If Richard Burr is a RINO, it’s hard to imagine what is an elephant. For the past 25 years Burr has been the definition of a rock-solid Southern conservative, voting uniformly right on economic, social and military issues. Facing a potential primary challenge in 2010, he boasted “no one can get to the right of me”–and if Congressional vote trackers were to be believed, his insistent ideological rigor was the real thing. Yet North Carolina Republicans have made this arch conservative into a RINO and a party pariah.

While the far right was never enamored of Burr as it was with right-wing superstars like Jim DeMint of South Carolina, they tended to leave him be in primaries, appreciating that while his image was softer, his voting record was scarcely different from that of DeMint himself. This forbearance was possible because “RINO” had a different meaning at the time. In the Tea Party era, a RINO was an ideological heretic–even if their transgressions were limited to a single issue or were a matter of degree instead of fundamental philosophical divergence. The sacred text of the movement was the Ryan Budget, a document that would have basically repealed 100 years of statecraft, and so essential was this commitment to the Republican creed that even Newt Gingrich had to repent for mild criticism of it.

The Tea Party conquered the GOP outright. By the time the House Freedom Caucus was founded in 2015 by Tea Party veterans, essentially no Republican departed in any significant way from the movement’s hard-edged ideological vision. Thus, RINO hunters adjusted their sights. In lieu of ideological heterodoxy (which, again, barely existed by this time), right-wing enforcers sought to mandate a stance of confrontation. Affect and aggression became the requisite features of a good Republican, and when anyone deigned to collaborate with the Obama administration, they were read out of the party. A RINO was a dealmaker. A Republican was a fighter.

This emphasis on fighters laid the groundwork, or perhaps revved up the escalator, for the rise of Donald Trump. Throughout his political career Trump’s main appeal to GOP voters has been that he “fights.” Trump hates all the people and forces that his base hates, he blasts through normative walls whenever it suits him, he verbally abuses people, and he incited an insurrection. Trump is the personification of red America’s id; thus, to cross him in any way is an attack on the basic self-definition of the right-wing base. Now, a RINO is anyone who shows less than total fealty to the God-Emperor of conservative America. Even Paul Ryan himself, who in fact fawned over Trump’s supposedly “exquisite presidential leadership,” has been exiled to the RINO tribe.

Tea Party ideology took over the Republican Party, then Freedom Caucus aggression became its stance, and finally a man who fused aggression with open racism became the subject of an unbreakable personality cult. At every point once-respected conservatives found themselves drummed out of the party. The shifting definition of the Republican In Name Only offers a surprisingly incisive heuristic for what the GOP is. It is an authoritarian personality cult with fascist tendencies that will brook no dissent from the line that Trump must rule Washington.


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