The RINO Is Going Extinct, And Things Are Gonna Get BumpyPhoto by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Politics Features
I couldn’t help but feel a little surge of pride recently when Illinois’ Republican senator Mark Kirk flat-out rejected Donald Trump. Is it bad that I’m proud of an American in 2016 for withdrawing his support from a xenophobic, racist, misogynist, self-absorbed buffoon?
At the very least, it says a lot about how the party-before-country, polarized climate that currently plagues both Washington and the nation at large has destroyed common sense and human decency. With so many Republicans in Congress “denouncing” Trump’s disgusting rhetoric—most recently lobbed at an Indiana judge and, in the wake of the Orlando terrorist attack, President Obama—and yet refusing to withdraw their support for him in November, Republicans like Kirk stand out as beacons of reason. That isn’t to say that Kirk’s decision is surprising, especially not to those of us who know him best.
There’s absolutely a political consideration to this move. Kirk is perhaps the most endangered Republican senator up for re-election this November. He represents a state that has gone blue in every presidential race since 1992 and will go blue in 2016, a state dominated by a Chicago-based Democratic machine reminiscent of the Gilded Age. His opponent is current congresswoman, Iraq war veteran and double amputee Tammy Duckworth, a rising star in her party (she gave a highly-praised speech at the 2012 DNC). She’s outraised Kirk to date, and she’s solidly in the middle of the ideological pack for her party. Simply put, things don’t look good for Kirk—FiveThirtyEight gives Duckworth a 77 percent chance of defeating him—and tacking as close to the middle as possible is his best possible survival strategy. That means flat-out rejecting Donald Trump, and Duckworth has delightedly gone public with her demands for him to do so.
But given who Kirk has been in Washington, it’s likely that this is an ideological move as well. Mark Kirk has represented me in Congress for the past 16 years—10 in the House on behalf of Illinois’ 10th Congressional District, six in the Senate. Our home district is dominated by many of Chicago’s wealthiest suburbs; courtesy of Mean Girls, you might know that they’re collectively called the North Shore. Kirk’s core constituency is primarily affluent, highly educated, socially conscious white people. (There are also some poor, majority-minority communities within the district’s bounds, but they’re more or less neglected; the only reason anyone’s traveling to dilapidated Waukegan is because their yachts are docked at the town’s marina.)
In a way, the district’s prevailing views resemble those of a more moderate Silicon Valley. Voters here on the North Shore tend to be socially moderate to liberal and heavily pro-Israel, and they’re sorted into their parties primarily by their economic views (though because of the preponderance of wealth, economic progressives are a minority on the Democratic side). The 10th has a long history of sending centrist Republicans to Congress—before Kirk, there were two decades of moderate Republican John Porter, and since Kirk, there’s been an alternation between moderate Republican Bob Dold and moderate Democrat Brad Schneider. They’re running against each other again this year, only really differentiated by how far left they lean on social issues. Dold, like Kirk, has unequivocally rejected Trump, and he’s also one of two House Republicans to come out in favor of a gun control bill since the Orlando massacre.
Kirk, more or less, aligns with his original constituency. He trends fiscally conservative to protect the interests of the one-percenters he’s repped for nearly two decades, and he’s also a noted foreign policy hawk, having vociferously opposed the Iran nuclear deal. But he also holds socially liberal positions—he’s pro-choice, supports gay marriage, and was the only Senate Republican to vote with the Democrats in favor of tighter gun control after San Bernardino happened in December. A number of media outlets had a not-so-minor freakout when the LGBTQ-supportive Human Rights Commission, citing his importance as a Republican ally, endorsed Kirk over Duckworth in March. On the whole, he’s one of the most moderate Republicans in the Senate, with only Susan Collins of Maine further to the left.
And yet in 2016, the Republican Party is the party of Trump, and no matter what Kirk or Dold does to distance himself from the Donald, they’re still operating under the same banner that is set to nominate an abhorrent demagogue for the presidency. They’re operating as social moderates under the banner of a GOP that, as an entity, stands firmly in the way of societal progress for LGBTQ people, Latinos, Muslims, and women. And because their party takes this stance and will continue to obstruct progress so long as it maintains leadership of the House and the Senate, and because their demographic and geographic situation renders them particularly vulnerable to being unseated in November and bringing Congress closer to Democratic control, defeating them has to be a priority for social liberals (and probably moderates, too).
In other words, to fight the possibility of Trump’s ascendancy and the continued leadership of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell—both of whom, unforgivably, still endorse Trump—the Democrats need to take out the “sane Republicans,” the ones called RINOs by their party base, the ones who are a far cry from fiscal liberalism but are not “beyond reason.” Polls suggest they’re likely to succeed in this endeavor.
And that’s a damn shame, because all it’s going to do is further polarize national politics.
If we hypothesize that Trump’s rise is not an anomaly, but rather a fundamental shift in the GOP—and given the support he’s received, it’s going to be hard for the party to resist continuing to court his constituency in future elections—all Republicans are going to face a very difficult choice moving forward: get in line with their party’s history of racism, sexism, and overall bigotry that Trump has merely stated far more explicitly than any GOP presidential nominee in the past half-century, or get out. In this context, “out” could mean a number of things. It could mean the centrist rebels form a new third party. It could mean they flock to the Libertarian banner or (gasp) even the Democrats. Or it could mean that they continue to fight on as non-Trumpian Republicans and simply lose any election they enter against a Democratic party that promises to pick up a lot of swing voters who hate Trump.
In March, I wrote about the impending split of the GOP; given the way most of the party has lined up behind Trump, it seems the split won’t be quite as drastic as I had predicted. But I stand by the idea that this electoral cycle strongly resembles others that featured overbearing, cult-of-personality candidates who started with direct appeals to the people and only later aligned other politicians behind them. Most specifically, Donald Trump reminds me terrifyingly of Andrew Jackson—unapologetically crass, slaveholding, genocidal, power-hungry Andrew Jackson. Jackson’s mere presence in the Oval Office from 1828 to 1836 triggered a party realignment that lasted until the Civil War, with the Democrats(!) essentially serving as his personal vehicle and the Whigs featuring everyone opposed to him. The era certainly differed from today; from 1801-24, national-level politics were basically run by the Democratic-Republicans in a one-party affair. But the core principle—that Trump is a prominent and singular enough political force to serve as the locus for party battle lines—remains the same.
As we’ve seen, these battle lines are vitriolic to the point that compromise, already a rarity in Washington’s polarized environment, risks becoming impossible. The few Republicans willing to cross party lines on key votes will soon be driven out of office, and fewer Democrats will want to side with the party that spawned Donald Trump on anything. The result: a Congress that vacillates between two entirely different ideologies, a Congress that will always result in one group being a passenger at the whim of the other and being extremely unhappy about it.
In periods when the Trump-ian Republicans have control, social progressivism will halt in its tracks, courtesy of the nativist, everything-phobic electorate emboldened by the Donald. We’ll continue to see protests on behalf of these issues, and when change continues to be put on hold, things could get ugly, as they did in the late 1960s when Vietnam slowed the social change of that decade’s first half (the war itself obviously escalated things, too).
But the nightmarish scenario above holds even if an uncompromising, anti-Trump Democratic Party has control and passes agendas that will grow increasingly progressive in coming years; the Bernie insurgency isn’t going away anytime soon, and if the Democrats wants to maintain power, they’ll heed it. If that happens, the Republican base will feel threatened, and threatened people tend to lash out—a concession many Democrats are willing to make when they preach increased tolerance of American Muslims to prevent terrorism, but one they tend to dismiss when the endangered species has been hiding behind white privilege for centuries. There’s a paucity of sympathy among progressives for any feelings straight white men might want to express, particularly when those men are bigoted, and to a certain extent it’s totally fair that their power be reduced in the name of a more equal society. That doesn’t change the reality that this Republican constituency will correctly feel their voice losing its volume, see their values (however backward we might consider them) disappearing, and become further radicalized.
This is why the extinction of the RINO, though it’s probably inevitable, concerns me. The great waves of American change do tend to arise when one party leads both the White House and Congress (see: New Deal, Great Society). But those waves never last, and if the parties become as ideologically diametrical as the advent of Trump threatens to make them, the improvements they bring about won’t last when government control shifts hands. It’s much more stable to create incremental change through the slow and admittedly frustrating process of bipartisan compromise, which happens far more easily with Republicans like Mark Kirk and Bob Dold willing to cross the aisle. Take these people out of Washington, and you remove much of the possibility for Democrats and Republicans to bridge the growing divide.
Then again, if that’s what it takes to bring about greater equality for all Americans, that’s what it takes.