Who is the worst member of the U.S. Senate? There's certainly a lot of fierce competition. But for my money, there's a clear answer: Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson.
One reason to be confident in this choice is that I've been mulling making this argument directly for several months now, and there's been no shortage of news events to build the thesis around. His latest missive against decency in an interview on the conservative Joe Pags Show, though, is particularly ghastly.
"On Jan. 6, I didn't feel threatened," Johnson said, referring to the day of the Capitol insurrection. "Mainly because I knew that even though those thousands of people that were marching to the Capitol were trying to pressure people like me to vote the way they wanted me to vote, I knew those were people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law, so I wasn't concerned."
This claim, of course, is obviously false. Five people died directly from the events of that day, including a cop, and two more police officers took their own lives in the subsequent days. More than a hundred officers were reported injured, many of them seriously. Every person who invaded the Capitol was guilty of trespassing, at least, and many have been charged with much more serious crimes. Even the action Johnson himself describes — pressuring lawmakers to vote against a lawful election — is potentially a crime in the context and is certainly a violation of the Constitution.
Johnson's remarks got even worse when they turned from a blatantly partisan defense of insurrection to outright racism and bigotry.
He continued: "Had the tables been turned, and President Trump won the election and those were tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and Antifa protestors, I might have been a little concerned."
Blatant racism from @RonJohnsonWI here. He says he wasn’t worried on 1/6 because the majority-white insurrectionist… https://t.co/UT0F4ATdP0— American Bridge 21st Century (@American Bridge 21st Century) 1615571909.0
What's so remarkable about these claims is that there's no clear incentive for him to be making them — it's hard to see how they help him politically. It seems they just reflect what he really thinks. But they're obviously incorrect, and he should recognize as much. He was in danger on Jan. 6 — there were literally bombs planted near the Capitol. His claim that it would have taken to Black Lives Matter to really scare him, even when the actual threat he faced was dire, just highlights his open embrace of irrational bigotry.
Johnson has been out on a limb on Capitol riots for a while, far further than many other Republicans are willing to venture. During a Senate hearing on the Capitol attack, Johnson read into the record an account from the far-right outlet The Federalist pushing the debunked notion that the Trump-supporting rioters were framed. This was obvious nonsense from the start, and anyone with a shred of credibility recognized as much — but there was Johnson, pushing obvious misinformation from the Senate itself.
Of course, Johnson's not the only Republican to have a disturbing relationship with the events of Jan. 6. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri arguably helped incite the attack by being the first of the chamber to join Donald Trump's call to oppose the counting of the Electoral College votes for Joe Biden on that day. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas later joined along, and even after the Capitol was assaulted and lawmakers forced into hiding, seven Republican senators still cast votes against certifying the election. Johnson, it should be noted, wasn't among them.
But despite the other strong competitors in the race to be the worst senator, Johnson's cumulative turpitude surpasses them all. Sure, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham utterly debased himself with his about-face on and fealty to Trump. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton is a warmonger at home and abroad. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been the bane of Democrats for years, standing athwart many of their greatest hopes and plans.
Yet what McConnell did, he mostly did as a representative of his party's larger goals. That doesn't exonerate him, of course, but it casts him as more of a cold functionary than a malevolent monster.
Meanwhile, Johnson seems to go out of his way to be as devious as possible.
Before the 2020 election, he took up the call from Trump to attack Biden by launching an investigation into Obama-era intelligence activities. And he didn't hide his motivation at all.
"The more that we expose of the corruption of the transition process between Obama and Trump, the more we expose of the corruption within those agencies, I would think it would certainly help Donald Trump win reelection and certainly be pretty good, I would say, evidence about not voting for Vice President Biden," he said.
Such "corruption" never came to light, because it was based on lies and distorted facts. But that never mattered for the Wisconsin senator — what mattered was harming Biden.
These remarks followed another investigation from Johnson and Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley into allegations about Biden and supposed corruption in Ukraine. That investigation found no wrongdoing on the part of the former vice president, though it attacked his son Hunter Biden. Johnson had been warned that in pursuing the Biden probe, he was following a trail of Russian propaganda and disinformation. He didn't care.
Despite his vigorous pursuit of these hollow allegations, Johnson, of course, showed no interest or curiosity about Trump and his family's massive conflicts of interest.
And when Johnson and Trump's efforts to tarnish Biden failed to defeat him, the Wisconsin Republican used his Senate seat to hold a hearing on debunked claims of voter fraud and election rigging. This fed into the bogus narratives pushed by the then-president, helping lead to the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Even more bizarrely, Johnson used a hearing on Dec. 8 to promote bogus claims by medical quacks about Covid-19. The New York Times reported:
So on Tuesday, for not the first time, Mr. Johnson lent his committee's platform to the promotion of unproven drugs and dubious claims about stemming the spread of the coronavirus while giving prominence to a vaccine skeptic.
In a move that led even most members of his own party on the committee to avoid the hearing, Mr. Johnson called witnesses who promoted the use of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. The National Institutes of Health guidelines recommend against using either drug to treat coronavirus patients except in clinical trials.
Trump himself, a popularizer of dubious ideas about hydroxychloroquine, had long dropped his advocacy for the drug. When he personally fell ill with the disease, he didn't take it as a treatment. But Johnson was still wasting committee time pursuing these avenues while he had control. Another witness that day argued, falsely, that social distancing and masks aren't helpful in reducing the spread of the virus.
Whenever a controversial issue arises, Johnson seems determined to get on the wrong side of it. He was a major advocate against a December round of direct payments to individuals for economic relief during the pandemic, despite the wide popularity of the policy and its ability to help people suffering from the crisis.
If all this is making you frustrated or angry at Johson, just know this: He knows people don't like him. And it only makes him worse.
"I think it's obvious that I'm target number one here," Johnson told CNN in a recent interview. "People are out to destroy me."
I wonder why?
Johnson is up for re-election in 2022 — or at least, he will be if he chooses to run again. He hasn't made up his mind yet, though Trump has reportedly encouraged him to stick around.
All the criticism he's taken, he said, just makes him likelier to run again: "If anything it makes me feistier."
Could he win again? It's certainly possible in Wisconsin. Trump won the state in 2016, and he only barely lost it by 20,000 votes in 2020. If Biden faces the typical midterm backlash, keeping the seat might be an easy task for Johnson.
But Wisconsin isn't a straightforward place. One of the key factors that truly clinches Johnson's role as the worst senator in the country is that his state can do so much better. Its electorate doesn't require its representatives to act the way Johnson does. It has also sent Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a stalwart progressive, to the upper chamber in a seat once occupied by the infamous Joe McCarthy — himself a shameless demagogue with many similarities to Johnson.
That may mean Wisconsin is open to kicking the worst senator in the country to the curb — if he doesn't slink out of his own accord.