Ron Johnson has apparently decided that his best chance for getting reelected is to inject a full dose of deception into the debate about how best to combat a pandemic.
The senator, who announced January 9 that he was breaking his promise not to seek a third term, made his first big splash as a candidate this week, with a Capitol Hill panel discussion, dubbed “COVID-19: A Second Opinion,” which his conservative allies streamed live from a nondescript room in the Russell Senate Office Building. The most precise description of the chaotic session came from the Committee to Protect Health Care, which called it “a high-profile platform to perpetuate falsehoods about vaccines, unproven cures and evidence-based safety measures.”
This wasn’t the first time that the senator, who has falsely claimed that “we do not have an approved vaccine in America,” amplified claims so delusional that they caused jaws to drop. Just last month, he suggested that “standard gargle, mouthwash, has been proven to kill the coronavirus”—an assertion so wrongheaded that Listerine maker Johnson & Johnson has refuted the claim on its website.
But the panel discussion offered an indication that Johnson has determined that it is smart politics to hijack the Senate oversight process in order to push conspiracy theories about the pandemic.
When Republicans lost control of the US Senate after the 2020 election, Johnson had to surrender the chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee—which he had made a go-to venue for fringe theorists of varying stripes. But now that he has decided to seek another six-year term in the Senate, Johnson is injecting his base with fresh infusions of political snake oil.
This week’s panel featured frequently fact-checked “experts,” including Dr. Peter McCullough, who had previously been called out for falsely claiming that for “people under 50 who fundamentally have no health risks, there’s no scientific rationale for them to ever become vaccinated,” and Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, who was fired from his position as a professor at the University of California–Irvine School of Medicine amid a dispute over vaccine mandates.
Speaking to an audience of 80,000 people who were watching online, Johnson’s panelists frequently interrupted and contradicted one another, producing a cacophony of ranting and raving about “fraudulent data,” “manipulated data,” “vaccine-enhanced diseases.” Johnson added to the absurdity by sharing anecdotes from Vietnam, in a convoluted soliloquy that ended with him admitting, “I guess this isn’t evidence that a death might be related to the vaccine.”
At one point, the senator called on a witness who contributed this non sequitur: “So a thousand times more likely to die from a bicycle than from Covid, so I think it would be appropriate that the federal government ban all bicycles because they’re certainly more likely to kill you than Covid.”
The testimony was so dizzyingly incoherent and downright weird that, at times, Johnson himself seemed to struggle to keep on top of the speculation from witnesses about the supposed dangers of vaccines and boosters that credible scientists say are providing essential protection against the omicron variant. As the pronouncements grew ever more fevered, the senator threw his hands up in the air and announced, “It’s difficult for the general public to understand because I don’t know exactly.”
But Johnson did not let his confusion prevent him from declaring that the view of his hearing witnesses to be legitimate. “This is reality,” he claimed. “This is reality that’s being ignored by our federal health officials, by the legacy media, by Big Tech. I just wanted to get that out there.”
And so he did, with a panel discussion that was replayed on right-wing media outlets, including Steve Bannon’s popular War Room podcast and the Rumble platform (because Johnson is suspended from YouTube under its protocol for “preventing the spread of harmful misinformation”).
Fact-checkers had a field day. In a report headlined, “Sen. Ron Johnson, who’s seeking reelection, continues to facilitate spread of COVID misinformation,” Wisconsin public radio station WUWM detailed the inconsistencies, and outright lies, that were spouted by the panel. The station also noted, “Some of the doctors who spoke have been banned from Twitter and YouTube for spreading vaccine misinformation. Others have been fired or suspended from their jobs.”
Unsurprisingly, Johnson was ripped by his political rivals, including the Democrats who hope to challenge him in this year’s midterm election. Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson declared: “No matter the lies and disinformation Ron Johnson spreads, he can’t fool the people of Wisconsin. They’ve had enough of his COVID quackery and election fraud lies. I can’t wait for the voters of Wisconsin to give Ron Johnson a second opinion on November 8 when they retire him from office.”
But Johnson is betting that dealing in disinformation will actually help his reelection bid. Indeed, as Michael Wagner, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, suggested with regard to the panel, “It seems to be more of a way to generate support from the very far right.”
Unfortunately, when so many conservatives who are inclined to trust Johnson remain unvaccinated, that’s a deadly political calculation.
“Ron Johnson isn’t going to save lives, protect people or get people back safely in schools and to work by rolling out a clown car of COVID-19 conspiracy theorists who will only give people very bad and dangerous ideas,” explained Dr. Robert Freedland, a Wisconsin ophthalmologist who has sounded the alarm about the senator’s mania for misinformation. “Wisconsinites deserve to know that Sen. Johnson continues to give a megaphone to notorious COVID-19 disinformation doctors that include champions of ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine. Trust us, the vast majority of doctors and scientists do not place any stock in these people who work on the fringe of medicine, at best, and in a fantasy world, at worst.”
John Nichols is the author of the new book, Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiteers (Verso), which features a chapter on Ron Johnson’s conspiracy theories.