OPED: Don't give demagogues a pass
Who knows what the Trump administration was expecting when it hired Jamie Johnson, a conservative Christian pastor and former talk-radio host from Iowa to head a center for outreach in the Department of Homeland Security. Sure, Johnson had worked for Donald Trump's presidential election. He's a pastor, and the center he headed is for faith-based and neighborhood partnerships.
But did he have the right attitude for the job? Was he qualified to build partnerships with people of other faiths and races? Did anyone vet his attitudes toward women, African-Americans or Muslims?
Evidently not, because when CNN this month shared a range of on-air comments Johnson made between 2008 and 2016, it led that same day to Johnson's resignation. And rightly so.
In recordings, including on WHO Radio in Des Moines, Johnson blames the black community for turning major U.S. cities into slums "because of laziness, drug use and sexual promiscuity." He compares African-Americans with Jews, expressing admiration for the latter. He contends Islam is inherently violent and that "Muslims want to cut our heads off." He calls it an ideology posing as a religion and calls for a leader who "understands" that. He repeats a quote that says Islam's only contribution to society is "oil and dead bodies."
Those are not attitudes you'd want in someone responsible for helping secure communities against hazards, respond to disasters and attacks and prevent human trafficking. His comments suggest he'd do little for groups he had so little respect for.
Acting DHS Press Secretary Tyler Houlton has been quoted saying of Johnson, "His comments made prior to joining the Department of Homeland Security clearly do not reflect the values of DHS."
It's disturbing that such offensive and bogus claims passed muster even with the radio stations he appeared on, especially WHO, where he guest-hosted "Mickelson in the Morning." I asked Mike Dorwart, program director there since 2015, about Johnson's comments. He said he had never heard him make those statements but that hosts are entitled to their opinions and tend to say things for "shock value." Still, "any time anybody makes a disparaging statement about an entire class of people, that's not how we do things at WHO," said Dorwart.
But apparently it was.
I sent Dorwart the link to the CNN story with the audio recordings identified as being from WHO. Dorwart emailed back to say he had no way to verify the recordings were from that station, but "I didn't hear anything on those clips attributed to WHO that would be of special concern. WHO hosts are encouraged to have strong and informed opinions, defend those opinions, and engage our listeners and guests in lively discussion."
As someone in the opinion business, I don't find Johnson's comments informed, lively or appropriate. They're disgusting and untrue, and it's shocking he would get away with them. Were there no indignant calls to the station, no boycott threats from the targeted groups?
Other actions by Johnson show a pattern of intolerance for other groups of people or other individuals' views. In 2014 Johnson called on his fellow Iowa Republican Party committee members to fire then-Chairman A.J. Spiker because Spiker had advocated for the legalization of medical marijuana in a guest column in the Register.
"Mr. Spiker is no longer worthy of the chairmanship of our state party, neither does he deserve to serve out his final week in office," Johnson posted on the Register's website.
Last year Johnson supported an Iowa Republican Party platform calling for the U.S. and Iowa constitutions to be amended to define marriage as "the legal union between one natural man and one natural woman." That was after Iowa same-sex couples had already been married for seven years under an Iowa Supreme Court ruling.
There's at least one more bombshell CNN didn't cover because it was expressed not on radio but in an email Johnson sent while working for Rick Santorum's presidential campaign in 2012. He claimed children would be harmed if women led institutions. "The question then comes, 'Is it God's highest desire, that is, his biblically expressed will ... to have a woman rule the institutions of the family, the church, and the state?'" the email asked.
GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann's staff later used that in her claim that sexism played a role in her defeat in the Iowa caucuses.
This probably isn't just an Iowa problem but one that affects any state or city in America in which people cloister ourselves among others of our own backgrounds and stereotype the rest.Too many give demagogues like Johnson a pass because he lets them feel superior.
Let's treat this as a cautionary tale. Let's call on our opinion shapers instead of scapegoating groups they know nothing about — for shock value or anything else — to show how to seek out and find points of common ground.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.