Donald Trump is the new face of the Republican Party. The presidency is so important that, try as pundits may to downplay the GOP presidential nominee’s success and diminish his credibility as a leader of the party, he is the GOP’s top voice now. Millions of Americans, a significant plurality of Republicans, have voted for Trump’s platform of Make America Great Again, complete with trade wars, mass deportations, a disregard for constitutional limits on the presidency, and “we’re going to take care of everybody” health care.
The fact that House Speaker Paul Ryan’s Trump-like primary challenger failed to overthrow an incumbent GOP leader (when do primary challengers ever succeed?) and that other GOP incumbents look secure against primary challengers doesn’t change that.
Trump’s nomination, however narrowly decided, shows how the ideas that we thought anchored the party and would guide any GOP nominee are actually more like tertiary thought bubbles. Likely this wasn’t a sudden revolution among the voting base; those thought bubbles have probably been floating farther out into neglected GOP brain space for some time. As someone once pointed out to me, the GOP has “coasted on populist sentiment” for quite a while, and now we are beginning to see its fruit. If the base was weak enough to let Trump in, then Trump and his supporters are strong enough to ignore them and their clingy conservatism.
Consider, for instance, that GOP delegates modified the GOP platform on trade toward Trump’s protectionist positions, eliminating mention of the Trans Pacific Partnershio, decrying “massive trade deficits,” and throwing in his “America First” slogan. Trump also picked an infamous traitor to religious liberty—a dearly held conservative principle—as a running mate. With Trump at the helm, many conservative or libertarian-leaning Republicans are asking themselves: do I even belong here? Is this still the party of Reagan, or has it morphed into something else?
So if the main current of Republicanism is populist nationalism, replete with moderate versions of the statism the Democrats have put forward, what is a Republican in name only (RINO) now?
All the Outsiders Are Now Insiders
Defenders of the entitlement state (John Kasich, for example) aren’t RINOs anymore. Trump doesn’t want to touch entitlements, his running mate sought to expand Medicaid in his state, and all the Trump supporters I’ve talked to are at least apathetic about his weak stance on reducing the national debt. The mainstream Republican voter still wants his Social Security check and Medicare. These voters are not RINOs; the Republican Party is just the slightly more responsible home for their comfort votes.
Proponents of the LGBT agenda aren’t RINOs—Trump has been pro-gay marriage from the get-go, and has said transgender people should be allowed to use whatever bathroom they want.
Advocates for protectionist trade policy aren’t RINOs—that’s a cornerstone of Trump’s platform. Those who support market regulation (the “right” regulation) instead of pushing back against the regulatory state wholecloth aren’t RINOs. That’s Trump’s policy, although he talks big about ditching the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Education. Letting Apple have parts of its iPhone manufactured overseas for a fraction of the price isn’t “free trade,” Trump’s people argue. It’s “stupid trade.”
To have “smart trade,” we need high tariffs—or, rather, increased control over exports and imports. We need regulation, because the “right” regulation ensures jobs. As one Trump fan argued on Twitter:
The only RINO offenses from past decades here to stay are to be soft on national security (however ignorant and irresponsible Trump’s foreign policy is, one cannot say he is soft), and soft on illegal immigration.
But those who believe in free markets and respect the Constitution are increasingly marginalized in the GOP. They face pressure on multiple fronts: on one side the establishment Republicans in seats of power (former House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example) who are invested in the status quo and maintaining their authority, and on another, the nationalist populist front, with Donald Trump at the helm. Yes, conservatives have fought back with some success against the GOP’s establishment wing through the Tea Party, only to have it mobilized later for Trump’s populism.
Maybe a RINO Is Now the Principled One
Indeed, it seems Trump’s rise may have done in the conservative movement within the GOP, or at least halted it for a time. Free traders and strict constitutionalists are guests in what they thought was their home. This alienation begs the question: has “RINO” come to mean the opposite of what we’ve understood it to mean in past election cycles, that of a centrist or a populist that consistently caves to pressure from the left? Or would it mean, in 2016, that a RINO is a conservative or libertarian who refuses to toe the line for the establishment or be carried away in the flow of populism, and who rejects white identity politics and widely propagated myths about how globalization is ruining our country?
I used to grimace at the pro-Trump tweets accusing various conservatives, from David Limbaugh to Jonah Goldberg, of being a “RINO” for not supporting Trump.
But now, I believe, NeverTrumpers can embrace the name-calling. “Yes, you’re damn right I’m a RINO,” they can say on Twitter. “This party doesn’t represent me anymore. I’m just here because right now, there’s nowhere else to go.” Such disloyalty may make them traitors to their party, but not to their country, or the principles they believe truly make America great.
Conservatives deserve a party that represents them, but that party doesn’t exist right now. So let’s settle into our new role on the margins and accept the title of RINO gladly—not just because it reflects the fact that we are Republican in name only, but because if conservatism is to survive the Trump era, we must create some separation within the party between the populists and the members who are grounded in free market principles and constitutionalism.
Millions of self-identified conservatives have backed Trump from the beginning, so to simply assert “No, I’m the real conservative!” does little to protect the brand. Besides, we have the wonderful new insult of “cuckservative,” for self-described conservatives who actually support candidates who share conservative values. It makes literally no sense, as “cuck” is supposed to mean a coward or sellout, but a conservative NeverTrumper is begging the insult by insisting on conservatism. And if Trump fans continue to describe themselves as conservative, the term is of little use to differentiate among the free marketers and protectionists, the constitutionalists and the soft totalitarians.
As Goldberg wrote back in 2007, in anticipation of an election cycle not nearly as divisive as this one, “unity is overrated.” We must push the separation even farther, and if that means accepting the harsh reality that we really don’t fit in the GOP of 2016, so be it.
Nowadays it’s popular to attempt to bend reality to our will to create the world we desire, but it brings tension and confusion, not contentment. Embracing my RINOism has given me a small measure of peace about the future of the GOP and my political ideology. The exact hashtag doesn’t matter much—#proudtobeRINO, #StraightUpRINO, #RINOconservative—but if you feel out of place in the GOP, consider giving RINOism a try.