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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

March 25: RINO Label Now All About Trump

The escalating use of the term “Republicans In Name Only” epithet and its evolving meaning has struck me for a while, so I wrote about it at New York.

Political party members accusing each other of insufficient fidelity to party goals or creeds is a very old tradition. But amid the ideological sorting out of the two major U.S. parties during the 20th century, the accusations of party heresy sharpened considerably.

This has been true for both parties. During the debates over the Iraq War and President George W. Bush’s policies, you often heard progressive Democrats complain about “DINOs” (Democrats in Name Only), “Vichy Democrats,” or “ConservaDems.” While ideological tensions remain in the Donkey Party, it’s now rare to see the kind of desire for excommunication that “DINO” implies. Yet it’s strong as ever in the Republican Party, where “RINO” has become an extraordinarily common epithet on conservative media and in GOP primaries.

But something very different seems to be happening right now: Instead of being a slur aimed at ideologically heterodox Republicans (who have already been hunted to near extinction), RINO increasingly means “disloyal to Donald Trump,” as Politico notes.

“While the RINO term has been employed in some form for more than 100 years, its meaning has shifted over time. In previous decades, a Republican risked getting tagged as a RINO for supporting tax increases, gun control or abortion rights. Today, in a reflection of the GOP’s murkier ideological grounding in the Trump era, it’s a term reserved almost exclusively for lack of fealty to Trump.”

The ideology of the GOP has quickly migrated from traditional Goldwater-Reagan-Bush conservatism to the peculiar right-wing populism of the MAGA cause, in which Trump’s cult of personality is a crucial ingredient. And Trump himself is perhaps the most promiscuous purveyor of the RINO smear: He generally deploys it toward Republicans who have rejected or even failed to adopt his 2020 “stolen election” mythology. Sometimes the term is deployed against people with stronger conservative credentials than the 45th president himself.

Consider Georgia governor Brian Kemp, whom Trump referred to just last week as “a horrendous RINO who has betrayed the people of Georgia, and betrayed Republican voters [while] repeatedly [surrendering] to Stacey Abrams and the Radical Left.” In fact, the only substantive issue on which Kemp has differed from Trump was on the preferred speed of his state’s emergence from COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, when Kemp wanted to move faster than the federal government. As for election laws, Kemp was once known as a master vote suppressor, so his RINO-dom is solely a matter of refusing to follow Trump’s orders to purloin the 2020 election in Georgia.

Many members of Congress who have been labeled RINOs by Trump and his surrogates have also supported him on non-election-heist matters. According to FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of congressional support for Trump, the alleged queen of RINOs herself, Liz Cheney, voted with her tormentor 92.9 percent of the time during his presidency. Tom Rice of South Carolina, whom Trump called an “atrocious RINO” at a rally on March 12, voted with Trump 94.1 percent of the time. That hardly makes them latter-day Nelson Rockefellers. What Cheney and Rice have in common, of course, is a vote for Trump’s second impeachment after the January 6 insurrection.

Even Trump’s friends and close advisers haven’t been able to avoid the label. Last month, the former president called Senator Lindsey Graham, his on-again, off-again golfing buddy, a RINO for mildly criticizing Trump’s expressed willingness to pardon the January 6 insurrectionists if he regains the White House in 2024. Trump has even dismissed his former attorney general Bill Barr — one of the most thoroughgoing reactionaries around — as a RINO. Again, it’s due to Barr’s refusal to credit his 2020 conspiracy theories.

A new batch of suspected RINOs is identified every time a Republican primary candidate secures Trump’s endorsement against an intraparty opponent. What this really means is that being a “true Republican” now means being a Trump Republican, particularly on tough issues like the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election as president. And “conservative” increasingly just means conserving Trump’s control over the GOP and restoring him to power. It’s been a startling change in perspective that I can’t imagine the movement conservatives of the not-so-distant past would accept.

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