Adam Kinzinger explains how he wants to create a new Republican Party

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Adam Kinzinger recalls what it was like to be the cool kid, the youngest star of the conservative revolution in 2010.

“I was one of his early favorites,” the Illinois Republican recalled.

Kinzinger was referring to current House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who a dozen years ago, as a junior member of the Republican leadership, helped recruit Kinzinger and dozens of others who propelled the party into a majority in the House.

The two have remained close over the years, as McCarthy invited Kinzinger on exclusive fundraising getaways and charmed Kinzinger’s mother by complimenting her on Instagram posts.

Now, as Kinzinger sits on the committee investigating former President Donald Trump’s role in inciting the Capitol riot, he’s no longer the baby-faced 32-year-old whose future seemed limitless.

Forced into early retirement later this year, he reserves his deepest anger for cohorts like McCarthy and other Republican leaders who continue to align themselves with an ex-president whose actions they condemn privately, and sometimes publicly. .

“It was the biggest and saddest moment of my career because I considered him a friend, a true friend,” Kinzinger said of McCarthy in an hour-long interview Friday, just 12 hours after helping lead the committee’s review of Trump’s actions the afternoon of the attack.

While Trump might actually believe the 2020 election was stolen in a deranged fantasy, those other Republicans know Joe Biden won fairly but won’t dare say so in public, he said. “These people, who could have stood up and known better, are the ones I am most angry with. I know it’s kinda dumb, kinda, but they’re the ones that upset me.

Kinzinger lived somewhat in the shadow of the only other Republican on the panel, Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), whose family roots in a Republican dynasty led her to look to the anti-Trump insurgent for a storyline. more dramatic. But Cheney is only in his third term. Kinzinger’s 12 years most accurately represent the evolution of the modern Republican Party.

Without that class-steeped tea party of 2010, which pushed the Republican Party down the path of that nativist, nationalist philosophy, Trump’s presidential ambitions might never have taken off from that escalator in 2015.

Kinzinger served in the Air Force, flying tankers and reconnaissance aircraft, including missions in Iraq. He launched a long-running bid for a Democratic seat south of Chicago in 2009, embodying the “Young Guns” brand that McCarthy honed.

These freshmen flexed their muscles to secure key committee assignments and deputy leadership positions, as well as demanding the repeal of Obamacare at a time when the Health Act’s namesake was president and would never accept that.

As outside groups placed ideological litmus tests on obscure votes and divided the freshman class, he remained close to party leaders. After a 2012 redistricting, Kinzinger was thrown into a primary with veteran Republican incumbent McCarthy and former Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), then the majority leader, vociferously backed Kinzinger.

He avoided the class agitators of 2010 as they nearly caused a default on the national debt and fueled a lengthy government shutdown in 2013. He instead focused on building allegiances with traditional Republican hawks on the national security.

A photo with one of his closest friends at the time, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), Still sits behind Kinzinger’s desk even though he hasn’t spoken to the secretary of state of Trump since shortly after the 2021 insurgency.

Kinzinger couldn’t bring himself to vote for Trump, and in late January 2017, when the new president visited Republicans at their legislative policy retreat in Philadelphia, the bachelor legislator in his 30s found temporary salvation in the bottle.

“I got super drunk,” he recalled, laughing at those who mocked his bleary-eyed performance during an interview on CNN the following morning. “Trump President, how do we handle this?

In truth, Kinzinger treated him like most Republicans: compartmentalizing a few good policy positions while politely disagreeing with Trump over his erratic moves.

Kinzinger wanted lower taxes, more defense spending, and conservative justices on the Supreme Court. After flying on Air Force Two, Kinzinger happily posted a photo with then-VP Mike Pence. “The president wants to talk to you,” he wrote on Instagram, bragging about their in-flight call with Trump.

When the incumbent tried to jolt Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to boost his re-election in 2020, Kinzinger found an excuse to oppose impeachment.

Democrats rushed their case and did not fully investigate the charges, he said at the time. But now, looking back, he admits he was afraid of conservative voters in his exurban neighborhood that surrounds Chicago. “It’s like I know if I vote for this, I’m done,” he said.

In the fall of 2020, Kinzinger pulled off the worst rationalization of his political career: he voted for Trump. “That way I can say with a straight face that I voted for him,” Kinzinger explained, thinking about future discussions with voters. “I know he’s not going to win, but I can say I did. And so I have credit with the base.

Didn’t that make him the kind of political coward he now despises? “Yeah, I was. Yeah, absolutely,” Kinzinger admitted, saying he felt “dirty” voting. “It’s not something I can completely settle in my soul.”

But as Trump moved deeper into the conspiracy theories, Kinzinger paused hard. On New Years Day in 2021, when House Republicans called a conference call to discuss January 6 presidential certification, he gave a stark warning.

“Kevin, you’ve convinced half the country that the election was stolen. There’s going to be violence,” Kinzinger said, according to his recollections, prompting an unfazed response from McCarthy: “Thank you Adam, next caller.”

McCarthy declined to comment for this story. Weeks later, Kinzinger launched a political action committee in support of anti-Trump Republicans just days after McCarthy visited the ex-president at his Palm Beach resort to re-pledge his allegiance.

After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) launched the select committee last summer to investigate the attack on the Capitol, she declined to serve on two of then-Republican Minority Leader McCarthy’s picks. removed all of its panel members.

Kinzinger then gladly accepted Pelosi’s offer to serve on the committee. Once the Illinois Democrats drew new lines that put him in the same district as a more reliable conservative, he decided to retire rather than walk out in certain defeat.

At the Jan. 6 committee, Democrats are leaning on him to explain right-wing media so some issues can be ironed out before they turn into a conservative feeding frenzy.

“No one understands the power structure of the GOP better than Liz Cheney, but no one understands the right-wing media infrastructure better than Adam Kinzinger,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), another committee member. . “We don’t even know how to find these channels.”

Kinzinger grew up in a religious culture where “the end of time” was frequently spoken of. He learned how it could sometimes swing into a “black helicopter” plot, which he acknowledged when watching video of rioters blowing shofar horns as they marched through the Capitol.

“It’s the whole march of Jericho, it’s basically calling out the new kingdom,” he said. During the January 6 riot, some insurgents blew the shofar on the floor of the Senate. “It’s all prophetic,” he said.

The committee’s biggest break came from former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, who initially delivered thousands of text messages but has since refused to cooperate. “Our star witness, although he never cooperated, is Mark Meadows, because his texts that he produced are what really gave us the roadmap of where to go next,” Kinzinger said.

Still a pilot in the Air National Guard, he can’t avoid the aviation metaphor when it comes to the committee’s biggest dispute. “How do you, to use the stupid term that everyone uses now, how do you land the plane? How do you say, we’ve had enough, we’re good to go? ” he said.

Kinzinger’s work ends at the end of the year. He will be retired at 44, married and the father of a little boy. Of the 87 Republicans who won for the first time in 2010, only about 15 will be sworn into the House next January.

Of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, only one secured his party’s nomination for November. Kinzinger and three others decided to retire, while another lost a primary in June. Cheney and three others will face tough primary competitions next month.

For Kinzinger, the battle will continue. He hopes to run for office again years from now if his side can win the long-term fight against those who still choose Trumpian adulation.

“Trump is now secondary to cancer. Trump is like liver cancer. Now we have cancer all over the body, and the next person who can imitate Trump can always do his magic tricks, ”he said. “We have to stand up against this.”