Take Five: Adam Kinzinger

Saving democracy is not a job for one (or even 10), says Illinois Republican

“I don’t like the job enough to sell out the future of this country to keep it,” says Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
“I don’t like the job enough to sell out the future of this country to keep it,” says Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 19, 2021 at 6:00am

The way Adam Kinzinger tells it, he was always ready to sacrifice his political career for the greater good of the nation. “I always thought that vote would be, like, Social Security reform,” said the congressman from Illinois. 

Once a Republican on the rise, Kinzinger is now a party pariah, finding himself fighting a losing battle for the soul of the GOP after his vote to impeach Donald Trump over the Jan. 6 insurrection. While most other anti-Trump Republicans have kept a low profile in the months since, Kinzinger is arguably the loudest critic of the former president. 

Kinzinger joined Heard on the Hill for a Zoom call in early October to explain why he doesn’t despair even as Trump’s election lies continue to metastasize across the GOP and what the movie “Air Force One” got wrong about midair refueling. (Spoiler alert: everything.)

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: You flew KC-135 Stratotankers for a bit when you were in the Air Force. How nerve-racking is a midair refueling? Is it ever like the movie “Air Force One”?

A: I flew the tanker for about three years, and then I switched to the RC-26. The tanker for me was a combination — a lot of cool traveling worldwide, but the mission, I thought, was boring. The reason I switched planes is because I wanted to be more in the dirt, with the guys on the ground. 

The first few times you refuel, particularly as a new copilot, or if you’re lying in the back watching, it’s really disconcerting. If the receiver aircraft is a fighter, it’s pretty maneuverable. Our engines can blow this thing out of the way. But the big planes, they actually push what we call a bow wave, this huge mass of air. As it hits the plane, it kind of pushes you forward, nose down. So I had a couple incidents, one in particular, where I thought we were going to crash into a B-2. 

But “Air Force One,” no. [Laughs.] I think that was slightly inaccurate.

Q: You’re not the only Republican who opposes Trump, but you are the most outspoken, at least in Congress. Why?

A: There are moments where I wake up and I’m like, why? Why am I the only one, am I doing something wrong? (“The only one” with exceptions, like Liz Cheney and others.)

When I got elected in 2010 — it sounds dramatic and politician-y, but it’s true — I said to myself, if people are willing to die for this country, I have to be willing to give a career for the same cause. You know, I had just gotten out of Iraq. 

I always thought that vote would be, like, Social Security reform. But at the moment, I really truly utterly believe that our democracy is under siege. I truly believe that nobody else is coming. We have this sense as Americans that somebody else will come and save the day, because we always have. Nobody’s coming, right? It’s us. And I don’t like the job enough to sell out the future of this country to keep it. So if it costs me my job, great. I’ll go make more money and have a way easier life. 

It’s really easy to convince yourself that you can’t make a difference speaking out loudly. The only thing that can happen is you lose, and you’ll be replaced by somebody like a Marjorie Taylor Greene. And that’s how these people [in Congress] convince themselves, “Hey, the best thing I can do is go limp.” 

One of my biggest frustrations was when Anthony Gonzalez announced he wasn’t running again, and everybody started attacking him, saying that’s why Trump is going to win. Like, no. Anthony Gonzalez did his one tour in Vietnam, and he was heroic. The fact that he didn’t sign up for a second tour in Vietnam doesn’t make him any less heroic. It means somebody else needs to go and do a tour. It’s not the 10 of us who are going to save this democracy, it’s the 190 who finally get fed up enough to say something.

Q: I always ask people to name their closest friend across the aisle. But what about within your own party?

A: I’ve had many through the 11 years, but I try not to get new deep close friendships as the years go on. The one person who remains is Jaime Herrera Beutler. I hate her because she beat me by six months for the youngest member of Congress in the 2010 class, but that is just a lady I respect more than almost anybody I know. I think back to our crew of her, Martha Roby, Tom Rooney, Duncan Hunter and Kevin Yoder — this group of us who were really good friends. A lot of them I miss, but Jaime remains obviously in Congress and my best friend.

Q: I’m going to ask you about the Trump stuff and the impeachment stuff and the fight for the party. Do you ever get sick of having to talk about it all the time?

A: You know, there are moments in politics where you feel — I don’t want to say “dead” about something, but kind of passionless. You go through the same debt ceiling argument I’ve been through for 11 years. It’s hard to go out and get fired up and talk about that. 

But this is something I feel strongly about, so I don’t get tired of being asked about it. What I get tired of is watching every day a man — who if he’s not close to insane, he sure knows how to play being insane — convincing people that truth doesn’t matter. And then watching good friends who are military officers, college educated, spouting vaccine disinformation because it’s a tattoo of their politics. That’s what I get tired of.

Q: You’ve said you want to get the truth out with the Jan. 6 select committee, to find out how and why it happened. Why do you think any of that will matter to the 66 percent of Republicans across the country who continue to say the 2020 election was stolen and rigged despite mountains of evidence to the contrary?

A: I guess from an optimistic perspective, I hope that every day you are broken out of the cult, you become more aware of reality. But it may never matter to the 66 percent, I recognize that. 

It will matter to the future of the country in terms of who wins elections. But what’s most important is to look at how a democracy endures. Every generation has some kind of challenge to the republic, right? Not as big as this, but there’s always some moment. What actually matters is the next generation, who aren’t invested in the emotion of the day. What do they think? 

If you think back to the civil rights era, if actually white southerners or the anti-civil rights forces had won, how would that history reveal? Well, that history would say there was a time when Black people tried to rise up and they were heroically put down. Instead, the civil rights movement won, and so we look at that as kind of a gilded age, if you will, for social justice. 

That’s going to be how the future defines this moment [and the story of Jan. 6]. If we don’t get this right, and the misinformation of “peaceful protests” becomes cemented in narrative, we’ll not learn anything and this democracy will be in real trouble. 

That’s what matters: What is the narrative of Jan. 6 in 10 years? I’d love to change that narrative tomorrow, because it affects all of our lives and politics, but I don’t know if I will. 

Quick hits

Last book you read? “Unstable Majorities” by Morris Fiorina — really good book, kind of dry, but it talks about how the country’s not as radical as you think the parties are.

In politics, can the ends justify the means? No, because you will destroy yourselves. In a democracy, you have to trust each other.

Least popular opinion? Probably my view on international intervention. I’m an interventionist typically, so I see a role for the U.S. military. That’s never popular until ISIS is lopping off heads, and then everybody’s on board all of a sudden.

Best perk of your job? There aren’t many. I think the best perk is just when you get to travel someplace you like and it’s paid for, if you travel overseas on some of the CODELs. It’s a lot of work, but it’s probably about as close as you can get. I would say the free lifetime retirement, but I guess they took that away from us.

Closest friend across the aisle? One of my decent friends is Eric Swalwell. We just get along — not politically, obviously, but as friends. Another is Jerry McNerney. I don’t have any super close friends across the aisle, because I don’t have a lot of super close friends in politics.