Conservatives have, for the longest time, thrown around the word “RINO” to characterize Republicans who aren’t in step with their values. The term, which stands for “Republican In Name Only,” has become a common part of our political language.
However, with the rise of President Trump and his allies, do we all need to rethink what “RINO” means?
Why “RINO” Works
The phrase “Republican In Name Only” works because, for the longest time, the GOP was the party of conservatism. Virtually et members of the GOP knew this, and embraced that position openly. It was easy to label non-conservatives in the GOP as RINOs because they were just that: Republicans in name only, who didn’t align with the party’s majority values.
However, some people have begun noticing that there’s a problem with assuming that the values behind the word “RINO” are always the same. For example, last week, the “Reagan Battallion” Twitter account–a frequent critic of President Trump–responded to a tweet accusing the account of being run by RINOs. In response, the account made this observation:
Probably true, being that Trump’s Republican Party has little in common with conservatism. https://t.co/kFeLa4WGvb
— The Reagan Battalion (@ReaganBattalion) July 25, 2018
On the surface, this tweet is just a snarky reply. However, on a deeper level, it actually makes a lot of sense.
Shifting Core Values
President Trump challenged everyone’s expectations when he decided to run for office. He made a point of differentiating himself from conservative positions. As then-candidate Trump himself argued on the campaign trail, the Republican Party “is not called the Conservative Party.” Trump also made a big deal out of claiming that, in five to ten years, he would transform the GOP into a pro-workers party. In that same speech, he also criticized calls to cut Social Security or rein in welfare spending.
And, like many things Trump, the man himself has had far more success than anticipated. As Yuval Levin correctly observed back in 2016, Trump’s nomination (and eventual win) happened in part because conservatives assumed they were safe. But while almost all conservatives were Republicans, not all Republicans were conservative. Trump appealed to those wings of the GOP that were not strictly conservative ideologically, and that strategy paid off.
As a result, in the last few years, we’ve seen a steady change in the party’s core values. This has resulted in a very different political landscape. Now, economic ideas like tariffs and trade protectionism, once complete anathema to conservatives, have started gaining support. And, as Edward Burmila writes at The Week, President Trump’s position on Russia has begun to noticeably shift the GOP base’s views on foreign policy.
A Change In Definitions
So here’s the real problem for the word “RINO” as we currently understand it. “Republican In Name Only” means that an individual official or candidate embraces values that don’t align with the party’s values. Until recently, everyone just assumed those values were conservative, and it was easy to label non-conservatives as RINOs.
However, that core value set is changing.
So what happens when conservatism isn’t the core ideology of the party anymore? Does that make people who don’t fully embrace the party’s new values become the new RINOs? Does that mean that conservatives themselves are becoming the new RINOs, and populists or Trumpists are the new true believers?
If the rate of change in the GOP keeps up, we may learn the answer to that question sooner than we think.