On the evening of Donald Trump's inauguration, Sebastian Gorka had plenty of reason to celebrate. The 46-year-old had left his native Hungary in 2012 after trying—and failing—to make his name as right-wing nativist politician there. He had much more success in America, where he had become a conservative commentator who focused on denouncing Islam in the name of national security. He had been on the outer rim of the political world, but Trump's ascension meant that a lot of people like that were suddenly part of the inner circle. The next day, Gorka was set to take a position in the White House working with top adviser Steve Bannon as part of a group suspected to rival the National Security Counsel in terms of influence.
In an interview he gave with Fox News that night, Gorka donned a black braided vest adorned with medals—odd considering he's never served in the military. But what some European viewers realized and the Jewish Daily Forward later unpacked was that he was actually wearing something called a "bocskai" that's popular among extreme right-wingers in Hungary. What's more, it was decorated with a symbol that belongs to a group that is affiliated with Nazis, according to the US State Department.
Gorka has never been shy about his views. He made his name with a book about how Islam was an existential threat to the West and worked as a Breitbart editor from 2014 to 2016. Now the deputy assistant to Trump, he calls himself an "irregular warfare strategist"; his wife, Katharine Gorka, is the president of a right-wing think tank who, while a Trump transition team member, pushed for the Department of Homeland Security to rejigger its Countering Violent Extremism program to focus solely on Islam.
His ideology seems to be the main reason he's in the White House. Other people in the counterintelligence field have criticized him as a hack who's never published any articles in peer-reviewed journals. He's also been arrested for bringing a gun to the airport, may have edited his own Wikipedia page, and was once called out for misleadingly implying he testified as an expert witness during the Boston Bombing trial. But now Gorka is trying to put out a series of fires that sprang from a series of articles in the Forward that claim he's sympathetic to anti-Semitic groups.
This all started back in March, when leaders of a group called the Vitézi Rend (Order of Vitéz) said that Gorka had sworn a loyalty oath to them. The order was founded in 1920 by Hungary's interwar leader Miklós Horthy, and membership was originally based on one's military ranking. Although Horthy himself was an anti-Semite and Jewish people were not allowed to join the order, Laura Jakli, a professor at Berkeley who studies Hungary's far right, say it's not so cut and dried. Jakli says not all of the member's orders collaborated with the Nazis, and some of them were even in conflict with the Arrow Cross Party, the group that would go on to commit the Hungarian Holocaust. The Vitézi Rend was eventually disbanded by the Soviets, although a new version called the Historical Vitézi Rend came into existence in 1992.
"In terms of an American equivalent, I don't think it's quite fair to compare to the KKK, nor to a simple Skull and Bones type secret society," Jakli told me. "It has strong nationalist roots, but isn't explicitly racist in the same way as the KKK." She agreed with the characterization that they're like the Sons of Confederate Veterans—a group that's ostensibly based on history and uses that to underplay its racist history.
Articles about the Forward's revelation are careful not to call Gorka an undercover Nazi—saying instead that he's "linked" or "has ties." Several other writers , as well as Gorka himself, entirely denied these allegations, which are far more explosive than the more prosaic stuff about Gorka being a bit of a blowhard.
The US State Department says that Vitézi Rend members can't legally emigrate to the United States because it's considered Nazi-adjacent; some Democratic Senators have asked the Justice Department to look into whether Gorka lied on his citizenship application. But even though he wore the medal to Trump' inauguration and signed his dissertation with a "v." middle initial—a calling card of members—Gorka says he's not a member but merely does that stuff to honor his father, who was tortured by Communists.
What's undeniable is that Gorka has expressed sympathy for blatantly fascist activity taking place in Hungary. He first made a name for himself there by writing newspaper articles for a weekly called Magyar Demokrata that the US State Department has called a publisher of anti-Semitic content. The paper is a sort-of mouthpiece for the Jobbik party, which is rooted in a philosophy called Turanism—a Central Asian nationalist movement that's centered around Hungarians possessing a specific racial lineage that includes Jesus Christ.
"These are people who believe that Hungary should return to its greater glory," said Lawrence Rosenthal, the director of the Center for Right-Wing Studies at Berkeley. "It's as far right as we see these days with the possible exception of Golden Dawn in Greece."
In 2006, Gorka tried to form his own political party called the New Democratic Coalition from the scraps of Jobbik and the Fidesz party, which lost the national election that year. This failed almost immediately, and Gorka pivoted to punditry. The following year he was a guest on EchoTV—kind of like the Hungarian version of Breitbart—talking about the existence of a then-new paramilitary organization. The Hungarian Front was the official militia of the Jobbik party and was founded in part by the channel's biggest host, Sándor Pörzse. A small-scale operation, it was mostly known for parading around in Nazi symbols, launching anti-Roma vigilante patrols, and harassing people. The Hungarian Front was forced to disband by the government in 2009 because it violated the constitutional rights of minority groups.
In a clip unearthed this week by the Forward, Gorka is asked if he support the group's existence, to which he replies yes, because it was in response to a "great societal need."
The debate over Gorka's father's role in an ultra-nationalistic group aside, approving the formation of a semi-militarized force tied to a political party is pretty much the most damning thing you can do, according to Rosenthal of Berkeley's Center for Right-Wing Studies.
"The classic definition of Fascism—what distinguishes it from other kinds of political movements—is precisely the marriage of a political party and a private militia," he told me. "In my view, that is what's most alarming about the allegations."
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