Politics has long made strange bedfellows. My parents exemplified that cliché, living their differences in public, as leaders of both the local Republican (him) and Democratic (her) town committees, and in private, with frequent full, frank, and occasionally four-letter-word exchanges of views. But they never divorced or drew blood over their differences, they simply cancelled out each other’s vote.
When I hear of people identifying their spouses, siblings, parents, children, or former romantic partners to the FBI for actively participating in the Insurrection, I wonder what might have impelled them to act. Certainly, a visceral disgust at the events of that day must have had something to do with it, as well as the belief that it was the right thing, the patriotic thing to do.
But at a much more personal level, it’s likely that for some, their actions predated and dramatically punctuated an existing family estrangement rooted as much in past resentments, betrayals, or adolescent rebellions as in in their political differences. One young woman who identified her parents to the authorities said they had disowned her because she is a lesbian.
The wish to shame her mother propelled an 18-year old to post a viral video of her mother being struck by a policeman on a Washington street the night before the assault on the Capitol: “Remember the time you told me I shouldn’t go to BLM protests because they could get violent…is this you”? she tweeted.
A number of current or former spouses and romantic partners reported long histories of violent behavior, and few were surprised the day culminated in an armed uprising with others who shared their extremist politics. As psychology professor Elizabeth Jeglic pointed out, this isn’t the typical holiday dinner discomfort at a relative’s politics: “This is a mob of people attacking our nation, our freedom and our values, and that is not what your family values are about…it can be very devastating, like a betrayal of your family, and you want to keep your family values whole.”
The FBI reports came from both generations, parents and children who had long been worried about what many characterized as the cesspool of conspiracy theories pulling their loved ones into a literal and figurative network that threatens those values. A 19-year-old told the HuffPost that as his mother’s paranoia about political events and her constant referrals to QAnon continued, he followed her into that particular on-line swamp, where he discovered a group called #SavetheChildren, and was horrified by what he found there. “It’s hard,” he told a reporter. “I don’t know what to do. I’m losing her.”
Another young woman, who describes her mother as delusional, says “The only reason my mother and I still talk is because I guess I’ve convinced myself that I can help her.” And one young man explained he’d called the FBI because “it was a last best chance to help my father. It was my moral compass to do what I thought would protect not only my family but my dad himself.”
According to the Washington Post, a surge of desperate families has been contacting organizations that aim to deprogram and deradicalize extremists across the ideological spectrum. Reports Parents for Peace, a growing number of older adults are concerned that their young adults are being groomed in white supremacist ideology. “These are people who have chosen hate and ideology as their drug of choice to numb the pain of underlying issues and grievances, so we treat this the way we treat addiction,” says Myrieme Churchill, the executive director of Parents for Peace.
Life after Hate, a similarly focused group, has been helping people leave the far right since 2011. And TraumAnon, a 12-step program for former military and law enforcement personnel “with hatred in their heart and a lack of understanding for what they experienced,” was started by a former Ku Klux Klan member. In a sub-reddit called r/QAnonCasualties, many people find comfort in talking to others who share their sadness and disbelief. While they look for ways to combat the fear and delusions that QAnon continues to foster in their families, others often give up trying and accept that letting go of their loved ones may be the only way to heal.
Groups like Parents for Peace focus on helping youths analyze their ideology in weekly coaching sessions, sometimes with their parents, sometimes just the coach: “The goal is not to challenge their thought process or ideology but get them to a point where they can do it on their own,” says a co-founder of the group, who describes the process as an emotional rollercoaster with peaks and valleys, built on trust and compassion. A partnership with the School of Social Work at Boston College offers professional help in evaluating the effectiveness of its efforts and will eventually share its workload.
Brian Hughes, co-founder of American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL), says that groups that aim to deprogram extremists take a highly personal approach that seems to be effective, although it’s hard to measure success in such an idiosyncratic process. “The best time to step in is at the circling-the-drain stage, where there is an opportunity to focus on teaching basic media literacy; it’s much more difficult to break through the hard-core believer, especially in the absence of a jolt to the extremist’s personal life, like a conflict with other members of their group.”
As the private and public sectors struggle for ways to combat the rising tide of domestic terrorism, these and similar efforts may benefit from help that’s likely to flow from the federal government; while the $10 million grant to fight violent extremism launched in 2016 was mostly focused on Islamist extremism, the DHS’s new focus on preventing domestic terrorism reflects a shift that’s been too long in coming.
While it’s hard to find evidence-based proof that the few groups that have sprung up to combat extremism are effective, it may also be true, as Hughes says, that only eventual personal disillusionment with either the guiding principles or leaders of the extremist “home group” can shake them loose from their beliefs.
When I interviewed parents of young adults who became members of cults of various gurus, ideologies, and practices for When Our Grown Kids Disappoint Us, I found that the same principle applied—only disillusion, not deprogramming, worked in most cases. But until then, the emotional support both parents and grown kids find on line and off and the increasing visibility and proliferation of similar resources for those who are struggling to find a way to love their families in spite of their beliefs may offer comfort and empathy as well as, occasionally, practical advice.