Now they sound alarms over COVID-19. If top health officials had used words like “impending doom” a year ago, hundreds of thousands of lives might have been saved. Officials pulled their punches because they wanted to keep their positions under President Trump.

A mistake, but what could they have done? Resignation in protest with drama — spelling out bluntly what is going wrong. American political culture and tradition, however, work against it. Officials leave federal service all the time — more rapidly under Trump than any previous — but they do so politely, not stating their true reasons or policy differences.

Trump overturned tradition and seized the political reins by outrageous, impolite speeches and tweets. The inability of (small “d”) democrats to match this handicaps them in the contest with Trump and his likely successors. Resignation, preferably on live TV, fights back.

Bland resignations miss the opportunity to tell the Congress and American people what’s really going on. CNN recently interviewed leading federal medical officials who claimed that they tried, in 2020, to speak reason and science to Trump, but he wasn’t listening. Their too-polite warnings about COVID-19 bounced off.

They, like many Trump officials, told themselves they were the “guardrails” and “adults in the room,” preventing the White House from really stupid, damaging policies. They figured they did more good inside the administration than outside. They rarely went public with their complaints; instead, they leaked profusely but anonymously to the media.

But at a certain point they became, perhaps unwittingly, enablers. I think it snuck up on them, gradually taking over their professional lives and credibility. The process resembles Czeslaw Milosz’s (in his acclaimed 1953 “The Captive Mind”) description of how some Poles, to save their careers and status, gradually compromised with the Communist regime until they de facto supported it.

Americans resigning with drama — cheap, simple, effective — would have had a bigger, better impact than staying inside the administration. And all would have immediately gotten good jobs outside the government. An enraged Trump would denounce them, but the mainstream media would give them ample and laudatory coverage.

Few Democrats resigned in protest over Vietnam. Only after Nixon took office did they claim they had long opposed the war. Under LBJ, one critic noted, “Washington was full of men wrestling with their consciences and, judging by the paucity of resignations, winning.”

Under Secretary of State George Ball (1961–66) was almost alone in cautioning against Vietnam. When he warned President Kennedy that in five years we could have 300,000 troops in South Vietnam (by 1968, we had 540,000), JFK laughed, “George, you’re crazier than hell.” Ball warned LBJ that a massive air campaign wouldn’t work.

What gave Ball such unusual independence of mind in a climate of groupthink? I suspect his directorship of the Strategic Bombing Survey in wartime London honed critical dissent. The study concluded that the costly bombing of Germany had been spotty and largely ineffective. As it was in Vietnam.

After government service, Ball became publicly critical of the Vietnam War (and several other policies). Why didn’t he resign and speak out earlier? He felt that resignation with drama would ruin whatever influence he might have. Actually, Ball could have been quite influential in the media, on campuses and on Wall Street, where he subsequently worked.

John Bolton’s departure as national security advisor in 2019 brought a little drama. But even he, not a shy personality, hesitated to speak out. He left that for his 2020 book, “The Room Where It Happened.” Bolton, our former UN ambassador (who hates the UN), is an ultra-hawkish conservative who grew disappointed at Trump’s incoherent policies.

British ministers occasionally resign with drama because they can return to their seats in Parliament and speak out, even to criticize the government they were just serving. U.S. executive officials have no seats in Congress. Emphatic departure is part of British political tradition, but not American. Maybe it’s time to make it one.

What could we do? First, if friends say they want to serve the administration, fine, but caution them it may not be the career-enhancer they think it is. Urge them to set in advance ethical and psychological limits on how much nonsense they will take and under what circumstances they will leave.

Warn them that political office is often frustrating and can damage reputations. They will be tarred with the president’s policy failures, even ones they opposed. Testifying before Congress is torture. Loyalty and groupthink will replace their independent judgment. Bureaucratic infighting to guard turfs and budgets will ensnare them.

Tell them not to fear resigning to keep their reputation and integrity intact. Accept presidential ire as a badge of honor. After government, they might enjoy freer, more influential lives — and higher salaries — in science, business or law. They should put out feelers for other jobs even before taking office. Have the parachute ready.