More than 180 years ago, well before Donald Trump stamped the words “Make America Great Again” on his campaign swag, a French political scientist named Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States. He wanted to suss out the secret sauce, to ascertain what accounted for our country’s success in sustaining a representative democracy, so visible from his perch overseas. And, from a European perspective, so rare.
Again and again on his tour, he found evidence for a simple but powerful principle: “America is great because she is good,” he wrote. “If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
But these days, no one needs a French observer to tell them that some of the bedrock principles of our democratic system need a bit of shoring up. As the GOP front-runner, Trump is leading a prairie fire of a campaign that scorches the landscape daily. But instead of repudiating Trump, Republican candidates are tying themselves into knots, decrying Trump’s most disgraceful statements but still offering support.
There’s a particularly glaring example of this in New Hampshire, where Senator Kelly Ayotte is locked in a tight race with Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan. The latest polls, averaged by Real Clear Politics, put Hassan ahead slightly, at 45.6 percent, and Ayotte at 44.6 percent. Tellingly, as the Globe’s Stephanie Ebbert reported last week, Ayotte is attempting to have it both ways, by not “endorsing” Trump but saying she still will “support the nominee.”
After days of toying with her, Trump endorsed Ayotte Friday night. But Ayotte, a highly visible attorney general before she ran for Senate, should nevertheless immediately disavow Trump. Is this risky in a state that thumbed its nose at the GOP establishment in the primary? Of course — 100,000 New Hampshire Republicans voted for Trump in February. But Ayotte needs to infuse her campaign with the courage of her convictions as a matter of moral suasion. Trump’s comments attacking the Gold Star Khan family alone should disqualify him in her eyes: Ayotte’s husband, Joe Daley, flew combat missions in the Iraq War, and she is a member of the Armed Services Committee. As a senator, she had the gumption to cross party lines to vote for federal clean air rules to protect the New Hampshire environment and has been part of bipartisan efforts on domestic violence. Trump’s commentary on women throughout his campaign can’t be lost on her.
In a tough fight for reelection, Ayotte seems to be making a purely political calculation that she cannot buck Trump’s surge — he has, after all, raised $82 million in small donations in short order. The threats are readily apparent on her Twitter feed: “No Trump endorsement and you will not get my vote,” @fernm43, identified as a New Hampshire resident, tweeted, calling her a RINO — Republican in Name Only.
But President Obama has it right when he asks the simple question on every right-thinking voter’s mind: How can Ayotte and other Republicans continue to support Trump and the America he represents? Disavowing him is not only right, but can serve to strengthen what’s truly great about our democracy.