Adam Kinzinger is the kind of Republican that Democrats say we need in Congress to put American politics on a more even keel.
Throughout Donald Trump’s rise to power, Kinzinger, a 43-year-old Republican representative from Illinois, grew more wary of the president’s willingness to stay inside the boundaries of his executive authority and more convinced that Trump would try to dismantle democratic institutions that got in his way. Kinzinger was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for “incitement of insurrection,” and he’s one of only two Republicans, along with Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, sitting on the House select committee to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
But while Democrats say they want a Republican like Kinzinger, when presented with a real-life example, it becomes clear that a lot of them don’t really mean it. Democrats in Illinois redrew Kinzinger’s district on unfavorable terms and essentially ended his career in the House. “I think that what it says to people is that you want Republican allies in the defense of democracy until it’s politically advantageous to not,” Kinzinger says.
Kinzinger announced last month he won’t run again, another setback for a politician who was once seen as destined for bigger things. A veteran of the Iraq War, a principled and cleareyed conservative who avoided the kind of culture-wars talk that had become increasingly prevalent on Fox News and Facebook, Kinzinger was frequently the subject of presidential chatter.
That is, until he started opposing former President Donald Trump. As he (mildly) puts it, he is now “persona non grata,” censured by his party and shunned by some members of his own family.
Now, as he contemplates his future, the question is: Who is left to cheer him on, besides the lonely island of Never-Trump conservatives (like me)? Because while everyone says they want a Republican like Adam Kinzinger, when presented with a real-life example, it’s not clear that anyone wants a Republican like Adam Kinzinger. I sat down with him to discuss a potential run for president, what lies ahead for the GOP that left him behind, the Jan. 6 insurrection, and whether he has any regrets.
So, who are Adam Kinzinger voters?
Well, there’s about six people. I can give you their names. Look, I think there is a large group of people that are Republican, independent, and Democratic that, if you asked them, “Do you feel like you deeply belong to a party, or do you feel politically homeless?” would say “politically homeless.” I think right now the biggest problem in our political system is that we’re arguing the same solutions to the same problems we did when Ronald Reagan was elected. If we stay in the same battles our parents have been fighting with each other, it’s not going to change.
But don’t you have to want to solve problems to do that? It feels like today’s politics favors leaving systems broken, so you can run on them and fundraise off them.
On immigration, particularly, we’ve come so close, many times, to real, comprehensive immigration [reform]. And it’s always the extremes that tank it, 100 percent of the time. But it’s a two-way street. On guns, if your answer to me is that gun bans are the only way to solve violent crime, and you’re not going to listen to a thing about mental health, we’re not going to have a conversation. That’s why I think there has to be a radical kind of soft revolution in how we do politics. We can change the system. We can change the narrative. But it’s going to take the younger generation, which I’ll put myself in.
So, are you the leader of that radical revolution?
I don’t know if I want to be the leader of the radical revolution. But I think I can put a voice to what people have been thinking, but they don’t necessarily know. If you’re in the matrix, right, and you’re convinced that the only answer, if you don’t like Joe Biden, is Donald Trump, and, if you don’t like Donald Trump, it’s Joe Biden, there’s this little political matrix you’re in. Every issue is binary. You’re either pro-life or pro-choice. Pro-gun or anti-gun.
Outside the matrix is this whole, beautiful array of candidates, of ideas, of solutions. The inner city and the rural town are diametrically opposed, politically. But they have the same issues, they’re confronting the same problems: drug use, broken homes, hopelessness, no jobs available. They should actually be politically aligned, but the parties have convinced them to oppose each other. So, am I the leader? Look, I’ll put [my PAC] Country First out there and see what people say. It’s been growing fast.
How do you feel about not returning to Congress?
When I landed in D.C. on Monday, it was the first time I ever landed in the District and didn’t feel a seriously major, heavy weight land on top of me. I can’t explain it, but every member that announces they’re not running again tells me the same thing.
Do you blame Republicans for driving out conservatives like you, or Democrats for redistricting?
I think this is an important point — I’m not disappointed. I get so many people who call me like, “How’re you doing?” like I just lost somebody. I’m doing great, honestly. But I blame Democrats for drawing that map. And I think that what it says to people is that you want Republican allies in the defense of democracy until it’s politically advantageous to not. To me, that means they don’t understand how real the threat to democracy is.
Speaking of, take me back to Jan. 6.
I knew there was going to be violence. I didn’t necessarily know they were going to sack the Capitol, but I knew there was going to be violence. In fact, I warned [House Minority Leader] Kevin McCarthy two days prior to it. And he was very dismissive of it, of course. But I asked my staff to stay home. I came in, it was kind of a normal morning. I was watching Trump’s speech and it was crazy, like usual. I remember seeing [Donald Trump] Jr. say, “This is now Trump’s party.” And I’m like, well that’s creepy. And then Trump says, “I’m going to go with you to the Capitol.” I’m like, “Man, this is bad.” So I went down for the opening of the certification. And then I left, pretty much when the proceedings started, and then spent basically the next six hours in my office, hunkered down, with my gun out, prepared to defend against my own party.
Were you ever genuinely scared?
Yeah. I’d say maybe it’s around 2:30 p.m., and there was a moment where I was like, “Man, there’s a real sense of evil.” I can’t explain it any further than that. And I’m not one of these guys that feels evil a lot. But I just felt a real darkness, like a thick, bad feeling. And there was about a 15- to 30-minute time frame, where, at one point, you realize they’ve breached the Capitol. I know if they can breach those outer lines, they can get anywhere, including my office. And I had been targeted on Twitter that day and prior, like, “Hangman’s noose. We’re coming for you.” And people know where my office is. So I barricaded myself in here, thinking, “If this is as bad as it seems, they may end up at my office, breaking this crap down, and I may have to do what I can.”
So, you contemplated having to discharge your firearm on American citizens?
Yeah, I thought about it. If you’re already at a point where you’re beating down police officers, and you’re willing to sack the U.S. Capitol, which hadn’t been done in hundreds of years, if you come face-to-face with Chief RINO in his office, who doesn’t believe that Donald Trump won reelection, yeah, they’re going to try to fight and kill me, and I’m not going to let that happen.
Do people like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) genuinely believe what they’re saying, whether it’s that the election was stolen or the insurrection was just a protest, etc.?
I think nobody believes what they’re saying, with few exceptions. There’s been a belief now that the ends justify the means, so we’ll say whatever to get power, and the power will be the victory. Well, in self-governing, when you self-govern, the ends can’t justify the means because you break real, basic trust. You and I can hate each other, but we have to agree that our vote counts.
Will there be a price to pay for Republicans who enabled him?
I think in the short term, there will be no price they will have to pay. I think in the short term, stoking division, using the fear and darkness, will win the midterms in 2022. In the long term, this will destroy the GOP. Or it will destroy the country, because this is an unsustainable path.
And the problem is, when you have a two-year election cycle, and you look at all these “treasures” we’re going to gain if we gain the majority, it’s easy to put the moral reasons for not doing certain things aside. I mean, when the NRCC puts out a test message to its current donors that opens with, “You are a traitor!” you realize we have scraped the bottom of the barrel to fundraise. And it works, unfortunately.
There were a lot of warning signs over the course of Trump’s administration that he’d try to dismantle democratic institutions if they became inconvenient. Did Republicans — including you — ignore some of those signs?
I think so. At the beginning of the Trump administration, he put really good people around him. They gave us a little hope that a lot of it was an act, that these people would keep him on the right path. And then he started to pare them off for loyalty. I think the big thing was, obviously, in the first impeachment with Ukraine — I want to be clear — If I went back in time, I would vote for the first impeachment. That is a regret I have, that I didn’t.
But I want to be clear on that. It was at the end of the year, and the Democrats had made the decision they had to rush this through and vote for impeachment. We were wanting witnesses. I mean, I actually went into that with an open mind. If they proved [it], I will vote for impeachment. When they started rushing it, you can say that gave me an excuse, or it gave me a legitimate reason.
When did you realize Trump was dangerous?
Leading up to those moments, when I started to see the president wink and nod towards this QAnon stuff. When you start to see — he had retweeted some pastor about an impending “civil war in America.” For shit’s sake, you can’t do that. You’re the president of the United States. If you’re in the middle of a civil war, you shouldn’t be tweeting about a civil war. That’s the kind of stuff, when I look back on it, I’m like, I thought he was a really selfish, self-centered dude, but there were a lot of real destructive tendencies there.
Your wife worked in the administration, for Vice President Pence, until the last year, when she moved to the Department of Homeland Security. So, you’re in Congress, standing up to Trump, and she’s working for him. What was that like?
I’m convinced that there was retribution against her, to an extent, because of me. There were awkward moments, but it is a lot easier that she worked for Mike Pence than Donald Trump, because while I have massive disagreements with what Pence did, with the exception of Jan. 6, he’s a decent human being.
I want to ask about a couple things in the news right now. The first is what happened in those state elections in Virginia and New Jersey.
I think [Democrats] are kind of chasing the wrong thing at the moment. I think this idea that Glenn Youngkin won [Virginia governor] because the Democrats didn’t pass a giant spending bill is probably not very accurate. I think they’re not hearing the voices of the heartland, the people that are disaffected that used to vote for them.
What about the passing of the bipartisan infrastructure bill this week?
I support the legislation passed by the Senate … and voted for its passage. [It] contains significant investments for roads, bridges, rails, seaports, airports, and inland waterways — core infrastructure most Americans agree are in need of improvement.
And paid family leave? You’re going to be a new dad soon.
I’m supportive of it. I never understood the importance of paternity leave until I saw a lot of my friends start having kids. The devil’s in the details. How do we get to an actual agreement? Or is this just going to be a political weapon? We need to rethink how we do things in this country, in terms of encouraging families, encouraging togetherness. People feel so disconnected.
What about the Republicans who came out against Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg for spending time at home with his adopted, prematurely born twins?
I highly doubt that the secretary was totally disconnected from work. Although he probably could have been and should have been. But he has deputies, I’m sure he was in touch. And [Fox News host] Tucker Carlson took nothing but a cheap shot at him because it was a temporary hit of Pixy Stix or a shot of heroin, it makes people feel great, they stay on. The rage works. And he created rage. Talking about Pete Buttigieg learning how to breastfeed — like, c’mon man. You’re obviously ignorant. Which I don’t think. I think Tucker’s really smart. You’re a manipulative son of a bitch who abuses your viewers for your own personal profit.
Lastly, will you run for office again?
I’m looking at governor and senator in Illinois. That’ll be a decision I’ll make by January. And I’m not ruling out anything in 2024, either. It’s not what I’m pursuing. But I also recognize that I have a fire that, while it’s a little quenched here in the House, it’s actually much more ignited for the broader fight. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s the only way I can describe that feeling, which is, going out there, telling the truth, throwing the system under the bus, showing people how the system can work, but has to be reinvented. That’s where I find my fire.