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Rep. Adam Kinzinger on being ostracized by GOP: ‘Sometimes it feels good’

The Illinois Republican talks about tribalism, the Jan. 6 investigation, political violence and whether the GOP can be saved.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Adam Kinzinger speaks during an interview in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021.

Illinois Republican Adam Kinzinger has been in Congress since 2010 but became a prominent media presence after criticizing former President Donald Trump’s false claims of voter fraud and efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

Kinzinger was one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. He was one of two Republicans to vote in favor of a committee to investigate the Jan. 6 attack and was subsequently appointed to the committee by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Because of his stand, Kinzinger has found himself ostracized by members of his own party.

“I think we’re at a moment right now where people are putting their loyalty to a party over a loyalty to the country,” Kinzinger said during an interview with The Tribune in Salt Lake City.

Kinzinger served in the U.S. Air Force, where he flew missions in Afghanistan and was stationed in Iraq. To him, those countries demonstrate the fragile moment the U.S. is facing.

“I’ve seen places that have been torn up by tribalism. Iraq. Afghanistan is a great example,” Kinzinger said.

Friday, Kinzinger revealed he was not running for re-election next year. “My disappointment in the leaders that don’t lead is huge,” he said in a video announcing his decision.

Kinzinger spent a few days in Utah working on some projects he “can’t say anything about yet.” He also hosted a roundtable discussion about politics for independent U.S. Senate candidate Evan McMullin, who he has been friends with for several years, beginning with McMullin’s time as a House staffer. He spoke about conflicts with his fellow Republicans, the investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection and the threat of political violence.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been essentially “cast into darkness” by your own party.

Sometimes it feels good.

It feels good?

Sometimes

I’ve heard you say things like the Republican party is “friggin crazy.” What does it mean when you say something like that? You’re someone who has spent your life in the Republican Party.

I became a Republican as a kid. The thing I loved about it was the pro-Americanness. You could say it was “America first,” but that’s been tainted now. This idea about American strength isn’t about us. It’s about our role in the world. We have a role, a mission. A small government is important, not because we hate this or hate that, but because it gives people an opportunity to rise. We’ve pivoted away from this pretty quickly. Some of this started years ago but was certainly accelerated under the recent president.

I feel real peace about it because I know no matter what the cost if we continue down this trajectory, our basic democracy cannot survive.

For self-governance to work, you have to have a basic level of trust between people, the furthest left person and the furthest right person. You have to have a basic level of trust. That means we’re going to vote. We’re going to count the votes, and we’re going to deal with the consequences.

When you convince half of the country that the election was fraudulent, or stolen, or not real, you shatter that basic level of trust. That is the most important issue right now.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Adam Kinzinger and Evan McMullin in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021.

Have you been surprised at how quickly some of the people who were considered rising stars in the Republican party — I think of Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz — people who were seen as the future of the party, how quickly they abandoned their principles to get in line behind Donald Trump?

Absolutely. It used to surprise me. But now I kind of recognize what happens. People don’t want to be kicked out of a tribe.

For most people in politics, their biggest desire is to stay or to climb, or to survive. If you’re in a tribe, that’s the formula you have to follow right now. The reason that’s the formula right now is that more leaders haven’t stood up or told the truth, which is the election was legitimate.

If you lost, that’s when you go back to the drawing board and figure out how to win over more people. That’s the truth. If we shy away from that and instead just say whatever we need in order to get elected, it’s no wonder most of the Republican base believes the election was stolen. Nobody has told them otherwise.

You’re on the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection. The things we’re starting to learn publicly are shocking. There was a Rolling Stone article alleging some members of Congress were involved in planning some of the events leading up to Jan. 6. How surprised are you by some of the things you’ve learned from that investigation?

I’m not too shocked. I knew before Jan. 6 this could turn violent.

You actually warned people about that.

Two days before that, I was talking to (House Minority Leader) Kevin McCarthy. I said there is going to be violence, and he dismissed it. “Thank you, next caller.” So he owns that now.

No, I’m not surprised by what I’m learning. I’ll tell you, it’s pretty impactful, and I think there’s more to come over the next number of months. We’re going to turn every stone we can.

The real question is, will people see the truth and believe it? I hope so. I’m a little cynical.

But what matters most to me is not what people think when the report comes out in the coming months. What matters to me is in five and 10 years what the history books say. If we don’t have a true and full accounting of Jan. 6 — and every day that goes by, we don’t — there are new conspiracies that come out. It’s the FBI. It’s Antifa. It’s everything else. We need a full accounting of the truth for us today and for our kids in the future.

Were you aware of the memo from John Eastman before it appeared in the Bob Woodward book?

No.

That memo is an illustration this was a very serious attempt at a coup. A lot of people feel we were lucky because the execution was haphazard, but we came extremely close to it working.

We did, and we came so close that just a few local elected officials could have changed the dynamic. Had [Georgia secretary of state] Brad Raffensberger fallen to the demands of Trump. Had Stephen Richer in Maricopa County gone with the demands of Trump, had any number of Republican officials. But, what’s scary to me now is the effort by some of the “stop the steal” crowd to replace those people. I’m worried about 2024. This was a dry run, and it got close. 2024 could work.

Even if it’s not a coup, the more you damage trust between people, you’ll never come back. What worries me is we just kind of have this feeling as Americans that things are going to come back to how they were or that somebody is going to come along and fix things. That’s been our history, and hopefully, that’s the case again. But it takes truth to do it, and it takes understanding. Our kids have not seen an example of mature politics in many years. We can’t expect them to suddenly adopt decorum in debates when we haven’t shown them how in a decade.

Have you seen the video of the Turning Point USA event in Idaho where the audience member got on the microphone and asked when they can start killing people who are stealing elections? How worried are you that politically-motivated violence is going to become normalized in America?

I’m very worried. As a massive Second Amendment defender, I want to be clear. I’m worried about the difference between protecting Second Amendment rights and creating a gun fetish. Or, this desire, as some people have talked about, for overthrowing the government.

If the government makes you take a vaccine, you’re going to overthrow it? I’m not sure that’s what the founding fathers had in mind. If the government is providing healthy options to you, you overthrow it?

There’s just this desire and demand right now in our country. When I saw people occupying the Michigan State House with AR-15s, that was a major concern because you can only escalate from there. It’s not going to take long before somebody gets angry enough to do something that sparks something larger.

A lot of people that think it’s time to overthrow the government probably truly believe it because they’ve heard nobody tell them differently. There are members of Congress that are scared to stand up to people and say, “Guys, this is wrong.” It’s just easier to keep quiet. They have an election coming up, and they don’t want to tick off these people. For Senators, who are only up for election every six years, not to say anything just blows my mind.

Do you think the Republican Party can be saved? Should it be saved?

I think it can be. I think it should be. But, it’s a question of whether it will. That’s what I want to focus on fighting for, not just saving the GOP and not just saving conservatism, but saving our whole political system.

I’m going to continue fighting for the soul of the Republican Party, but we have to change the way people think about tribalism.

The Democrats have their own extreme issue they’re dealing with now. They’re about five years behind where we were. It’s not just the Republicans I’m worried about.

I just want to get back to people being able to debate things like mature adults.

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