Is Trump Really a GOP Anomaly?

If he is, why are the denunciations from Republican leaders so soft and mealy-mouthed?

House Speaker Paul Ryan delivers a speech at the Republican National Convention on July 19 in Cleveland.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It’s not hard to find Republicans to speak out against Donald Trump. On Sunday, Paul Ryan condemned the Republican presidential nominee for his attacks on Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of Humayun Khan, a Muslim American Army captain who was killed in 2004 while serving in Iraq. Khizr Khan spoke at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, praising his son’s valor and condemning Trump for his statements against Muslims, as well as his proposed ban on Muslim entry into the United States.

Trump lashed out in anger, accusing Khizr of silencing his wife, which drew him into a battle of words with both the Khans and other families of fallen soldiers. Sensing a need to distance themselves from Trump’s rhetoric, Republican leaders such as Ryan moved quickly. “America’s greatness is built on the principles of liberty and preserved by the men and women who wear the uniform to defend it,” said the House speaker in a statement. “Many Muslim Americans have served valiantly in our military and made the ultimate sacrifice,” he continued. “Capt. Khan was one such brave example. His sacrifice—and that of Khizr and Ghazala Khan—should always be honored. Period.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had a similar response. “All Americans should value the patriotic service of the patriots who volunteer to selflessly defend us in the armed services. And as I have long made clear, I agree with the Khans and families across the country that a travel ban on all members of a religion is simply contrary to American values,” he wrote, restating his opposition to Trump’s Muslim ban.

On Monday, Sen. John McCain entered the fray with an even stronger statement. “Arizona is watching. It is time for Donald Trump to set the example for our country and the future of the Republican Party,” wrote McCain. “While our party has bestowed upon him the nomination, it is not accompanied by unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us.”

These are strong words from McCain, a former prisoner of war who won the Republican Party’s nomination in the 2008 presidential election. But you don’t have to look too carefully to see that something is missing from both this statement and those from Ryan and McConnell.

There’s no bite.

These statements have strong language, no doubt. But neither Ryan nor McConnell nor McCain is prepared to withdraw his endorsement or add any conditions to his support. The GOP’s nominee, their nominee, is railing against the parents of a dead soldier, and still they refuse to budge.

To a degree, this is understandable. Trump is not the only candidate on the Republican ticket this fall. There are hundreds of down-ballot races and dozens of candidates who stand a real chance of winning. But their successes depend on strong and ample turnout from Republican voters—turnout that may not happen if congressional leaders abandon the party’s nominee for president. So, in the name of preserving a GOP majority in Congress—and maybe even of electing a president who will sign off on tax cuts and other conservative legislation—key Republicans are sticking with the Trump ticket, even as their nominee weakens their party’s national standing. Even Marco Rubio, who blasted Trump as unfit to handle the nuclear codes, is on board. As of this week, he’s campaigning for Trump. “We have to make sure that Donald wins this election,” he said.

At best, these half-measures are a failure of political imagination, as dedicated partisans struggle to reconcile their commitment to the Republican Party as an institution with their obvious disgust with a nominee who rejects their ideals in favor of raw, bigoted appeals to an angry and embittered group of Americans. At worst, they are acts of cowardice.

Either way, the lackluster responses from Ryan, McConnell, and McCain and the outright submission of Rubio act as a confession of sorts. In their mind’s eye, the Republican Party is a vehicle for ideological conservatism, a tribune of limited government and traditional values. Trump has shown the extent to which this is not true. He has demonstrated that Republican voters will forgive any kind of ideological deviance as long as it’s paired with explicit prejudice toward assorted others, from Hispanic immigrants to Muslims to black protesters.

Republican leaders will challenge Trump’s statements and hope that he “pivots” to a more sober-minded approach. But they won’t undermine him in ways that hurt; they won’t rebuke him in the kind of language they used to attack Democrats and ideological opponents. They won’t deny the truth of what Trump has shown about their party.

Instead, GOP leaders—Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and others—have opted to reconcile themselves to that truth. Under Trump, the Republican Party is the party of ethno-nationalist rage, and its most prominent voices are OK with it.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.