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Opinion What has gotten into Ron Johnson?

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) at the Capitol on Friday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

What has gotten into Ron Johnson?

That is a question that mystifies some of those who counted themselves as enthusiastic supporters of Wisconsin’s Republican senator back when he entered politics a little more than a decade ago.

Though Johnson arose amid the anti-establishment tea party movement, the former plastics executive from Oshkosh styled himself as a sensible businessman, driven by data and hewing to traditional GOP issues such as smaller government. In 2013, he was excoriated by the right-wing media when he described one of its heroes, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), as “intellectually dishonest.”

That is pretty much what some of Johnson’s former fans are saying about him these days. Once referred to affectionately back home as “RonJon,” he is lately becoming known as “RonAnon” for his conspiratorially minded gambits.

His evolution is emblematic of what has happened to the entire Republican Party in the era of Donald Trump.

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As chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee before Democrats took control of the chamber in January, Johnson spent an inordinate amount of time examining baseless claims that there was serious fraud in the 2020 election. He conducted a probe of the Biden family that came up with nothing. He also held hearings at which so-called experts touted discredited claims, embraced by Trump, that hydroxychloroquine was an effective covid-19 treatment.

At a hearing two weeks ago examining the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, Johnson read into the record a sketchy eyewitness account from a far-right website that suggested the violence was the work of “agents-provocateurs,” including some who appeared to be “Antifa or other leftist agitators.” Never mind that all of the evidence shows the mayhem was caused by supporters of then-President Trump.

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Johnson has even played down the seriousness of the event itself, saying he was “literally never afraid” while it was happening. The senator has also said, without offering evidence, that he was “suspicious” that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was actually to blame for it.

Most recently came the stunt Johnson pulled last week, when he demanded that Senate clerks read aloud all 628 pages of the $1.9 trillion package of measures to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, an exercise that took more than 10 hours.

While we should expect senators to learn and understand what they are voting on, the reading of dry legislative language in an empty Senate chamber until the wee hours of the morning is not the way to do it.

So what gives with Johnson and the change that has taken over him in recent years? “To be honest, I just don’t know,” says Charlie Sykes, who, as an influential conservative radio talk show host in Wisconsin, was among Johnson’s earliest boosters. “He was very mainstream, a free-market-driven business guy who would have reflected the Wall Street Journal editorial pages.”

While Johnson insists he is simply raising questions that deserve examination, not embracing conspiracy theories upon which those questions are based, “what he’s doing is he is throwing chum into the water. He knows what he is doing,” Sykes said.

One inflection point for him was the 2016 election. Considered the most endangered Senate Republican incumbent on the ballot, Johnson was left for dead by the GOP establishment.

Not until the final days of the campaign, when his poll numbers began to show a surge, did the super PAC aligned with then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) decide to throw $2 million into the race. So it is perhaps unsurprising that Johnson might feel some affinity for Trump and the brand of grievance politics that produced an even more surprising upset that year.

Johnson says he has not yet decided whether to run for a third term in 2022, but if he does, he will be the only Senate Republican defending a seat in a state won by President Biden, which pretty much guarantees he will be the Democrats’ top target.

“It’s pretty obvious. This is a Saul Alinsky technique: You isolate somebody and then you destroy them,” Johnson told Wisconsin radio host Jeff Wagner last week. “It’s obvious they think they can pick up this U.S. Senate seat, so they are bound and determined to destroy me.”

The senator appears to have decided that his best hope for survival is to stir up the Trump base. But his antics are just as likely to bring more Democrats to the polls, which many Wisconsin Republicans fear could create problems for the rest of the state’s GOP ticket, and potentially doom their hopes of winning back the governorship.

How all of this works out will be worth watching, and not just for how it affects an important Senate seat. Johnson is giving us an ideal test case that will show how well Trumpism plays in the post-Trump era.

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