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.