Tom Nelson
Op Ed

Ron Johnson’s Witch Hunt

His investigation of Hunter Biden calls to mind the style of Joe McCarthy.

By - Sep 11th, 2020 11:48 am
Ron Johnson. Photo by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America / CC BY-SA (

Ron Johnson. Photo by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America / (CC BY-SA)

It has been 66 years since Outagamie County’s Joseph McCarthy was censured by his colleagues in the US Senate. It was a big deal. His censure was just the sixth of a US senator in the republic’s history.

McCarthy’s fate is worth noting in the era of Donald Trump because the president has drawn from McCarthy’s playbook, as Larry Tye argues in his acclaimed book, Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy. 

McCarthy had no bigger platform than the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of which he chaired. McCarthy tormented elected officials (his predecessor, Robert LaFollette, Jr died by suicide to avoid McCarthy’s wrath), flogged state department officials and tried humiliating decorated military heroes, characterizing them as communist sympathizers or worse.

The contemporary analogy does not end with our 45th President. Rather, it comes full circle, returning to America’s Dairyland.

Wisconsin’s current Republican US Senator Ron Johnson chairs the Homeland Security and Government Affairs committee – the parent to McCarthy’s subcommittee – where he wields his gavel in the spirit of McCarthy. He has hounded Joe Biden’s son Hunter like a bulldog on an ankle bone and for the purpose of embarrassing his father, something the Oshkosh Republican readily admits. When it has come to Russian interference in the 2016 election, Johnson has defended McCarthy’s progeny, President Trump, to the hilt. And when top military brass has gone before his committee, Johnson has accorded them the same disrespect McCarthy did Joseph Welch, the US Army chief counsel.

McCarthy reached his pinnacle of notoriety at his US Senate-Army hearings in June of 1954 where he was crushed by Welch (“At long last, have you no sense of decency”). The next month, his colleagues introduced a resolution of censure and by year’s end he found himself a pariah of Capitol Hill, a shadow of his former self.

Had the Senator from Grand Chute had a Twitter account and email list, things might have turned out different. He might have rallied support for standing up to the Washington politicians, raised millions and formed a presidential exploratory committee.

But that was a different time, when character counted and not every political conflagration was meant to be a fight to the death.

Johnson may have his Twitter account, but it won’t save him from the political laws of gravity: what goes up, must come down.

Should Democrats take control of the US Senate, Johnson’s witch hunt could face the same fate as McCarthy’s. Heck, senators have lost their jobs for lesser offenses.

Democrat Tom Nelson is the Outagamie County Executive.

Categories: Op-Ed, Politics

7 thoughts on “Op Ed: Ron Johnson’s Witch Hunt”

  1. frank a schneiger says:

    These are dangerous times, and Ron Johnson is a dangerous person. Going back to the founding, our democracy has always faced threats. These include polarized groups, racism and attempts to exclude whole groups from political participation, extreme inequality, and power hungry/bad presidents. For the first time in our history, we have all of these at the same time, coupled with the arrival of the future in the form of a climate change calamity and an enormous health crisis. Topped by immoral, corrupt, racist and incompetent leadership at the national level.

    Those who believe in American exceptionalism, “don’t worry, we’ll get through this, we always do, right?” might want to think twice today. Which brings us to Ron Johnson. Although he seems to lack his hero Donald Trump’s cruelty and blatant racism, Senator Johnson has numerous Trump-like qualities. He masks his enormous ignorance behind the “I’m a businessman” pitch, as if it gives him some special insights, which, based on his performance and what comes out of his mouth, he certainly does not. It is a potent sign of the rot and decay of the Republican Party that they have given him an important committee chairmanship. In that role – and using the word carefully – he has begun to flirt with treason in his use of Russian contacts to hurt Biden and help Trump. That he is too stupid to see this reality isn’t an excuse.

    Then we come to Johnson’s other Trump-like quality, the unbridgeable social distance between him – as a rich, white, semi-rural businessman – and many of the people he ostensibly represents. This enormous gap was crystal clear in his statements about the Covid-19 pandemic. In which he basically said that certain groups – none in his social class or of his color – would have to take one for the team, to die or get very sick, to get the economy going. In a nation in which large numbers of Americans are going hungry or losing their housing, while others are being burned out of their houses by climate-change driven fires in the West, Johnson, his president and his Republican colleagues are quite willing to sit on their collective ass and do nothing.

    In “The Great Gatsby,” Fitzgerald describes the Ron Johnsons of the last Gilded Age: “They were careless people…they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let others clean up the mess they had made.” Given the convergence of the crises of democracy that we face, the big question is whether our current messes are even clean-upable.

    It is a certainty that Ron Johnson won’t be part of the cleanup, and that Wisconsin is particularly vulnerable. There is no such thing as a “purple” state. That term simply means that the numbers of people in two polarized groups, each of which looks at the other with disdain and mistrust, is evenly balanced in that state. For Johnson, The Wisconsin Supreme Court, Republican leaders and their paymasters, that means making sure to drive the wedge even deeper, and to make sure that those on “the other side,” whatever the numbers, are not allowed to exercise power and authority in the state. Joe McCarthy was a threat, with right-wing support, but nowhere near the threat to a democratic future that the nation faces today, and which a mediocrity like Ron Johnson is up to his neck in.

  2. Mingus says:

    Ron Johson’s Committee has responsibility for dealing with robocalls calls. I still must get five or six every day. If he can’t find a way to deal with robocalls, we can be sure that he does not have the competency or the will to monitor Russian spying and all of the national security issues this committee is responsible for.

  3. Trmott says:

    To Mssrs Nelson and Schneiger: Your premise and argument is ridiculous; ludicrous, even. You need not tell me about McCarthy, sirs. I was born in Appleton in 1942 so I had a ringside seat to his antics and remember my father (a moderate Republican when that was the norm in the Fox River Valley) nearly came to blows with his brother-in-law at a family gathering because the two of them went at it, big time. The relative was a McCarthy enthusiast and my father was a Phi Beta Kappa and Masters-level journalist who would have nothing of it. McCarthy, a drunk and simpleton with a screw (or two) loose was simply an embarrassment of the first order. Dangerous, as well.

    You liken McCarthy to Johnson? Surely you must know how weak that comparison is. I will stop myself from pointing out the many differences as I have better things to do, and you both must be aware. You should be ashamed, frankly, at this disingenuous commentary. You should retract it, if only to salvage some credibility among those who know better.

    To put this in context for you, I will not be voting for either Trump or Biden. I am disenchanted by the politics of both parties on the national stage. That said, I AM curious about Hunter Biden to this extent: I’d like to know as much as we can find out regarding Joe Biden’s family ties, considering he’s done a bang-up job of helping them accumulate great wealth on his watch by his connections and influence as a Senator and VP. Don’t you find it “interesting”? Why would you not want to know more re: someone who may be Trump’s successor? Goodness knows the Trump family and associates have been put through the wringer; not saying that’s a bad thing, in fact it is a good thing. But there’s a strong argument to be made for some comparable curiosity about Joe and his circle. Double standands are no standards at all.

  4. Trmott says:

    I haven’t seen the post I made a few minutes ago (doesn’t show up yet), but I should not have been as negative about Mr. Schneiger’s comments. He did not reinforce the argument expresed by Mr. Nelson re: Joseph McCarthy and Ron Johnson being similar. Instead, he expressed his misgivings about Sen Johnson. Fine. I take objection to to the implication that Johnson is flirting with treason, and is stupid, but in that regard he’s just echoing quite a few high-placed government and media talking heads in their descriptions of the President. Sorry, Frank. Carry on!

  5. frank a schneiger says:

    Trmott: Let me respond to your critique on several levels. First, I suspect that there is a genetic component to my stupidity and your intellectual firepower. To my misfortune, my parents were poor immigrants from Yugoslavia who never finished high school. But, coming from Yugoslavia and maintaining contact with relatives there, they had real fears of McCarthy and McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade.

    And, there’s more. If you put American exceptionalism aside for a moment, there are powerful recent lessons coming from the now-former Yugoslavia. The first is the great danger that occurs when the dominant group, in this case, the Serbs, the white people of Yugoslavia, define themselves as victims, and, in the process, are able justify any actions without moral constraints on their part. The second is the powerful force that a national media entity, like Fox News, which cranks up resentments, hatreds and victimization night after night can have in sparking a fratricidal and genocidal conflict if there are morally bankrupt and evil leaders. And finally, they don’t ring a bell when it is too late to turn things around. Think August, 1914, 1858 in this country, etc.

    Next, regarding your objection to my stupidity with respect to Ron Johnson, I am not “echoing” anyone. I begin with the premise that Donald Trump is a Russian agent who – for whatever reasons – has betrayed our country, and that there is voluminous evidence to support that premise. Ron Johnson is welded to Trump, and, to support my assertion, has funneled Russian disinformation about Biden through his Senate Committee in an effort to discredit Biden and secure another term for Trump. I could go on, but you would probably dismiss the facts as products of “media talking heads,” which they are not.

    Then, with respect to Biden’s family, and his “great wealth,” a false assertion, but let’s assume that his son did use his father’s name to make connections and money with zero impact on any American interest or policy, which is the case. Like Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, Benghazi, Uranium One: BFD. Biden has had a long public career and made lots of mistakes, but has been an honest and decent person who had little wealth until the past couple of years.

    Which brings us to Donald Trump and his family. As someone who has lived and worked in New York for much of my adult life, I suspect I know much more about Trump than you do. He, his family and associates have been, to use your phrase, “put through the wringer” for. simple reason: he is a cheap, narcissistic, pathologically lying, money laundering, crook sexual predator and racist. And his family members and associates are not much better. There is a reason that so many of them are in prison, and it is not the “deep state.” Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done, but it is difficult to find something good that Donald Trump has ever done for anyone but himself.

    So, in the Trmott disenchantment scale, some minor action of Joe Biden’s son balances out the undermining of American institutions of democracy, including a free press, using the presidency for self-enrichment in ways never before seen in American history, the corruption of virtually ever federal agency (Justice, State, Defense, Interior, Agriculture, Housing, Transportation, HHS/National Institutes), 20,000 lies and counting, and the normalization of lying, support for Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and lunatic conspiracy theorists, the caging of children and destruction of families, the mismanagement of the worst health crisis in a century, the alienation of democratic allies and the embrace of dictators and criminal autocrats (Putin, Kim, Bolsanaro, Dutarte, Urban and others), and the spread of racial hatred. Apparently, those don’t seem to whet your curiosity. There is a moral choice here, and, whether you think Joe Biden is the greatest candidate in history or not, it is the easiest choice in history.

    Finally, rather than condescendingly telling you to “Carry on!” or referring to you by your first name, I will acknowledge my mental deficiencies and be open to the correction of any misstatements of facts that I have made, or absent those, just wait for more insults and condescension.

  6. Thomas Martinsen says:

    frank wins this argument hands down. Trmott’s complaint re a double standard with regards to Trump vs Biden is hollow. Trump does not meet standards. He is a con man who thrives on trashing standards.

    Whether Ron Johnson is ignorant or evil is beside the point. He is dealing with our adversaries in the interest of damaging our democracy to support a man who stole a seat in the oval office with the help of Russians – a man who wants to steal another term in that office this year.

  7. Trmott says:

    Frank, I did not and would not question or doubt your intelligence; you express yourself too cogently for anyone to even wonder about that. If you think I did that, then point it out so I can set the record straight. Also, I have reliable second hand sources via my retired ex-boss (an apolitical and revered CEO) that I respect referring to their dealings with Trump in business. These generally reinforce what you say about him. No surprises there; Trump is not hard to figure out. He’s a salesman, first and foremost, and the brand he’s pushing is not Republicanism… it is the Trump brand. And he is combative in all directions.

    Regarding your opinion about Trump being a Russian agent. I’ll wait for more details about that. Robert Mueller’s minions failed to come up with anything,”provable”, despite Schiff and company saying they had lots of proof positive so there’s that and God knows it’s not as if he lacked the time or budgete to turn over all the rocks. We obviously differ on what I consider to be a pointless and fruitless escapade by the Democrats to delegitimize Trump’s election. Nasty stuff in my opinion.

    By comparison with Joseph McCarthy, Ron Johnson is looking to find out the particulars of the Biden family in specific situations that appear to be “shady”, with Biden using his positions and connectionsas an insider for financial gains of his clan (China, Iraq, Ukraine, MNBA, etc). I’d like to know more about that stuff, too, but simply out of curiosity. I long ago decided not to support the former VP so whatever the real facts are will have no bearing as to my voting. My preferred candidate from among the Democratic hopefuls was not supported/selected by the party, nor was my second choice. So, I’m a guy without a candidate now, not that that’s anything new!

    Perhaps the most revealing thing about this campaign is the apparent lack of interest on the part of the mainstream media to find out as much as possible about what Biden’s REALLY like, what he’s stood for and how wise and consistent his positions have been based on his record, and what credentials he REALLY has to be our country’s CEO, and what his shortcomings are. So when the media is not doing their job, people like Ron Johnson and other Republicans are all we’ve got on that front. Without media curiosity, Biden seems free to act more like the mysterious Wizard of Oz lurking out of sight, than he does a real bona fide candidate. If he doesn’t make it, I think those doubts snd his absence from candid and penetrating discussions will be a factor. Being a “pig in a poke” is not a good look. Americans don’t like such transactions, and by comparison we all know everything about Trump. He is an open book, and too open for his own good much of the time.

    This is interesting, I suggest it to you for “more of the story” about Joe and his family’s perceived (read: apparent; obvious) corruption.
    This is even handed re both Trump and Biden, but not pretty.

    By the way, my saying “Carry on” was not meant to be condescending, so I want to make that clear. It was in the context of my saying that you, unlike Mr. Nelson’s ridiculous likening of Ron Johnson to Joseph McCarthy, made sincere arguments for your viewpoints, which is a good thing in a democracy. So, maybe “have at it” would have been better wording — sorry.

    Personal aside: In 1963 I traveled by train on my way to a business exchange program assignment in Turkey, passing close by the devastation resulting from the Scopje earthquake. Now I wonder if your ancestors were anywhere nearby there then. Also, I witnessed close up something that has stuck with me. It was armed agents of the Communist government of Albania (or was it Bulgaria?) separating an elderly woman from her daughter who were traveling together in the same comparment as me on the Orient Express. The agents, I was told later, were sending (deporting) the mother on her way out of the country, alone, because she was too old to be useful and productive. Chilling. It was a reminder of how cruel government CAN be when it’s in the wrong hands, right?

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