Deprogramming: A Better Way to Address Addictions of the Radical Right

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There are several ways to confront the desperate behavior of cult-like members of the radical right, now that President Biden is urging understanding and reaching out to opponents. Likely many methods will be needed, all of them very difficult. But what approach seems best?

One way that doesn’t work is to combat these strong and befuddled resisters to reality by repeated and insulting charges of racism and white-power mongering, which mostly harden and confirm their paranoia. Another way is a lock-’em-up model of FBI infiltration and arrests and militarized presence. Liberals have shown a surprising appetite for this approach since the Jan. 6 insurrection, despite their opposition to an incarceration model for minorities. A slower cure is passing legislation that helps these alienated populations in visible ways. This is Biden’s strategy, though one that is risky because of Congressional and Republican opposition and statist anxieties it rouses. Then there is the method of face-to-face truth-and-reconciliation, such as was deployed in resolving the Northern Ireland civil war, and explored in this earlier Post Alley article.

Let me propose framing the problem of the delusional, radicalized right as an addiction model. What is needed is a strategy for deprogramming (bad term), easing cultists, whose addictions make them impervious to change and well-meaning advice, into a gradual, supportive new realm. This is a compassionate, interventionist approach, like friends talking to someone with a drinking problem. It matches the seriousness of the self-destructive delusions. It accords “decency and dignity, love and healing,” as Biden said in his inaugural address, to those locked into weirdness.

I recently heard an off-the-record presentation by an important adviser to the Biden team. Some elements of this interventionist approach were debated. It turns out there are proven steps in this Noom-like strategy for shedding irrational convictions.

A first step is decapitation of the cult leaders. One starts by showing to the followers that their leader is not really working in their interest but is off playing golf and cavorting with rich folks who could care less about the deluded masses. For instance, reveal the shadowy Q. Show a gilded Trump on his golf course in Florida, along with juicy stories of corruption and self-dealing that come out in legal proceedings. By contrast, emphasize Biden beavering away at the office, displaying his religiosity, phoning his grandchildren, and showing solidarity with COVID victims, the military, and the travails of ordinary folks.

A second step is to counter the radicalizing effect of social media more effectively than Democrats have done. This requires quicker debunking of made-up claims, creating a war-room rapid response. It needs more regulation of runaway social media under a new kind of fairness doctrine or public-benefit licensing as the broadcast media had before Reagan overturned it. Indeed, it was Republicans’ sinister mastery of social media and its targeting qualities that largely explains the unexpected strength of down-ballot GOP candidates. Trump easily won the battle for late-deciders by hammering away on social media with visceral images of Portland riots, repeated claims of socialism, and obsessive attacks on Biden for opposing fracking (read: jobs).

A third tactic is to emphasize “trusted messengers.” Obviously liberals and RINOs are not trusted messengers for the Far Right. Consider the difference between Mitt Romney (popular as he is with Democrats) and Congresswoman Lyn Cheney. Romney, a corporate capitalist and former governor of deep-blue Massachusetts, has serious credibility problems with rural Republicans. Rep. Cheney comes from a family with unmistakable, Dad-blessed Republican credentials. Further, Cheney is a woman (more credible), fiercely independent, and hails from Wyoming (a flyover, rural state). These could be some of the reasons Trumpers are trying to punish Cheney. (Rep. Dan Newhouse from Eastern Washington might also qualify as a trusted messenger.) Keep in mind that most people only believe social media that has been sent to them from a recognized and trusted friend or relative.

The final aspect of this approach is message discipline. That involves Democrats’ keeping a limited number of potent themes in mind.

“Will my son get a job?” (note the emphasis on mothers, on young males, and on the self-esteem in having a job).

“Can this happen quickly and at scale?” (Young voters, who won the election for Biden, are particularly impatient and incensed about high-minded promises that yield tiny programs.)

“What about my family?” (Meaning a cross-cultural, cross-racial focus on “family economics” such as pandemic issues, child care, medical insurance, reopening schools, wealth creation, steady work, church, and dignifying the lower-class male’s need to “marry up.”)

What these themes have to commend them is that they do not push the anxiety buttons of the alienated, such as de-centering whiteness, dramatic cuts to police, sorry-about-that globalism, meritocracy (just go to college!), and the media-fueled and college-based scorn of the coastal elites for religion, patriotism, and white-ethnic solidarity. They are part of what David Brooks describes as Biden’s key message: “redistributing dignity.”

As addiction counselors know, curing these manias requires social support, steady structure, and patience in the face of aggressive push-back. Trusted institutions must play a big, locally-tailored role in this intervention: unions, churches, fraternal organizations, veterans’ groups, community centers and libraries, service clubs, amateur sports teams, social clubs, service clubs, choirs, and everybody-pitch-in programs like Habitat for Humanity. Such institutions give those lost in conspiracies the companionship and validation that they hunger for, and offer gradual, 12-step approaches to re-entry to a restorative society.

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David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

7 COMMENTS

  1. So……is your premise that all CITIZENS that do not trust our congresspeople to lead, should be reprogrammed ? That all CITIZENS that believe in expressing their opinions that go against the establishment norms, need to be stifled ??
    Some of we “deplorables” didn’t think CHOP was a rock concert, summer of love gathering – Some of us are tired of the political choices foisted on us – Some of us want to be part of the solution, not reprogrammed.
    Reprogramming (yes a poor choice of words) sounds a bit too “Manchurian Candidate”.

    • So Phil: Clearly an enormous number of people have been misled into believing things that are provably factually untrue, resulting in a violent attack on the government and threats across the country. And there are elected “leaders” actively lying to and firing up people who are eager to follow them. No numbers of court rulings, recounts, and assurances from officials even in their own party who oversaw the elections seems to make a dent in what they believe. You can’t have a functioning society when this happens.

      If you “deplorables” (as you call yourself) want to be part of the solution, why should anyone listen to you if you’re not committed to trying to make things work? All we hear (and now see) are hyperbolic attacks, many of them not based in facts. Complaining rather than attempting to solve some complex issues. Seriously – you really think that we all believe CHOP was “a rock concert, summer of love gathering”? You take a flip comment from the mayor at the end of an interview and inflate it to what city policy is. At best that’s a naive interpretation. But it’s not even clever snark. Yes “reprogramming” sounds too Manchurian Candidate, but when people willfully want to believe things that are factually untrue, no amount of arguing facts or debating policy will make a bit of difference with them. And if you’re not willing to acknowledge some things are factually true even if you don’t like or agree with them, it’s difficult to take you seriously when you say you want “to be part of the solution.”

  2. I applaud David Brewster’s compassionate position on this matter and his informed communication about what deprogramming is and why it is an appropriate intervention for what is going on. I have felt deep empathy for these people who have been “victims” of extremist (dare I say it) brainwashing, as I know they are good people who truly **think*** they are doing the right thing. “Brainwashing” is not a myth – it is a form of thought control, that cult leaders. pathological controllers and totalitarian dictators use. It is the systematic “programming” of others thoughts combined with a loss of individual sense of self, replaced by “group think” and a leader-validated group identify. It has been scientifically studied.

  3. Pardon me for using my voice to erase the notion that the political class should tell me how to think. The thousand people who stormed the capital do not speak for me also, and should be punished. My point was/is that when i read that deprogramming is necessary for those who don’t see “The Light” , i am reminded of my religious upbringing – That science should not be questioned – That if you aren’t like me, there is something wrong with you.

  4. Tim Hartnett, a friend who is an experienced professional in addiction counseling, passes along this advice:

    “Treatment used to be characterized by bullying and shaming people. This approach was about as successful with substance use as it will be in ‘curing ‘ the far right — not very. An old expression for recovery still works, focus on people, place, and purpose. We also used to use the expression “addiction lifestyle,” referring to how the various dimensions of a person’s life became progressively dominated by substance use — social networks, finances, thought process, activities of daily living etc. The concept fell out of use because it lacked precision, but it is still useful in explaining how people with severe substance-use disorders see their lives deteriorate overtime. Surely the same can be said for many whose lives have spiraled to the far right.

    “Also, I am interested in the extent to which Northern Ireland’s style of reconciliation may be beneficial. I should think the optics of this could potentially be quite moving.”

  5. Your article is extremely interesting but it’s a satellite view of the nation.

    What about the acquaintance, friend or family?

    Rational conversation and questioning is useless. At least so far as I have noticed.

    And I’m talking about individuals who are in the postalley.org demographic….individuals who could (and might) be reading this site.

    I’m at a loss.

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