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What Makes a Republican a “RINO”?

When the ideology is not the orthodoxy.
June 2, 2022
What Makes a Republican a “RINO”?

On Saturday, Donald Trump went to Wyoming to campaign against Republican Rep. Liz Cheney. He repeatedly called her a “RINO” and urged the state’s voters to elect her challenger, Harriet Hageman. But Trump’s speech exposed how the meaning of “RINO” has changed. It used to refer to people who weren’t Reagan conservatives. Now it refers to people who are.

The substantive positions for which Trump praised Hageman—on oil drilling, guns, crime, and border enforcement—were no different from Cheney’s. In fact, according to the American Conservative Union, Cheney’s voting record is far more conservative than the record of Rep. Elise Stefanik, who, at Trump’s behest, replaced her last year as chair of the House Republican Conference.

In his speech, Trump called Cheney a “lapdog” for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But that accusation, too, is bogus: Cheney has voted against Pelosi’s positions more consistently than have the top three officials in the House Republican Conference.

So Trump’s beef with Cheney isn’t about conservatism. Unless, that is, he finds her too conservative. And in many respects, he does: On several major issues, Cheney respects longstanding Republican principles, while Trump flouts them.

In Wyoming, Trump excoriated Cheney and Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania—another “RINO,” according to the former president—on three issues. One was the use of military force. Trump called Cheney and her father “globalists and warmongers.” He condemned the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and complained that Liz Cheney had “voted no on bringing our troops back home from Syria.”

You can disagree with Cheney or her father about their positions on these conflicts. But you can’t argue that Trump’s position, compared to theirs, is more “Republican.” For 15 years, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the global struggle against terrorism defined the GOP. The 2012 Republican platform—the last platform before Trump seized control of the party—resolved to “employ the full range of military and intelligence options to defeat Al Qaeda and its affiliates.” The platform opposed troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and pledged that “future decisions by a Republican President will never subordinate military necessity to domestic politics or an artificial timetable.”

Trump broke that promise. Two years ago, against military advice, he rushed American troops out of Afghanistan, hoping to end the war before the 2020 election.

The 2012 platform was also firm on law and order. It stipulated that “strong, well-trained law enforcement is necessary to protect us all,” and it called for “tough but fair prosecutors” and “meaningful sentences.” Last year, Cheney honored these principles when she agreed to serve on the House January 6th Committee, which is investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Trump takes a more . . . liberal view of January 6th. He defends the assailants—in fact, he has offered to pardon them—and he vilifies the prosecutors and law enforcement. At his rally, he called the investigation a “persecution of the January 6th political prisoners.” He also accused Cheney of trying to “weaponize the national security state and law enforcement against MAGA and MAGA supporters.” The former president justified his denunciation of law enforcement by telling the crowd that the people under interrogation about the January 6th violence—in contrast to “people from Black Lives Matter”—were “people like you. These are people that represent our interests.”

On economics, the 2012 GOP platform declared that “Republicans will pursue free market policies.” It called for “a worldwide multilateral agreement among nations committed to the principles of open markets.” In Wyoming, Trump derided Toomey for defending “free trade.” Trump bragged that he had extracted billions of dollars from China through “taxes and tariffs,” and “I gave it to the farmers.” He also boasted that he had issued instructions: “I told the farmers, ‘You have to do two things: Go out and buy more land, and go out and buy bigger tractors.’”

Taxes, largesse, and business directives from the president sound like the sort of thing Liz Cheney has often called “socialism.”

As Trump ranted about these topics—repudiating not just Cheney but the whole Republican worldview from Reagan to Mitt Romney—my first thought was that the term “RINO” had been turned inside out. By Reaganite standards, Trump and his acolytes are the RINOs. They’ve abandoned Republican principles, but they’ve captured the party.

More broadly, as Bill Kristol points out, the meaning of “Republican” has changed in every era. Reagan, like Trump, transformed the party. He built a Reaganite establishment. Trump has now replaced that with a MAGA establishment. Anyone who doesn’t fit the new establishment gets called a “RINO.”

And that raises a question about Trump’s Republican establishment: What does it stand for? How does Trump decide which candidates to endorse or oppose?

His remarks in Wyoming indicate three guiding principles. The first is personal loyalty to Donald J. Trump. Cheney’s cardinal offense, as described by Trump, was “going after your president” for inciting the January 6th attack. Toomey’s offense, similarly, was that “he raised his hand to impeach me” over the insurrection.

Trump’s second principle is defending corruption. In 2009, President George W. Bush refused to pardon Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, Scooter Libby, who had been convicted of perjury. Bush concluded that Libby had lied to prosecutors and that it would be wrong to let him off the hook. Trump, who had no such scruples, pardoned Libby nine years later. On Saturday, at the Wyoming rally, Trump scorned Bush for failing to use the pardon power to pay back Libby, whom Trump described as the Bush administration’s “protector.”

Third, Trump doesn’t cotton to people—such as Cheney—who oppose Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Instead he defends candidates such as J.D. Vance, Madison Cawthorn, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, who spout Russian propaganda and oppose military aid to Ukraine. At his Wyoming rally, Trump didn’t just dismiss the investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. He also ridiculed allegations—which remain unresolved—that Russia offered the Taliban bounties to kill American troops in Afghanistan. And he accused Cheney, a staunch advocate of aid to Ukraine, of “trying to get us to go into wars with Russia” and other countries.

And it isn’t just Russia. Trump also admires China’s Communist ruler, Xi Jinping. The 2012 Republican platform rebuked China for its “religious persecution,” its “suppression of human rights,” and its “erosion of democracy in Hong Kong.” At his rally, Trump extolled Xi as “smart—very brilliant, actually,” for “running with an iron fist” a country of “1.4 billion people.”

Trump may well succeed in purging Cheney and other Reagan Republicans from his party. In 2020, he scrapped the drafting of a platform entirely. He could do so again in 2024. Through purges, capitulations, and retirements, he might complete the transformation of the GOP into a party that worships dictators, ignores Russian aggression, tramples the Constitution, scorns the rule of law, and substitutes presidential favoritism for free markets.

That party might manage to gain and hold power for many years. It might even do so by winning elections. But it wouldn’t resemble the “Republican” party any of us have known.

William Saletan

William Saletan is a writer at The Bulwark.