Adam Kinzinger was one of ten House Republicans to vote to impeach Donald Trump over his incitement of the January 6 attack on the Capitol, and for that he was personally attacked by Trump, censured by Republican activists in his Illinois district, and even denounced by members of his own family. Yet the six-term congressman and Air Force veteran isn’t bothered. He spoke to Intelligencer about why he launched a political-action committee to defend Republicans such as himself and move his party back toward the mainstream, and he made a bold prediction: Trump will fade away.
Since you’ve gotten started with Country First, what’s the response been like?
It’s been really good. And I’ll tell you, I’ve had a lot of names I can’t say, but a lot of people, big names that just call me saying “Thanks.” And it’s like the kind of people that it’s surprising but also that’s great. But what’s been really great is just the number of Republicans that have reached out that have been either a bit supportive in the past, or they’re still in the party but they’re concerned, or they want to come back to the party; a number of independents; even some Democrats that just want a normal Republican Party.
There’s been times you’ve been supportive of President Trump and times that you’ve been critical. I mean, is it fair to say that what happened in the aftermath of the election was really the breaking point?
Yes. And that’s where I think I’ve been one of the more outspoken members — not all the time but when necessary, I’ll press him on some things. But there’s a difference between just kind of being a jerk and somebody that won’t accept the election results and has access to convince tens of millions of Americans of a true falsehood. And so when he lost and started to say people were disenfranchised and that’s the narrative. The truth is the 74 million that voted for Trump weren’t disenfranchised, they were enfranchised, there were more people that voted who voted against them. And that’s the kind of thing that can be truly damaging to democracy. And if this democracy shatters and falls, then the bottom line is everything we debate and we’re outraged about today will pale in comparison to the lower on the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that we’re going to have to deal with.
One thing I’ve found covering Washington and covering Trump over the past half-decade is that what folks are willing to say in private, over drinks, is a lot different from what they say in public. Why aren’t folks willing to say the same thing in public that they’re saying in phone calls with you and not going out there and doing the same thing?
So some of the people that have been in office or in politics, I think they will come out and be supportive in time. I think if you’re in office, it’s like, “Hey, I like the idea. Let’s see if it’s successful.” I understand not necessarily wanting to put your career or opportunity to serve on the line. I’ve just been willing to do it in this case because I have to look back at why I got into politics in the first place and say, Okay, it’s to defend America’s role in the world and to defend democracy. So now this I think is defending democracy.
You were relatively supportive of the policies of the administration; is it just about him as a person or is there an actual policy difference at this point?
That’s what we kind of have to I think start thinking differently about. So first off, the president’s policies were basically just the Republican policies that he co-opted. And that’s fine, we’ll take it. But … I think there’s not a common set of understanding among Republicans anymore about what we do stand for. And I think we need to go back to the basics, like what is conservative? It’s not a wall; it’s not even taxes. It’s just opportunity — it’s that a kid should have the same opportunity no matter where they’re born.
But then the other thing is it’s just the reality that peddling in conspiracies and darkness and using fear is detrimental, and it may not be a massive policy difference, but it’s the kind of difference that can actually lead to real damage to the country. Basically, Republicans and Democrats on these kinds of debates have to get away from, “Well, what do you personally believe on policy?” to, “Well, how do we just restore the ability to have differences and hear from each other again?”
If this isn’t a policy thing, this is a fundamental breakdown, because obviously Trump, a president whom you described as unfit, doesn’t happen overnight. And what are the steps you think that got us here?
He’s a symptom but also accelerated it. [The breakdown] started when outrage for profit did — some AM radio shows, Rush Limbaugh, then the blogs. We [rile up] people with fear to make money, because fear and outrage make way more money than happy-go-lucky does. And that’s when I think it started when the media landscape changed. And then you started to hear these voices say, “look, the problem with Republicans, the House Republicans, is they’re not willing to fight like Democrats do.” And so instead of coming in and actually trying to advance conservative policy, it was all about throwing punches.
I think it was super-accelerated when people started learning how to go viral on social media and — look, I don’t know what my name recognition is in the country, but I can make it 100 percent tomorrow by tweeting some crazy stuff … And so it’s easier to feed people the fact that I’m going to be out here to fight and not give up versus the tough medicine of “We’re going to have to do some things Democrats want to to get what we want.” And there’s a number of inflection points, but I think that’s where it started.
Is there concern that’s what voters want? That at the end of the day, they want the fear message? Congress just voted on what will be one of the biggest spending bills in American history, and the message right now on the right is about Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head, as opposed to $1.9 trillion in spending.
The culture war has become predominant, which is unfortunate. And that comes from neither side wanting to actually learn about the struggles of the other. It just leads to mistrust, dehumanization, and the call to battle. But I think in terms of, Is that what the voters want? At the moment, maybe, but I also think fear and anger and division is a very compelling message. And until you can go out and disinfect that fear — I think churches have a lot of blame to bear; they need to go out and be more proactive about this — leaders do — then actual citizens have a responsibility to say, “Hey, what am I feeding myself information-wise and how do I make sure I’m believing truth and not just the stuff that makes me feel good?” And I think we won’t know if that’s something that’s defeatable until we try.
In terms of even trying, that feels like something that hasn’t quite been tried in the Republican Party, that Jeff Flake decided not to run for reelection, Bob Corker decided not to run for reelection. Are you committed to being on the ballot in 2022?
I’m as likely to be on the ballot as I would have been at this point in any election in the past, because I do think there’s a benefit in going forward, obviously in winning … And if I lose, then I lose with my head held high and it’s not a reflection of me; it’s a rejection of what I think ultimately the Republican Party should be. But until we try it, we just won’t know. And the reaction I’m getting is really good. It goes to show that the Republican base is changeable, not just in their opinions but also in who calls themselves a Republican. I mean, we’ve lost. Look back just a few years ago at the suburban women voting Republican that aren’t now. I don’t think we need to write them off. Actually, my message is the kind of thing that can win them back, even if we lose some of the hard-core nationalists in that process.
What is the appetite for the Republican message without the Trumpiness? John McCain didn’t win on that, Mitt Romney didn’t win on that. How do you deal with the fact that there may be a demand for Trumpiness?
I think it’s a fair thesis, but I do think we’re in a different time from then. Nobody imagined, probably even Donald Trump, that him coming out and basically throwing out all the norms out and breaking the system would actually work. You can look today and say maybe it’s just as likely that people are desperate for just some hope and inspiration.
Look at Barack Obama in 2008. I was a big McCain guy, but I knew a lot of Republicans with Obama signs in their yards, not because they were necessarily believing his policies but because he was talking about hope and optimism and they were ready for that. I think it’s possible, especially given the darkness of today, that there is a need for it.
Is there a concern that even if voters don’t want this politics of fear that American political institutions are currently structured in a way that incentivizes it?
They do. And that’s where I’ve noticed when I started right after the impeachment the people would ask me, “What is your district saying?” And I would be like, “Well, my district’s mad.” My district by and large was happy; my base was mad. And because the base usually is in more of the district than not, we start to think of the district as the base and it’s not.
You’re right about polarization. The fact that financial incentives or the money was taken out of the parties in McCain-Feingold and then you had Citizens United that came in and opened all this money up for wealthy billionaires, that changed a lot. And so now you get somebody that’s really wealthy that decides they want to make whatever the issue. So those are two big issues we have to take on.
I think redistricting would be great, I think things like ranked-choice voting are certainly worth looking at, but the bottom line is the incentive structure is backward. But I’ll tell you, when 50 percent of the country does not identify anymore as a Republican or a Democrat, there is deep demand out there for some change because people don’t like feeling unrepresented for long.
There’s obviously talk about defending folks who’ve stood up to Trump in their primaries, but in terms of going after folks in the other way, are you looking to go on offense?
I certainly would be open to it, and I don’t want to take on a fight that I can’t win. So recognizing that somebody that’s in an R-plus-a-bajillion district it would be tough to beat in 2022.
What about dealing with a couple of the new, attention-getting freshmen? Paul Gosar spoke at a white-nationalist rally with Steve King over the weekend.
Yes, right now there’s a lot of intimidation by Donald Trump. But I also have a thesis that every day that goes by, Donald Trump will be less and less important. I think he had a high watermark after impeachment because people rallied around the flag. And I think CPAC was a high watermark because people wanted to see what he had to say, but America moves on from problems, even if we don’t solve them. And I think we’re going to move on from the former guy to the next person.
Is it your estimation that he’s only going to be less and less relevant as time goes on?
Yeah. And I don’t know what level of relevance he’ll have come 2022, but I think it will be less than it is today. And I think it’s particularly less if people actually stand up to him instead of go kiss the ring.
Is there any concern that Democrats will keep on elevating Donald Trump because he has been such an effective foil for them over the past half-decade?
That is a concern. And I guess from the tactical perspective on their end, I get it. They’re also kind of dealing with their own left-wing insurgency. I think they’re just a few years behind us, just they don’t have a Donald Trump.
And do you have any tips for Democrats worried about the same thing happening on their end?
Yeah. I think fight it early. It doesn’t mean that with somebody like AOC, you have to necessarily go after them in a primary. You can find a place for people in the party. Those on the far right — with the exception of white nationalists and that stuff, of course — they can have a place in the party. But because they’re the loudest and the most terroristic, that doesn’t mean you have to feed them. The other thing I would say is, just like you’re going to have these groups that are willing to spend money to say you’re not sufficiently conservative, you have to oppose that on your own side. Groups are going to go after people saying they’re not liberal enough. Then you’re going to have groups that will defend them.
And in terms of the arc of your own career, did you ever imagine in 2009 that you’d be the moderate RINO inside the Republican Party?
Never. It’s interesting, I came out here and realized that I wasn’t as conservative as I thought, because I didn’t have a lot of interaction with southern Republicans, but I was still pretty dang conservative. And then by now, I don’t think I’ve even really changed much. I’ve changed some of my views on some social issues and maybe am a little more moderate on some spending issues, but pretty much the same person, but now I’m a big RINO.
What happens next, where do things go now?
I think a real inflection point is going to be probably after summer and seeing what the polling in the party is, because right now, the emotion of the last few months will start to wear off, we’ll go into policy, Trump will be less and less relevant, I think, and then after time with family over the summer, it’ll be a good time to take a look. And if the party is still bad, it’s in trouble; if it’s making some progress, then we’re winning.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.