Charles Lindbergh got famous three times. First, for his solo flight across the Atlantic, then when his son was kidnapped, and last, for his active engagement with the America First Committee, established in 1940 to keep the U.S. out of any European war. Although there was plenty of isolationist feeling in the country, or at least a strong bent toward neutrality, in the end America First damaged Lindbergh's reputation and later legacy, because he was not only an admirer of Germany and an apologist for Hitler's rearmament policies, but he ascribed support for the war to the Jewish influence. This echoed the anti-Semitism of the more notorious America Firsters - one, Laura Ingalls (not the LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE writer) went to jail for sedition after Pearl Harbor, because she'd taken money from Nazi spymasters.
Joe McCarthy might seem a little obvious, and more than a little below the salt, which is why he was written off as a blowhard at first, but there was nothing ridiculous about him, not if you got tarred with the Commie brush. The blacklist was used to settle a lot of scores, and nobody's motives were pure, so you wonder how come it provoked so much fevered melodrama. What gets lost, or eroded over time, is the actual experience people lived through, the climate of paranoia and lynch law. That's why survivors on both sides of the quarrel still hold a grudge.
Generally speaking, I'd guess you could make a pretty good case that this kind of phenomenon arises in times of uncertainty. As a friend of mine once remarked, people don't have much tolerance for ambiguity. The more complicated and intractable the problem, the more likely it appears to encourage simple-minded posturing and wishful thinking. "The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter," Spade says, which holds true for any unserious argument.
The world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams, is in fact an increasingly ambiguous and treacherous place, and we don't have too many navigational aids. Is there any such animal as True North? I can't say. The difficulty with taking refuge or comfort in
We prefer to imagine it's all those other guys who are so gullible, and open to suggestion. Truth is, there's probably a closet jihadi in each of us - not in the literal sense, the Islamist moral midgets, but in the sense that each of us harbors a need to be protected, inside the mouth of the cave, safe from predators. Told it's okay. Better perhaps to know too little than too much, and not to be challenged by a world that doesn't conform to our hermetic comforts. The jihadi is sealed off, at a remove. I'm sure there's a psychological term for it. Inversion? It's reassuring, and self-contained. It feeds off its own inner heat, it has no outside frame of reference.
We're talking, I believe, about a defense mechanism. A reaction to uncertainty and confusion, and the loss of confidence. An arrested mania, a retreat. Why not call it a pathology? There's a fascinating book called EXTRAORDINARY POPULAR DELUSIONS AND THE MADNESS OF CROWDS. We might reflect on this, in our fortress mentality. These are uneasy times. They conjure up bafflement.