Over the last 25 years, the American right has embraced the notion that the worst insult one can heap on an elected Republican is to call him or her a RINO, or “Republican in name only,” which is to say, someone who pretends to be a member of the tribe but is closer to a traitor, because he or she lacks the spine for conservative policymaking, or sells out their own to establishment elites or liberal Democrats.
For a while, the term was reserved for folks who actually took positions substantively less conservative than the Republican platform or the typical GOP voter.
But over time, RINO was hurled at people who were as conservative as anyone else, but less strident in their rhetoric, less averse to compromise, or less reckless in their brinksmanship than their critics (usually blowhard entertainers with no responsibility to govern or even to get their facts right). Most every Republican member of Congress, regardless of their views, harbored the concern that they’d be tarred as a RINO in the next GOP primary by a challenger pandering to a voting base that increasingly mistook fiery rhetoric for a sign of principle or ideological fealty.
A surfeit of bombastic huckster-enablers in right-wing media ensured that, over time, attacks on so-called RINOs were less and less grounded in substantive disagreements. Circa 2012, Jon Huntsman Jr., a man conservative enough to be elected governor of Utah, was utterly unable to attract a constituency to back his presidential campaign, because he had accepted a job as ambassador to China in the Obama administration, had a conciliatory manner, and criticized other Republicans in the media. That so many called him a RINO for those transgressions hinted at the degree to which the term had ceased to be about conservative ideology.