‘We’re Through the Looking Glass Now’: Talking Deradicalization with Dr. John Horgan

Mia Wasikowska as Alice in Disney's 'Through the Looking Glass' (2016)

How can American society recover from Trumpism? A new administration solves a lot of problems, but President Biden can’t magically make American extremism disappear; his tenure won’t mean the end of conspiracy theories or white supremacy. So what’s the starting point, then, for the deradicalization of homegrown extremists?

To start the conversation, I spoke to Dr. John Horgan, a Professor of Psychology at Georgia State University, who studies deradicalization—or more specifically the “pathways into, through and out of terrorism.” In his research, Dr. Horgan interviewed former violent extremists such as al-Qaeda operatives and IRA assassins, looking to discover their paths to a new identity. 

We should be careful not to label all American extremists terrorists. But we can certainly learn how to approach deradicalization by looking at what’s worked in other contexts. So what do we know about deradicalization? And how might we apply those lessons to our own extremists?

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Am I correct in saying that the pathways into radicalization are fairly well understood? 

Yes. At least through the narrow lens of terrorism. We know what factors drive it. It’s not an unfamiliar phenomenon. 

But we need to make distinctions here. Radicalism is a part of American identity. It’s a healthy thing. It’s important we remain free to express radical thoughts. The expression of radical views is the sign of a healthy democracy. Our problems arose when it morphed into extremism, when the mere expression of views were interpreted as a threat to our own existence. And now we’re intensely polarized. 

Of course, we know how this happened as well. It was fueled by our leadership; the president saw value in it. And it was intensified by our addiction to social media and the pandemic. And now it’s at a level and a scale we couldn’t have imagined four years ago. So we’re not going to flick a switch and return to normal. We’re through the looking glass now.

Your work makes a distinction between deradicalization and disengagement—between disavowing previous beliefs and, perhaps, still holding those beliefs, just not acting upon them.

True deradicalization is a tall order. Most disengage [from radical organizations] with many if not all views intact.

Why might people disengage from extremist beliefs or deradicalize?

There is a seed of disillusionment. Perhaps the end-goals are not met—they never get to the end of that promised rainbow. Or it’s the leadership, they become disillusioned with their leader. Or they simply burn out. That’s why the key to successful deradicalization is about offramps. It’s about providing options and healthy alternatives to extremism. When it comes to terrorism, it’s about basic human needs, small-scale interventions to bring people back from the edge. 

One place to start addressing American extremism may be conspiracy theories—it seems that’s what most American extremists have in common and that what attracts people to conspiracy theories is well understood.

Correct. We know which kinds of people and what factors make them fall down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. But I think what is the wrong question. It’s when. When distress and uncertainty are coupled with scapegoating—the belief that the source [of the problem] lies at the feet of others—that’s when people are far more likely to embrace conspiracy theories than not.

In terms of addressing that problem, many extremists and conspiracy theorists will grow out of it. They’ll get fed up. Because believing in it can come at great social and psychological cost. And remember, they’re not all the same. It’s fifty shades of gray; there are those for whom it’s a fantasy world, and it remains in their private life, and then there are recruiters and proselytizers. 

In the coming days and weeks I think we’ll see people coming out of it on their own. Some will come back from the QAnon brink, and others will double-down.

How do we move forward as a country?

This is a bit vague I’m afraid, but one way is to provide breathing space. And you provide space by finding common ground. We need to deal with our polarization and learn how to have conversations again. Part of the American psyche is wanting to be seen, to be right. We need to relearn the ability to have a civil conversation. And I don’t want to sound like a Luddite, but it’s about better use of social media and better mental hygiene. 

We need to strip this down to fundamentals. We have to acknowledge the uncertainty and distress that leads to extremism while absolutely not giving a platform to wild conspiracy theories. It’s like we’ve been trying to walk and chew gum at the same time. We have coddled those views and given them a platform in the belief that the other side ought to get equal airtime and be indulged the same way. And yet we want to laugh at them. The idea of Trump as president started as a joke. And then Q-Anon spread like wildfire. 

Have you been tracking any attempts to address American extremism?

Well, my eyes are burning from the avalanche of op-eds I read this morning. But in terms of interventions, I am not sure any are ready to scale up. We’re talking about a national challenge versus an individual challenge of deradicalizing terrorists. There are a growing number of people like me who see promise in some initiatives, but we don’t know if they work, because their claims haven’t been subject to evaluation.

So, again, where do we start instead?

At the risk of sounding trite, it starts with all of us. We have to challenge ourselves around what it means to be a good citizen. We have to identify our issues in the cold light of day. We have to recognize the astonishing march of extreme right-wing and white nationalist groups and white supremacy across civil society. We have to examine the damage that’s been done, although it’s going to take us years to fully appreciate it, if we’re even capable of fully appreciating it. And we have to get out of our comfort zones and bubbles. 

How do you reach out to people who don’t listen to reason? It’s the classic pseudo-argument situation, where you can’t even agree on a premise for the basis of a conversation.

[As I mentioned] for some extremists, it’s a journey they are likely to finish on their own. So we have to provide resources for when they are ready to come back. People are hurting and we need to do a better job at providing resources—for families that were riven by QAnon, for example, and for those looking for alternatives to conspiracy theories. You have to show that there are healthy alternatives to extremism. 

Yes. But you mentioned getting out of our own bubbles. Many will ask how it’s possible to have a productive conversation with a conspiracy theorist or white supremacist.

In a way, it’s about recovering the lost art of listening. You start the conversation by asking why they see the world the way they do. We ought to be able to listen and learn about them and not challenge them. Because it’s important to have a sense of their lives in order for us to do better. 

We are unquestionably going to see more accounts of people leaving QAnon over next days and weeks and months. It’s critical that we don’t ridicule and say I told you so. We have to listen to how they got in, and what happened while they were in, and how they got out. If we don’t listen, how can we prevent the next generation from going down the same rabbit holes?