Conservatives frequently dub Republican politicians they deem insufficiently committed to “free enterprise, private property, and limited government” Republicans in Name Only, or RINOs. But are they really phony Republicans?
“The Republican Party was always, from its inception, the party of big government in America,” Thomas DiLorenzo observed in his book Lincoln Unmasked. As the successor to the Whig Party, the GOP was in many ways the antithesis of the Democratic Party, which in the mid-1800s still clung to its Jeffersonian roots. Democrats favored small, decentralized, constitutional government. Republicans stumped for high protective tariffs, “internal improvements” (that invariably benefited their cronies), and central banking, as the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, described his own platform in 1832, when he made his initial foray into politics as a Whig. Even the GOP’s supposed opposition to slavery — the party actually sought to protect the “peculiar institution” via constitutional amendment — “was motivated much more by politics and economics than by humanitarianism,” noted DiLorenzo.
Lincoln himself, in addition to being a white supremacist (when that term actually meant something), launched an unconstitutional and exceptionally brutal war against states that simply wanted to go their own way, suspended civil liberties, arrested (and, in one case, even deported) opposition politicians, and signed legislation that significantly expanded the federal government. DiLorenzo pointed out that the term “New Deal” originated not with the Franklin Roosevelt administration but with an 1865 article in a Raleigh, North Carolina, newspaper:
The newspaper urged North Carolinians to rejoin the Union and enjoy the government handouts that had been created by what economists Mark Thornton and Robert Ekelund call “the flurry of new laws, regulations, and bureaucracies created by President Lincoln and the Republican Party.” These included the Homestead Act, Morrill Land-Grant College Act, Department of Agriculture, transcontinental railroad land grants, tax-subsidized mail delivery, subsidized railway mail service, and other programs, all financed by myriad excise taxes, ten tariff increases, and the printing of greenbacks.
The GOP remained the big-government party into the 20th century, with presidents such as William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt increasing its size and scope by, among other things, “trust busting,” creating new regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, and starting the United States down the road to empire in the Spanish-American War.
The Democratic Party’s capture by the Progressives, signified by the party’s nomination of Woodrow Wilson in 1912, made the Republican Party the “conservative” party by default, not by design. Democrats who remained wedded to their party’s classical-liberal tradition felt increasingly out of place, and with the two parties having rigged the system to prevent challenges from other parties, the GOP seemed their only option. As Ronald Reagan would later put it, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.”
While the GOP soon produced a president or two who did actually rein in the government, it quickly returned to its old ways. Herbert Hoover’s interventionism, in contrast to Warren Harding’s relatively laissez faire approach during the 1920-21 downturn, turned a recession into a major depression. Rexford Tugwell, one of FDR’s top advisers, once confessed that “practically the whole New Deal” — which kept Hoover’s depression going for another decade — “was extrapolated from programs that Hoover started.”
Eventually, the Republican Party made its peace with the New Deal — the nomination of middle-of-the-road Dwight Eisenhower over conservative Robert Taft in 1952 marked the occasion — and its subsequent presidential candidates (save Barry Goldwater) seldom even spoke about rolling it back. Those who won, including the former New Deal Democrat Reagan, all massively increased federal spending and power.
Defenders of these presidents often blame Democrats in Congress for all the un-conservative laws that passed during their administrations, a position that overlooks two key facts. First, Republican presidents could veto liberal legislation, yet they rarely do. Second, the government often grows faster when both Congress and the White House are in Republican hands. George W. Bush, with a Republican-controlled Congress for most of his presidency, “increased government spending more than any of the six presidents preceding him” and “spent almost twice as much as his predecessor,” according to the Mercatus Center. Bush also vastly increased the surveillance state, signed what was then “the largest expansion of the welfare state since the creation of Medicare in 1965” (in the words of economist Bruce Bartlett), and got the United States bogged down in never-ending quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Nothing has changed under Donald Trump. As of February, federal spending had grown by nearly $800 billion during Trump’s term, two years of which featured Republican control of both chambers of Congress. Since then, Trump has signed into law $2.2 trillion worth of coronavirus “stimulus” spending, which passed both the Democratic House of Representatives and the Republican Senate, and is negotiating with Congress to spend trillions more in a vain attempt to ameliorate a government-created maelstrom of business closings, supply-chain disruptions, unemployment, and debt. Trump and the GOP Congress couldn’t even repeal ObamaCare in full despite its ongoing unpopularity and their repeated vows to do away with it.
Just how bad are congressional Republicans? The New American magazine’s Freedom Index, which rates congressmen and senators on their fidelity to the Constitution, indicates that they’re worse than even the most cynical observer might expect. In the scorecard published in the July 20 issue, only one Republican congressman, Kentucky’s Thomas Massie, scored 100 percent, while more than half the GOP contingent performed worse than “Democratic socialist” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. “AOC,” concluded author Laurence Vance, “is more conservative than the majority of Republican House members.”
State and local Republicans are not, generally speaking, anything to write home about, either. While it may be true in some cases that Republican-led states are more fiscally responsible than Democrat-led states, that isn’t saying much. Moreover, a study by Truth in Accounting found that “40 states do not have enough money to pay their bills,” and they can’t all be run by Democrats. Nearly every state, regardless of its dominant political party, maintains an extensive welfare state and public-education system, heavily regulates business, and participates in unconstitutional federal programs like Medicaid. In fact, Republican-dominated states tend to depend more heavily on federal largess than Democratic states. Also, with a few notable exceptions, Republican governors and mayors have been just as eager to lock down their economies and boss their citizens around in the name of fighting COVID-19 as their Democratic counterparts.
Conservatives, therefore, are mistaken when they level the RINO charge against Republicans who vote for big, intrusive government. That’s what Republicans have always done. The real RINOs are those rare Republicans who actually try to slash government and restore liberty: people like Massie, Senator Rand Paul, and former Congressman Ron Paul. These RINOs — who should be proud of the nickname — may be forced to run with the elephants to get elected, but they most certainly are not part of the herd.