WASHINGTON – What is the secret to the staying power of former President Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the GOP presidential 2024 nomination despite the four criminal cases pending against him, a civil case accusing his company of financial fraud and his increasingly harsh, authoritarian rhetoric?
“The secret is fear,” former Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., told me in a conversation about the high-stakes 2024 presidential contest and what will happen if Trump returns to power. “Fear is really effective and so that’s what he piles on.”
In the November “At the Table” show, now streaming online at the Sun-Times YouTube channel, Kinzinger warned about how a second Trump White House would be stocked with “sycophants” who would break already weakened “guardrails” to allow an unhinged, revenge-fueled Trump trample over our democracy.
If the choice for the conservative Kinzinger was between President Joe Biden and Trump, Kinzinger said he would vote for Biden. Democracy in the U.S. would survive four more years of a Democratic president, Kinzinger said. But it might not withstand another Trump term.
Our discussion was pegged to the publication of Kinzinger’s memoir, “Renegade - Defending Democracy and Liberty in our Divided Country.”
Hardly a renegade when he started his 12-year career in Congress, Kinzinger writes that he was enjoying fame and attention so much he didn’t have the courage to risk Trump’s wrath by voting to impeach Trump the first time around.
But the Jan. 6 insurrection provided Kinzinger the clarity he needed to understand the need for a high visibility crusade against the threats to our democracy posed by extremists pushing conspiracy theories, election denialism and Trump.
When Trump supporters attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 and violently tried to prevent Biden from becoming president, Kinzinger sat in his House office, with his gun on his desk praying he would not have to use it to defend himself.
It was then, he writes in his book, he realized “the party that once held my loyalty was gone,” replaced by “a fascist cult of personality” led by Trump.
Kinzinger and now former Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wy., were the two Republicans on the Jan. 6 committee and both are now out of office. Cheney was defeated by a Trump loyalist in the Wyoming primary. Kinzinger, thrown in a district with Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill., when Springfield Democrats remapped Illinois congressional districts, decided against seeking another term.
Since leaving the House on Jan. 3, Kinzinger sold his home in Channahon, and with his wife and baby son, moved to Texas to be closer to his in-laws. He’s a CNN senior political commentator, and a few weeks ago retired as a lieutenant colonel after a 20-year career as a pilot in the Air National Guard.
On GOP House members voting for election denier Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., to be House Speaker
House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., is a major election denier. Kinzinger noted in our interview several key figures who advised Trump in his schemes to overthrow the election admitted their lies when they took guilty pleas in the pending Georgia criminal case.
“So on the one hand, this court case is playing out with all these people saying ‘yes, I lied about January 6 or I lied about the election,’ and on the other hand, the only way to become Speaker is to say the election was stolen, to continue to lie about it. That goes to show what a dystopian world the Republican party exists in.”
On the failure of Republican leaders to tell the truth
Kinzinger said most Republican leaders — there are only a few exceptions — say “that Donald Trump is the victim of witch hunt, that the DOJ (the Justice Department) is a two-tiered system of justice and that Donald Trump is innocent and a victim. How in the world can somebody who’s a Republican, how would you expect them to believe anything else? And so I think there is a lot of blame to bear on simply the Republican leaders inability to tell their people the truth, so their people hear nothing else, and I think it’s a problem.”
Kinzinger warning: If No Labels runs a presidential candidate, it will help Trump
A centrist political group, No Labels, is exploring running a presidential candidate, a move intended to drain votes from Trump and prevent his election. It’s a risky strategy.
“There are people like me that don’t agree with everything Joe Biden does but would vote for him as opposed to Trump,” said Kinzinger.
If you give people an alternative, such as centrist Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV., “they would vote for that person…. the problem is, the consequences of a Donald Trump victory are so dire that I think you have to hold your nose and vote for somebody maybe you don’t like because we can survive four more years of Joe Biden. I’m not sure we can survive four more years of Donald Trump.”
On need for “normal” Republicans to team up with Democrats to beat Trump
“We have to have an alliance between normal Republicans and Democrats to survive, because if Donald Trump wins again, the guardrails protecting democracy took a really big hit (in Trump’s first term) but they held. They can’t take a second hit.”
On accusing Rep. LaHood of moving to the “unreasonable Right”
LaHood, from Peoria, is singled out in Kinzinger’s book for racing “to the unreasonable Right,” abandoning his “moderate positions.” Kinzinger writes LaHood, a co-chair of Trump’s 2020 Illinois campaign, has “tied himself to the most unethical and least transparent president in history.”