Conservative columnist Ramesh Ponnuru, himself a critic of Snowden-style libertarian politics, argued that the leaker is a more difficult figure to contend with than his antagonists acknowledge.

“The more you say this guy is a crackpot with no judgment, the more you have to say: then why was he given so much authority over information?” Ponnuru said. “Snowden may not make good arguments against these surveillance programs, but he is a good argument.”

If the debate over the NSA has gotten extraordinarily personal, Ponnuru chalked that up to a more straightforward phenomenon: “Not everybody can say something intelligent or interesting about the data collection techniques and analysis techniques in PRISM. Everybody can say somebody’s a narcissist.”

Peter Beinart, the former editor of The New Republic, likened the backlash against Snowden to the 1990s-vintage concern over mainstream political forces losing ground to actors on the ideological margins.

“On the one hand, the ideological division amongst elites is not so great, and they share some basic assumptions about the potential benevolence of the federal government,” Beinart said. “And there’s this sense that there’s a motley crew of outsiders – Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, Ralph Nader – all being fueled by the sense that the government was predatory, and what seemed to elites like a paranoid set of fears.”