In appreciation of Senator David Johnson

Perhaps due to the fact that he had a tendency to show up unannounced at meetings halfway across the state, I had the honor of meeting State Senator David Johnson (I-Ocheyedan) on multiple occasions, and I always left our encounters vaguely optimistic that lawmakers who spoke freely, acted in the public interest and refused to box themselves in with the Democrats or Republicans on every issue weren’t a completely extinct species.


As it turns out, my hope may have been misplaced. Last week, citing the prospect of an almost certain defeat in a far northwest Iowa district that makes Grundy County feel like San Francisco by comparison and a desire to spend more time with his disparate family, Johnson officially threw in the towel. The former newspaperman and dairy farmer will wrap up a nearly 20-year political career when he leaves the Capitol in January, but as you may know if you’ve heard the name, he’ll always be remembered for the last two.


In 2016, the generally straightforward conservative left the GOP over its wholehearted embrace of then candidate and now Tweeter-in-Chief Donald Trump, and he’s been an unapologetic pariah ever since, ruffling the feathers of his former colleagues over agricultural policy, the state’s financial outlook and a ban on so-called “sanctuary cities.”


What happened next won’t surprise anyone. Johnson was stripped of his committee assignments, completely ostracized from the partisan cliques that have come to define Des Moines and called everything from Benedict Arnold to Judas among the faithful back home in a Dutch Reformed area still struggling to cope with the very existence of homosexuals.


“Your personal decision left us, as chairs, past chairs, central committee members for over 18 years, in a situation where we cannot, and will not, in good faith, continue to support you as our senator,” a group of local Republican leaders wrote in a 2016 letter printed in the uber-conservative N’West Iowa REVIEW. “You recklessly abandoned your party, your supporters, your constituents and your friends by declaring a ‘no affiliation’ status.”


It all makes perfect sense. Nothing says stringent social conservatism like supporting Trump. But Johnson, in his own way, persevered even as he became keenly aware that his days were numbered: he had the nerve to question the Iowa GOP’s cozy relationship with the Farm Bureau, criticized a water quality bill that lacks any benchmarks or enforcement, lamented the legislature’s enthusiastic union-busting and pointed out the obvious insanity of a tax plan that blows a massive hole in the budget.


Rest assured, whoever takes Johnson’s seat, whether it’s Steve King protégé Zach Whiting, Spirit Lake pizza executive Brad Price or Emmetsburg entrepreneur Jesse Wolfe (though, I should add, Whiting is far and away the worst of the three options), will almost certainly stick to the script like the famous drill sergeant from “Full Metal Jacket” is standing behind him preparing a lashing for the moment he doesn’t.


If Johnson’s ordeal has taught us anything, it’s that leaving one of the two major parties in a country where the founders vigorously denounced such a system is the cardinal sin of politics—not violating every basic norm of human decency and presidential decorum, making up the rules as you go, admiring murderous, autocratic dictators from afar or turning the average press conference into an episode of “Jerry Springer” full of people wearing expensive suits instead of sweatpants and oversized flannel shirts.


Progressives can find plenty to hate about the outgoing Senator: he’s always been firmly pro-life, and he once told a Waterloo teacher who e-mailed him about a lack of new money for school districts to “quit whining.” He’s nobody’s darling. He’s also nobody’s shill.


But Johnson never consulted a focus group before getting in front of a podium, never worried about how his donors would feel and, thanks to his media background, never shied away from an opportunity to stir the pot. He was an unvarnished, unfiltered original, and in the end, that made him unelectable.


The only advice I can give to the aggrieved masses clamoring for more scalps in the wake of the “Roseanne” cancellation is this: spare us all the fake outrage.


Liberals, it’s absolutely true that your media personalities have a free pass to write or yell whatever they want about Donald Trump. The only one who’s faced real backlash is Kathy Griffin, and while she undoubtedly has the right to carry around a fake severed head, most people would agree that she crossed a pretty clear line there.


Beyond that, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Bill Maher, Samantha Bee, Keith Olbermann (side note: relax deplorables, he’ll get himself fired again soon enough) and John Oliver are still on the air and still spouting off about the president whenever they get the chance—as they should be. If the bosses of their private companies decide to can them, that’s their call.


And conservatives, don’t act as if your senses are suddenly irreversibly offended after you held your noses and voted for a man best known for the “Access Hollywood” tape and using social media as a cudgel in repeated attempts to delegitimize the views of anyone who doesn’t completely agree with him. You got what you paid for, and we’re now stuck in a never-ending vicious cycle of crude insults and moronic “Whataboutism” as a means of excusing undeniably racist language.


A prime local example of the phenomenon is right wing Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier columnist and UNI Professor Dennis Clayson, who’s in hot water after penning a Men’s Rights screed decrying the “toxic femininity” of modern America and proclaiming that “only a re-introduction of masculine values will save us.”


From my vantage point, it seems that Clayson is nothing more than a troll in the mold of his political hero, Trump: he’d love to be dropped by the newspaper and/or fired by the university because he knows he’d be an instant martyr in the conservative movement, and he’d land on “Fox and Friends” within a week.


So, please, whoever makes these decisions, keep the professor onboard and let natural forces determine whether or not there’s a market for his views. Whenever he sits down at the keyboard or rants against Karl Marx and Susan B. Anthony during another lecture that his students tune out in favor of their smartphones, he’ll just dig himself a deeper hole.


Then again, I’m sure plenty of people say the same about me.