As Donald Trump sides with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer over their Republican counterparts, one of his allies lobs a telling insult at a movement conservative.
(The article first appeared in September 2017)
Over the last 25 years, the American right has embraced the notion that the worst insult one can heap on an elected Republican is to call him or her a RINO, or “Republican in name only,” which is to say, someone who pretends to be a member of the tribe but is closer to a traitor, because he or she lacks the spine for conservative policymaking, or sells out their own to establishment elites or liberal Democrats.
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For a while, the term was reserved for folks who actually took positions substantively less conservative than the Republican platform or the typical GOP voter.
But over time, RINO was hurled at people who were as conservative as anyone else, but less strident in their rhetoric, less averse to compromise, or less reckless in their brinksmanship than their critics (usually blowhard entertainers with no responsibility to govern or even to get their facts right). Most every Republican member of Congress, regardless of their views, harbored the concern that they’d be tarred as a RINO in the next GOP primary by a challenger pandering to a voting base that increasingly mistook fiery rhetoric for a sign of principle or ideological fealty.
A surfeit of bombastic huckster-enablers in right-wing media ensured that, over time, attacks on so-called RINOs were less and less grounded in substantive disagreements. Circa 2012, Jon Huntsman Jr., a man conservative enough to be elected governor of Utah, was utterly unable to attract a constituency to back his presidential campaign, because he had accepted a job as ambassador to China in the Obama administration, had a conciliatory manner, and criticized other Republicans in the media. That so many called him a RINO for those transgressions hinted at the degree to which the term had ceased to be about conservative ideology.
The outgroup was no longer folks who were insufficiently conservative. It was folks who were insufficiently strident in attacking the left. Mitt Romney awkwardly adopted the persona of a “severe” conservative that year to allay concerns that he was a RINO.
This trend reached its apotheosis Wednesday on Fox Business Network.
The bombastic huckster of the moment was Lou Dobbs, the longtime cable-news host who spent years playing a strident immigration restrictionist, expressing alarm about an ongoing “invasion” and contempt for employers who hired illegal immigrants, even as The Nation and its investigative fund found “that Dobbs has relied for years on undocumented labor for the upkeep of his multimillion-dollar estates and the horses he keeps for his 22-year-old daughter, Hillary, a champion show jumper.”
Dobbs is a Trump supporter.
And he attacked Speaker Paul Ryan as a RINO as part of a monologue defending a debt-ceiling deal that Trump just cut with Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.
Here’s how The Washington Post described the deal:
Trump, a man of few allegiances who seized control of the Republican Party in a hostile takeover, suddenly aligned himself with Democrats on Wednesday on a series of key fiscal issues—and even gave a lift to North Dakota’s embattled Democratic U.S. senator. Trump confounded his party’s leaders when he cut a deal with Democratic congressional leaders—“Chuck and Nancy,” as the president informally referred to them—on a short-term plan to fund the government and raise its borrowing limit this month.
The president’s surprise stance upended sensitive negotiations over the debt ceiling and other crucial policy issues this fall and further imperiled his already tenuous relationships with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). The episode is the latest turn in Trump’s separation from his party as he distances himself to deflect blame for what has been a year of gridlock and missed opportunities for Republicans on Capitol Hill. It follows a summer of presidential stewing over McConnell and Ryan, both of whom Trump views as insufficiently loyal and weak in executing his agenda, according to his advisers.
And here is Joel Pollak writing at Breitbart, the Stephen Bannon-led website that generally supports a Trumpist agenda:
Trump has long warned that he would work with Democrats, if necessary, to fulfill his campaign promises. And Wednesday’s deal is a sign that he intends to follow through on that threat. (He clearly intended it as such: Though Republican leaders also signed off on the deal, Trump specifically name-checked the Democrats in his speech in North Dakota a few hours later, pointing to the agreement as a sign that Washington was starting to work again.) By working with Democrats, Trump can bypass the Republican leadership, GOP moderates, and personal foes like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). However, it also means that he can cobble deals together between liberal Republicans and the Democrat minority, leaving conservatives out in the cold. The only way to stop him is for Republicans to unite. By showing he can deal with Pelosi and Schumer, Trump may have found the one way of making them do so.
Suffice it to say that, by every plausible account, what President Trump did was neither rooted in conservative principles nor to the liking of fellow Republicans. A person inclined to the term’s original sense could say that Trump just acted like a RINO, given that he literally sided with liberal Democrats over conservative Republicans.
Now behold how Dobbs characterized what happened:
A few thoughts now on the death of a RINO.
Nothing to lament here. We’re just examining politics in 2017. I’m talking about Speaker Paul Ryan and his obsequious deference to corporate lobbyists, his unbridled hostility toward President Trump.
The president not only took RINO Ryan to the woodshed but eliminated any need for any Republican to ever pretend again that Ryan is a real Republican in any way––or that any RINO has a political future after Mr. Trump booted the hapless fool of a speaker out of the way of those trying to get the nation’s business done. Here’s the clueless Ryan just this morning talking about a proposal from Democrats tying Harvey funding to an increase in the debt ceiling.
(PAUL RYAN in a video clip)
“What the leaders you just described proposed is unworkable. I think that’s a ridiculous and disgraceful that they want to play politics with the debt ceiling at this moment. I think that’s a ridiculous idea. I hope that they don’t mean that.”
They did mean that.
And it wasn’t so ridiculous, it turns out, because within just a few hours, President Trump reached a deal with the Democrats to raise the debt limit and fund the government until mid-December while providing funds for Harvey relief.
President Trump also clearing the way for tax reform while he was at it. Contrast Ryan’s inane insult, his obstinance and subversion of President Trump, to the behavior and the rhetoric of Democratic leadership of late. They’ve calmed themselves, they’ve been far more conciliatory in their rhetoric over recent weeks. And now Ryan is fully exposed to the nation. His Congress, one that has accomplished next to nothing this year, nothing in Paul Ryan’s nearly two-year tenure as a speaker has been done.
So there you have it.
A RINO was originally a Republican who was insufficiently conservative; then it was a Republican who was insufficiently strident or bombastic or extremist in their anti-Democrat tactics; and now, for a Fox host beloved of anti-immigrant populists, a RINO is a Republican who is on the other side of a disagreement with Trump, even if in substance, that means a RINO is someone who opposes a deal with Democrats to raise the debt ceiling, or stands against compromising with Democrats to get things done, which is to say, the opposite of what RINO meant in the recent past.
The schizophrenia of a political party that elevated the Tea Party, the Freedom Caucus, and Donald Trump in quick succession guaranteed ongoing conflicts between the Congress and the White House, and the White House and principled conservatives. And the conservative movement’s tolerance of intellectually dishonest entertainers and substantively dubious heretic hunts set the stage for a moment when some of those entertainers turned their tactics against ideological conservatives on behalf of a populist GOP president who is flirting with liberal Democrats.
Bygone heretic hunters and their enablers have become the hunted.
Ben Domenech argued at The Federalist that there is nothing Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and their conservative allies in Congress can do about Trump pivoting toward Democrats. “There is zero downside for Trump taking sides against feckless Republicans who have failed to deliver on their promises to him or to their voters, who lag him consistently in the polls, and who are clearly being blamed more than the president for failing to deliver on their agenda,” he wrote. “Trump siding against GOP leaders and seeing them bend over illustrates how he could get them to do this on just about everything. The path of least resistance, the path of popularity for him, is to dismiss the demands of Congressional Republicans on virtually everything except abortion, judges, education, free speech, and regulations.”
But wait a minute, The Weekly Standard’s Jonathan V. Last retorted in a series of tweets, “The big problem with the Trump pivot is that he’s made himself radioactive for Dems. Because of the way he campaigned and his behavior since (Charlottesville) any Dem who sides with Trump risks their political life. Trump could be proposing a federal regime of mass abortions at gay weddings officiated by transpersons and Dems would have to object and scream about alt-right fascism. Of course, it didn’t have to be this way. An R who ran on the exact same policy matrix as Trump absolutely could have executed this pivot. The problem, as always, is the man himself. Not the policies.” Both raise intriguing arguments. I wonder what will happen next. If William F. Buckley was still around, maybe that RINO could lend some insight.
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CONOR FRIEDERSDORF is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic,where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.