This New York Times report on the continuing antics of Wisconsin’s Sen. Ron Johnson is actually … good? As in, very good?
As unsettling as that is, after the paper’s four-year treatment of Donald Trump’s blatant lying and propaganda campaigns as political curiosities to be analyzed for effectiveness and technique, in running down the laundry list of Johnson’s recent and oft-contradictory false claims, reporters Trip Gabriel and Reid J. Epstein do an effective job of contextualizing Johnson’s behavior and conveying the what of the story that more rote daily reporting regularly (and sometimes pedantically, and usually proudly) ignores.
Gabriel and Epstein do not merely repeat Johnson’s latest claims, nor do they brush responsibility off with parenthetical fact checks of each. They interview Johnson, but do not allow him to run their reporting off its rails by treating him with unwarranted deference. Instead, they find the story behind the story—the information that the public most needs to know, defended in detail and with its conclusions intact.
Sen. Ron Johnson “has become the Republican Party’s foremost amplifier of conspiracy theories and disinformation,” report Gabriel and Epstein. An “all-access purveyor of misinformation on serious issues,” one who uses his powerful perch to mislead the American public on critical subjects and in dire ways.
He is a propagandist. He is a liar. The what that the public most needs to know and that journalism has the most responsibility to convey is not the occurrence of each individual lie, set apart from the others and rebutted by fact in whatever detail a journalist or editor believes it necessary to muster. The what is that a powerful senator who acted as chair of the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee is a serial propagandist, a habitual if not compulsive liar who engages in fraud against the public with regularity and with clearly political intent.
The what is not that Ron Johnson has told lies. The what is that Ron Johnson’s willingness to pass on hoax after hoax to American voters is a threat to the nation’s democracy. Such propaganda seeks to nullify the voice of voters by so muddling the information available to them that they cannot make judgments about the successes or failures of their representatives at all. It is all noise, and voting becomes not an exercise of public will but of the effectiveness of competing strategies for gaslighting them.
Johnson’s lies are all to a purpose. He lies to boost his party’s ideological stances—even when those stances were merely blundered upon, as with his continued boosting of hydroxychloroquine as anti-COVID treatment, still repeating a damaging Trump claim from the early days that Trump himself only latched onto as one of a list of supposed quick-fix cures Trump vowed would end the pandemic in short order. Johnson’s efforts to fuel skepticism as to the efficacy of the vaccines now available, by contrast, are part of a brickheaded campaign to sow distrust in all things non-Republican, be they in science or in government. It is the same for climate change, and for his backing of Russian-backed conspiracy theories about Ukraine and the Biden family; there is no invented fiction that he will not endorse in service to a long-term partisan campaign demonizing non-conservative, non-Republican figures as something close to vampires.
Similarly, he lies to absolve his own party and ideological tent from even proven violent acts, as with his incessant new explanations as to how the violent insurrection that targeted lawmakers inside the Capitol—which resulted in well over 100 injured police officers, multiple deaths, and chants about what the crowd intended to do to those it was hunting—was not violent, or that the violence was caused by non-conservatives who had secretly infiltrated the conservative crowd, or take-your-pick. It does not seem to matter to him that each of these lies is provably false on their face. He continues, undaunted, even as profiles of those arrested for the violence paint each as rabid far-right partisan.
There was a point when it seemed possible that Johnson was lying so prolifically because he was genuinely stupid. The current pattern seems to put such thoughts to rest, however; he is lying about things that he himself has seen with his own eyes, and about things that have been so prolifically debunked that he, an alleged United States senator with his own dedicated staff, could not possibly still be confused about in good faith. The man is a liar and a provocateur, nothing more.
That the Times piece makes a comparison to professional propagandist Sen. Joe McCarthy, who made a brief career out of defrauding the nation as means of self-promotional and authoritarian-premised warfare, is also of note. Indeed, Ron Johnson is of the same mold. His methodology is to accuse his enemies of all manner of things, using the weight of his office and committee positions to give merit to constant flights of conspiratorial fancy, and to bellow about oppression when called out. Like McCarthy, Johnson has also gone so far in his fictions that he is no longer known primarily as ideological zealot, but for his insufferable dishonesty.
So yes, then, this is indeed a big news story. A sitting U.S. senator is a serial propagandist, an eager liar who incessantly spreads misinformation as his political weapon. It is a story that the daily tit-for-tat sniping about each individual lie dodges, if only for expediency. Note that it still makes no value judgment about the morality of Johnson’s pattern of lies—but it does identify them as a pattern, and factually conveys the man’s status as a “purveyor of misinformation on serious subjects.”
This is not editorializing. It’s identifying the true story behind the partisan sniping. A CNN story from a day prior identified Johnson’s latest false claims about the supposed peacefulness of violent insurrectionists and was willing to identify Johnson’s motive—to “downplay the seriousness” of the pro-Trump insurrection—but went no further, even allowing Johnson to get the last word in with still more false claims aimed at Black Lives Matter protests. But it did not identify Johnson as a serial fabricator, despite that being the most vital information to convey.
If Johnson is spreading false information with one claim on one day, it is of middling value at best to broadcast that falsehood even with fact checking. Was he misinformed, or was it intentional? We have no way to know, because that vital context has been carved out and tossed into a bucket of other entrails deemed unfit for presentation. If Johnson has put forward enormous quantities of disinformation not only in his claims about the insurrection, but in myriad other partisan battles, then it becomes impossible to believe he is merely mistaken this time around, in these specific statements.
The good news is that Ron Johnson’s reputation for pushing malevolent misinformation is now impossible to ignore, and each of his most recent attempts at propaganda-peddling has proven considerably less successful than it would have been if—again, reminiscent of Joe McCarthy—the bellowing balloon was able to muster a few scraps of self-control. In a Washington Post piece, Greg Sargent uses the Times report to further delve into the grotesquery of Johnson’s insurrection denialisms and the need to remove him as part of the “deradicalization” of propaganda-reliant Republicanism.
That is where the divide between journalism and editorial belongs, or at least far closer to it. Whether Johnson should be removed from office by voters for being a pustule of misinformation and falsehoods is up for editorial judgment, but reporting that he is a serial liar who uses propaganda to advance false narratives is on firm journalistic ground.
If an elected official, or a dozen of them, or 100 of them, have engaged in a years-long pattern to misinform the public, gaslighting them about some of the most vital issues of the day until even the integrity of our elections themselves is seen by ideologues as a truth that can be successfully challenged if only enough misinformation and enough violence can be brought to bear against it, it is front-page news. The Trump White House operated from its first day to its last day as a source of constant, relentless propaganda, but the national press ignored the ramifications of such behavior as if they had been put under a spell. It is catastrophic to democracy. It is inherently authoritarian. It is a behavior a free country cannot possibly abide, not as measure of morality but as matter of structural integrity.
Ron Johnson is a propagandist who manufactures false claims against his enemies and distorts plain truths in order to paper over the errors or corruption of his allies. It is a form of corruption that strikes at the nation’s very heart, and it deserves more press attention as something more than filler or sideshow.