The Heir to Joe McCarthy: Wisconsin's Ron Johnson is following in the footsteps of the disgraced former Senator.

AuthorNichols, John

Years later, as a child hanging out in the Racine County courthouse, where my dad worked, I heard stories from aging judges and lawyers who recalled signing "Joe Must Go" petitions. And as a young political reporter collecting stories of veterans of the fight against "Tailgunner Joe," like former Senator Gaylord Nelson and journalist John Patrick Hunter, I recognized how those fights defined their politics.

The Wisconsinites who battled McCarthy took seriously the damage the Senator had done. They taught me to avoid fickle comparisons between contemporary politicians and the Republican whose conspiracy theories destabilized the nation.

So, trust me, I am not going to casually suggest that Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson is the Joe McCarthy of our time. I am going to say it flat out. Johnson is a reactionary, a demagogue, and a conspiracist who is every bit as dangerous as the man whose lies and innuendos left a legacy of ruined lives and cutthroat politics that still haunts the United States.

Over the past year, as the modern Republican Party has veered further off the rails than it ever did in McCarthys day, Johnson has emerged as the most delusional defender of former President Donald Trumps lies about nonexistent voter fraud. He has championed "false flag" theories about the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by QAnon mobs. And he has amplified the quackery and denial in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

A regular on rightwing talk radio and with increasing frequency on cable television, Johnson feeds the fever dreams of the insurrectionists with a frenzied passion that exceeds that of Donald Trump and the Senate's "Sedition Caucus," led by Texan Ted Cruz and Missourian Josh Hawley.

Johnson has gone to such extremes that Republican U.S. Representative Adam Kinzinger, a conservative who has started calling out his party's worst excesses, says of the Wisconsinite: "It's disgraceful for a sitting Senator to spread disinformation so blatantly. It's a disservice to the people he serves to continue lying to them like this. It's dangerous, and it must stop."

But Johnson won't stop. Like McCarthy before him, this Senator from Wisconsin has become addicted to the limelight, and he knows that he will only remain a Republican "star" if he keeps peddling the "Big Lies" that the party's Trump-addled base wants to hear.

"He didn't really have a brand, except for being a businessman who went into politics," Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, a Democrat who has been among Johnson's most outspoken critics, tells The Progressive. "But, now, his brand seems to be all these conspiracies."

Johnson turned the crazy up to full volume during the first public Senate hearing on the January 6 attack that left five people dead. He read into the record a rightwing treatise that suggested the violence of the day was caused not by "jovial" Trump backers but by "agent provocateurs" and "fake Trump protesters." He said the violent rioting on January 6--when protesters brandished guns, clubs, bear spray, and other weapons--"didn't seem like an armed insurrection to me." He later opined that he was not afraid of the mob that stormed the Capitol, injuring 140 police officers and killing one, because its members "were people who love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law." Johnson said he would have been "concerned," however, if it had been a crowd of...

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