The Man Who Refused to Bow

Published February 27, 2021

The Atlantic

Adam 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.”

Kinzinger is a man on a mission; he sees politics not merely as a way to gain power but as an arena that tests character. In 2008, he watched John McCain run for president. “He said, ‘I would rather lose an election than lose a war.’ I admired that.” Inspired, Kinzinger ran for Congress in 2010, and won.

Like McCain, Kinzinger served in the military before entering politics. He joined the United States Air Force in 2003 and flew missions in, among other places, Afghanistan and Iraq. He’s still a pilot, now a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard. Military service “made me a much better person in terms of being able to relate to people,” he told me.

“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.

If military service shaped Kinzinger in some important ways, Christianity has shaped him in others. Kinzinger was raised as an independent fundamentalist Baptist until he was 20, but the experience left him alienated. “That was a really damaging, in my mind, a very damaging religion,” he said. I asked him why.

“The best way to put it is your salvation is by faith alone unless you do something wrong—and then you were never saved in the first place,” he said. “And by the way, we have these really strict rules that you have to follow that nobody can follow, but everybody at the church is going to act like they are and you’re the only one that isn’t.”

For Kinzinger, that sort of legalism took “the joy out of Christianity.” He resolved to find something different; today, he considers himself a nondenominational Protestant. “The second part of my life has been the journey to really, truly understand what faith is,” he said.

This new phase in his pilgrimage has made him less rigid. “I think as I’ve gotten older and I’ve kind of journeyed on in my faith, I understand what salvation is. I understand that Christ spent his time hanging out with sinners, not great people—and not because they were sinners but because that’s just where his compassion was.” Twenty years ago, he admitted, he had a hard time seeing how a Democrat could be a Christian; today, it’s easy for him to understand. “There are frankly roles for Christians on all sides of the aisle,” he told me. And like many Christians, Kinzinger believes the Trump years, in which so many conservative evangelicals enthusiastically embraced a man who embodies an ethic antithetical to biblical Christianity, have done untold harm to the Christian witness.

“My goal is, frankly, to admonish the Church for the real damage it has done to Christianity,” Kinzinger said. “The thing I’m always asked, and I don’t think anybody with a straight face can answer differently—maybe they can, but—‘Do you think the reputation of Christianity is better today or five years ago?’ And I think most people would say it was better five years ago.”

Kinzinger’s stance has earned him some critics. One of Trump’s fawning court pastors, Franklin Graham—the son of the prominent evangelical preacher Billy Graham—attacked the 10 Republicans who supported impeachment. “It makes you wonder what the thirty pieces of silver were that Speaker Pelosi promised for this betrayal,” Graham wrote on Facebook.

“He said we took pieces of silver from Nancy Pelosi because—what?” Kinzinger asked me. “Trump is Jesus Christ? Christians have got to open their eyes and be like, ‘What is happening?’”

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.”

Kinzinger is trying to break that cycle and reverse the incentive structures. He’s announced a new initiative, the Country First movement, to provide financial support to Republicans who stand against, and offer an alternative to, Trumpism.

Those Republicans need to “present an optimistic view, to reinspire people,” he said, “but I think, just as importantly, you have to call out BS. If somebody is peddling fear, you have to call that out. It’s calling out that stuff openly and aggressively and shining light at darkness. I think that‘s part of it.”

Kinzinger added that for the past four years “nobody’s heard anything against [Trump], so then when I come out and I say this stuff as aggressively as I am now, people are blown away, like ‘How dare you! He’s the messiah.’ Because nobody had said otherwise.”

Leaders have to lead, he said. “For too long, we just tried to reflect back what people wanted to hear, and so they heard no alternative.” And voters, for their part, have to demand better. But he has hope that if they do, they can turn the situation around. “It took us awhile to get in, it may take us a little bit to get out, but I also don’t think Donald Trump is as inevitable as people think. But he will be if nobody speaks out.”

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.”

But while what happened to Kinzinger may be extreme, he is hardly alone; politics is placing stress on countless relationships among friends and family, and shattering more than a few. “Do you have any advice for people struggling to reach people they love at moments like this?” I asked. “What would you say on the interpersonal side of things? How can repair and reconciliation go forward?”

“It’s a tough one,” Kinzinger conceded. “Because I say, on the one hand, try to have compassion for them; they’re brainwashed. It’s true, but I also know truthfully that if I’m talking to somebody that is saying what they’re saying and I know they’re brainwashed, it doesn’t help me look at them any better. I’m just being honest.”

As we spoke, it became clear that Kinzinger was still trying to understand what’s going on beneath the anger and the hate, even as he has become its target. One clinical psychologist told me when the letter was published that Kinzinger was on the receiving end of a textbook cultlike response: remove yourself from the devil, cut the person off from the family, prove devotion to leader and mission.

But Kinzinger knew that what was driving his family’s response was not only distorted thinking but also anxiety, unease, even a sense of terror. That is how the information sources they rely on are conditioning them to respond to his acts. And it’s the source of a lot of the ugliness we’re seeing play out in American politics.

“All conflict arises from fear,” Kinzinger told me. “If you and I hated each other and we were arguing on Zoom, what it would come down to is because I fear something and you fear something, and that fear rises up; it creates conflict every single time. My good mentor Jamie Winship talks about this.” (Winship is a former police officer whose ministry seeks to bring peaceful solutions to high-conflict areas in the world.) “I think it’s understanding that a mom who’s down the Q rabbit hole or a dad who’s chosen Trump even over family, that to them it is a way to alleviate their fears,” Kinzinger said. “Maybe that gives you a way to humanize it.”

No one can doubt Kinzinger’s courage—demonstrated in war zones, in risking his life on a city street to save a woman whose throat had been cut by an assailant, in risking his once-safe House seat, and now in forcefully calling out those in his own party who have compromised their moral principles and turned their party into a menace. But demonstrating that courage while also humanizing our politics, and even humanizing those who consider him their enemy, may be his greatest service to our nation.

Peter Wehner is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.

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