Why Can’t Republicans Distance Themselves From Donald Trump?

They’re afraid.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell answers questions about recent comments made by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump  June 7, 2016 in Washington, D.C.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell answers questions about recent comments made by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, June 7, 2016 in Washington, D.C.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

For the past week, Donald Trump has used his national platform as a presidential candidate to strafe the judge hearing a class-action lawsuit against his now-defunct Trump University, which critics have pilloried for manipulating and exploiting low-income and struggling workers. The centerpiece of Trump’s attack—itself unprecedented, given our tradition of an independent judiciary—is the judge’s background. The jurist, Gonzalo Curiel, is of Mexican descent. To Trump, this makes him a “hater” who is reacting to the “the wall” he intends to build.

In truth, it’s hard to be surprised by Trump’s attack on Judge Curiel. His brand is racism, and anti-Hispanic racism in particular. Still, the unvarnished ugliness of this attack was enough to force a response from Republican leaders who, thus far, have excused their nominee’s rhetoric about nonwhites, immigrants, and Muslim Americans. “This is one of the worst mistakes Trump has made, and I think it’s inexcusable,” said Newt Gingrich. “Look, I don’t condone the comments. And we can press on to another topic,” said Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Sunday. “I think it’s wrong. He needs to stop saying it,” said Marco Rubio. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had words for Trump. “I couldn’t disagree more with a statement like that,” he said on Meet the Press this past Sunday.

Judging from this rhetoric, you might think that Republicans were ready to abandon Trump full stop as a dangerous liability. But you would be wrong. McConnell, for example, pushed back against the idea that there’s something untoward about the “party of Lincoln circling wagons around a racist,” as put by conservative blogger Erick Erickson. “I think the party of Lincoln wants to win the White House. And the right-of-center world needs to respect the fact that the primary voters have spoken,” said McConnell. House Speaker Paul Ryan condemned Trump and all but endorsed him in the same statement. “I disavow these comments—I regret those comments that he made,” Ryan said, calling them “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” But, he said, that doesn’t mean he believes that “Hillary Clinton is the answer.” “I believe that we have more common ground on the policy issues of the day and we have more likelihood of getting our policies enacted with him than with her,” Ryan explained. There are countless examples of this behavior, of Republican leaders slamming Trump one moment and embracing him the next.

What is going on? Why is it so difficult for Republicans to condemn Trump without also qualifying and essentially negating their condemnation? My colleague Will Saletan blames it on a crude will to power. “In the end, it’s about power and priorities. In today’s GOP, it’s more important to keep Merrick Garland off the Supreme Court than it is to protect the country from a president who would ban Muslims,” he writes. There’s definitely the drive to win, but I think there’s something else. Something more primal than even power.

They’re afraid.

On Monday, the Clinton campaign released an ad that was made up entirely of statements from other Republicans on Trump. It was brutal, illustrating the extent to which Trump alienates his own allies and supporters. And with this week’s statements about Trump’s bigotry, you should expect more of the same, with another Clinton ad showcasing another set of Republicans condemning Trump for another set of racist, sexist, and otherwise contemptible statements. Each time a Republican disavows his endorsement of Trump or urges other Republicans to take the off-ramp from the Trump effort, a Democratic super PAC gets another few seconds to use in another ad against the GOP nominee.

On the other end, Democrats are simply using Trump against vulnerable Republicans regardless of what they say or do. In Ohio, for instance, Democrat Ted Strickland is doing everything he can to tie incumbent Republican Sen. Rob Portman to Trump and his statements. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is pulling the same trick, in an effort to shrink any distance between Republican incumbents and the nominee. Embattled Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, facing a tough challenge this November from Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth, is so shook that he abruptly changed course on his endorsement. “Given my military experience, Donald Trump does not have the temperament to command our military or our nuclear arsenal,” he tweeted.

Republicans, from the top of the ticket to the bottom of the ballot, are caught in a bind. If they don’t say anything to counter or condemn Trump’s rhetoric, they are complicit in the Trump candidacy. If they say anything, they become fodder for Democratic efforts against their party. The only alternative is to try to walk the line of criticism without disavowal. But as we see with Paul Ryan—who was savaged by both mainstream and conservative press for looking past Trump’s racism even as he bemoans it—that’s almost impossible.

In the same way that fear of a third-party candidacy drove Republicans to craft and embrace a “pledge” that did nothing but tie their fortunes to Trump, fear—of backlash from pro-Trump Republican voters, of attacks from Democrats, of opprobrium and contempt from everyone else—is driving them to hedge and hesitate in the most craven way possible. Fear is the mind-killer, and Trump has scrambled their ability to think clearly about their dilemma.

Not that there’s any way out, short of leaving the GOP. Deep problems with the process aside, the Republican Party has elected to nominate Trump for president. He is the standard-bearer, and there’s no escaping him. Not now, at least. Republicans’ fortunes are tied to his, and if (or when) he collapses in the fall, they will, too.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.