When government becomes destructive

When government becomes destructive
© Getty Images

Last week’s storming of the Capitol surprisingly brought to mind the Declaration of Independence, but not the better known phrases of “all men are created equal” and “unalienable rights” guaranteeing “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Instead, the most trenchant line of the Declaration is relevant: “when government becomes destructive, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it and establish a new government.” That is precisely what the mob had in mind on January 6th: keeping an unelected president in power.

The parallels between 1776 and today underscore how much the republic is endangered. Then, a small minority of colonists rebelled against Britain’s George III demanding representation. Most of the citizens living in the original 13 colonies did not want to be detached from Britain. 

Thomas Paine, the famous pamphleteer, wrote “Common Sense” to mobilize the rebellion. Today, more Americans support President TrumpDonald TrumpDemocrats, activists blast reported Trump DOJ effort to get journalists' phone records Arizona secretary of state gets security detail over death threats surrounding election audit Trump admin got phone records of WaPo reporters covering Russia probe: report MORE, accepting the colossal lie of a landslide electoral victory, than were prepared to rebel against the crown in 1776. Trump had mutated into a 21st century Frankensteinian version of Paine using Twitter and not the printing press to transmit his messages.


Concurrently, the U.S. government has become increasingly destructive in the eyes of many, failing to provide for the public good. Trump was not the cause but a symptom of this political cancer that is a greater danger to the nation’s political health than COVID-19. That cancer can be demonstrated with two questions.

Can a political system designed by the best minds of the 18th century survive the rigors of the 21st century? Or is it possible that the Constitution may have outlived its usefulness and relevance?

The Constitution rests on checks and balances, both among the three branches of government and between the states and the federal government. This system can function only when one of three conditions exists. First, one party has a veto-proof majority in Congress.

Second, a crisis such as Pearl Harbor unifies a nation then divided over going to war in Europe and Asia. And third, sufficient civility and compromise can bridge political divides. None of these conditions is present. Even the worst pandemic in a century has failed to generate consensus, from the mandatory wearing of masks to the efficacy of vaccines.

Not since 1861 has the United States been so divided. Consider one data point. In 1964 just prior to the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August that began America’s entrapment in the Vietnam quagmire, more than 3/4 of Americans trusted the federal government, agreeing that it was serving the public interest. Today, that figure of trust is barely in double digits


The Vietnam War began this demise in trust and confidence. Watergate and President Nixon’s forced resignation in 1974 shook America’s faith in the presidency. During Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterWeird photo of Carters with Bidens creates major online buzz Feehery: Biden seems intent on repeating the same mistakes of Jimmy Carter Never underestimate Joe Biden MORE’s presidency, the misery index of interest rates and inflation along with the disastrous 1980 attempt to rescue Americans held hostage in the embassy in Tehran further eroded confidence. While Desert Storm and the competence of the George H.W. Bush administration helped, the catastrophic second invasion of Iraq in 2003 ordered by President George W. Bush following the 2001 incursion into Afghanistan perpetuated “endless wars.”

Concurrently, the American dream was growing distant for most Americans. Greater disparities over race, gender and income provoked even wider political divides. Trump understood these forces and the desperation on the part of a significant number of Americans demanding to “drain the swamp” in Washington. To exploit these forces, Trump borrowed what Churchill called a “bodyguard of lies” not to protect the truth but to advance his own interests and become president. 

In this melee, truth and fact were overwhelmed and replaced by alternate facts, big lies and falsehoods. Yet, many Americans accepted them.

What can President-elect BidenJoe BidenBiden to meet with 6 GOP senators next week Arizona secretary of state gets security detail over death threats surrounding election audit On The Money: Five takeaways on a surprisingly poor jobs report | GOP targets jobless aid after lackluster April gain MORE do to confront this political cancer and defend the Constitution?  First, Biden must act presidentially. After four years of the most disgraceful conduct of any president, that alone is a necessary first step. Decency must return to the White House.

Second, both parties must respect truth and facts, rejecting the big lies and pervasive falsehoods spread by Trump. This particularly applies to defenders of Donald Trump ,who must be held accountable by the public.

Third and most importantly, the public gets the government it deserves. If citizens refuse to hold government accountable, the cancer will spread. As Ben Franklin warned, America is a republic only as long as it can keep it.

Harlan Ullman, PhD. is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council. His next book, due out later this year, is “The Fifth Horseman and the New Mad:  The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Are Endangering, Infecting, Engulfing and Disuniting A 51% Nation.”