Saturday, 25 February 2017

Trump's Ideologues I: Sebastian Gorka

Trump’s Ideologues

While there is some doubt as to the extent and depth of Donald Trump’s own ideological views, we are now coming to know quite a bit about the individuals promoted to positions of personal influence over the President.  His inner group of advisors – none of whom required Senate confirmation – hold what amounts to an ideological perspective that is distinctive to the Trump’s administration (and at some odds with traditional Republican views).

The key ideologues that have emerged during the first month of the administration are: Stephen K. Bannon; Stephen Miller; Michael Anton; Sebastian Gorka; Jared Kushner and K.T. McFarland.  Other close aides like Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Counsellor/Spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway, appear to be more enablers than policy/ideology advisors.  The views and role of Trump’s daughter Ivanka is much less clear.

Over the next series of blogs I’ll profile the views of this inner circle one at a time, starting with Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon’s protégé Sebastian Gorka.

UPDATE:  Gorka's past has been subject to much more scrutiny since this post was first written, and his past is pretty unsavory.  Here is a long and well evidenced piece from April 3 detailing Gorka's support for violent anti-Semetic paramilitary groups in Hungary in 2007-8.  Other reports have claimed leaders of the Nazi-collobarating organization Vitézi Rend say Gorka has a lifetime membership in the group.

Gorka is now deputy assistant to the president.  He was an editor at Breitbart under Bannon, and has been at the forefront of the administration’s defence of the targeted travel ban – particularly on Trump friendly media like Fox News.  He vigorously defended Steve Bannon’s appointment to the National Security Council on the grounds that Bannon is skilled at “crushing left-wing rivals,” and admitted that Trump’s administration misuses the term “fake news” simply to discredit their media critics.  He suggested in a recent interview with The Hill that the CNN anchor Jake Tapper was sexist for aggressively questioning the Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway.  After Mr. Trump’s fractious news conference on 16 Feb. in which he excoriated the media, Gorka repeatedly declared the president’s performance “fabulous”.  He has also insisted that media reports of turmoil in the White House bear “almost no resemblance to reality.”  Currently, he reports directly to Bannon in the White House.

Gorka is an Islamaphobic ideologue.  His father’s imprisonment and torture in Communist Hungary in the 1950s has been cited by both himself and his critics as influential in Gorka’s worldview.  Gorka earned a Ph.D. in political science from Corvinus University of Budapest, and then worked as a national security expert with a focus on Islamist extremism.  As reported in the Washington Post  Gorka sees the US in a Cold War like struggle with jihadism, which he sees as basically the same as communist totalitarianism: “Why? Because al-Qaeda, ISIS, all of these groups are totalitarians—either you surrender to them or they will kill you.”  But further, he believes Islam itself –and not just jihadi extremists – presents a civilizational challenge to the West.   

Gorka has consistently criticized Islam as intrinsically permissive of violence in the service of political ends and in his book Defeating Jihad, he claimed that if the United States wanted to defeat ISIS it would need to jettison “political correctness.”  While at Breitbart he was a key critic of the Obama administration for not using the term “radical Islam”. As he explained in a speech in 2016  it is the core tenets of Islam itself, rather than the way Islam is utilized as justification by groups like ISIS, that Gorka argues is the key danger: “We cannot defeat our enemy unless we understand how religion informs his operations and defines our strategic objectives.”  In his speech at the Colony Club in 2015, Gorka tied the savagery of ISIS directly to the tenets of Islam, which dictated that their enemies must “suffer as if they are already in hell.”

Trump’s foreign policy views – as much as he can coherently express them – closely aligns with these views because Gorka has been briefing Trump on Islam since the summer of 2015.  Gorka was then national-security editor at Breitbart, and Gorka wrote for Trump a series of position papers prior to his campaign taking off.

Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (which described Gorka as an Islamaphobe), believes Gorka to be a conspiracy theorist, who in a recent interview “wouldn't even say whether the President considers Islam to be a real religion.”  Many of Gorka’s views coalesced while he was a faculty member of the College of International Security Affairs and at Marine Corps University.  At those institutions, he claimed to be an expert on Islam, but as the Washington Post reports, he “does not speak Arabic and has never lived in a Muslim-majority country.”  His colleagues at those institutions worried that he was an extremist.  As Lt. Col. Mike Lewis of Marine Corps University remembered, “he made a difficult and complex situation simple and confirmed the officers’ prejudices and assumptions.”  Another professor, James Joyner, accused him of being “bombastic and a showman,” much like his Fox News persona.

Other scholars have frequently challenged Gorka’s interpretation of the Koran as the theological foundation of terrorism.  Gorka has been unable to publish his views in peer-reviewed journals, but he claims this was deliberate: “What I care about is if somebody in the field is reading my article,” he told the Washington Post. “I see myself as somebody who supports the bravest of the brave — the warfighter.  Publish or be damned?  I’ll be damned, thank you very much.”  To say that his scholarship is not well-regarded by the academic community would be an understatement.  Religious scholars are withering. “I can’t overstate how profoundly dangerous this is,” said Omid Safi, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Duke University. “This is music to the ears of [the Islamic State]. This is what they seek.”  Moreover, the American intelligence community has been very critical of his views: “He thinks the government and intelligence agencies don’t know anything about radicalisation, but the government knows a lot and thinks he’s nuts,” argues former CIA expert Cindy Storer.

However, Gorka’s influence in Republican and conservative circles has been profound.  As the Washington Post reports, “many of the ideas in Trump’s terrorism speeches had their origins in Gorka’s work.”  Also influential has been Gorka’s associate Frank Gaffney Jr., a senior Reagan-era Pentagon official who founded the Center for Security Policy, a Washington-based think tank. 

Gaffney has long been politically radioactive in Washington. He drew widespread condemnation for suggesting that Grover Norquist, a Republican anti-tax stalwart, had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.  In a much-derided piece in Breitbart, he suggested that the logo for the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency “bore a disconcerting resemblance to an amalgamation of the Obama campaign’s logo and the symbols of Islam.”

Outside Washington, Gaffney has a considerable following through his speeches and “Secure Freedom” radio program. Both Gorka and his wife, Katharine, herself a counterterrorism analyst and a Trump political appointee in the Department of Homeland Security, have been regular guests on Gaffney’s show.

Gorka’s view that the ultimate goal of Islam is to impose “shari’a law” on the United States has been widely taken-up – as evidenced by an alarming number of groups that now espouse this belief (see the Southern Poverty Law Center’s database of anti-Muslim hate groups).  University of North Carolina sociology professor Charles Kurzman notes that over 50 percent of Republicans had unfavorable views of Muslims since 2012, compared to only 25 percent after 9/11. “Part of the reason for the increase is this campaign on the part of people like Gorka and Gaffney to inflate the terror threat,” Kurzman indicated to the Washington Post.

As deputy assistant to the president, Gorka is now working on what has been described as a shadow National Security Council, a think tank inside the White House known as the Strategic Initiatives Group.  The Daily Beast reports the SIG serves as a sort of “task force” for both government agencies and the private sector.  Gorka told CNN that the group would bring private industry expertise to bear on a range of issues, including cybersecurity, veterans affairs and the modernization of government technological systems. But critics claim the group is intended to serve as a counter-National Security Council loyal only to Steve Bannon and the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.  Gorka, whose relationship with Bannon goes back years, retorted to the CNN that the group is “very different” from the N.S.C.

Update:  Gorka's far-right political activities in Hungary between 2002 and 2007 have recently been extensively researched by the journal Forward.  The evidence they have unearthed strongly suggest's Gorka's close involvement and likely sympathy with anti-Semitic politics in Hungary.  He denies being anti-Semitic, but as Jeet Heer recently noted, the 'whiff' of anti-Semitism among Trump's anti-Muslim advisors is getting stonger. 

Update (Feb 26): NPR story on Gorka's attempt to intimidate critics

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