Of RINOs, DINOs and the zombie ant apocalypse

Joshua A. Bickel/The Columbus Dispatch via AP
Supporters of President Donald Trump demonstrate during a rally on Jan. 6, 2021, at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus. Gripping testimony about threats to election officials by Trump and his followers had a rapt audience outside Washington, where secretaries of state and election clerks said the stories could very well have been their own.

Missouri GOP Senate candidate Eric Greitens’s martial “RINO-hunting” campaign ad, in which he invites the listener to join the MAGA crew and get a RINO-hunting license (with no limits on “bagging” or “tagging” so-called Republicans in name only), may have been tongue in cheek but it underscores the displacement by Trump-style populism of many formerly mainstream Republicans.   

This is a remarkable transformation, considering that as of 2015, the RINO hunters’ champion, Donald Trump, had never been a Republican himself. In fact, when Trump declared his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, he was labeled the outlier, the recent convert, the “very definition of a RINO.”   

What has happened? How can we make sense of the transformation of the GOP so that traditional Republicans are targeted for “bagging and tagging” even before Democrats? 

As the director of an Institute of Politics, I have read hundreds of hand-wringing explanations for the inscrutable grip that Trump seems to have on his followers, and for the woeful state of our democracy; I have even contributed a few myself. But the best explanation, I have come to believe, comes not from politics but from natural science. To paraphrase The Atlantic, “[T]o find the world’s most sinister example of mind control, don’t look to science fiction,” or, for that matter, to politics, but to a natural process known as “adaptive parasite manipulation.”   

This refers to the capacity of some parasites not only to infect the host but to direct, if not become, the host, steering its stupefied form in unanticipated directions. The emerald cockroach wasp, for example, “injects a venom that blocks a neurotransmitter that allows the insect to control its movements.” The wasp then leads its zombified host into the wasp’s nest “to serve as host and food for wasp larvae.”   

Perhaps the best example of “adaptive parasite manipulation” is the tropical rainforest C. Leonardi ant species, which is susceptible to infection by a particularly insidious parasite, which, once it infects the ant, effects “a hostile takeover of a uniquely malevolent kind,” directing the ant to leave its colony, ascend the leaves of a nearby plant, and then, having colonized the zombie ant’s brain, bursting the ant’s head open and raining hundreds of spores down on the unsuspecting ant colony, which is then presumably transformed to a zombie ant army. “In essence,” said Penn State Professor David Hughes, “these manipulated animals were a fungus in ants’ clothing.”   

One could argue that, like the zombie ants of the Amazon, Trump loyalists appear to move forward in stupefied fidelity, transformed by their host, impervious to the drumbeat of overwhelming evidence that he has been lying to them about the 2020 election; taking their money, reportedly to support his false claims; directing them to march on our nation’s Capitol in service to his lies; and turning them, at every turn, against the stalwarts of their party, people such as Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) or Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), whose fidelity to their oaths of office has inoculated them against infection by Trumpian untruths.   

If Trump’s supporters are disturbed by overwhelming evidence of false claims, or by the litany of former allies now considered RINO traitors — a list of dozens ranging from former Secretary of Defense James Mattis and former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to former Attorney General Bill Barr and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) — they aren’t showing it. Untruth keeps marching on, zombie-like. 

Lest the Democrats become too smug at this exposition, consider that a similar, although less crystallized, phenomenon has been growing among them. Increasingly, Democrats’ stature within the party depends on their fealty to certain fashionable and unwavering dogmatic beliefs. As one woman in a Virginia focus group put it, the Democrats “fight for the right things and I usually vote for them, but they believe some crazy things. Sometimes I feel like if I don’t know the right words for things, they think I am a bigot.” She is far from alone; people are leaving the Democratic Party by the tens of thousands, if not millions.  

“DINO” is a less frequently used pejorative, and the Democrats lack an autocratic avatar or a Looney Tunes narrative to match Trump’s “Stop the Steal,” but there is little doubt that many lifelong Democrats find themselves on the outside looking in, bewildered at being considered racists when they reject the notion that “all cops are bastards”; transphobes when they express concern about prescribing adolescence-suppressing drugs to prepubescents; outcasts when they express even qualified support for Israel; and closet Republicans when they question the role of an outsize stimulus in fueling record levels of inflation.   

Ultimately, the zombie ant peril is transpartisan because we all exist in the same poisoned Petri dish of monetized public discourse, in which people unwittingly rehearse the profit-laundered talking points they have been issued on their talk shows, in their news feeds, and over their social media platforms, rejecting former fellow travelers while talking past one another like … well, like zombies.  

So welcome, newly outcast RINOs and DINOs, to the politics of the excluded middle. We independents have dwelled here for years, disenfranchised by political parties, which (like abortion) are mentioned nowhere in the Constitution, but which enjoy a stranglehold on both Congress, by means of gerrymandered “safe” districts, and the U.S. Supreme Court, appointment to which is conditioned on fidelity to the far-out orthodoxies of one party or the other.   

We, the excluded middle, comprise most of America. We’re the ones who cherish the Constitution not as a document of Talmudic mysteries requiring scriptural exegesis but as a pragmatic framework for settling differences while frustrating the natural political tendency to try to dominate.     

But our bedrock understanding — that, as Justice Robert H. Jackson put it in 1949 in his dissenting opinion in Terminiello v. City of Chicago, “the Constitution is not a suicide pact” — assumes precisely what parasitic indoctrination destroys: a willingness to compromise, to settle our differences. In the world of the zombie ants, we no longer settle our differences; we settle our scores.   

We must find a way to unite, RINOs and DINOs alike, because if the center truly cannot hold, the zombie ants of extremism will rule the day, eventually turning on each other and achieving their shared and ultimate goal: a zombie ant apocalypse that will consume us all. 

John J. Farmer Jr. is director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.  He is a former Attorney General of New Jersey, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, and dean of Rutgers Law School. He is the author of “The Ground Truth” (NY Times Notable Book 2009) and “Way Too Fast: An American Reckoning” (2022).

Tags Democratic Party Eric Greitens independents Middle America trumpism

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