How to Destroy a Government
The president is winning his war on American institutions, George Packer wrote in April.
On the fifth night of my coronavirus quarantine, I sat and read “How to Destroy a Government” in one sitting. Although my attention had been scattered all week, bouncing between worrying about suddenly teaching an online class and worrying about getting sick, I could not peel my eyes off this article. From the horrifying tangle of presidential misdeeds, it extracts the key narrative strands, illuminating Donald Trump’s more sinister, power-addicted tendencies. Reading it in the midst of such gross presidential incompetence felt particularly poignant. Excising him from his post, like the tumor that he is, is the only chance we have to rehabilitate the institutions he and his cronies have so profoundly damaged.
My students and most of my colleagues are of the “Bernie or bust” ideology, and are disinclined to vote for Joe Biden. As a progressive, I am dismayed by the Biden choice—however, another term of Trumpism will be the end of our flawed democracy. I hope to be able to use some of the facts in this well-researched article to sway others. Our greatest weakness as a species is our inability to see beyond a very short time frame.
George Packer’s analysis is excellent, but I disagree with his suggestion that the Framers left us exposed to Trumpian demagoguery. After some useful debate, they left us a potentially effective impeachment mechanism; the larger problem resides in that segment of the population with an affinity for authoritarian governance, which elevates adherence to moral absolutes above the essential democratic process of negotiation and compromise. Thomas Paine recognized that authentic liberty requires a continuing civil discourse, and that discourse can be maintained only by broad popular support for the rule of law.
Whether that support is sufficiently strong is open to question: William Barr has not yet been impeached, and the partisanship of the Supreme Court—self-evident in Bush v. Gore, Citizens United v. FEC, and Shelby County v. Holder—has led to episodic public protests but, as yet, no significant turnover in the Senate. When the rule of law is profoundly compromised in multiple organs of government, we are confronting what Benjamin Franklin warned of: a public so corrupted that it is fit to be governed only by a despot.
Erica Newland, one of the dedicated civil servants whom Packer interviewed, observed that corruption “doesn’t have to be pay-to-play to be corrupt. It’s a departure from the oath.” She was referring to the pervasive lack of respect shown to the departments of government by the president and his familiars, which has its sad counterpart in public attitudes.
George Packer writes: “Employees of the executive branch work for the president, and a central requirement of their jobs is to carry out the president’s policies. If they can’t do so in good conscience, then they should leave.”
This is an erroneous view, in my opinion. The president does not pay the salaries of the public service; the state does, with moneys taxed from citizens. Public servants owe their duty of loyal service to the state.
Mr. Packer’s statement perpetuates a confusion that enables Trump’s misfeasance. Let’s be clear on who employs public servants and to whom they owe their duty.
Edgar H. Schmidt
I confess, I could not read this entire article. I just don’t have the stomach for it. But it reminds me strongly of a passage in William Penn’s “Frame of Government of Pennsylvania,” which says:
Governments, like clocks, go from the motion men give them, and as governments are made and moved by men, so by them they are ruined too. Wherefore governments rather depend upon men, than men upon governments. Let men be good, and the government cannot be bad; if it be ill, they will cure it. But, if men be bad, let the government be never so good, they will endeavor to warp and spoil it to their turn.
That pretty well sums up the current condition of our country, as darkly foreseen by Penn some 340 years ago.
Santa Barbara, Calif.
I had to read George Packer’s account of the president’s successful dismantling of our republic’s institutions in fits and starts. It was just too much to digest in a single sitting. As the magazine lay open for several days, I approached it like a bad car accident—not wanting to look, but unable to pass it without reading a paragraph or two.
What we learned fact-checking the June 2020 issue
In her exploration of QAnon, whose followers seek to thwart the “cabal” of depraved elites they believe is destroying America, Adrienne LaFrance writes that the group’s adherents reject logic and reason. In March, for example, their anonymous leader, Q, promoted the claim that “the CHINA Virus” was engineered in a Wuhan lab and was being deployed as a bioweapon to stymie President Donald Trump’s chances of reelection. The idea that the Chinese may have created the virus had already made the rounds—and had been widely debunked—but Q helped give the theory new life.
As Franklin Foer notes in his feature about Russian sabotage of American elections, also in this issue, conspiracy theories about disease were once the province of Soviets seeking to sow division in America. In 1983, the KGB planted a fake letter in a small New Delhi newspaper, in which an unnamed but supposedly “well-known American scientist” speculated that AIDS had been developed by the Pentagon in a Fort Detrick lab. By 1987, the idea had spread to more than 50 countries, and was discussed on the CBS Evening News. The false claim traveled slowly by today’s standards, but it proved enduring: In 2005, Kanye West rapped, “And I know the government administered AIDS,” and a small 2006 study found that more than one in five Americans believed this to be true.
Jack Segelstein, Assistant Editor
Behind the June Cover
The June cover story, Adrienne LaFrance’s definitive look at the conspiratorial group QAnon, provides a menacing lens through which to view the surreal current moment. To illustrate the disparate fringe views held by QAnon’s adherents, we constructed a latticework of cryptic imagery, finding spots to include motifs from several other stories in the issue as well.
Arsh Raziuddin, Associate Art Director
A Note From the Editors
We’re especially pleased to bring you this issue of The Atlantic, which to our knowledge is the first in our 163-year history that was designed, edited, fact-checked, and otherwise produced on an entirely remote basis. We think the issue is full of great stories from cover to cover, and we hope you enjoy it.
Much of normal life has gone on hiatus recently. We have worked hard to plan for various contingencies related to home delivery, but if you are a print subscriber, maybe you’re at a different address than usual, or you want to read more of The Atlantic between print issues. Visit TheAtlantic.com/Register to find out how to sign in to your account. Once you’re signed in, you’ll be able to manage your subscription and unlock your unlimited digital access. If you’re not a subscriber, and would like to support The Atlantic’s vital reporting, join us at TheAtlantic.com/June20. And if you need further assistance, please visit our help center at Support.TheAtlantic.com.