The cognitive dissonance of the January 6 Capitol riot has been gnawing away at Senator Ron Johnson for weeks. Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican whose enthusiasm for Donald Trump has blossomed to potentially self-destructive dimensions, is obviously not an intelligent man. But somewhere in his mind, he is able to vaguely discern a contradiction between two principles. On the one hand, he equates Trump and all his followers with unquestioning adherence to law and order. (This belief has inspired Johnson to vigorously dismiss years of evidence of Trump’s crimes.) On the other hand, he personally witnessed a violent mob of Trump supporters assault police officers, resulting in more than 100 injuries, many serious, and one death.
Johnson has been flailing about desperately in search of a resolution to this contradiction. At a hearing that month, he suggested to one witness, “the vast majority of Trump supporters are pro–law enforcement, and the last thing they would do is violate the law?” He used the same hearing to propose that the riot had actually been instigated by a small cadre of left-wing infiltrators posing as Trump supporters.
Then last week, Johnson returned to the subject. “I knew those were people who love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law, so I wasn’t concerned.” he told a radio host. “Now, had the tables been turned, and Joe — this is going to get me in trouble — had the tables been turned and President Trump won the election and tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and antifa, I might have been a little concerned.”
These comments predictably set off a firestorm, including frequent questions about the racial undertones of Johnson’s attributing violent intent to a hypothetical Black protest while dismissing the violence of a very real white one.
One point to make is that Johnson seemed not to discern any contradiction between this claim, that he was perfectly safe during the insurrection, with his previous claim that the insurrection had been instigated by left-wing infiltrators. After all, if a hardened cadre of radical leftists had penetrated the Capitol and were prowling its corridors, wouldn’t Johnson have been in some danger?
Another point to make is that we actually did experience an election where Trump won, in 2016, and there wasn’t a violent insurrection to overturn the result. Somehow, this pertinent history did not calm Johnson’s fear of BLM as an insurrectionary menace.
The best defense of Johnson’s comments would be that the contrast between the real and the imagined riots was not racial but political. Johnson would have been threatened by an anti-Trump riot, but he was safe during a pro-Trump riot, because the rioters understood he was on their side. Understandably, Johnson has refrained from making this defense.
Instead, he is presenting himself as a victim of cancel culture. Johnson has written a Wall Street Journal op-ed headlined, “I Won’t Be Silenced by the Left.” It is a clever choice to change the subject from the substance of his delusional and authoritarian claims to his right to express them. Johnson does not present any evidence that anybody is even trying to silence him. Nor is it clear how they might succeed if they wanted to. There’s no boss who can be pressured into firing him, and his every utterance continues to command wide media attention.
Instead, Johnson equates the fact that his comments drew negative coverage — a result he predicted in the interview! — with “censorship.” “An unbiased free press is essential in a democracy,” he writes, “but the censorship of conservative perspectives in today’s cancel culture is antithetical to freedom.” Censorship is when the government prevents the dissemination of speech or thought. It is not when newspapers write critical stories about politicians.
But this much can be said on Johnson’s behalf: He is not acting out of cynicism. He is not spinning or pushing a message about January 6, but following an obviously genuine obsession. He refuses to accept that his fellow Trump supporters attempted a coup. And so he summons the phantasmal threat of the left censoring him. Here are the real stormtroopers, you see — putatively objective reporters, oppressing Johnson through their coverage. It’s almost as if, by conjuring a totalitarian enemy, Johnson has created the justification for the violent uprising.