Stuck In The Middle
Clowns to the left of Adam Kinzinger, jokers to the right
When people ask me what I am, I often tell them “tired.” Then, when they specify that no, they were asking about my political orientation, I tell them the same thing, as it’s still applicable. To be less glib, I like to call myself a mildly disillusioned conservative. The only reason I don’t classify myself as a severely disillusioned one is that to be severely disillusioned, you have to be illusioned in the first place. And I harbor almost no illusions.
I regard nearly all politicians not as worthy repositories for my hopes and sunny optimism, but as necessary evils. As a breed, they are generally too ambitious, too demagogic, or too into self-preservation at all costs to say anything much worth listening to. On the increasingly rare occasions when I can hold my nose and bring myself to actually vote for one, I usually feel as though I’ve participated in a kiss-your-sister contest – one in which both sisters resemble Bulgarian shot-putters.
I should stipulate, as I sometimes assure my rightist friends – the ones who are still speaking to me anyway - that I’m still no liberal. (Other than of the classical variety.) Because libs have hardly spent the last few years covering themselves in glory, either. The only reason they seemed to take a break from cancelling comedians, defunding police, or setting our cities on fire in “protest,” was to elect Joe Biden, a nice enough guy. At least he doesn’t wake up every day looking to kick the hornet’s nest, as his predecessor did. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that he should be fulfilling a more age-appropriate role than Leader of the Free World, like say, manning the TV dayroom of his retirement village, where he could charm the old dolls with tales about how he once took out Corn Pop in a knife fight, when not rooting on Tom Brady pitching a no-hitter against the San Antonio Spurs.
Yet one politician I have not felt similarly conflicted about is Rep. Adam Kinzinger, the Illinois Republican. Sure, there was about an eleven-month period there when it seemed like you couldn’t turn on the idiot box without seeing his omnipresent mug making holier-than-thou pronouncements about his Republican colleagues, most of whom have made an unholy alliance with a certain tangelo-flavored real estate developer who tried (and is still trying) to undo democracy. And as one of my literary heroes and a relentless teller of truths, Ralph Waldo Emerson, had it, we should always be wary of those who proclaim their own virtue loudly and repeatedly. Emerson wrote of the type: “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”
And yet, though we’re unaccustomed to seeing it in this day and age, Kinzinger has demonstrated what bears at least passing resemblance to political bravery. After the post-election atrocities of the last year – the lying, the conspiracy-theorizing, the rank dishonesty that is no longer a side dish in Republican politics, but the appetizer, entrée, and dessert – Kinzinger has been that rarest of breeds: an honest man. So it stands to reason that there’s no place for him in what was once his own tribe. He just announced last Friday that he’s out – he’s not running for reelection next year. The GOP is losing a good man, all the sadder since they don’t have many back-ups.
Critics will snigger that Kinzinger would have lost his next election anyway, if not from a Trump-y primary challenger, then after state Democrats had gerrymandered his district out of existence. Or, they’ll say that this will be good for him – he’ll have more time to spend with his conscience. But they would say that, since most of them long ago forgot what conscience looked like, having had to subvert theirs to champion behaviors that just five or six years ago, they’d have regarded as diabolical.
On paper, Kinzinger would’ve been nobody’s idea of a RINO-Cuck-Judas, as MAGAville regularly portrays him on social media. (Reaction, there, ranged from “Bye Felicia” – originality never being the coin of the realm on Twitter - to “Kinzinger leaving Congress to focus on being a bitch full time.”) Yet Kinzinger grew up a Bible-beating born-again Christian, and joined the military after 9/11, flying missions over Iraq. The Wisconsin Red Cross actually named him “Hero of the Year” in 2006 for wrestling a knife-wielding assaulter to the ground who had already cut the throat of a woman in downtown Milwaukee. Kinzinger had a 94 percent lifetime rating from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and supported penalizing sanctuary cities. Even though he didn’t support Donald Trump in 2016, he voted with him, policy-wise, exactly 90 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight.
So what was the problem then? Well, the problem was that Republican politics long ago ceased being about character or ideas or issues, or rather, it became about one issue alone: where you stand on Donald J. Trump, a character, with no character at all. If you’re for him – even if you were, in a recent former life, a bloviating morality czar like William Bennett or Franklin Graham - you’re in the club. If you’re not, you might ought to look into joining the Witness Protection Program, which, for the record, is overseen by the U.S. Marshall Service. Which itself is overseen by the Justice Department. Which also happens to oversee the FBI, which might’ve had undercover agents in the crowd during the 1/6 insurrection (the one that got five people killed and 150 cops injured). Which in current rightist dogma, we’re now supposed to believe is what tripped off the droog-fest invasion of our Capitol to Stop the Steal. Which was the very name of the Trump rally that preceded it. (Since the lamestream media can no longer be trusted, FingerSniffingPatriot.com has yet to confirm whether the FBI forced Trump to speak at his own rally, but they’re working on it.)
Kinzinger was having none of this. He called the bullshit out every chance he got. For his troubles, he was appointed to the January 6 House Committee investigating the Capitol riot. (Which is a bit like being appointed to Internal Affairs, if you’re a cop. It doesn’t make you terribly popular in the station-house lunchroom.)
Likewise, he didn’t make many fans in his own party by saying things, as he did to CNN’s State of the Union, such as that his party “desperately needs to tell the truth,” and that if they are “going to be in charge and pushing conspiracy, pushing division, and pushing lies, then the Republican Party should not have the majority.” Or saying things, like he did to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, such as, “I don’t have a tribe. The good thing is, I don’t really care. The only reason this hurts me is that it reminds of how frigging crazy the Republican Party has become. It’s not my tribe anymore.” Or as he told The Atlantic’s Emma Green, after members of his family had denounced him by registered letter, claiming he was possessed by the devil: “The devil’s ultimate trick for Christianity……is embarrassing the church. And I feel it’s been successful.”
Kinzinger might have lost faith in his family and his tribe. But he hasn’t lost faith in his faith, which requires people of faith, sometimes, to do hard things. Like tell people we love the truth.
The hard truths that need told, are everywhere apparent. I see them in the myriad polls that show how far we’ve fallen: A January LifeWay Research poll – the polling arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination I grew up in – showed that a full half of U.S. Protestant pastors frequently hear conspiracy theories from church members. A recent American Enterprise Institute poll showed that QAnon conspiracy nonsense was as popular as some religions. Over a quarter of white evangelicals held that it was either mostly or partly accurate that Trump had been “secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that include prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites." An odd claim to make about a guy who was running buddies with Jeffrey Epstein.
A May Ipsos poll found that over half (53 percent) of all Republicans still think Donald Trump is the rightful president. An August Yahoo! News/YouGov poll found that 66 percent of Republicans still think “the election was rigged and stolen from Trump.” A just-released Public Religion Research Institute poll claims that nearly one-third of Republicans (30 percent) say violence might be necessary to save the country. And this is not just true in sterile polling data. Such findings are consistent in my flesh-and-blood life, as well.
Just two weeks ago, at a dinner party, when we got to discussing the events of January 6, a female friend of mine opined that Ashli Babbitt was a martyr, the woman who was shot dead by a Capitol policeman. He was the last line of defense between Babbitt and the raging mob tagging along behind her as she filed through a broken window to confront congresspeople who weren’t as convinced as she was that Trump was still the elected president of the United States. Since both the popular vote and electoral college, as well as over 60 court decisions, suggested otherwise.
I asked my friend what she thought would have happened if Babbitt and the angry mob had say, come face-to-face with octogenarian Nancy Pelosi. Would they have merely had a spirited chat about the merits of mail-in voting? Or did she think real violence might have occurred, as had been intimated by the same crowd who was chanting“Hang Mike Pence,” Trump’s very own vice president, who, for once in his lapdog life, failed to fall in line? “I wish they’d have killed Nancy Pelosi,” she said. “And Chuck Schumer, too!” This friend of mine is otherwise a nice church lady, a woman of faith who I greatly admire. So she was kidding. I hope?
Then there was the old Republican friend who I encountered just last weekend at a party. She used to be a card-carrying establishment GOP’er. A Bushie – which I say with some contempt, since I wasn’t. (Not a big fan of his elective wars.) Yet now, she was practically ready to hoist the black flag and begin slitting (establishment) throats, as Mencken had it. She sat me down, in the middle of the festivities, for an educational seminar about “Adrenochrome.” I didn’t know what it was, since I don’t often keep up with the latest QAnon fantasies, which she now subscribes to. According to the Daily Beast, to Q-ballers, Adrenochrome “represents a mystical psychedelic favored by the global elites for drug-crazed Satanic rites, derived from torturing children to harvest their oxidized hormonal fear—a kind of real-life staging of the Pixar movie Monsters, Inc.”
Or take a nearby barn, just down the road from me. For nearly 30 years, an old tobacco barn contained a mural of the Stars’n’Stripes, originally painted to show support for our troops during the 1991 Gulf War. In the last few years, a corporate developer bought the farmland, tore down the old barn, then paid some Amish workmen to raise a new one, painting a gleaming-new American flag on its side. But recently, the new owner posted a sign smack in the middle of Old Glory, saying “Let’s Go Brandon.” If you don’t know the backstory of the slogan, it’s long and complicated and can be read here. But the short version is that it’s a stand-in catchphrase for “Fuck Joe Biden.” So now, when people drive by the barn, the very symbol which once unified us has become a middle finger to half the country.
This is the kind of behavior Kinzinger stood against, nearly alone in his party. (He was one of only ten House Republicans to vote for Trump’s second impeachment.) And as he exits the field, who are we left with, leaders-wise? Such men of integrity as Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, the senatorial equivalents of the BP oil spill, who ooze over everything they touch? Trump used to call Cruz, “Lyin’ Ted,” proving that even Trump, who told more lies per capita than Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon, tells the truth on occasion.
Or maybe the GOP future is in the hands of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, known to Trump as “My Kevin.” (He used to sort Trump’s Starbursts. Cherry and strawberry were Mr. Trump’s favorites!) When McCarthy asks “how high?,” Trump says, “I haven’t even told you to jump yet.” Or maybe the party is left to Jim Jordan or Matt Gaetz, who have never met a dishonest argument they wouldn’t gleefully make, so long as it was a rabidly partisan one. As my late pal David Carr used to say, it’s the “dance of the low-sloping foreheads.” Or in Gaetz’s case, of the low-sloping eightheads. Or maybe the GOP future will be left to such serial bomb-throwers as Republican congressman Madison Cawthorn, whose signature accomplishment as a legislator is beating up a dead tree, which some say might have been motivated by envy, since the tree had about 30 IQ points on him.
Kinzinger stood as a rebuke to all of them. In a recent statement posted to his Country First website, Kinzinger said the following, which I’ll now quote at length. Something I rarely do of politicians, who tend to employ a lot of words to say nothing.
My fellow Americans, our country is in danger, our leaders have failed us. And sadly, that seems to be about the only thing we can all agree on. Politicians from both parties would have you believe the sky is falling because of the other side. But the truth is, we’re in great peril today because too many have chosen argument over answers, tribes over solutions, and name-calling over working together….. It’s an epidemic that’s poisoning our relationships and our government. It’s threatening the America our kids and grandkids will inherit. It’s rotting us from within. It’s the definition of insanity, to believe the leaders who got us into this mess are going to get us out of it. They actually benefit from our division. In fact, our politicians and our media have each figured out the secret to power and profits: scaring the hell out of us. And while fear may help them make money and win elections, it’s tearing our country and our culture apart. Well I’ve had enough, we’ve all had enough. And now is the time for choosing. Will reasonable people of goodwill from across the political spectrum band together to take us to new heights? Or, will we continue down this hellish road of social civil war? Throughout American history, when polarization and extremism have grown too great, in every single instance, a movement has risen to meet the moment and to re-focus us on making things better. A movement that favors allegiance to our country’s guiding values over loyalty to a party. The truth is, no one is coming to our rescue. This is it, and it will only get worse, unless we make it better……. It has to come from the outside, and it has to come from you and me.
What Kinzinger’s fight looks like from here is anyone’s guess, including, in all likelihood, his own. He’s left the door open to future political possibilities. Maybe he’ll run for governor or senator in his home state. Maybe he can pursue a more rewarding career in telemarketing, or as a sign-spinner at a mattress outlet. Or maybe he’ll do something truly desperate, like start a Substack. But whatever he does, it’ll have to be easier than the job he had. Because it’s miserable work, having to tell the truth to people who don’t want to hear it.
Likewise, it’s hard work staying sane when surrounded by insanity. Love Kinzinger or hate him, but he gave sanity the old college try. Though alas, sanity is not for everyone, like 95 percent of his colleagues. And this, in the end, is why he has to go. Because he reminds them of everything they no longer are.
As Emerson also had it: “You must pay for conformity. All goes well as long as you run with conformists. But you, who are honest men in other particulars, know that there is alive somewhere a man whose honesty reaches to this point also, that he shall not kneel to false gods, and, on the day when you meet him, you sink into the class of counterfeits.”
Absolutely brilliant, Matt. Not just a piece of superb writing, but a work of art. Hilarious in all the right places and stingingly satirical in others, this is a heartfelt word from man of obvious integrity.
My sagging cheeks (facial) are getting a perpetual workout smiling as I read your work. Thank you, I hope by New Year I will look young again from toned cheeks.