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What is a RINO?

As a wise philosopher once wrote, “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.”

This thought prompts a reflection on the term “RINO.” Understood as “Republican in name only,” the term has acquired a more popular meaning in the Trump era as a derogatory reference to Republicans who fail to subscribe to the former president’s belief that the Republican Party is defined by its allegiance to Mr. Trump.

The growing prominence of Rep. Elise Stefanik in the Republican Party, and the likelihood that she will replace Liz Cheney in the congressional party hierarchy, prompts the question of what actually is a “Republican” in this day and age, and especially what it means for the people of the North Country.

According to the website of the Essex County GOP, Republicans are said to embrace the following creed:

“We BELIEVE the strength of our nation lies with the individual and that each person’s dignity, freedom and ability and responsibility must be honored.

“We BELIEVE in equal rights, equal justice and equal opportunity for all regardless of race, creed, sex, age or disability.

“We BELIEVE free enterprise and encouraging individual initiative have brought this nation opportunity, economic growth and prosperity.

“We BELIEVE government must practice fiscal responsibility and allow individuals to keep more of the money they earn.

“We BELIEVE the proper role of government is to provide for the people only those critical functions that cannot be performed by individuals or private organizations and that the best government is that which governs least.

“We BELIEVE the most effective, responsible and responsive government is government closest to the people.

“We BELIEVE that Americans must retain the principles that have made us strong while developing new and innovative ideas to meet challenges of changing times.

“We BELIEVE in America’s values and that we should preserve our national strength and pride while working to extend peace, freedom and human rights around and throughout the world.

“FINALLY, We BELIEVE that the Republican Party is the best vehicle for translating these ideals into positive and successful principles of government.”

All good. Or is it? What should we make of those self-identifying Republicans, labeled as RINOs by Trump followers, who have opposed the drift in the GOP away from the above principles and toward fealty to Trump as its defining identity? During the recent election, these included, for instance, supporters of the Lincoln Project. Following the election, the storming of the Capitol and the rejection of the electoral outcome by most Republican leaders and the rank-and-file, the Republican Accountability Project (which includes former Trump staffers) has mounted incisive critiques of the anti-democratic direction of the party and most of its members. A small handful of Republican elected leaders also reject allegations that the election results were rigged and the trending in the party towards becoming an instrument of one man.

So what’s the average citizen to make of the RINO label? Who are the real “Republicans in name only?” One way to try to answer this question would be to go back to the creed and examine the extent to which it is upheld.

For instance, “We BELIEVE the strength of our nation lies with the individual and that each person’s dignity, freedom and ability and responsibility must be honored,” and “We BELIEVE in equal rights, equal justice and equal opportunity for all regardless of race, creed, sex, age or disability.” These sound like a belief of the party of Lincoln, and of an earlier Republican Party that stood for political rights, fairness and justice. And in some ways these particular beliefs are necessary for the full exercise of the individual responsibility celebrated in the creed. But what, then, do we make of the current efforts by multiple Republican-controlled state legislatures to significantly limit the voting rights of ethnic and racial minorities, and to gerrymander voting districts across the country to guarantee Republican electoral victories?

The belief in “fiscal responsibility,” of course, has been honored in the breach, as the ballooning deficit of the last four years demonstrates. More fundamentally, for the present moment, is the belief “that Americans must retain the principles that have made us strong while developing new and innovative ideas to meet challenges of changing times.” Certainly among the core principles that have “made us strong” are support for fair and open elections and for the rule of law. The concerted efforts by Donald Trump and his supporters to undermine confidence in our elections, again, hardly seems consistent with the statement of belief. As for “innovative ideas to meet challenges changing times,” does the Republican Party really stand for attacks on the symbols of our democracy and physical threats to elected politicians as “innovative ideas”? Similarly, when the party says, “We BELIEVE in America’s values and that we should preserve our national strength and pride while working to extend peace, freedom and human rights around and throughout the world,” how do we square such a statement with GOP-induced congressional gridlock as witnessed, for instance, by the blocking of key pieces of legislation to strengthen the nation by a Republican-controlled Congress?

As these questions suggest, the average citizen will find serious inconsistencies between the creed of the Essex County GOP and Congresswoman Stefanik’s actions to weaken American democratic traditions, and in the behavior of the national Republican Party. Are the real RINOs those now in the minority of the party who oppose Donald Trump and the drift of the GOP away from principles toward the former president, or are they those who are assuming leadership of the party and pledging it to the wishes of one man? Who are the real RINOs? It would be most helpful if North Country GOP leaders could help us understand this puzzle.

Richard P. Suttmeier lives in Keene Valley.

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