Adam Kinzinger, the former Republican congressman from Illinois, is best known for his service on the congressional committee that investigated the January 6 insurrection. He and Liz Cheney were the only two Republicans on that committee, and completely noncoincidentally, neither one is in Congress today. The new speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, is more typical of the House Republican caucus: He was a leader of the election deniers.
In his new book, Renegade: Defending Democracy and Liberty in Our Divided Country, Kinzinger details his manifold struggles: with his conscience, with his ambition, and, ultimately, with the Republicans who attempted to subvert the Constitution. A six-term congressman and an Air Force veteran, Kinzinger today is chastened but still somewhat hopeful—not hopeful about the short-term future of the Republican Party, but hopeful that pro-democracy voters are still sufficient in number to turn back the authoritarians.
I first met Kinzinger in 2014, when we were both members of the late Senator John McCain’s delegation to the Munich Security Conference. Also in that delegation were Senator Lindsey Graham and then-Representative Mike Pompeo, who later became Donald Trump’s CIA director and secretary of state.
What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of a conversation I had with Kinzinger earlier this month on stage at the Democracy360 conference, sponsored by the Karsh Institute at the University of Virginia. We started by talking about that now-unlikely constellation of Republicans: Kinzinger, McCain, Graham, and Pompeo.
Jeffrey Goldberg: You guys were all in the same camp, the muscular internationalist Republicans. Two of you went one way, and two of you went another way. What happened?
Adam Kinzinger: Craven politics, craven power—that’s what it is. This is something I still try to grapple with every day, when I look back on January 6. I always thought everybody had a red line. Like, okay, we can play politics to a point, but there’s a red line we’ll never cross. I’ve learned that’s not the case.
I’d say [we] are all still probably for a muscular foreign policy. The difference, though, between people that went one way or another is the recognition that U.S. foreign policy also means we have to have a healthy democracy at home, and that democracy-building overseas is fine, but having a strong democracy here, where people have faith in the voting system and faith that whoever gets the most votes will win, is just as important.
I think there are unfortunately too many people that got into the Trump sphere, that it just became about power, identity, and not looking at the broader picture of your impact in this world.
Goldberg: So I want to stay on this for a while because I want you to name names.
Kinzinger: I can name names for an hour. A couple off the top of my head: One of the ones I’m most disappointed in generally is [former House Speaker] Kevin McCarthy, because I always thought that McCarthy had some version of a political soul. And I’ve come to realize that to him it was all about just the attainment of power. Somebody like Ted Cruz never surprised me. He’s always been a charlatan. But Lindsey Graham has also been a big disappointment to me, because I’ve traveled with Lindsey, leading congressional-delegation trips around the world. I always thought he and I were eye to eye on a lot of these foreign-policy issues. And to watch him so closely adopt and closely support Donald Trump, when Trump was doing exactly what Graham was preaching against just prior to Trump’s arrival on the scene, was a pretty disappointing moment.
During this speaker fiasco, I would listen to names during the roll call, people like Mike McCaul, people like Mike Gallagher, and hear them say the name Jim Jordan and know, for a fact, they have no respect for Jim Jordan. But it’s all about that determination to survive politically. I have come to learn that people fear losing their identity and losing their tribe more than they come to fear death.
Goldberg: You saw Lindsey Graham throughout this process. What were conversations like? Did you ever just say, “Lindsey, what are you doing?”
Kinzinger: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, our relationship hasn’t been that strong in the last few years, obviously. So I can’t say there were recent conversations, but it would just be like, “What’s going on? So Donald Trump did this thing. Why are you okay with that?”
People have given so much of their soul, of their values. They’ve compromised so much that at some point to stop compromising, or to recognize that this is a mistake and you need to correct course, would be an indictment against who you are and what you have done for the last four or five years. And I think Lindsey has been a victim of that. He liked the idea of being in the room with Donald Trump.
And I will tell you, I’ve met with Donald Trump a number of times; he is actually one of the most fun people to meet with, because he’s crazy, but it’s like a fun crazy. And he’s really good at drawing you in and making you feel seen at that moment, because he knows how to manipulate you. And it works perfectly with Lindsey. Lindsey says, “Now I have a seat at the table. I care about foreign policy.” But what he didn’t realize is that bargain came with selling who he was as a person.
Goldberg: If John McCain hadn’t died, would Graham have gone over?
Kinzinger: I don’t think so. I think Lindsey Graham needs a strong person to mentor him or carry him, and it was John McCain. And when John McCain passed, the next guy, the strongman that Lindsey Graham was drawn to, was Donald Trump.
Goldberg: You got to Congress when the Republican Party is still the Republican Party you imagined it to be. One question that people like you always get is: Were you kidding yourself the whole time, or did something actually change?
Kinzinger: Looking back, I can say, “Oh, yeah, there were signs from the very beginning,” but I was part of the moderate Republicans, who constantly had this optimistic view that the Republican Party was this thing of smaller government, hope, opportunity, strong national defense, that kind of stuff. And I always just saw these elements of crazy nationalism, of authoritarianism, of racism exist in the party, but it’s a battle. And I’m fighting on the good side here to try to save the party. And then when Donald Trump came, we lost that fight.
I think the moment I started to realize, like, Okay, we have lost, was January 6. Before that point, I thought, Donald Trump is going to lose; people are going to wake up. Even on January 6 I said, “People are definitely going to wake up now.”
Now, with the benefit of time and looking back, I can say, “You know what? Those strains were there.” Some of them were hidden because it was not yet socially acceptable to say things like “Let’s throw out the Constitution.” I hear a lot of people say “You’re naive, because the Republican Party’s always been this way.” And inevitably those are people on the left that have always had a bad view of the GOP. I understand the viewpoint, but I don’t think that’s correct. I think there were a lot of really good factions in the GOP.
Goldberg: Explain the psychology there. What motivates this outburst of anger on the part of the voters that led to Trump’s triumph?
Kinzinger: I think the resentment came from Fox News and the right-wing-media echo chamber. Why do I say that? So this is something I take a lot of personal blame for being part of as well, although I think I did better than most.
In 2010, we learned that fear is the best way to raise money ever. If I send you an email and it says, “Dear Jeffrey, I want to lower tax rates and we need some help, blah, blah, blah,” you may give me money. But if I send you an email and it says, “Nancy Pelosi is trying to murder you and your family,” and in essence, I convince you that I’m the only thing standing between you and the life of you or your family, you’ll part with anything, including a significant part of your fixed income from Social Security. So in 2010, we learned this. And instead of using that kind of fire in a controlled way like politicians do, sometimes we let it burn. There was always this fire going, and we stoked it too far.
Goldberg: How do you reach people who haven’t been reached, to change their minds? There’s 30, 35 percent of the voters who are hard-core.
Kinzinger: Well, if the January 6 committee didn’t do it and the people still believe the scandals, I’m not sure that 35 percent can be turned on a dime today. But here’s the two things we can do. We can convince their children. You would be amazed how many children have a different viewpoint than their parents, and how they can pull their parents off the ledge. I did that with my parents when I got elected. My dad would call, and he’s watching Fox News all the time. And I finally said, “Dad, I’m in the middle of this and I don’t have near the stress you do, and you can’t even see the difference. Right?” And he’s like, “You know what? You’re right.”
The other thing is, if only every one of those people running against Donald Trump in the primary would tell the dang truth, people would actually believe it. Donald Trump gets indicted with all these different indictments and then they ask, you know, ‘What do you think, Tim Scott?” “What do you think, Nikki Haley?” “What do you think, Vivek Ramaswamy? What are your feelings on these indictments?” But every one of those people say this is a witch hunt.
Goldberg: I appreciate the view. I’m not sure I believe you, though. The truest thing that Donald Trump ever said was that he could shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue and his followers would still support him. It seems like he understood something elemental there.
Kinzinger: I guess I would caveat that. I don’t necessarily believe, if Nikki Haley alone came out and said it, that it would be game over for Donald Trump. I think this is a specific moment where if all these people told the base the truth, they could damage his support significantly.
Goldberg: Stay on this question of Trump and Trumpism. Who do you blame for his return?
Kinzinger: One person: Kevin McCarthy. And I’m going to tell you exactly why. So there was a period after January 6 for two or three weeks. It was quiet. And we’d meet in a room with all the Republican men and women of Congress. Kevin would stand up, all that stuff—if you’re in the room, you could sense there was this trepidation in the room about, like, “We don’t know what’s next. We don’t know where we’re going. What are we supposed to do?” Until the day Kevin McCarthy showed up with a picture of Donald Trump. And just like that, everything changed.
Goldberg: You’re talking about his visit to Mar-a-Lago.
Kinzinger: His visit to Mar-a-Lago. Those of us that voted for impeachment were leading the charge against Donald Trump. People were actually coming up to us and asking us, “How do I do this?” We were talking about “How do we get the downtown PAC community to only support those that are pro-democracy?” We were going to set up our own scoring and vetting system to say This person voted against certification; this person voted for it, and only give money to the people that voted for it. And you think about the power that could have had.
Then that picture happened in Mar-a-Lago, and all of a sudden we went from considering doing a vote of no confidence against Kevin McCarthy because of his role in January 6 to a point where everybody turned against me, Liz Cheney, and the others that voted to impeach, all because of that picture.
Goldberg: So you must be at least a little bit happy about Kevin McCarthy’s downfall.
Kinzinger: I’m very happy about it. I’m very happy. I’ve got to be honest. I’m sorry. It’s not great for the country, but it’s really good.
Goldberg: You’re describing Kevin McCarthy as a person who went along with the radical pro-Trump, anti-democracy right and then he eventually got eaten by them.
Kinzinger: This dynamic to an extent has always existed. It would be people like me fighting against the Jim Jordans, but it was behind the scenes. Now it’s brought out to the open because for the first time you now see the people like me—I will call them the moderates, even though there’s really no moderates left. The moderates are finally standing up and fighting back with some of the tactics that Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan used.
Why is it that terrorists are so powerful? Because they’re willing to do something that most other people aren’t: you know, commit an act of terror if you’re a legislative terrorist, like John Boehner called Jim Jordan very accurately, and he’s willing to vacate the chair or Matt Gaetz is willing to vacate the chair. They’re powerful unless people push back. And that’s what’s happening. How does a Kevin McCarthy get to this point? A man who I thought had a red line, I always thought he was a very good politician and that he could play around the edges, but he wouldn’t cross [the line]. And in January, he cut a deal that made what happened a few weeks ago completely obvious. Everybody knew this would happen. That’s how we’ve gotten to where we are. And this is a moment where the Republican Party either will collapse in a heap of fire or they will actually fix themselves somehow through this.
The country needs a healthy Republican Party regardless of what you feel about the Republican Party, because we need a liberal and a conservative philosophy competing in the United States. That’s what a healthy democracy is.
Goldberg: Does Trumpism survive Trump?
Kinzinger: Five months ago, if we were sitting here and you said, “Does it survive past Trump?” I’d be like, absolutely. Because Trumpism has now been learned by others. But I’m starting to play with the idea that maybe enough Republicans are starting to get exhausted of Trump and maybe Trumpism doesn’t survive. Donald Trump got elected in front of a wave of people that wanted to break the system. But there is an undercurrent right now of people that are desperate to fix and heal the system. And when that right person comes along, like an Obama-type character, I think that may revolutionize the future, but I’m not sure.
Goldberg: Can you imagine yourself back in Congress as a Republican?
Kinzinger: That’s two different questions. Could I imagine myself back in the House? No. Could I imagine myself back in politics? Yes. Could I imagine myself back in politics as a Republican? Not in the current environment.
Goldberg: In other words, do you think that the fever would break to a point where the Republican Party would be a different party and have you back?
Kinzinger: I think someday; I just don’t know when that’s going to be. And it’s not now. I think if I ran as a Republican now, I wouldn’t do too well.
Goldberg: Are you still a Republican?
Adam Kinzinger: It’s an interesting question. I will not vote Republican. I voted Democratic last election. I intend to vote Democratic this election, not because I’ve changed my mind necessarily—I’ve moderated, you know, quite a bit—but because I think it is a binary choice. Do you like democracy or don’t you like democracy? And I think that the only thing we can vote on in 2024 is democracy. So I’m not giving up the title Republican yet, because I haven’t changed. They have. And I refuse to give them that satisfaction yet. But I feel like a man without a party.
Goldberg: Why do your colleagues want to stay in Congress so badly?
Kinzinger: I don’t know.
Goldberg: It doesn’t look like the greatest job.
Kinzinger: It’s not the greatest job. But, okay, when you walk into a room for five or 10 years and no matter what room you walk in, unless it’s the White House, you are the center of attention because you’re the highest-ranking person there and you’ve spent your whole life to attain this job—a lot of my colleagues spent everything to become that. Losing that freaks you out. As somebody that announced I wasn’t running again, the thing you fear the most is how do I feel the second after I put out that press release?
My co-pilot in Iraq sent me a text that said, “I’m ashamed to have ever served with you.” I had family that sent me a certified letter saying they’re ashamed to share my last name, that I was working for the devil. I used to laugh about it 10 months ago, but I’ve really allowed myself to accept what damage that’s done to me and my family. It’s not easy to go through. But I’m going to tell you, I have 0.0 percent regret for what I did, and I would do it all the exact same again.
By Adam Kinzinger and Michael D’Antonio
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