Facebook Twitter

RINO hunting in the age of Trump

RINO used to mean someone who didn’t follow party orthodoxy. But in the Trump era it came to mean disloyalty to the former president

SHARE RINO hunting in the age of Trump

Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

There have always been mudslingers in politics. But Russell “Rusty” Bowers has never been one of them.

When Bowers, who recently gained national attention as part of the Jan. 6 investigation, first entered Arizona state politics in 1993, the acronym RINO (Republican In Name Only) had only just begun to be hurled between politicians.

“I try not to use it ever,” Bowers said. “It’s always been a slur, a slap to somebody if they don’t agree with you.”

Despite his restraint, Bowers has been the frequent recipient of the RINO label since testifying before Congress in late June about his experience resisting pressure from the former president and his allies to decertify President Joe Biden’s win. 

While the term RINO has been used for decades to insult Republicans who didn’t follow party orthodoxy, its meaning has transformed in the Trump era to be largely centered around the former president’s personality and personal agenda, according to Matthew Continetti, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism.”

Traditionally, RINO and similar terms, like “me-tooer” during the New Deal era, were used “to indicate that a Republican is deviating from conservative views,” Continetti said. “But what we’ve seen in the last two years is that the term has no relation to policy and what it’s really about is whether the Republican stands by Donald Trump or not.”

The RINO acronym became popular in the early 1990s as the Republican party platform became increasingly fixed around a set of specific issues. In this environment, Republican politicians sought to establish their ideological purity by marking some partisans as “not conservative enough.” 

“This was applied to people who were more liberal Republicans, who weren’t taking the positions that conservatives agreed on — on abortion, gun control or on the role of government,” said Richard Davis, BYU professor emeritus of political science, of the term RINO.

But this clear ideological connotation seems to have disappeared.  

In a phone interview, Bowers put it bluntly. “Nowadays it just means you don’t agree with Donald Trump,” he said.

On June 21, Bowers testified before the Jan. 6 committee, recounting a phone call he received from former President Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, in which they insisted on the existence of widespread voter fraud and encouraged Bowers to use his authority as Arizona House Speaker to convene a special legislative session to decertify Biden’s 2020 win in the state.

Bowers refused. “I will not play with laws I swore allegiance to,” he said in the committee hearing. That morning, Trump released a statement saying, “Arizona Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers is the latest RINO to play along with the Unselect Committee.”

A month later, at an Arizona rally, Trump endorsed Bowers’ primary challenger for Arizona Senate, David Farnsworth, calling Bowers a “RINO coward.”

Under the traditional definition of RINO, Trump’s comments would seem to imply Bowers’ betrayal of core conservative principles and Republican policy, but Bowers’ legislative record says otherwise, having presided over legislative sessions where election integrity, tax cuts and border security were the main focus.

Between 2020 and the first week of 2021, the former president used the term RINO 32 times in his Twitter posts. The label was aimed at state election officials in Philadelphia; governors in Georgia, Massachusetts, Maryland and Arizona; and congressmen who accepted the results of the 2020 presidential election. This doesn’t include the many other instances of the acronym in statements published through Trump’s Save America PAC or Truth Social account in the months after he was banned from Twitter.

Trump and his supporters have directed the phrase at Liz Cheney, who voted with Donald Trump 93% of the time; Brian Kemp, who’s conservative achievements as Georgia governor include a heartbeat bill banning abortions after six weeks, a voter ID law restricting absentee ballots, and one of the quickest ends to pandemic lockdowns in the country; and former Attorney General William Barr, who has long defended Trump and said he would vote for him again if he were the party’s nominee.

Even Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s most faithful allies, was called a RINO by the former president after signaling disagreement with the indication that he would pardon Jan. 6 rioters if reelected.

The apparent contradiction of Trump and his supporters using RINO to refer to politicians who are, by any standard, stringent ideological conservatives, suggests the acronym no longer refers to ideological conformity on issues like tax cuts, border security and abortion, but rather to opinions on the former president himself, Continetti said.

“It refers to what holds the Republican party together today, that’s Donald Trump, the person. A RINO is someone who doesn’t stand behind Trump and his America first agenda,” Continetti said.

Many prominent Republicans who were first elected in the “RINO-hunting” tea party wave of 2010, including Sens. Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Mike Lee, have largely avoided the label in its current iteration. But other conservative lawmakers in their cohort haven’t been able to. 

Sen. Pat Toomey won a highly publicized race in 2010 against Pennsylvania Republican incumbent Arlen Specter, who was considered a RINO for his Democratic past, pro-choice stance and his willingness to tax and spend. Toomey ran on a platform of principled, small-government, low tax conservatism to beat Specter in the Republican primary. Now, as one of seven Republican senators who voted to convict Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial, Toomey has been given the same label as his predecessor.

Trump’s willingness to denounce members of his own party as RINO’s has left the GOP’s guiding ideology unclear, with the only constant being Trump, Continetti said. 

“2016 was the last year the GOP produced a platform. Since then Republicans have just followed Trump wherever he wanted to go,” he said. 

Now, with its new meaning, RINO is experiencing a surge in usage by Republican primary challengers and voters alike. During the 2018 midterm election, the RINO acronym was almost never used in television ads, Politico reported. But by March 2022, only a few months into this year’s primary season, RINO had already been employed in $4 million of Republican ads for national and state legislative competitions. 

There is an interesting asymmetry between the Republican and Democratic parties’ willingness to ostracize members of their own party, Continetti noted. Though there are certainly divides within the Democratic ranks — like when Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., was hounded by Democratic activists while in a bathroom and at a friend’s wedding — there is still no DINO alternative to RINO on the left.

Continetti attributes this to the fact that the Democratic Party is made up of a diverse coalition of groups united around material concerns. This stands in contrast to the Republican Party whose focus on values creates the potential for members to lose standing on ideological grounds, Continetti said.

In July, a month after Bowers testified to Congress, he was formally censured by the Arizona Republican Party. Then, in the August Republican primary, Bowers lost to the Trump-endorsed challenger by a large margin. 

Bowers is clear-eyed about the dilemma faced by the Republican Party. “If you don’t go along with what Trump thinks you’re a RINO,” he said. 

His message for fellow Republicans? “You can’t have a party where you’re just pushing people out. It doesn’t work.”