Look, when you’re a kid in fifth grade that wears a size 13 shoe and you got messed-up teeth because your parents can’t afford braces and you have a speech impediment, you don’t think you’re learning a lesson that is going to be useful later on in life, right? Like, I cried like three times a day, and now I’m 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, can deliver a CIA kick, but you know what it’s like having that feeling. And so for me, I can’t stand bullies, obviously. And you also realize that when you stop worrying about what those other people think — my mom always said, “William, it only matters what your loved ones think about you and what you think about yourself” — that gives you an ability to have empathy in situations when sometimes others don’t. I also attribute that to my parents. My dad’s Black, my mom’s White; they met in Los Angeles, moved to South Texas 1971. It was not in vogue to be an interracial couple in South Texas in the ’70s. Somebody asked me recently: Were there other interracial couples in my neighborhood? No. I probably didn’t know another interracial couple. Maybe when I got to college.
Did that make you feel different all the while?
Well, it was the norm to be the only person that looked like me in the place. It was just like that was normal. And so it wasn’t weird looking the way I look living in Pakistan. Because even when in cultures that people are like, “You’re not from here,” it didn’t impact me. It didn’t impact me being in Democratic parts of my district when a Republican had never showed up. Those experiences gave me an ability to step out of my comfort zone — maybe it’s because you don’t have a comfort zone — and spend time in places where others may have felt uncomfortable.
There’s a story in your new book where you’re in Afghanistan taking around a congressional delegation, and disappointed in their lack of knowledge and maybe lack of interest in learning about what they didn’t know. Can you talk about how that motivated you to run for Congress?
I went in the CIA when I was 22, right out of my undergrad. Best job on the planet. I had fun serving my country in exotic, dangerous places. My job was to recruit spies and steal secrets. But I also had to brief members of Congress, and I was pretty shocked by the caliber of our elected officials. And my mama always said, “You’re either part of the problem or part of the solution.” I just felt I could help the intelligence community in a different way to help keep the country safe.
So when you got to Congress, was it what you expected, the caliber of your colleagues?
Well, so I will say this: Look, I knew what I was getting into because that was the whole reason I was running. But, yes, there were some other folks I felt were thoughtful, smart, willing to solve problems, or willing to get beyond partisan politics and actually address issues. But I also met and served with people that, in essence, I was shocked by and [reflected] why I decided to run.
So why did you choose to leave Congress — did you feel like you had done everything you could? You talked not long before leaving about being the future of the party.
That was not something that I said. I think it was a Politico article that called me “the future of the GOP.” Could there have been other things to do? Yeah. But I got 21 pieces of legislation signed into law. That’s actually more than most people that have been there for 20, 25 years do. But it was never something I planned on doing forever. I had said since I ran in 2009 that to do the job well you have a shelf life of six, seven or eight years. I think part of the problem is that we have career or professional politicians. I think having different experiences makes you a better, smarter person. And so I felt like it was the right amount of time. There’s more than one way to impact your country and to serve your country.
You talk about how the U.S. needs to “get off the X” at this moment. What do you mean by that? Not everybody knows that lingo.
So, “get off the X” is the second lesson you learn at the supersecret CIA training facility, the Farm. And “get off the X” means when something is going down. The last place you want to be is where it’s going down, and that’s the X. And I shared a story about a situation I got into where I almost got dragged out of a car and beaten to death. And I use that to talk about where we are right now as a country. I think it was a Gallup poll that said 72 percent of Americans feel the country’s on the wrong track. We don’t have to be in this position. We don’t have to accept that this is the only option that we have. And so for me, if we’re going to move to a place where our country continues to have the most important economy in the world, to be able to continue to improve quality of life for all Americans and uplift humanity, we have do something different. We got to get off the X in the moment that we’re in.
You say America needs a “reboot” and the Republican Party needs a reboot — saying specifically to the Republican Party: “Don’t be an a–hole, racist, misogynist or homophobe.” So how do you envision a reboot of the party when moderates [are] censured, primaried, and those leaders who would take up that mantle — like you, [U.S. Rep. Adam] Kinzinger — are leaving?
There’s going to be new ones coming in. I think this is a uniquely Washington, D.C., thing where everybody focuses on the party as only the elected officials. But I see the party as voters, the people that are actually voting. The reality is 80 percent of Americans are somewhere in the middle, and they don’t get talked to because of the way the primary structures are set up. But this is how I won my elections. Nobody thought a Black Republican could win in a 71 percent Latino district. People didn’t think I could win a primary. I had all kinds of groups against me in Republican primaries. So I’ve done this. And I’ve helped other candidates do it in other races. And this is not just a Republican thing. We need two strong parties to have a true competition of ideas to address the challenges that our country is going to be faced with. If we keep doing the same things the same way, we get the same outcomes. And so at some point, there’s going to be enough people that stand up and say enough is enough.
What I’m talking about is hard to do. The professional political class — whether Democrat or Republican — tells you to talk to the likely primary voters. But look, that group of people is small. The number of people that vote reliably in general elections but not in primaries is greater than or equal to those that will normally vote in primaries. And so my point is, if the Republican Party, if the GOP wants to stay in power and break the cycle that we’ve probably been seeing for 30 years, where the leadership keeps changing back and forth, then we have to grow the coalitions within the party. We have an opportunity to grow into Black and Brown communities. You’re going to have Republicans winning in Latino districts this upcoming cycle in probably record numbers. You have an opportunity to win in areas that are dominated by women with a college degree in the suburbs. But this idea is not just about winning elections. It’s also about governing, and it’s also about broadening coalitions in order to continue to make sure we can actually get things done.
You write that Jackie Robinson, who was a Republican, would not recognize the party today and probably not be affiliated with it. Has your allegiance to it been tested recently?
No, just because there are some nuts in the party, that doesn’t mean that they get to decide what the Republican Party is.
A huge number of Republicans don’t accept that the election was fair. It’s not just a couple nuts.
Sure. So look, I’ve been very clear on 2020 and that it was lost, not stolen. But here’s the reality: When I crisscross the district, when I’m out in the country, nobody brings that stuff up. They care about putting food on their table, a roof over their head, taking care of their friends and family. We don’t need to be talking and fighting the battles of the past. We need to solve real problems, things like Ukraine, Iran, border security, the national debt. The fact that technology is evolving at such a rapid pace that we need to be talking about technology’s role in society. The threat of China surpassing the United States of America as a global superpower is a major issue.
This is going to impact our 401(k)s, it’s going to impact the ability of our kids and our grandkids to get good-paying jobs. Look, we benefit from having some of the greatest companies being based in America because our kids and our grandkids get to go work at those places. It’s going to have an impact on our culture — our artists, our musicians, our authors are having an impact on culture all over the world. These are all things that play into us having a society in which we have a quality of life that is the envy of the world. That is in jeopardy. And the way the Chinese government is going to try to surpass us is by being global leaders in advanced technologies like 5G, AI, quantum computing.
And you define that as the “new cold war” — with our “frenemy.”
Yeah. Because here’s the difference, here’s why this is harder: The Soviet and the American economies were not as intertwined, and the U.S. and Russian economy are nowhere near as intertwined as between us and China. Economically. Culturally. The U.S. and China should be able to coexist, but we need to be playing and coexisting based on rules that we agree on. If the Chinese government agrees to be a part of the [World Trade Organization], then you got to adhere to the rules of the WTO, right?
I want to ask you about Ukraine. What do you think we ought to be doing as a country?
First and foremost, my principle on what our foreign policy should be is simple: Your friends should love you and your enemies should fear you. What does that mean in the Ukraine? When [President Volodymyr] Zelensky is saying there’s more help he needs, and we’re not willing to give it, that’s a problem. When Vladimir Putin is not concerned about the U.S. and our allies doing something, that’s a problem. So I do believe that those MiGs and as other material that we can be giving the Ukrainians allow them to actually win the war. So can we do everything to help the Ukrainians win this war themselves and give such an overwhelming defeat to Vladimir Putin that he has no other choice? But in the meantime, if the administration’s not going to do that, we need to start thinking about the Marshall Plan for Ukraine for a rebuild. And that Marshall Plan can begin in those Eastern Europe countries like Poland that are dealing with that humanitarian crisis.
Would you say there’s a leadership vacuum now?
One hundred percent there is. And we need to inspire rather than fearmonger. Everybody’s been saying this for a long time, but nobody’s really trying to do anything about it. Look, my social media profile would be 10 times what it is now if I said crazy things. But guess what: That’s not me and I’m not going to participate in that. I refuse. Because I also think it’s important to model the behavior that you want to see. And so I’m going to do things my way. And if it works, great; if it doesn’t work, that’s okay, too — just put in the effort and try to make an impact. And as long as I can go back in my community and [hold up] my head and explain why I did things, then I’m going to be happy.
How optimistic do you feel about the situation today and the possibility of a reboot?
I think things might get worse before they get better. But I do think they get better. I do think our best days are actually ahead of us. People want to be inspired; they want to believe in something better than themselves. These are tough decisions, hard problems. And there are some people that believe that there’s potential for a civil war before there is an American reboot. I understand that, but there’s just too many people that love this country that are frustrated with the system that are ready to do something a little bit different. And whoever taps into that, you’re going to see long-term success.
KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the magazine. This interview has been edited and condensed. For a longer version, visit wapo.st/magazine.