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Former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold speaks at the 2016 Wisconsin Democratic Convention in Green Bay. He is facing U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican, in a rematch of their 2010 race. (Photo by Corey Wilson) Former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold speaks at the 2016 Wisconsin Democratic Convention in Green Bay. He is facing U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican, in a rematch of their 2010 race. (Photo by Corey Wilson)

Former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold speaks at the 2016 Wisconsin Democratic Convention in Green Bay. He is facing U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican, in a rematch of their 2010 race. (Photo by Corey Wilson)

Eric Litke
By Eric Litke June 24, 2016

Did Ron Johnson call “The Lego Movie” an anti-business conspiracy?

It’s not every day a U.S. Senate election includes conspiracy claims over an animated children’s movie and a staffer dispatched to visit an opponent dressed as "Lord Business."

It felt like something we should check out.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, took hits from bloggers in May 2015 after criticizing "The Lego Movie" for pushing an anti-business message.

Amid a contentious election that could swing the balance of power in the Senate, challenger Russ Feingold has repeatedly revisited Johnson’s statements, including June 3, 2016, at the state Democratic Party convention in Green Bay.

Amid one of many reminders that he had visited all 72 Wisconsin counties, Feingold said this:

"Something else I didn’t hear around the state is that, as Sen. Johnson said, that ‘The Lego Movie’ — he said this — that ‘The Lego Movie’ is an insidious, anti-business conspiracy. I didn’t hear that. My grandkids don’t even think that."

Did a sitting U.S. senator claim Hollywood is in cahoots with anti-business forces elsewhere to bring their insidious doctrine to the masses?

What Johnson said

"The Lego Movie" — which was released in February 2014 and brought in almost $500 million worldwide — follows the exploits of an extraordinarily average Lego construction worker named Emmet. The Washington Post described him as "an unthinking worshipper at the consumerist temples that President Business has erected to distract his citizens from Business’ evil plan to freeze them into a state of perfection."

In short, President Business — later revealed to be the sinister Lord Business — is trying to glue all the Legos together to keep everything in its proper place, and Emmet and his team of master builders want to maintain freedom and creativity.

We eventually learn the plot stems from the imagination of a young boy playing with Legos belonging to his businessman father, who plans to, yes, glue them together to keep everything in its proper place.

So what did Johnson say? From March to May 2015 he commented on the movie in various forums including comments to the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram and Wispolitics.com, a small group in Cedarburg and in a since-deleted blog post on his official Senate site.

In the various comments, Johnson made multiple references to leftist control of education and the media and repeatedly referred to "The Lego Movie" as anti-business, though not in those direct words.

As WisPolitics.com, phrased it in a May 28, 2015, post, Johnson "lamented what he called a ‘cultural attitude’ that ‘government is good and business is bad,’ giving as an example the animated ‘Lego’ movie, in which the villain is called ‘Lord Business.’

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"That's done for a reason," Johnson told the site. "They're starting that propaganda, and it's insidious."

Johnson noted in his blog post the same day that his comments were inspired by a Wall Street Journal column criticizing the anti-business tone of the movie.

So Johnson clearly called the movie ‘insidious’ and implied it was anti-business, but there’s no conspiracy claim. (Merriam-Webster defines a conspiracy as "a secret plan made by two or more people to do something that is harmful or illegal.")

When questioned on the "conspiracy" claim, Feingold’s campaign provided a dozen links to stories on Johnson and "The Lego Movie," but no evidence that Johnson had called it a conspiracy.

A Feingold spokesman noted only that Johnson mentioned the movie to the Leader-Telegram two days after describing to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce how "the radical left" controls the university system, education system, news media, entertainment media and "more and more of our courts." The coverage of that talk also did not include any more direct reference to a conspiracy.

And the conspiracy claim was notably absent when Feingold’s campaign hammered Johnson on "The Lego Movie" several weeks before the Democratic convention speech.

The campaign issued a news release May 14 and even sent a press assistant to Johnson’s Milwaukee office dressed as Lord Business, asserting he and Johnson were friends. The character offered to endorse the senator if he supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement backed by the Obama administration.

Is the movie anti-business?

As long as we’re on the topic, are Johnson and other commentators right to call the movie anti-business?

However you summarize the plot, it is a feature-length piece of product placement, which seems a curious frame for anti-business propaganda. And while being "anti-business" is an opinion, it’s worth noting the creators at least didn’t intend it that way.

Philip Lord, who co-wrote and co-directed the movie, described it as an "anti-totalitarian film for children. Something that was talking about the importance of freedom and innovation in keeping society honest."

When asked to respond on Twitter to the anti-business claims last year, Lord said: "Art deserves many interpretations, even wrong ones."

Our rating

Feingold told a hall full of Democrats that his opponent called "The Lego Movie" an "insidious, anti-business conspiracy."

Johnson used the word "insidious" to describe the movie on multiple occasions and repeatedly referred to it as anti-business, though not in so many words. But Feingold is wrong on the boldest and most significant part of the claim.

A conspiracy implies a specific fact – that some great hidden hand or collusion is at work to indoctrinate the masses. And it’s something Johnson never said.

We rate Feingold’s claim Half True.

https://www.sharethefacts.co/share/a8bce5ab-0679-4245-95b8-b779a490875f

Our Sources

YouTube, Democratic Party of Wisconsin State Convention – Day 1, held June 3, 2016

Email exchange and phone conversations with Michael Tyler, spokesman for Russ Feingold campaign, June 7-13, 2016

Email exchange with William Allison, spokesman for Ron Johnson campaign, June 7-9, 2016

International Business Times, Fox News Takes Aim at The Lego Movie for Being ‘Anti-Capitalist,’ Feb. 10, 2014

Merriam-Webster Dictionary, definition of conspiracy, accessed June 8, 2016

WisPolitics.com, Johnson explains his vote for Sensenbrenner's USA Freedom Act, May 28, 2015

Wall Street Journal, Businessmen as Hollywood Bogeymen, Doug Haugh, March 5, 2015

Archived version of Ron Johnson blog post, Archive.org, The totally unheard-of idea that movies like making businessmen the villain, May 28, 2015

Interview with Patrick McIlheran, communications director for Ron Johnson (senate office), June 8, 2016

Huffington Post, GOP Senator Quietly Removes Blog Posts That May Have Violated Ethics Rules, Aug. 5, 2015

BoxOfficeMojo.com, The Lego Movie, accessed June 8, 2016

The Washington Post, Nerd culture gains the world and in 2014, recovers some of its lost soul, Dec. 29, 2014

Roll Call, The Two Sides of Ron Johnson’s Agenda, March 12, 2015

The Guardian, The Lego Movie writer/directors: ‘We Wanted to make an anti-totalitarian movie for kids’, December 12, 2014

Twitter, Philip Lord, Feb. 8, 2014

YouTube, Ron Johnson on LEGO Movie (Ron Johnson speech in Cedarburg in May 2015)

YouTube, Lord Business Visits Sen. Ron Johnson’s Milwaukee Office pt. 1, posted May 12, 2016

YouTube, Lord Business Visits Sen. Ron Johnson’s Milwaukee Office pt. 2, posted May 12, 2016

Feingold press release, From the Desk of Lord Business, May 14, 2016

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