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Is Ron Johnson Really As Bad As Joe McCarthy?

John Nichols' headline for Madison's biggest newspaper was provocative: 2021: The year Ron Johnson replaced Joe McCarthy as Wisconsin’s worst senator. I can't disagree with the premise and his OpEd is worth reading for its take on the history of one of America's most politically bipolar states. [Jud Lounsbury called it a full yer ago: Johnson Eclipses McCarthy as Biggest Embarrassment from Wisconsin: "Ron and Joe McCarthy finagled their way into the U.S. Senate and eventual national notoriety with striking similarity. Both were from Wisconsin's Fox River Valley, obscure and undistinguished, yet smug. Both beat a prominent and distinguished progressive in an off-year swing election with grotesque lies about their own personal background and their opponent’s record."] The Cap Times, of which Nichols is an associate editor, battled McCarthy (and his ism) on a field that "went beyond partisanship and ideology. It addressed existential questions about political impunity and the fundamentals of democracy."

Nichols wrote that when the career of the unprincipled junior senator from Wisconsin "hit a rough spot... [he] began to accuse those he disliked and disagreed with of being communists. Instinctually dishonest and reckless in the extreme, McCarthy claimed to have lists of 'reds' and 'fellow travelers' in the State Department, the Pentagon, Hollywood, the news media, the labor movement, the civil rights movement and the circles of liberal Republicans and Democrats that dared to oppose him. McCarthy was a liar. But as a flamboyant politician who had recognized the power of the new medium of television, he knew how to earn headlines. And he knew how to intimidate bureaucrats, diplomats, editors and his fellow senators."

McCarthy beat Robert La Follette, founder of the Wisconsin Progressive Party, in the 1946 GOP primary and went on to win the general election with 61.2%. He was reelected in 1952 with 54.2%, a black mark against Wisconsin voters that lives on to this day. It has been unimaginable that Wisconsin would ever elect a worse senator that Joe McCarthy. But... "This year," wrote Nichols, "Ron Johnson outdid his predecessor."

There were many measures of Johnson’s infamy. He spread misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic and contributed to the vaccine hesitancy that has so imperiled efforts to save lives and get back to some semblance of normalcy. He embraced defeated former President Donald Trump’s “Big Lies” about elections results. And, of course, he abused his position to try and upend the legislative agenda of the duly elected president, Joe Biden.
But Johnson went full McCarthy in June of 2021 when he appeared in Fox News for a discussion with Sean Hannity about the president’s foreign policy stances. As usual, Johnson struggled to keep up with the conversation. Exasperated, he accused the president of being “weak” and announced, "Do not ask me to get into the mind of a liberal, progressive socialist, Marxist like President Biden.”
Joe Biden campaigned for and won the presidency as a very mainstream Democrat who, it should be noted, defeated more liberal and progressive candidates for the party’s 2020 nomination-- including a popular democratic socialist, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Biden has governed as a mainstream Democrat with ambitions to renew the legacy of the party’s great presidents of the 20th century, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson.
...But Johnson would have us believe that Biden is a devoted follower of Karl Marx, a devotee of the Communist Manifesto who has infiltrated the federal government in order-- with the acquiescence of Marxist majorities in the U.S. Congress-- to “enact all these crazy socialist policies.”
As Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin observes of Johnson, “Since the election, he has cynically supported election conspiracies he knows to be false, but what’s the harm in playacting for the masses when you think Biden is one step from a socialist takeover?”
Does Johnson really think a communist takeover is imminent? Don’t be silly.
Like McCarthy, the senator from Oshkosh thinks that making wild and unsupported charges about opponents will distract voters from his own ineptitude and, perhaps, save his political skin.
What’s striking is Johnson’s willingness to go to extremes that McCarthy avoided.
As dishonest as he was, McCarthy never seriously suggested that Harry Truman-- the Democratic president at the time “McCarthyism” was gaining traction-- was a Marxist. Only the absolute lunatics on the fringe that even the junior senator from Wisconsin avoided dared go to such extremes.
But Johnson goes there regularly. And he does so for purposes every bit as cynical as those that motivated McCarthy.
Truman put it best in 1952, when he explained the tactics of McCarthy and his kind:
“Socialism is a scare word they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years. Socialism is what they called public power. Socialism is what they called Social Security. ... Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.”
“When the Republican candidate inscribes the slogan ‘Down With Socialism’ on the banner of his ‘great crusade,’ that is really not what he means at all,” concluded Truman, “What he really means is ‘Down with Progress-- down with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal,’ and ‘down with Harry Truman's Fair Deal.’ That's all he means."
It is unfortunate that Truman’s counsel must be updated to explain the false statements of another senator from Wisconsin. But that’s what Ron Johnson requires of us.
The Capital Times never hesitated to call McCarthy out as a political con man of the worst order-- a mountebank who employed misinformation for the most contemptuous objectives.
Now the Capital Times calls out Johnson with the same understanding-- and with a recognition that his lies are motivated not by sincere concern for the fate of the nation but by an opposition to progress that is even more disingenuous than that of Joe McCarthy.

Generic Democrats-- let alone deeply flawed ones-- never win elections without a blue wave, especially not in Wisconsin. And one thing is certain: 2022 will not be a blue wave year. If Wisconsin Democrats nominate Alex Lasry, Sarah Godlewski or Mandela Barnes, Johnson will win a third term (if he runs again, which looks likely). Blue America has endorsed Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, the most progressive candidate in the race and the only one likely to be able to defeat Johnson. "Make no mistake," Nelson told us this morning, "Ron Johnson is an unmitigated disaster. But unlike Joe McCarthy he is not alone. McCarthy was an outlier for his vitriol and scattershot attacks on innocent, patriotic Americans in the middle of the Cold War. He was a huckster. Johnson is one of many on the lunatic right that are pushing this country closer and closer to the brink with their unfounded attacks and lies on the election, COVID, domestic security and the January 6 insurrection. Beating Johnson will not just end his reign, repair the good name of Wisconsin and quite possibly keep the Senate in Democratic hands-- but it will be a serious blow to his ilk in the GOP. Johnson must be beaten and I intend to deliver the final blow."

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