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Will appealing to white grievance be the ticket for the GOP in 2022? Ron Johnson may be the test case.

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Johnson has made several statements downplaying the seriousness of the attack, saying earlier this month that he would have been more “concerned” had the rioters been affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Now, had the tables been turned — now, Joe, this will get me in trouble — had the tables been turned 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,” he told conservative radio host Joe Pagliarulo.

And this past Saturday, he falsely claimed that there was no violence on the Senate side of the Capitol despite video showing Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman trying to lead rioters who’d broken into the Capitol away from the Senate chamber where lawmakers were sheltering in place inside. And in a recent interview with the New York Times, he indicated that the protesters were not Trump supporters despite many of them waving Trump flags and making it clear to the media and others that they were storming the Capitol at what they saw as the invitation of the former president.

“I think I know them pretty well,” Johnson said of Trump supporters. “I don’t know any Trump supporter who would have done what the rioters did.”

The lawmaker is facing some criticism from within his own party, but not a significant amount, in part because Johnson is ideologically where much of the Republican Party is in the post-Trump era — which is not completely “post-Trump.”

Paul Nolette, chair of the political science department at Marquette University in Milwaukee said that Johnson’s language and views appear to differ significantly from what he espoused when he first ran for the Senate in 2010. And the changes likely have to do with shifts in the state’s GOP.

“For the most part, the Republican suburbs have stayed Republican here in Wisconsin but the things that a lot of the suburban voters — particularly around Milwaukee — don’t particularly care for is Trump’s style and his politics,” the professor said. “And Republicans have seen their support drop in those surrounding counties during the Trump era.”

“So Johnson, who was kind of the perfect fit back in 2010 for those Republican suburbs is much less of a good fit now for those suburbs and a much more of a good fit for some of the rural areas in the state, which have turned quite a bit more Republican in the last few years where Trump remains popular,” Nolette added.

Johnson’s comments came a week after Rep. Glenn Grothman (R.-Wis.) was criticized for arguing that there were components of the $1.9 trillion stimulus plan that penalized those who choose to marry by expanding the earned income tax credit for single people. Because Black Americans have lower marriage rates than White Americans, Grothman was perceived as perpetuating the stereotype that Black people do not value the traditional family structure — something he went on communicate in his jab at the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I bring it up because I know the strength that Black Lives Matter had in this last election,” Grothman said about the movement that helped defeat Trump. “I know it’s a group that doesn’t like the old-fashioned family — [I am] disturbed that we have another program here in which we’re increasing the marriage penalty.”

And Johnson’s comments last week came days after a dozen Republicans opposed Congressional Gold Medals for police who protected them during the attempt to overturn the election. These words and votes appear to be part of an effort to reshape the public’s consciousness on what happened on Jan. 6. They said they objected to the use of the term “insurrectionists” in the resolution.

Stuart Stevens, who was a top adviser on Sen. Mitt Romney’s (R-Utah) presidential campaign before becoming one of the most vehement Republican voices against Trump, criticized Johnson and other GOP lawmakers for leaning into racist rhetoric, ideas and policies that are at the core of what the modern GOP has become.

“The Republican Party has become very comfortable with the formalization of becoming an official White grievance party,” he said. “It’s a moment not unlike same-sex marriage where Republicans are just completely on the wrong side of the cultural war. And they just don’t understand this.”

But not all conservative lawmakers are attempting to gaslight Americans over the events of Jan. 6. Retiring Sen. Roy Blunt (D-Mo.) criticized Johnson’s efforts to rewrite the history of what happened on Jan. 6.

“We don’t need to try and explain away or come up with alternative versions. We all saw what happened,” he said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I think it was absolutely unacceptable and we can’t let that kind of thing be repeated again in our country.”

Jabs from the right against Black activists aren’t surprising or new. Activists who focus on anti-Black police violence are largely unpopular with Republican voters — many of whom are White and expressed outrage about the physical destruction in some urban areas last summer following the police killing of George Floyd in police custody.

And perhaps that leads some GOP lawmakers to conclude that making comments about them won’t offend the base that they work hard to keep pleased. A lawmaker’s suggesting that a violent insurrection would only concern him if it was done by Black activists reinforces some of the worst stereotypes about Black people — and is one of the reasons the GOP has a hard time connecting with Black voters.

But the GOP cannot lean into racist tropes in some of the more competitive districts and states that are filled with suburban voters and independents — two groups that the party lost in 2020 in part because of their discomfort with the racial rhetoric of the former president, which often included racist attacks against Black Lives Matter.

Republicans lost Wisconsin in 2020 in part due to increased turnout among Black voters hoping to remove Trump from office as well as an increase in independent and suburban votes against the former president. Comments and votes from some GOP lawmakers give the impression that the party has little interest in changing that but is instead leaning into its perception as the party of White voters anxious about the changing cultural landscape of America.

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