When I was in my 20s, an older conservative commentator handed me a pin with a cartoon rhinoceros head crossed out. It read “RINO Hunter.”
Back then, during the Bush years, “RINO” was already an ill-defined term. To this particular older conservative, who deeply supported the Iraq War and valued aggressive and expansive foreign policy and anti-terrorism policy above all else, a “RINO” was an opponent of the Iraq War or a critic of “enhanced interrogation.”
To most conservatives in the Bush era, a “RINO” meant somebody who favored higher taxes or was pro-abortion or anti-gun. Sens. Arlen Specter (PA), Jim Jeffords (VT), Lincoln Chafee (RI), Susan Collins (ME), and Olympia Snowe (ME) were the highest profile “RINOs” by that measure.
Specter, Jeffords, and Chafee eventually left the GOP and became Democrats, lending credence to the label. But still, it was an odd epithet to my ears because I didn’t see “Republican” as anything more than a team affiliation. If you ran as a Republican and caucused with a Republican, you were a Republican.
You might not be a conservative, but conservative was a political leaning or an ideology, not a party. “Conservative” to my ears was never synonymous with “Republican” — especially because the Republican Party leadership often did unconservative things, such as hike taxes, appoint left-wing pro-Roe justices, and increase the federal role in education.
Today, though, RINO is an even odder word. It increasingly means “doesn’t support Donald Trump.” This was definitely true during Trump’s campaigns and his presidency. For some commentators, it still means that.
Put another way: Among a large minority of Republican voters, the only litmus test of loyalty, and the very definition of both party and ideology, is fealty to former President Donald Trump.
I could go on about how ill-fitting this is: Trump wasn’t a Republican most of his life. He was the least ideologically conservative GOP nominee since Nixon. He has harmed his party — and so on. But for a large slice of the electorate — I don’t know exactly how big, but I put it between 10% and 15% — their primary political allegiance to one particular man.
What makes things extra complicated is that this one particular man is a widely hated narcissist.
The problem isn’t merely that you need to suck up to Trump in order to get a Republican nomination. A key problem is that if you run against Trump at all, you are seen by these Always Trumpers as a de facto RINO because you are opposing the essence of conservatism and GOP — namely, Donald Trump.
Nikki Haley has bitten her tongue on Trump, but she’s on the enemy’s list because she would like to be the 2024 GOP nominee.
Former Vice President Mike Pence has been as deferential as possible to Trump, and everywhere you go, you see Trump/Pence bumper stickers with Pence crossed out.
The result is this: Gov. Ron DeSantis and any other Republican seeking the presidential nomination — now or even in 2028, if Trump’s still alive — will be attacked viciously and personally by Trump. He or she will somehow have to not counterattack Trump and also not look like a beta male, in the parlance of our times.
This means that the Democratic nominee will have a massive advantage as long as Trump is on the political scene because every Republican needs to suck up to Trump or else lose 20% of the Republican vote.