thousands of Trump supporters. And I think I know them pretty well. I don’t know any Trump supporter who would have done what the rioters did.”
On Sunday, Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, denounced Mr. Johnson’s distortion of the occasions of Jan. 6. “We don’t need to try and explain away or come up with alternative versions,” he mentioned on the NBC program “Meet the Press.” “We all saw what happened.”
Mr. Johnson, in the Times interview, additionally faulted the federal authorities for what he known as its “tunnel vision” pursuit of a Covid-19 vaccine whereas no more deeply finding out therapies comparable to hydroxychloroquine — the anti-malarial drug promoted by Mr. Trump that the Food and Drug Administration says isn’t efficient in opposition to the virus. That technique, he mentioned, price “tens of thousands of lives.”
Conspiracy theories and a defiant disregard of information had been a fringe however rising ingredient of the Republican Party when Mr. Johnson entered politics in 2010 — notably in the vice-presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin two years earlier. But below Mr. Trump, the perimeter grew to become the mainstream. Fact-free assertions by the president, from the scale of his inaugural crowd in 2017 to the “big lie” of a stolen election in 2020, required Republican officers to fall in line along with his gaslighting or lose the help of the celebration’s base voters.
Mr. Johnson proved himself remarkably adept at adopting the misinformation that more and more animated Fox News commentators and right-wing discuss radio.
“Through the years, as the party has morphed into a muscular ignorance, Q-Anon sect, he’s followed along with them,” mentioned Christian Schneider, a former Republican political operative in Wisconsin who embedded with the Johnson marketing campaign in 2010 to put in writing a glowing account for a local conservative magazine. “Now, he’s a perfect example of that type of politics.”
Mr. Johnson was the chief government of a plastics company started by his wife’s family when he first ran for the Senate in 2010. He campaigned as a new-to-politics businessman involved about federal spending and debt, and he spent $9 million of his own money on the race.
But there have been indicators in that first marketing campaign of Mr. Johnson’s predilection for anti-intellectualism. On a number of events, he declared that local weather change was not man-made but instead caused by “sun spots” and mentioned extra carbon dioxide in the environment “helps the trees grow.” He additionally supplied a false historical past of Greenland to dismiss the consequences of world warming.
“You know, there’s a reason Greenland was called Greenland,” Mr. Johnson told WKOW-TV in Madison again then. “It was actually green at one point in time. And it’s been, you know, since, it’s a whole lot whiter now so we’ve experienced climate change throughout geologic time.”
In the interview on Thursday, Mr. Johnson was nonetheless misinformed concerning the etymology of Greenland, which acquired its identify from the explorer Erik the Red’s attempt to lure settlers to the ice-covered island.
“I could be wrong there, but that’s always been my assumption that, at some point in time, those early explorers saw green,” Mr. Johnson mentioned. “I have no idea.”
Just as Mr. Trump would later use Fox News to construct a nationwide political persona, Mr. Johnson did so on Wisconsin’s broad community of conservative talk-radio reveals. His political rise wouldn’t have been attainable with out help from Charlie Sykes, then an influential radio host in Milwaukee who as soon as learn a whole 20-minute speech by Mr. Johnson on the air.
Mr. Sykes, who since 2016 has been a harsh critic of Trump-era Republicans, mentioned final week of Mr. Johnson: “I don’t know how he went from being a chamber of commerce guy to somebody who sounds like he reads the Gateway Pundit every day. He’s turned into Joe McCarthy.”
This month alone, Mr. Johnson has made no less than 15 appearances on 11 totally different radio reveals.
On Tuesday he appeared with Vicki McKenna, whose right-wing present is fashionable with Wisconsin conservatives. She started by attacking public-health steering on sporting a masks and sustaining social distance, arguing it’s a Democratic plot to regulate Americans. Mr. Johnson agreed with Ms. McKenna and her evaluation that public-health consultants in the federal authorities are deceptive the nation after they promote the coronavirus vaccine.
“We’ve closed our minds to all of these other potentially useful and cheap therapies all on the holy grail of a vaccine,” he mentioned. Dr. Fauci, he added, is “not a god.”
In the interview, the senator mentioned it was not his duty to to make use of his public prominence to encourage Americans to get vaccinated.
“I don’t have all the information to say, ‘Do this,’” Mr. Johnson mentioned.
His false theories concerning the virus and the vaccine are harking back to different misinformation that Mr. Johnson has amplified. During a 2014 look on Newsmax TV, he warned of Islamic State militants infecting themselves with the Ebola virus after which touring to the United States. In 2015, he introduced legislation directing the federal government to guard itself in opposition to the specter of an electromagnetic pulse, a conspiracy principle that has lengthy lived on the far proper of American politics.
Last yr’s monthslong investigation by Mr. Johnson’s Homeland Security committee into the Bidens and Ukraine concluded with the G.O.P. majority report discovering no wrongdoing by the previous vp. An Intelligence Community assessment declassified and launched on Monday concluded that Russia had unfold misinformation about Hunter Biden to break his father’s marketing campaign and to assist Mr. Trump win re-election.
Mr. Johnson, who was not named in the evaluation, was adamant that his work was indirectly, or unwittingly, influenced by Russians.
“Read the report — show me where there’s any Russian disinformation,” he mentioned. “Anybody who thinks I spread disinformation is uninformed because I haven’t.”
For weeks after the November election, Mr. Johnson refused to acknowledge Mr. Biden because the winner whereas echoing Mr. Trump’s false statements about rampant fraud. He convened his committee in December to air baseless claims of fraud and mishandling of ballots, at the same time as dozens of claims of fraud made by the Trump marketing campaign had been being tossed out of courts throughout the nation.
In a cascade of interviews with pleasant conservative retailers, Mr. Johnson has recently portrayed himself as a sufferer of “the radical left” that’s waging a scorched-earth marketing campaign to flip his Senate seat.
“The best way to maintain power is to destroy your political opposition, and they’re targeting me,” he told the Oshkosh radio host Bob Burnell on Tuesday. “This is obviously a vulnerable Senate seat in a swing state so they think I’d probably be the target No. 1. And I am target No. 1.”
Mr. Johnson’s defenders say he’s preventing the liberal media’s makes an attempt to silence him.
“I see the same thing happening with Senator Johnson that the media did with Donald Trump,” mentioned Gerard Randall, the chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin’s African-American Advisory Council. “I know Senator Johnson personally, and I know that he is not a racist.”
If Mr. Johnson seeks a 3rd time period, the race is more likely to be determined in the Milwaukee suburbs, which used to ship Republican landslides however have moved away from the celebration because the Trump period.
The metropolis of Brookfield, for instance, backed Mr. Trump by a margin of simply 9 share factors in November, after voting for him by 20 factors in 2016 and President George W. Bush by 39 factors in 2004.
“There was a lot of eye-rolling” about Mr. Johnson’s current feedback concerning the Capitol siege, mentioned Scott Berg, a conservative who has served as a Brookfield metropolis alderman for 20 years. “If I were in the leadership of the Wisconsin Republican Party, I’d be out shopping for candidates” for the Senate in 2022, he added.
Still, in 2016, Mr. Johnson ran 10 share factors forward of Mr. Trump in Brookfield. Voters there urged the suburb won’t be drifting from Republicans as quick as some Democrats had hoped.
“I’m a Johnson supporter — I voted for him twice — but I think he’s going down a rabbit hole I don’t want any part of,” mentioned John Raschig, a retiree who was leaving a Pick ‘n Save grocery store. “It’s sort of like Trump: I’d vote for him because the other side’s awful, but I’d prefer somebody else.”
Trip Gabriel reported from Wisconsin, and Reid J. Epstein from Washington, D.C. Giovanni Russonello contributed reporting.