November 14, 8:37 a.m. my phone rings. I do a double take on my caller ID and realize who is calling. I take a deep breath and answer the phone. The next 30 minutes and 32 seconds would be a conversation that was nothing short of surreal.
My discussion with Senator Ron Johnson was one that I have hesitated openly discussing for three weeks. As a former chairman for the Brown County Republican Party, I have people I respect deeply who are still members of the party. There are many elected officials whom I consider friends and I do not want to give reason to think twice about any conversation we have. Additionally, I didn’t want my family to become a target, especially with my wife days from giving birth to our child. However, given what was discussed, and given the war that leaders of the GOP such as Senator Johnson are waging on the very foundations of our democracy, I could no longer stay silent.
The TL;DR of the call was this: Senator Johnson knows that Joe Biden won a free and fair election. He is refusing to admit it publicly and stoking conspiracies that undermine our democracy solely because it would be “political suicide” to oppose Trump. I find this unconscionable.
Full disclosure, I initiated our exchange when I gave Senator Johnson a phone call on November 6 and left him a message. I told him I wanted to discuss, among other things, the direction in which the GOP is headed and my hopes that we could leave some of the more bigoted and conspiratorial elements of Trumpism behind now that the president had lost. I never thought Sen. Johnson would return my call given how outspoken I have been over the past four years. As a local elected official in 2016, I endorsed and campaigned for his opponent, Russ Feingold. This year I was featured in an ad for Republican Voters Against Trump. Yet there we were, on November 14, talking like we used to, many years ago.
I opened the conversation by remarking on my concern for the party. I reiterated that what the GOP is doing and the direction it is going are unsustainable. The GOP has become the party of Donald Trump, and Trumpism has become the doctrine upon which everything else is built; they are one and the same. Senator Johnson spoke about the massive amounts of people Donald Trump brought into the party, many of whom have never cared about politics before. He said that “yes, Donald Trump is an asshole,” but the votes that Trump received, especially in Wisconsin, cannot be overlooked. Senator Johnson talked about how, prior to November 3, Johnson received the highest number of Republican votes in the history of the state of Wisconsin. His goal going into his 2016 re-election was to get 1.5 million votes. He failed to reach that in 2016, while President Trump did in 2020, despite losing. (It did not seem to occur to Senator Johnson that President Trump motivated massive, greater turnout in opposition to him than he did in support.)
Senator Johnson argued that that kind of message from Republican voters was one that he received loud and clear.
In every conversation, we have moments where we look back and wish we said something differently. This is one of those cases. I wish I had reminded the senator that he is not just a senator for Wisconsin Republicans, but a senator for all of Wisconsin. And although the message from Wisconsin Republicans was a strong one, the message from Wisconsin itself was much clearer: It was a rejection of Trumpism, and of the politics of division and toxicity which has poisoned our communities.
Senator Johnson then asked me if I had ever been to a Trump rally. I chuckled and responded that I had not. He said that I should have gone because if I did, I would have seen that the one constant throughout all his rallies was, “the people there absolutely love America.” I reminded him that in every speech I gave as a Republican county chairman, I asked those in attendance to stop calling Democrats the “enemy.” I would say, “Democrats aren’t the enemy. We both love our country and want to make it a better place. We just have different ways to achieve that goal.” And I told him that “I would be willing to bet that at any rally Bernie Sanders or AOC held, you would see a crowd who loved America just as much.”
Johnson scoffed and said, “Absolutely not. Bernie Sanders and AOC want to fundamentally change our country. And you can’t love something you want to fundamentally change.” I disagreed and believe this is a toxic way to look at our politics. But we moved on.
Next we covered the election results. I said I was both frustrated and gravely concerned about how the GOP is continuing to advance disproved conspiracy theories regarding the integrity of the election. Senator Johnson said that he knew and accepted the fact that Joe Biden had won. I asked why he wouldn’t say so at a moment when Trump was taking a sledgehammer to the very foundation of our democracy. Senator Johnson replied that the institutions of our democracy are strong enough to withstand what is going on. This response shocked me, since it suggested that the truth was ultimately unimportant and that Sen. Johnson viewed what the president was doing as someone else’s problem.
Here’s the thing. Ron Johnson knows that this is BS. Because five years ago he said so. In 2015 he introduced legislation streamlining the transition process, saying “the peaceful transition of power is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. It is also an enormous undertaking requiring months of planning in order to be successful.”
And since then, Sen. Johnson’s performance has gone even further. On Tuesday, Attorney General Bill Barr announced that he had found no evidence of fraud that would rise to the level of altering the outcome of the election. Senator Johnson then said that Barr needed to “show evidence”—meaning: a negative—and that he still thinks “there’s enough questions outstanding.”
After dismissing the notion that being honest with his constituents about election integrity was important, Sen. Johnson said that although Biden had won, he was, “the worst candidate for president in the history of the country.” He said that Biden won strictly because of all the hatred for Trump that was advanced by the media every single day. We spoke of organizations such as the Lincoln Project and Republican Voters Against Trump. Johnson said that he loathed these organizations because “they are money-grubbing pieces of shit.” He said that these organizations and the media refused to accept all the good things Trump has done, “even though he [Trump] is an asshole, he was right on so many things.” He talked about his displeasure for the “political establishment.” He said that he “honestly doesn’t even much care for Mitch McConnell,” because of his entrenchment within said establishment.
The senator talked about Trump being right on the First Step Act, right on China, and right on the economy. He said that Trump had so many accomplishments but that nobody wants to talk about them because everyone hates his guts. He said that with him, “it’s really about what’s right and what’s wrong,” and in his mind Trump was right on so many things. I asked him that if it truly is about right versus wrong, why doesn’t he call out what Trump does wrong?
His answer: In essence, that it would be political suicide.
To his credit, Senator Johnson was incredibly cordial. We had a respectful discussion, even though we passionately disagree. He did not come off at all like the person you see on TV. He was not the aloof, abrasive persona he puts on when he’s on Fox. Also to his credit, he even criticized Wisconsin Republicans for not working enough with the Evers administration regarding the COVID-19 crisis that has been ripping through America’s Dairyland. (Which is another thing I wish he’d say publicly.)
Our discussion was mostly based in reality. (With the one exception being Johnson’s assertion to me that Joe Biden “has Lewy body dementia.”) The senator understands Joe Biden’s victory.
The problem is he refuses to live in that reality publicly, because of political considerations.
Looking back at the disaster these last four years have been, I hope that my speaking out gives those on the right a permission structure to come back to the world of facts. You can support the good things President Trump did without lying about how our elections were rigged by Venezuela. Conspiracies and alternate realities are causing our society to crumble. We can’t move forward together when we acknowledge reality in private and then peddle falsehoods in public. It’s bad enough when people in the media do this. But we need more from our elected officials.
They are servants, first and foremost. Servants not just of one party, but of all their constituents. They owe us more.
It’s not too late, Senator Johnson. Just tell America what you told me.