Since Election Day, Kinzinger (Ill.) has been nearly alone among House Republicans in not only recognizing Democrat Joe Biden as president-elect and rejecting Trump’s baseless claims of mass voter fraud but in using his Twitter account to push back on the most domineering GOP leader in generations.
When Trump on Wednesday posted a 46-minute video rife with falsehoods and conspiracy theories to Facebook, Kinzinger delivered the ultimate rebuke to the social media-obsessed president: “Time to delete your account.”
In a wide-ranging interview Friday, Kinzinger elaborated on his concerns about Trump, a fraying national political culture, the psychology of Republican lawmakers and the party’s future beyond the Trump presidency. Most pointedly, he expressed his dismay with Trump’s attempts to attack the backbone of American democracy: its election system and the long tradition of peaceful transition between presidents.
“A lot of governments struggle to have just a modicum of what we do,” he said. “I’ve traveled [abroad] so many times with Democrats and been like: ‘Look, we are friends, even if we disagree.’ And when you start to see that model wear thin, you realize the impact of that around the world is huge. . . . The one thing that has held this country together is the understanding that we can pass the baton based on election results and not on power.”
Other Republicans, including the top GOP congressional leaders, have barely acknowledged that Biden is the president-elect, let alone criticized Trump’s long campaign — dating back months — to undermine public confidence in the election. Many of those who have spoken out — such as Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Mich.) and Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) — are leaving Congress and will not have to face GOP voters again.
On the contrary, Kinzinger, 42, is entering the prime of his political career, having comfortably won reelection and holding influential posts on the Energy and Commerce Committee and Foreign Affairs Committee. He is a national security conservative in the pre-Trump mold, respectful of global alliances and wary of authoritarian adversaries such as Russia, Iran and China.
During his first three terms, under the Obama administration, Kinzinger’s fresh face, military background and communications skills made him a rising star in the GOP. While he first won election with an endorsement from former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and tea party groups, he quickly earned the trust of top leaders and moved solidly into the party’s mainstream.
And like many lawmakers in that group, Kinzinger did not support Trump in his initial run for the presidency and publicly expressed reservations about his 2016 nomination up until Election Day. But unlike many erstwhile critics, such as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), he never quite made peace with Trump after his victory.
While Kinzinger didn’t respond to every Trump controversy — and embraced a few of his more divisive actions, including the U.S.-Mexico border wall construction — he frequently spoke out against the president’s most controversial foreign policy moves, such as withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria and shrinking garrisons in Germany. And he occasionally chimed in more sharply on Twitter.
Kinzinger lashed out in May 2019, for instance, when North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un tested missiles in an apparent provocation. Trump tweeted his “confidence” in Kim while taking a swipe at Biden as a “Swampman.”
“It’s Memorial Day weekend and you’re taking a shot at Biden while praising a dictator. This is just plain wrong,” Kinzinger tweeted.
But if you thought that small gesture of Twitter dissent earned him plaudits across the partisan divide, you’d be mistaken.
“Send a tweet and continue to do nothing, congressman,” said one reply. “That’ll show ’em.”
“Then do something instead of tweeting about it,” said another.
And another: “How many wrongs until you all do something?”
That dynamic, Kinzinger said, helps to explain why so few Republican officeholders venture any criticism of Trump, even if they are privately mortified by his behavior or his policy decisions. Not only are you inviting backlash from Trump’s most fervent supporters, you are not going to get much credit from his opponents.
“You’re going to pick a side,” he said. “It’s only once every two years when you have election results that you actually can tell that your district likes you. But if you look at Twitter, you’re inundated with everybody that hates you. And so you eventually just do the math and say: I have more Republicans than Democrats in my district or more Democrats than Republicans. I’m casting lots all-in with them.”
Other prominent lawmakers who have tried to walk a finer line — such as former senators Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and onetime House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) — bowed out of public service after clashing with Trump. A few others, such as former congressman Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) and Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.), were ousted by Republican voters in primaries in favor of more orthodox Trumpists.
So far, Kinzinger has avoided that sort of backlash. He easily dispatched a resolutely pro-Trump primary challenger in 2018 and did not have one this year. He won the general election in his sprawling rural district arcing around the Chicago exburbs with 65 percent of the vote.
He has chosen his points of departure from Trump carefully, and made pains to highlight the areas — like border security — where he backs Trump. For those Republicans who are willing to parrot Trump’s views and back his actions without departure, he said, the conservative media notoriety that can draw is a potent attraction.
Some of his colleagues, he said flatly, are “acting.” And some, he said, actually believe the lies and conspiracy theories that right-wing misinformation sources — and Trump himself — are spreading.
“There are members that I think are doing it because of the fame, and I think there are some that have been — I’m not going to say the term ‘radicalized’ — but have been made a little more to the extreme because of the same reasons everybody else is,” he said. “You’re looking at Facebook. All you see are people that agree with you. We’re in this massive echo chamber. And, you know, if you’re sitting on Twitter, and you see all these conspiracy theories, I mean, they’re attractive.”
Along with Riggleman, Kinzinger has used his social media platforms to combat right-wing misinformation channels in recent months, including the burgeoning QAnon conspiracy theory movement that believes Trump is secretly fighting a cabal of satanic pedophiles linked to government, media and Hollywood elite. In the process, he is actively antagonizing a swath of Republican voters whom other GOP officeholders have been content to tolerate.
On Monday, Kinzinger mocked a fanciful tale gaining traction on the far right spun by a retired U.S. general holding that elite Special Operations troops raided a CIA server farm in Germany to secure evidence of massive election fraud.
“I can’t even anymore,” he said in a tweet that also referred to QAnon as originating from “Russian intel or basement dweller.”
In the interview, Kinzinger identified the rise of disinformation as a serious threat to democracy and said he felt a responsibility to call out obvious lies — some of which, he had no doubt, have been stoked by foreign actors.
“Yes, the Russians are behind it,” he said. “They’ve created a monster. I think we’ve created a monster ourselves. I think the media’s created a monster, because I think just quite honestly, the media in some circles has lost credibility. And right now, we’re kind of a ship without a rudder, and that’s frightening.”
Kinzinger is among those who think Trump’s relevance will fade, if gradually, once he leaves the White House. And he is encouraged by the growing GOP ranks in the House, with a freshman class of women, minorities and veterans.
Still serving in the Air National Guard as a lieutenant colonel, Kinzinger takes leave every few months to fly RC-26 surveillance aircraft. Last year he spent two weeks flying missions along the southern border — an experience that prompted him to praise Trump’s decision to declare a national emergency and send military resources southward. When Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) withdrew Kinzinger’s Madison-based unit weeks later, he publicly blasted the move — earning him a brief investigation that concluded that, in fact, he was within his rights as a congressman to criticize Evers, his superior officer.
“Every day it’ll be less and less,” he said. “It’s like waking up from sleep and you’re blinking your eyes and you can’t see really well and then eventually you can read 10 minutes later. And I think that’s what’s going to happen.”
Kinzinger credits his military service, which was driven by the 9/11 attacks and included combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, as a formative event in developing his attitude toward politics in the Trump era. The second, he said, was a 2006 encounter in Milwaukee, where he subdued a knife-wielding man who had slashed his girlfriend’s throat during a street dispute. Kinzinger, then a 28-year-old unarmed bystander, wrested away the knife and jumped atop the man till police arrived.
“It does change your perspective,” he said. “When you’re laying around in your twilight years, you’re not going to be wishing you spent more time angry or comporting to whatever the view of the day was. You’re going to be proud of standing up.”
His recent outspokenness, Kinzinger said, hasn’t generated much personal blowback — though not necessarily because Trump supporters aren’t irate. He changed his phone number earlier this year — “the smartest thing I’ve ever done,” he said — making it harder for old acquaintances to personally register their dismay.
The biggest threat to his political future, for the moment, isn’t a Trumpist backlash but the coming redistricting cycle. Illinois is likely to lose one of its 18 seats, and the Democratic legislature in his home state is almost certain to try to eliminate one of the delegation’s five Republicans.
Kinzinger emerged from a prior post-redistricting battle, beating fellow GOP Rep. Don Manzullo in a bare-knuckle 2012 primary faceoff. Now, he said, he’s not worrying about what’s outside his control.
“I don’t need this job,” he said. “I guess I like it. There’s moments I like it. I believe in what I’m doing. But if I would start not believing in what I’m doing for political survival, it takes away the whole reason I ever got in. And it’s been interesting to me to watch people surmise out there that the only reason I’m doing it is I want to run statewide and that’s why I’m distancing myself. No, I just have always thought this is the right thing to do.”