No matter how low your opinion of Donald Trump and his cronies, somehow they still manage to surprise you. It’s been evident for a while now that Sebastian Gorka, Trump’s top counterterrorism adviser, has at least flirted with fascism. One clue was when Gorka, who was born in London to Hungarian parents, dressed up for one of Trump’s inaugural balls in a black braided jacket popular with the Hungarian far right, pinned with a medal associated with Hungarian Nazi collaborators. Then in February, Jewish newspaper the Forward found that from 2002–2007, when Gorka was active in politics in Hungary, he worked closely with anti-Semitic politicians and wrote for openly anti-Semitic newspapers.
Even knowing all that, however, Thursday’s Forward scoop is startling. Reporters Lili Bayer and Larry Cohler-Esses found strong evidence that Gorka swore a lifetime oath to a far-right Hungarian group, the Vitézi Rend. The State Department classifies the Vitézi Rend as having been “under the direction of the Nazi Government of Germany” during World War II; as such, members are “presumed to be inadmissible” to America under the Immigration and Nationality Act and must disclose their membership on immigration applications. (The organization was banned in Hungary following World War II but reconstituted after the fall of communism.)
Two leaders of the Vitézi Rend told Forward that Gorka is a full member. Further, members of the group, who undergo “a solemn initiation rite,” adopt a lowercase “v.” as a middle initial. There are multiple records of Gorka spelling his name “Sebastian L. v. Gorka,” including on his 2008 doctoral dissertation and in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in 2011. Gorka didn’t respond to the Forward’s requests for comment, and when a reporter from Buzzfeed contacted him, he stonewalled, saying, “Send a request to White House press.”
On Thursday afternoon, Gorka finally denied the accusations to Liel Leibovitz, a writer for the Jewish online magazine Tablet. Leibovitz mischaracterizes the Forward article—he describes the writers as relying on a single Nazi as their proof—and quotes an anonymous “source close to the White House” explaining away Gorka’s earlier silence: “These guys genuinely believed that the allegations were so blatantly false and so aggressively poorly-sourced, that no responsible journalist would ever publish them.”
This explanation is odd: It requires you to believe that Gorka couldn’t be bothered to deny ties to Nazi collaborators because he has too high an opinion of the press. Leibovitz also takes Gorka at his word when he says that he wore the Nazi collaborator medal and adopted the “v.” initial to honor his anti-Communist father, but there’s no reason we should. A member of the Vitézi Rend told the Forward that membership was a pre-requisite for adopting the “v.”:
“Of course, only after the oath,” György Kerekes, a current member of the Vitézi Rend, told the Forward when asked if anyone may use the initial “v.” without going through the Vitézi Rend’s application process and an elaborate swearing-in ceremony.
Leibovitz doesn’t even attempt to explain this evidence, but rather tries to discredit the Forward report with repeated ad hominem attacks against the integrity of the authors, who he accuses of “unreason” and “slinging mud.”
Since Leibovitz fails to refute the Forward’s reporting, a fuller airing of the truth about Gorka’s connections to the group is needed. If he has any, he needs to be fired. After nearly two months of this blitzkrieg administration, everyone’s a bit overwhelmed and desensitized; it’s why the Forward’s initial investigation into Gorka’s anti-Semitic connections didn’t cause more of a stir. But even by the gutter standards of our terrible era, we might expect bipartisan consensus that pledging lifetime loyalty to Nazi collaborators renders a person unfit to serve at the highest level of the U.S. government. Indeed, in a half-functional country, there would be congressional hearings into how this apparent fascist parvenu got as close to power as he has.
“This is really serious,” says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “When groups that we monitor start showing up, not on extremist webpages or at Nazi rallies, but within the highest echelons of government, it’s extraordinarily disturbing.”
What happens next will send a signal to Jews and anti-Semites alike about what is permissible in Trump’s America. “If being revealed as a member of a Nazi group does not disqualify you from being a close advisor to the president of the United States, some sick minds will conclude that it’s OK to express anti-Semitic thoughts and do anti-Semitic deeds,” says New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler.
Trump’s election, after all, has coincided with widespread anti-Semitic threats and attacks across the country. According to the Anti-Defamation League, as of March 15, there have been 165 bomb threats against Jewish organizations this year. (The ex-journalist and left-wing fabulist Juan Thompson was arrested for eight of them, but the threats continued after he was apprehended.) Two Jewish cemeteries were vandalized in February. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism found 55 police reports of anti-Semitic hate crimes in New York City as of March 5, compared to 19 over the same period last year.
Trump has angrily denied this has anything to do with his own political rise, describing himself at his February press conference as “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.” But neo-Nazis and white supremacists believe they have the administration’s tacit support. Trump’s campaign was full of classic anti-Semitic tropes, such as his warning last October that Hillary Clinton was meeting “in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers.” His closest adviser, Steve Bannon, ran Breitbart News, which defended online anti-Semitism—and naturally, Islamophobia—as edgy rebellion:
Just as the kids of the 60s shocked their parents with promiscuity, long hair and rock’n’roll, so too do the alt-right’s young meme brigades shock older generations with outrageous caricatures, from the Jewish ‘Shlomo Shekelburg’ to ‘Remove Kebab,’ an internet in-joke about the Bosnian genocide.
Bannon himself is an outspoken admirer of the anti-Semitic French philosopher Charles Maurras, who as Pema Levy reports in Mother Jones, referred to France’s Third Republic as “the Jew State, the Masonic State, the immigrant State,” and who was sentenced to prison after the war for his complicity with the Nazis.
Trump’s White House issued a Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that didn’t mention Jews, an omission it said was intentional because many other peoples suffered in the Holocaust. This echoed the language of Holocaust deniers—who admit that many Jews died during World War II but argue that the scale of their victimizaiton has been overblown—and it delighted bigots. White nationalist Richard Spencer celebrated the way Holocaust Remembrance Day statement “dethrones Jews from a special position in the universe.”
That was far from the only time that anti-Semites believed Trump was speaking to them. In February, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro told reporters that Trump had suggested to him that anti-Semitic threats and vandalism across the country might be false flag attacks designed “to make people—or to make others—look bad.” This is a popular theory in white supremacist circles; Andrew Anglin, publisher of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, was ecstatic to see that Trump shared it. “Anyone who thinks Trump is not the real deal at this point is either nuts or a shill,” he wrote.
Absent an investigation of Gorka, it will be hard not to conclude that Anglin is correct. “How many ducks in the Trump White House must walk, talk, and quack anti-Semitically before our country wakes up and sees the problem?” Steven Goldstein, executive director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, said in a statement. It’s a question everyone should be asking Republicans as long as Gorka holds a government job.