Almost fifty years ago, an obscure senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, used fear as a means to initiate widespread panic and intimidate the innocent.
Fear can do this to people. Fear makes the rational become irrational, the innocent become guilty, the mainstream become evil. McCarthy used the fear of communism to instigate mass panic throughout America. Seemingly rational people began to accuse others of being communist without any evidence whatsoever. The panic gained momentum. Anyone who disagreed with McCarthy was accused of being a communist. Anyone who spoke out against the fear-inspired panic became guilty for even questioning the relevance of the panic. The McCarthyists, emboldened by a narrative of lies that became a pseudo-truth, went after anyone who displeased them: the reasonable, the level-headed, those who reserved judgment, those who realized that such fear-inspired panic is a constant throughout human history.
A narrative of falsehood gains momentum simply because the most outrageous accusations are difficult to defend by even-handedness. If a person is accused of being a racist, the label inevitably sticks, and is difficult to shed. Any statement to the contrary, any attempt to defend oneself, is considered further proof of inherent racism.
This is why the presidents during the McCarthy years, Truman and Eisenhower, refused to confront McCarthy, because in so doing they would automatically be accused of being communist, and be unable to shed the accusation.
Fear-induced panic convinces all but the most courageous to hide their head in a hole until the panic subsides.
President Trump should have learned this important political lesson: never, never, courageously defend yourself against outrageous accusations, because the accusers will continue to make the accusation, and the accusation will be considered truth itself.
As a history professor and writer, it is disheartening to see so many intelligent people return to the mechanisms of McCarthyism. I thought maybe we had learned our lesson. Obviously not.