Tea Party's double agent: Sen. Ron Johnson has a new agenda

Movement's favorite son now says he "never joined a group." Here's what's behind Johnson's new crusade (UPDATED)

By Heather Digby Parton


Published June 3, 2014 11:45AM (EDT)

Ron Johnson                (Reuters/Jason Reed)
Ron Johnson (Reuters/Jason Reed)

Back in 2010, George Will called Wisconsin businessman Ron Johnson the face of the Tea Party, one of those righteous citizens rising up from the dying embers of our benighted republic to save us from the collectivist horde:

Before what he calls "the jaw-dropping" events of the last 19 months -- TARP, the stimulus, Government Motors, the mistreatment of Chrysler's creditors, Obamacare, etc. -- the idea of running for office never crossed Ron Johnson's mind. He was, however, dry tinder -- he calls Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" his "foundational book" -- and now is ablaze, in an understated, upper-Midwestern way. This 55-year-old manufacturer of plastic products from Oshkosh is what the tea party looks like.

Johnson was one of the first Tea Party candidates, a genuine political neophyte who heard the call to higher office over the mortal threat of Obamacare and launched his campaign through Tea Party rallies all over Wisconsin. At an early Madison Tea Party rally, Johnson waved the bloody shirt of the victimized conservatives to the ecstatic crowd:

We need to elect true conservatives, not politicians but citizen legislators, people who actually listen to us. People who will tell the truth and in the end will do what actually needs to be done. And we need the level of involvement and commitment that is being demonstrated out here today. Because in the end, folks, we will need to out organize the community organizers...Folks this is a fight for freedom. This is not somebody's else's fight this is our fight. And this is a fight that we absolutely must win. So may God help us and may God continue to bless the greatest nation in the history of mankind

All the religious stuff at the end there notwithstanding,  he, like most Tea Partyers, is a hardcore social conservative. When Will said that Johnson was a fan of the famous atheist Ayn Rand, he wasn't kidding. In a video interview for the Ayn Rand Institute the Atlas Society he complains that Americans are suffering from Stockholm syndrome, saying that Obamacare is "the greatest assault on freedom in my lifetime." He describes how he went to the Supreme Court to be with those who were begging the justices to leave one last crumb of freedom: the freedom to purchase a product of one's choice.

In fact, that's pretty much the extent of Sen. Ron Johnson's definition of freedom. If any starry-eyed libertarians think his love of "Atlas Shrugged" might lead him to be concerned with government overreach in anything but the economic realm, they're going to be disappointed. Like most of the Tea Party he is fully on board with the most authoritarian policies of the federal government.

He is the perfect Tea Party senator, far more in line with the real sentiments of the largely older, white, traditional conservatives who make up that movement than an iconoclast like Rand Paul.

So what to make of his scolding the people who put him in office at last week's Republican Leadership Conference?

“I think the conservative movement may just be maturing a little bit. You can be very doctrinaire, you can demand purity, but in the end if you want to advance policy that you want enacted you have to win elections,” Johnson said when asked about a recent spate of Tea Party losses around the country.

“I value the membership of the Tea Party movement. I am right there with them ideologically, I mean, ‘Taxed Enough Already.’ But the groups don’t necessarily represent all of the individuals in the movement. I think the individuals are now realizing they may have been led astray by an individual group or two and they really do understand that they have to win elections,” he said, adding, “My guess is the Tea Party grassroots are maybe a little more flexible.”

He went on to point out that he just "went to a few Tea Party rallies" back in 2010 but that he "never joined a group." Only four years in Washington and he's already lost his fire.

But what "groups" do you suppose he's talking about when he says there's a difference between the grass roots and the "groups"? Here's a picture of Johnson at one of the Tea Party rallies back in 2010. In it, he's standing at a podium that says "I am AFP." What's AFP? Well, it's Wisconsin's favorite Tea Party group, Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers' personal super PAC. Surely he isn't talking about them. It must be some other Tea Party group leading the flexible grass roots astray. After all, according to Ken Vogel at Politico, Sen. Johnson remains very close to the Randroid Brothers, so much so that he's referred to as the Kochs' "model senator."

Vogel attended a Koch brothers retreat and listened in as Johnson tried to calm down a major conservative donor who was ragging on the Republican National Committee, complaining that they didn't know what they were doing. Johnson agreed that the money might be better spent with the Kochs on this fellow's particular issue, but did defend poor Reince Priebus as a good guy whose heart was in the right place. When Vogel stepped in to ask some questions, Johnson jumped up complaining of the heat and ran inside.

The truth is that there's plenty of GOP Big Donor money to go around so it's hardly a zero sum game. But it would appear that Johnson, the Tea Party's favorite son, has been tasked by the Kochs with the delicate job of trying to keep the rubes in line and soothing the Big Money Boyz to keep them from second-guessing the pros. That's some job. Both of these factions of the GOP are very restive and they want to be in control.

Can Ron Johnson, the man who modestly claims he's no John Galt -- just an ordinary capitalist hero like Hank Rearden -- get the job done? It's hard to imagine he could, judging from his sputtering incoherence at the RLC last week. But it's possible that he may be the best they have to offer.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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