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The 13-minute video of the attack on the Capitol that House impeachment managers showed at Donald Trump’s second trial this week is a visceral display of the terror wrought by the rise of political extremism. Waves upon waves of enraged rioters smashed windows, rammed doors, and spit in the faces of Capitol police. Some were armed, and some were ready to kill.

Not all those who harbor extreme beliefs act out their passions with violent insurrection, of course. But the sorry truth is that millions of Americans believe at least some of the paranoid lies that conspiracy theorists have spawned and that Trump’s incendiary politics inflamed. A survey by National Public Radio in December found 39 percent believed in the existence of a mythical “deep state” working to undermine then-president Trump. The Pew Research Center found a quarter of adults believe that the coronavirus was “intentionally planned by powerful people.”

The danger of political extremism in American families today goes well beyond awkward moments at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Violent extremists, and specifically white supremacists, “remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland,” according to the Department of Homeland Security. The hateful thugs who stormed the Capitol must be found and punished for their criminal actions. Five people died during the attack. But we also need to understand what drives people to radicalization and how they can be weaned away.


Groups that work with families desperate to reclaim loved ones lost to violent ideologies report surges of calls to their hotlines over the past year. For them, political extremism is not just a national security threat but a mental health emergency. Myrieme Churchill is executive director of Parents for Peace, which works with families and “recovering” extremists involved in a wide variety of political causes, from Islamic jihadists to the Ku Klux Klan. “It strikes me that even though the families spoke different languages and were from different regions and of different religions, they were telling the same story,” she said. “In every case, there is a mental health element.”


A common thread among extremists her group has counseled, Churchill said, is the unresolved pain of trauma. Many experienced childhood abuse or bullying or are suffering from clinical depression or other undiagnosed mental illness. They are vulnerable to joining conspiracy groups as a way to validate their grievances or replace a perceived loss of status. “It’s almost like this is their drug of choice,” she said. “This is how they self-medicate.” Churchill will be bringing a former Klansman and a former recruiter for Al Qaeda to a webinar sponsored by the Boston College School of Social Work, on Feb. 25, to discuss who becomes an extremist and why.

Gautam Yadama, dean of BC’s social work school, is launching a collaboration with Parents for Peace, providing both internships for students and research support to help evaluate the group’s effectiveness. “This is not about political discussions,” he said. “These problems are embedded in issues of mental health and well-being.” Since social workers are the largest group of mental health providers in the country, combatting political extremism is an emerging area for the profession. It is also likely to be a growth area.

Trauma and post-traumatic stress are known risk factors for many harmful behaviors — substance use disorders, domestic violence, criminal acts — and researchers believe they may also play a role in the radicalization process. Scott Easton, who cochairs the BC School of Social Work’s trauma integration initiative, said abuse in childhood can “ripple through the life course” and elevate the risk of becoming involved with extremist groups. “Some survivors want to replace that pain with something validating or rewarding . . . they gain control by joining a group.”


Trauma also may help explain the disproportionately high numbers of military veterans and law enforcement officers who were arrested in the attack on the Capitol. “I am absolutely unsurprised,” said Easton. “These folks are often placed in extraordinary situations that qualify as traumatic, and the secondary traumatic stress they experience absolutely makes them more vulnerable.”

Parents for Peace and the social workers who help family members trapped by extremist ideologies describe a long, painstaking process uniquely tailored to each person’s needs and environment. But combatting political extremism requires intervention on a massive scale. Treating — or better, preventing — radicalization among millions of Americans will take a national commitment to address the many intersecting issues that lead to political violence. Universal access to mental health care would be a good place to start.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.