Many people razzed Trump via Twitter while he was bloviating down in Orlando this afternoon. One was Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois conservative who was happy to point out that in November in his district he got 65% of the vote and Trump got 56%. As Trump was attacking him, he was tweeting that he was proud to be among the "heroes" who stood up against Trump and urged people to watch the new video at his Country1st website. Remember, though, Kinzinger is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative and one of his beefs about Trump is that Trump's not a real conservative or even a real Republican. You may like the idea of Kinzinger attacking Trump, or even admire his guts for doing so-- but do not conflate them with him sharing any of your political values. He's very right-wing on all policy.
Country1st is all about raising money and a couple of associated Super PACs are all about defending Republicans who have bucked Trump, as Josh Dawsey put it today for Washington Post readers. "The new groups," he wrote, "which aim to mobilize the kinds of anti-Trump donors who backed the now-embattled Lincoln Project, are being launched as the former president is planning to expand his political operation with his own super PAC." In one of the 3 videos Kinzinger has released, he said, "Republicans must say enough is enough. It’s time to unplug the outrage machine, reject the politics of personality and cast aside the conspiracy theories and the rage."
One of the guys running the Super PACs, Mario Castillo, told Dawsey the operation would back the members who voted to impeach Trump when they face primaries and in general elections, if necessary. He also said the group has "received real interest" from GOP donors and expects to be well-financed for primary season, and by donor whose names won't be disclosed.
Yesterday, Atlantic columnist Peter Wehner profiled Kinzinger as "the man who refused to bow," who will fight to take back the GOP from Trump. He began by noting that Kinzinger is "a liberated individual-- liberated from his party leadership, liberated from the fear of being beaten in a primary, liberated to speak his mind. The 43-year-old representative was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump for inciting the attack on the U.S. Capitol. 'I don’t have a constitutional duty to defend against a guy that is a jerk and maybe says some things I don’t like,' Kinzinger told me, explaining what had pushed him to finally break with the president. 'I do when he’s getting ready to destroy democracy-- and we saw that culminate on January 6th.' This was the sort of language a number of Republicans used in the immediate aftermath of the riot. 'The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters,' House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on January 13. But by the end of the month, McCarthy was traveling hat in hand to Mar-a-Lago to meet with Trump. 'I was really pissed-- I wasn’t surprised, but I was really upset,' Kinzinger said. 'And to have seen it in just such a short amount of time go from Donald Trump bears blame’to I’m going to go down and kiss the ring because you want to win your speakership. I mean, really? It’s that important? For what?' In Kinzinger’s view, McCarthy’s Florida trip was an act of betrayal by a man who was supposed to put the interests of his own caucus-- and of the country-- first. 'Starting about eight months ago, I noticed that he was never interested in defending [House Republicans] … He would throw us under the bus and defend Donald Trump,' he said. 'And that was just more of what this is. And then [Minority Whip] Steve Scalise goes down' to Mar-a-Lago, two weeks later. One by one, most of the leaders of his party knuckled under-- but not Kinzinger. 'I just refuse to bow.'"
“I think any time you fight for something bigger than you, that is life-changing. I think any time you are willing to put your life on the line for something, that’s life-changing.” That belief, he continued, is “the thing that has always driven me, ever since I’ve gotten into politics.” He’s attracted to the idea of voluntary national service, because like military service, it takes people from different life backgrounds and life experiences and creates bonds, mutual understanding, and greater unity.
Kinzinger’s political stance-- his willingness to criticize the most popular and feared figure in his party, when the overwhelming majority of his colleagues have either gone silent or defended the ex-president’s indefensible actions-- can’t be understood apart from his military service.
“Because we ask [service members] to die for the country, we have to be willing to do the same thing. But”-- here he turned incredulous-- “we’re too scared to vote for impeachment, because we’re going to lose our job? Like, seriously?”
For most of Kinzinger’s colleagues, the answer is: Yes, seriously. When I asked Kinzinger how many Republican votes there would have been in favor of impeachment if it had been a secret ballot, he told me 150. Instead, there were only 10.
...Kinzinger’s main focus these days is on fixing the Republican Party-- figuring out what went wrong and what has to be done to make it right again.
I asked him whether, in retrospect, he sees warning signs about the direction the GOP was heading that he didn’t recognize at the time. “I think that the warning signs were just basically this lack of-- you always assume there was a backstop of truth-telling,” he responded. “No matter how bad it got, ultimately we would defend the Constitution and tell the truth. And I don’t believe that anymore.”
“Looking back on it,” he added, “it was so obvious. You see it in people-- in a minor thing, in people like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, who stoke the outrage of the day, and they can be completely on the other side of the subject that they were on six months ago and nobody calls them out on it. And you realize that if you don’t have a commitment to truth, you can get by with a lot of stuff. I think those warning signs were there.”
What he never expected, he told me, was “the authoritarianism … but looking at the fact that truth doesn’t matter, anything now is possible.”
But the abandonment of truth wasn’t the only factor that reshaped the GOP; the politics of fear contributed, too. In the past, there was significantly more focus on policy, Kinzinger said. But today “we feed fear. That’s all we do.”
Worse, politicians are rewarded for fearmongering. “I don’t do emails like this anymore,” he explained, “but if I sent out an email that said, ‘Chip in five or 10 bucks because otherwise Nancy Pelosi’s going to burn down the entire country,’ I would raise a lot of money on it. If I send something out that says, ‘Give me five or 10 bucks because I want to present a future that’s optimistic for this country,’ I’ll raise an eighth as much.” He said both sides do it, but it’s the Republican side he can speak more authoritatively about. He added this ominous note: “By the way, fear works. And if you have a leader that speaks your fears right back at you, boy, that is the most compelling thing to get a vote.”
...Telling the truth, fighting fear, and putting forward a positive narrative will do a lot, but they’re not enough on their own, without structural changes. Kinzinger suggested finding media outlets that can serve as alternatives to Fox News and Newsmax. He said that think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute need to put together a policy agenda that reaches beyond the typical conservative mantra of lowering taxes. He wants to see a conservatism that aims for equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome, and that insists that children born in the inner city should have the same opportunity as those born in wealthy suburbs.
“But it can’t be done under the banner of a QAnon flag [while] burning down the Capitol,” he said.
I asked Kinzinger why he’s still a Republican, given that the GOP is unquestionably the party of Donald Trump. “I’m a Republican because I’ve been a Republican far longer than Donald Trump has,” he told me. “He’s a Republican usurper, and he’s a RINO [a “Republican in name only”]. I’m not going to let him take the party. So I will fight. I will fight like hell.”
The six-term congressman, who was probably the House Republican fighting hardest for the integrity of the party during the whole Trump era, has just one regret: “I still wish I’d have done more and fought harder and louder. And now I’m going to make up for that during this time.”
So how long are you going to give the party to recover? I asked Kinzinger.
“I think we will start to see by the summer where we’re at. If 20 percent of the Republican base is ready to move on from Trump today, and it’s 25 or 30 in the summer, that’s a good trend. If in the summer it’s 18 or 20 percent, that’s a bad trend. I think summer’s check No. 1, and then, obviously, the 2022 election is check No. 2. But if that 20 percent grows to 35, 40, 45 percent, this party might be salvageable.”
For now, though, Kinzinger’s verdict on the party to which he belongs is searing. “Look, this great party that I fell in love with has just destroyed lives, honestly,” he said. For many people, “politics has become their god and religion, and that bothers me because that is destroying people’s lives. My new driving passion is just to aggressively tell the truth even when nobody else does.”
Kinzinger knows in a rather personal way what happens to people who allow their politics to become their religion. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that 11 members of his family, incensed by his criticisms of Donald Trump, had sent him a handwritten two-page letter, saying he had joined “the devil’s army.”
“Oh my, what a disappointment you are to us and to God!” they wrote. “It is now most embarrassing to us that we are related to you. You have embarrassed the Kinzinger family name!”
The author of the letter was Karen Otto, Kinzinger’s cousin. According to the Times, she also sent copies to Republicans across Illinois, including other members of the state’s congressional delegation. (Kinzinger did not release the letter.)
“I wanted Adam to be shunned,” she told the Times.
Kinzinger told me he didn’t feel wounded by what was done to him by his family members. “I just feel sorry for them,” he said. What stood out to him was the “level of hate and anger”; it helped him “realize how deep that rot is.”
“I have no desire to make up with them,” he told me. “I forgive them. I don’t hold any grudge. I don’t lose any sleep over it."
Don't hold your breath waiting for Kinzinger to have a Elizabeth Warren-like conversion to the Democratic Party-- or even a Tom O'Halleran faux-conversion. Even though a newfound and more joyful, open religious attitude has made him more open-minded towards Democrats as human beings, I don't see him switching parties, not mow, not ever.