Adam Kinzinger: Rebel in the Ranks
How the Air Force pilot turned Illinois congressman bucked his party in putting principle above self-interest.
Defending Democracy and Liberty in Our Divided Country
by Adam Kinzinger with Michael D’Antonio
The Open Field (Viking), 295 pp., $30
ON JANUARY 6, 2021, ADAM KINZINGER “HUNKERED” in his congressional office as the angry throng unleashed by Donald Trump roamed the halls, “pounding on doors and breaking into some offices, where they began rifling through desks and cabinets. My gun rested on my desktop. I prayed that I wouldn’t have to use it.”
The gun was a Ruger LCP he had on hand due to the warnings from others of “impending violence and my own fear of a rally crowd becoming a violent mob.” And no, he did not have to use it. But the impact of that day on his life was as explosive as if he had.
It transformed Kinzinger, a six-term Republican member of Congress from Illinois, into a renegade—the title he gives his new book—and left him determined to restore some semblance of sanity to the world around him. Ever since that day, he writes, “I have wanted to tell the inside story of how my party and my faith have been hijacked by extremists who represent a real danger to our democracy.”
Kinzinger’s book provides some useful insights into why he has separated himself from the crazy and others have not. And much of it comes down to this: He’s a pretty decent guy. A religious conservative raised to revere Ronald Reagan and to treat others with respect, Kinzinger comes across as someone who wanted office for all the right reasons; it’s a shame he was forced to leave it for all the wrong ones. Renegade is dedicated to his wife and young son: “For Sofia and Christian. I hope I make you proud.”
NOT LONGER AFTER ADAM KINZINGER’S first birthday, he developed a life-threatening case of pneumonia and spent a number of days inside a plastic bubble. Presumably, he heard this story repeated all through his childhood by parents watchful for a recurrence. He speculates that this gave him a greater understanding of social needs: “I have always been more open to the idea that some people get a raw deal and deserve some assistance.”
After a freshman year that included getting busted by police for streaking while ringing up a 0.8 GPA, Kinzinger got bounced out of Illinois State University in Bloomington. He worked for a spell at a furniture retailer and decided that getting an education might not be such a bad thing after all. He returned to school and committed himself to his studies.
In 1998, as a 20-year-old college student, Kinzinger was elected to a seat on the McLean County Board, ousting an incumbent. He served several years until he stepped down in 2003 to join the U.S. Air Force, where he flew combat missions in multiple theaters, including Iraq and Afghanistan. He remains a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard.
Just a few more days left to sign up for Bulwark+ with a 20% discount:
In May 2007, while out on the town with friends during an active duty stint in Milwaukee, Kinzinger encountered a woman on the street with a gash to her neck, bleeding profusely, being pursued by a man with a knife. She was screaming, “He cut my throat, he cut my throat.” Kinzinger intervened, grabbing the man by the wrist of the hand that held the knife, wrestling him to the ground, and pinning him down until police arrived.
It was, Kinzinger writes, “a big moment in my life. I proved to myself that I had the skills and the instinct to fight, even when someone posed a serious threat.” Little did he suspect that someday these skills and that instinct would be brought to bear against a president of the United States.
IN MAY 2009, KINZINGER DECLARED his intention to run for Congress “before a crowd of nine people gathered at the Boy Scout Museum in Ottawa, Illinois.” He was drawn to politics, he says, “for the service aspect and to make things better for others.” In the 2010 election, he garnered 64 percent of the vote in a five-way Republican primary and went on to oust the Democratic incumbent by a 14-point margin.
In Congress, Kinzinger quickly allied with Speaker John Boehner, as he would later with Speaker Paul Ryan. With characteristic candor, Kinzinger says he “welcomed the invitation to join Boehner’s team because, to be frank, I was not fully resistant to the pull of the attention I was receiving and wanted a bit more.”
Similarly, Kinzinger reflects a bit later in the book on how his frequent appearances on Fox News made him recognizable when he was out and about. He liked it plenty. He refers to fame as “the addictive drug of politics. It can give you a warm feeling of being wanted and needed or make you feel energized and excited. And like any drug, the more you get it, the more you want it.”
Lots of people find their way to fame, some with more justification than others. But it is a rare bird who recognizes and resists its toxic effects. Perhaps this helps explain what sets Kinzinger apart from the majority of Republicans: His commitment to principle exceeds his desire to advance his own interests. Thus he was willing to watch his congressional career come to a screeching halt rather than continue to abet Trump’s egregious misconduct.
Kinzinger’s decency runs so deep he even refuses to take boastful credit for it. He acknowledges his complicity in the normalization of crazy within his party’s ranks. This is from the book’s introduction:
I was a participant in, and witness to, the GOP’s gradual descent into a dysfunctional and destructive force in our politics. Intoxicated by my status and addicted to the level of attention, I made compromises to—let’s face it—feed my ego and sense of importance. The correction I made as I embraced my inner renegade and voted to impeach a president of my own party came late, but it did arrive.
Kinzinger explores his thought process in 2019 when, like every other Republican member of the House of Representatives, he voted against impeaching Trump for pressuring Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up dirt on Joe Biden, even though Kinzinger knew what Trump had done was wrong. Had he voted in favor, “I would have invited a primary challenger who would definitely win the nomination and end my tenure in the House. Like everyone else in Congress, I believed that my presence truly mattered.”
It is a decision he now regrets: “If I hadn’t buckled under the pressure my colleagues brought to bear, I may have given cover to others who were on the fence. We, in turn, could have demonstrated to the country that the system is not as broken as they think.”
But January 6th was a bridge too far. On the day after the attack, “as workers continued to clean the Capitol of everything from shattered glass to human waste,” Kinzinger asserts he “became the first Republican to call for Trump’s removal from office. I asked that Congress remove Trump by invoking the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.” While that effort did not pan out, Kinzinger did vote for Trump’s second impeachment, along with nine Republicans; all but two of them were either defeated in primaries or, like Kinzinger, chose not to seek re-election.
THROUGHOUT HIS POLITICAL CAREER, Kinzinger has sought to be a doer of deeds, not a follower of doctrines. He supported an increase in the gas tax to pay for transportation infrastructure. He “took a more compassionate approach to health care that varied from the simple goal of overturning Obamacare,” even proposing to put free health clinics in “underinsured and underserved” communities. (“Yes, this would be a government program,” he writes, almost apologetically, “but sometimes we have to use the government to accomplish things that the private sector cannot.” Heathen.)
Kinzinger also eventually broke from the religious right. He cites the emergence of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition—as a young teenager, he attended one of its first big events back in 1992 with his father—and Pat Buchanan’s speech to that year’s Republican National Convention. Over time, he could grow to see the movement more clearly: “Although I wouldn’t recognize it for many years, the language of the power-seeking political conservatives began to meld with the religiously conservative perspective to describe the opposition as dangerous, anti-American, anti-Christian, perverted, and, ultimately, evil.”
Kinzinger was not willing to look across the political aisle and see people who were morally inferior. But he was able to look at Trump and see him for the petty, unqualified narcissist he is. (“If I were qualified to diagnose Trump with a mental disorder, I’d offer it here,” he writes at one point. “Instead, I can just say, in colloquial terms: the guy is nucking futs.”)
After the assault of January 6th, Kinzinger accepted Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s invitation to serve, along with Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney, on the House January 6th Committee. And while he does suggest that Pelosi fell short of her promise to take a completely hands-off approach to the committee’s work (“Pelosi got her way whenever she wanted to, though thankfully it didn’t happen all that often”), he came to regard all of the members of the committee with great respect.
Kinzinger praises Democrat Adam Schiff of California, whom he had been “told to hate” by his fellow Republicans, for “his intelligence, generosity with other members, and his sense of humor.” He calls Democratic committee Chairman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi “a kind of Zen master at collegiality. He was respectful, attentive, and never brushed anyone off.” And he deems Cheney “the most forceful and fully informed member of the committee. She left no doubt that she saw the grave danger that Trump represented, and that the January 6 attack was the product of all his lies, inflammatory rhetoric, and irresponsibility.”
THE DOZENS OF WITNESSES who testified before the committee, Kinzinger assesses, fell roughly into three camps. The first group, made up of those who refused to answer any questions, were “Trump-infected zombies”—meaning “his words had taken over their brains, like parasitic worms, rendering them pathologically loyal and incapable of independent thought.” He includes Roger Stone and John Eastman in this category.
Next were the “partial zombies” whose brains “were less infected and allowed for some independent thought or courage.” In this group he generously places Rudy Giuliani, who dodged questions and displayed selective memory yet still somehow deserved better than to end up as “the blithering servant of a man who never deserved his attention.”
Finally there were those women and men of integrity like Cassidy Hutchinson, aide to Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows, who gave truthful testimony regarding the events of January 6th. In her case, this included telling how Trump demanded to be driven to the Capitol to join the insurrectionists only to be denied by his security detail.
During an appearance at the Cap Times Idea Fest in Madison, Wisconsin, in late September, Kinzinger drew a direct link between the work of the committee and Trump’s indictment on charges of trying to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Had it not been for the committee, he told the audience, “I don’t think you’d see Donald Trump staring down this indictment right now.”
He added, “I’m proud it’s happening. I want to see Donald Trump behind bars.”
There is, frankly, not a lot in Kinzinger’s account of this dark day in U.S. history that is revelatory; even the story about the gun on his desk has been told before. But there is an underlying sense of urgency that permeates his book, a sense that all is not right and will not be right until Trump and others are held accountable for their actions. As Kinzinger puts it:
This Trumpism is un-American in the extreme. It seeks to undermine our elections, place controls on the press, sharply restrict immigration, politicize the judiciary, and polarize the people. This is a reality that demands that we all examine our basic beliefs. Do we want a democracy governed by free and fair elections? Can we consider our differences in matters of politics, ethics, and faith in a respectful way? Do we value our pluralism? Our success at managing these issues has made us the envy of the world for centuries. Do we want to discard what the Constitution gave us? What do we, as Americans, stand for?
These are good and important questions. Kinzinger’s book is a valuable contribution to our national endeavor to sort them out.