Adam Kinzinger’s Family Letter Is Nasty, Cruel, and Familiar
I’ve received a few myself—and it’s time to let Trump-loyalist relatives go
Adam Kinzinger is a Republican congressman from Illinois representing roughly the Rockford area, an area that voted for Joe Biden over Donald Trump in the 2020 election. Kinzinger didn’t grow up in Rockford, though; he grew up in Normal, Illinois, home of Illinois State University, where he went to college before joining the Air Force and flying missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
I know Normal. It’s about an hour and a half from my hometown of Mattoon, and when I was in high school, Normal played baseball in our conference. We swept a doubleheader from them my senior year. Kinzinger is roughly my age, a couple of years younger. He might have been on that team. We’re both central Illinois kids. So even though I’ve never met Kinzinger, I feel like I know Kinzinger. I know where he’s from, I know that he left, and I know what that means—to be from there, and then leave. And I know what he’s going through right now.
I have spent most of my adult life feeling vaguely guilty about leaving my slowly eroding hometown, the place where my father grew up, the place where his father grew up; we once traced my family tree back to 1860 and discovered that my great-great-great-grandfather lived in… Mattoon. My father has seven brothers and sisters, all of whom live either in Mattoon or no more than 20 miles away. Everybody stayed there, until I left.
I have always felt that weight, the guilt of leaving my loved ones behind and also the pressure of living up to their expectations, of justifying my choice to leave. I have tried to keep them with me, wherever I lived and whatever I was doing. They were a part of me, forever, and I always made sure to remember that, and also to remember the lessons they had taught: basic human values of hard work, humility, and graciousness. “Don’t get a big head out there,” one uncle told me when I graduated from college. “Remember where you’re from.”
But in the last five years, many of them — most of them, if I’m being honest with myself—have changed. Before 2015, we would have normal, good-natured, even enlightening conversations about politics, mostly about gun control and social welfare programs. (One uncle, when I told him I was writing for Bloomberg, mock-pretended to hide all his weapons so I wouldn’t take them on behalf of my boss.) It was fun. We liked it. But in the age of Trump, all that changed. Our conversations became much more confrontational, almost immediately, and were no longer about issues or debates. They became personal. That I didn’t like Trump — that I found him an existential threat to the America that I knew my extended family loved as much as I did — wasn’t about disagreement anymore; it was about me being an “elite,” about me being a traitor to the place and the people I grew up with, about me losing touch with my roots by rejecting a man who wouldn’t know a 4-H Club event from the 21 Club and frankly wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere near central Illinois. Their love and dedication for Trump turned me into something other than family to them: It turned me into the enemy.
This has been incredibly painful, to watch people I love and respect turn so dark and angry, and I’m hardly alone. HuffPost’s Jesselyn Cook wrote a terrific piece last week about the children of QAnon adherents, and how they’re actively mourning the loss of a loved one, how cruel many of their family members have become. And because these are the people who raised me, the people I looked up to as a child, there’s always been a little part of me that wondered whether I was wrong — that I’d done something to let them down.
Enter Kinzinger. Rep. Kinzinger is not only one of the few Republican congresspeople who voted to impeach Trump on charges of inciting a mob to storm the Capitol, he has started a political action committee called Country First that is explicitly anti-Trump and proclaims “the Republican Party has lost its way.” He is the loudest Republican trying to move on from Trump; he is trying to save his party and his country.
Now, you can disagree with Kinzinger all you want: I certainly do, on a lot of things. But there is obvious courage in his campaign, not only to buck a former president who once told him to “fuck himself,” but to go against the wishes of his increasingly radicalized party. (And against the less-courageous fellow Republicans in Congress.) Kinzinger has faced considerable backlash from his party, but he expected that. But what he might not have expected? To have his family reject him.
As detailed in the New York Times, 11 members of Kinzinger’s extended family — his family is even bigger than mine; his dad has 32 first cousins in Bloomington-Normal—sent him a letter expressing their “disgust” with his lack of support for former President Trump. It is nasty and cruel and awful and incredibly familiar.
The letter tells Kinzinger he is a member of “the devil’s army” and that he is “not worth more of our time,” to list his presumably limitless number of offenses, that they are “thoroughly disgusted” with him and that he has “embarrassed the Kinzinger family name.” Reading the letter made me feel like someone had punched me in the stomach; I cannot imagine what it felt like for Kinzinger. The woman who sent the letter, Karen Otto, Kinzinger’s cousin, actually sent the letter via certified mail to Kinzinger’s father, to make sure they both received it. She sent it two days after the insurrection at the Capitol and later told the Times that “she wanted Adam to be shunned.”
This letter is deranged. But I know this letter: I have received many versions of this letter, though it’s always over Facebook. I have not achieved what Kinzinger has achieved in his life, but I understand, at my core, the pain that comes with hearing someone in your family tell you they were once so proud of you, until you betrayed them by not supporting Donald Trump, a man who stands in direct contrast to the values that we were all supposed to be sharing. Kinzinger knows he is right. I know I am right. But it doesn’t make hearing that hurt any less.
Kinzinger’s response to the letter, however, is instructive:
“I hold nothing against them,’’ he said, “but I have zero desire or feel the need to reach out and repair that. That is 100% on them to reach out and repair, and quite honestly, I don’t care if they do or not.”
And he’s right. It hurts me to say that: I don’t want to lose people I grew up with, who I care about—my family. But I am not the one who has been cruel. I am not the one who has chosen to say such hateful things. I am not the one demanding anyone be “shunned.” It is not on me to fix them. They have to fix themselves. I share Kinzinger’s faith that this is a Trump “hangover” that will fade, that these people, when the smoke has cleared, will return to reality and come to terms with how much they have changed, with how much they have lost by choosing this stupid, vain, awful man over their families, over the people who care about them. I do believe that. But I am finished trying to make the effort to “understand” them, and I am definitely not going to blame myself for what has happened to them. I still care about them. I will always hold them dear to my heart. But I cannot help people who cannot help themselves. And I cannot fix what has happened to them. And I will no longer feel guilty about a betrayal that has occurred only in their own minds. I love my family. I’m here if they ever come back. But I’m not going to sit around waiting for them any longer, either.
Kinzinger is taking heat from all sides in his party, but I bet that’s not what hurts the most. Which makes his attitude and his dedication to doing the right thing all the more inspiring. I’m grateful for it. I share his pain. And now I share his prescription. It is on them. It is not on me. It is not a rejection of the values we all shared growing up. It is an honoring of them.
Will Leitch writes multiple pieces a week for Medium. Make sure to follow him right here. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel How Lucky, released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.