Ron Johnson's Very Fine People

Plus: Vaccine denialism

During his epic takedown of Tucker Carlson this week, John Oliver played a soundbite from the Fox News host.

“Maybe I don’t want to live in a country that looks nothing like the one I grew up in,” Carlson says. “Is that bigoted?” 

Oliver’s response:

Uh, yeah. Yeah, it is. That’s like saying I’ve got 10 fingers and toes, a pointy face with a little pink rosebud mouth, a cat-sized body, a long, weird tail and I eat garbage. Does that make me a possum? Yes. Yes it does. That’s the literal definition of the thing you just described.

But this goes to the heart of Tucker’s message to his listeners: the bigoted thing you have just said is not bigoted and it is outrageous to suggest that it is. Tucker provides a built-in denial and defense: any attempt to point out obvious racism is an attempt to silence or cancel.

By now the pattern has become familiar. This is how the Tucker-esque drill works:

  1. Say racist thing.

  2. Deny it is racist at all.

  3. Claim victim status.

  4. Fund raise off claims of cancel culture.

  5. Repeat.

So, this morning, the readers of the Wall Street Journal are treated to this op-ed from Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson: “I Won’t Be Silenced by the Left.”

Johnson insists that he was absolutely, positively not being racist when he contrasted patriotic, flag-waving white insurrectionists (not at all scary) with Black Lives Matters protesters (very scary).

In a radio interview earlier this week, Johnson described some of the very fine people who had rallied on January 6 as “people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law.” So, he said, he wasn’t worried when they converged on the capitol.

“Now, had the tables been turned — now, 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,” Johnson said.

My state’s senior senator was widely pilloried for the remark.

Now he is pushing back. How, he asks indignantly, could his comments possibly have been construed as racist?

“I completely did not anticipate that anybody could interpret what I said as racist,” Johnson said on a local talk radio show. “It’s not. This is about rioters.”

He called his statement “innocuous” and “never anticipated [my opponents] would turn it into what they always turn the debate into: racism.”

“Listen, I understand that some of the protesters used flagpoles as weapons, and I don’t discount the harm that can be created by a thrown flagpole or metal fence part or baseball bat,” Johnson said Monday. “And I condemn all of that. But the fact of the matter is the left wants to push this narrative that 74 million Americans are somehow potentially armed insurrectionists or domestic terrorists.”

As Aaron Blake notes, this is a straw man. “Nobody of substance is saying this represents all Trump supporters.”

But Johnson is determined to recast his remarks. In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, he leans heavily on whataboutism. “The rioters who burned Kenosha weren’t of any one ethnicity; they were united by their radical leftism,” Johnson writes.

“Their politics, together with their taste for violence—so different from the Trump supporters I know personally or the Trump rallies we all saw carried out peacefully—should concern us.”

This is, of course, sounds like gaslighting. But he believes this.

Johnson looks at white Trump supporters and sees kindred spirits. His looks at BLM supporters and he sees a threat.

He genuinely does not see how this is problematic, even after the events of January 6. Instead, it is bold truth-telling that the left wants to silence.

It genuinely does not bother him that this claim is made by virtually every white nationalist, or that it exposes the degree to which this sort of stereotyping has been normalized on the right.

Tucker has assured folks like Johnson that, no, they can’t possibly be racist even when they judge their countrymen by how they look.

And Johnson believes him.

I had some thoughts last night:

Speaking of Tucker. He is now spreading disinformation about vaccines.

The hillbilly and the billionaire. Judd Legum:

Right-wing billionaire Peter Thiel has donated $10 million to a super PAC formed to support Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, who is considering a run for U.S. Senate in Ohio. Thiel's massive donation illustrates the impotence of the nation's campaign finance system. 

Vance became a bestselling author with Hillbilly Elegy, which was adapted into a movie on Netflix. Vance is a conservative but his book became popular with readers on the left and right as an unofficial guide to Trump's appeal among working-class whites. Vance describes his modest upbringing in Middletown, Ohio and his mother's roots in Kentucky. The New York Times described the book "as a cultural anthropology of the white underclass that has flocked to the Republican presidential nominee’s candidacy."

Quick Hits

1. Spring Break in Florida: A Dangerous Pandemic Coda?

Brent Orrell in today’s Bulwark:

As disaster unfolded in New York and New Jersey this time last year, DeSantis refused to bend to public health advice, doing his best, against the counsel of experts and the wishes of many Florida county and local elected officials, to keep the state mostly open. The annual spring break bacchanalia went forward largely unimpeded despite the risk of college students returning to their campuses and homes across the country with a dose of COVID-19 to share with fellow students, their families, and their communities.

The entirely predictable outcomes ensued. A study of spring breakers’ phone-location data found that the communities these students returned to saw their infection rates spike by 20 percent two weeks after spring break. Three weeks later, hospitalizations and mortality spiked too as secondary infections jumped from the relatively invulnerable college kids and began to spread to the older and sicker.

2. Don’t Debate Immigration on Trump’s Terms

Brian Karem in today’s Bulwark:

On immigration, the biggest problem the Biden administration faces is letting the issue be framed in Donald Trump’s terms. Biden should allow reporters see what is going on in the Carrizo Springs, Texas detention center—where a small delegation of the administration visited earlier this month but didn’t tell anyone until after the fact. That mistake allowed members of the media to question what Biden was hiding. And we did. Reporters should also get off their rumps and spend a lot of time on the border.

3. Main Street Is Not An Idea

Addison Del Mastro in this morning’s Bulwark:

When conservatives speak of knowing and loving one’s place, or describe America as a nation of main streets, or suggest a duty of sorts to put down roots, they must be cautious. America is a nation of restless pioneers and open roads as much as it is a nation of small towns. Conservatism does not socially engineer, but credits and works with what already exists. And what America has never been and will never be is a nation of feudalism.

Cheap Shots

Voter fraud update

WAP vs. Dr. Seuss?

Deep Thoughts

What Is Happening to the Republicans?

Well worth your time: Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker:

The most widely debated political question of the moment is: What is happening to the Republicans? One answer is that the Party’s predicament might fairly be called the revenge of “the kooks.” In just four years, the G.O.P., a powerful, hundred-and-sixty-seven-year-old institution, has become the party of Donald Trump. He began his 2016 campaign by issuing racist and misogynistic salvos, and during his Presidency he gave cover to white supremacists, reactionary militia groups, and QAnon followers. Trump’s seizure of the Party’s leadership seemed a stunning achievement at first, but with time it seems more reasonable to ponder how he could possibly have failed. There were many preëxisting conditions, and Trump took advantage of them. The combination of a base stoked by a sensationalist right-wing media and the emergence of kook-adjacent figures in the so-called Gingrich Revolution, of 1994, and the Tea Party, have redefined the Party’s temper and its ideological boundaries. It is worth remembering that the first candidate to defeat Trump in a Republican primary in 2016 was Ted Cruz, who, by 2020, had long set aside his reservations about Trump, and was implicated in spurring the mob that attacked the Capitol.

One of the most telling developments of the 2020 contest was rarely discussed: in August, the Republican National Convention convened without presenting a new Party platform. The Convention was centered almost solely on Trump; the events, all of which took place at the White House, validated an increasing suspicion that Trump himself was the Republican platform. Practically speaking, the refusal to articulate concrete positions spared the Party the embarrassment of watching the President contradict them. In 2016, religious conservatives succeeded in getting an anti-pornography plank into the platform, only to be confronted by news of Trump’s extramarital affair with the adult-film performer Stormy Daniels. Now there would be no distinction between the Republican Party and the mendacity, bigotry, belligerence, misogyny, and narcissism of its singular representative.