"A new despicable low": GOP Sen. Ron Johnson called out for racist remarks about Capitol riot

Wisconsin Sen. Johnson continues to troll about the violent attack on Congress, laughing about his colleagues' fear

By Jon Skolnik
March 15, 2021 3:42PM (UTC)
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Ron Johnson | Capitol Riots (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. is facing blistering backlash after admitting that he didn't feel threatened by the pro-Trump rioters at the Capitol insurrection but would have if they had been Black Lives Matter protestors. 

"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," Johnson said in an interview on conservative radio host Joe Pag's show Thursday, "I knew those were people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law, and so I wasn't concerned."

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"Now, had the tables been turned — Joe, this could get me in trouble — had the tables been turned," he continued, "and President Trump won the election and those were tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and Antifa protesters, I might have been a little concerned."

Five people died during the insurrection, including one police officer. Some 140 law enforcement officers were injured, and two officers died by suicide following the riot. Over 315 people have been charged in connection to the Capitol riot, and about forty have been arrested. Rioters brought a host of weapons to the rally, including guns, smoke bombs, stun guns, knives, brass knuckles, as well as other items that could be fashioned into makeshift weapons. 

A large contingent of the rioters who participated in the unrest have direct connections to white supremacist hate groups, as well as extremist and paramilitary groups with histories of violence. Members of Congress had to be quickly evacuated from the Capitol building to avoid confrontations with rioters. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., feared that she would be killed.

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Johnson claimed that the riot "didn't seem like an armed insurrection," saying "I mean 'armed', when you hear 'armed' don't you think of firearms?"

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the largest newspaper in Wisconsin, called on Johnson to resign in an editorial responding to his comments. "Johnson must go," it stated, "It's obvious now that he won't do the honorable thing and resign after violating his oath to support and defend the Constitution. By what he has shown of his character, there is no reason to believe he will keep his campaign promise to not run for a third term when this one expires."

The senator's remarks left some members of Congress outraged. 

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Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., who assisted in managing Trump's second impeachment trial, tweeted: "I reviewed many of the videos and statements we submitted during the Impeachment trial. The mob murdered a police officer and injured 140 other officers. They would have hurt you if they got their hands on you. That's why Senators hid that day. Remember?"

In a Saturday interview on MSNBC, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., called Johnson's statement a "damning commentary, but certainly not surprising."

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Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., a Democrat representing Wisconsin's 2nd District, tweeted that Johnson's remarks were "seriously embarrassing to our state." Wisconsin's Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin called Johnson's comment an example of systemic racism, comparing them to claims made earlier this week by Republican Rep. Glenn Grothman about Black Lives Matter supporters being anti-family. 

Tom Nelson, a county executive who is seeking the Democratic nomination to run against Johnson should he run for a third term, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Johnson had reached "a new despicable low." Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, another potential Johnson challenger, slammed his as "a racist and is unfit to serve the people of Wisconsin." Lasry told the Journal Sentinel that "There is no missing context here. He knew what he was saying, he knew he shouldn't say it, but this is who he is."

Republicans, however, have so far refused to condemn Johnson's remarks

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Johnson has denied that his statements harbored any racial animus. He told WISN-AM later on Monday, "It has nothing to do with race. It has everything to do with riots. I completely did not anticipate that anybody could interpret what I said as racist. It's not."

"Remember those leftist activists, those protesters, that some of them turned into riots, a lot of them are white," Johnson added. "So there's no racism involved in this at all."

To make his case, Johnson earlier cited data on the Black Lives Matter protests which have taken place since the summer of last year. "Out of 7,750 protests last summer associated with BLM and Antifa," he said, "570 turned into violent riots that killed 25 people and caused $1-$2 billion of property damage. That's why I would have been more concerned."

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Johnson's office did not supply a source for the data. But a representative from the organization which appears to have produced the study, The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), said that Johnson left out key context.

"In many of these cases police took a heavy-handed approach to break up the protests, prompting clashes with demonstrators and escalating the event into violence," said Sam Jones, senior communications manager for ACLED, "Additionally, in some cases, violent or destructive behavior may have broken out as a result of aggressive intervention by counter-demonstrators or non-state actors like militia groups, and BLM-linked demonstrations were also targeted in dozens of car-ramming attacks throughout the year. It would be inaccurate and misleading to frame all of these events as 'BLM riots."

ACLED's study determined that, of the 10,600 demonstrations that swept the country from May 24 to Aug. 22, nearly 95 percent of them were entirely peaceful.

In late February, Johnson spread the erroneous conspiracy theory that outside actors, such as Antifa, infiltrated the riot and stoked violence for political reasons. 

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Johnson, one of Trump's most vocal backers in the former President's effort to overturn the election results, has not publicly expressed any intention to serve out his third term starting in 2022. His seat could make for a key target for Democrats in the upcoming Senate race.


Jon Skolnik

Jon Skolnik is a staff writer at Salon. His work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Baffler, AlterNet, and The New York Daily News.

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Black Lives Matter Blm Capitol Riot Ron Johnson White Supremacy