Making Sense of Sebastian Gorka

During the summer and fall of 2015, human rights advocates in Hungary came to me and other officials working at the U.S. State Department with a startling accusation. The Hungarian government, they alleged, was secretly funding the creation of a statue meant to honor a World War II-era anti-Semite integral to the policies that led to the deportation of Hungary’s Jews to Auschwitz.

The person in question, Balint Homan, remains far from a household name. Until recently, a man who played a key role in the deaths of nearly half a million men, women, and children had been all but lost to historical memory.

The Hungarian government, led by Prime Minister Victor Orban, has other plans for Homan and men like him, attempting to rehabilitate these figures as part of a larger effort to bolster its nationalist, Islamophobic, and self-described illiberal form of governance. Under this effort, the government has embarked on a campaign to whitewash the country’s troubled history with fascism and antisemitism in the 1930s and ’40s, and to instead valorize the era. It has sponsored controversial memorials, promoted the careers of questionable historians, and even established new research institutes dedicated to advancing a new nationalism based on alternative view of the nation’s past.

The Hungarian government’s motivations are multifaceted, but center on defining an enemy around which to rally the country for political gain. What once was a place reserved for Jews is now occupied by an unholy alliance of Muslims, George Soros, and the European Union.

Politically-motivated historical revisionism in central European countries doesn’t generally create waves in the United States. But that’s because senior advisors to the U.S. president, until recently, haven’t been in the habit of appearing at public functions in controversial historical garb from these same countries.

Enter Sebastian Gorka, Deputy Assistant to President Trump, one-time Hungarian political operative, and former Breitbart news national security editor.

Gorka sits on the White House’s “Strategic Initiatives Group,” a body alternatively described as an internal think tank and as a rival to the National Security Council. He rose to prominence by asserting that the key to quickly defeating ISIS and other violent jihadist groups is to dispense with what he describes as a politically correct myth that these groups are “fundamentally un-Islamic.” In Gorka’s view, Europe has already fallen to jihadism, and America has “five years, maximum,” to go to war against the same threat before it too succumbs “either kinetically, or from the inside through subversion.” Such an assessment has been, to put it mildly, ridiculed by counterterrorism experts.

Gorka raised eyebrows in the early days of the Trump administration when he wore the favored uniform of Hungarian interwar leader Miklos Horthy’s supporters, and what appeared to some scholars of Hungarian history as a medal bestowed upon Horthy’s “vitézi rend” or “Order of Heroes” to an inaugural ball in honor of the new President. Scholars describe the “vitézi rend” as an anti-Semitic and ultra-nationalist group of Horthy loyalists, and the State Department has designated the group as an organization that fell under the direction of the Nazi government.

While not directly addressing claims that the uniform and medal in question were modeled on the “vitézi rend,” Gorka has since defended his wardrobe decision in an interview with Breitbart, explaining that the medal was awarded to his father in 1979 as a testament to the latter’s resistance to Nazi and Soviet oppression. Gorka went on to say that he wears the medal in honor of his father and as a reminder of his parents’ suffering under totalitarian regimes.

Taking Gorka’s motivations at face value in no way diminishes what’s at play in this startling episode. It’s no secret that Hungary’s current government sees President Trump as an ideological bedfellow. Orban famously endorsed Trump during the 2016 election campaign and spoke positively of the then-candidate’s hostility toward refugees, the European Union, and democracy promotion. Similarly, the “alt-right” and outlets such as Breitbart have lavished attention and praise on Orban’s anti-EU, anti-Muslim, and anti-migrant policies.

Mr. Gorka’s ties to the Orban regime appear complex — he has in the past reportedly both advised Orban and attempted, unsuccessfully, to establish a competing right-wing political party to challenge Orban’s power. A key backer of his short-lived party is today one of the lead historians charged by the Orban government with rewriting Hungary’s history. And recent investigative reporting has shown that during his time living in Hungary, Gorka worked with openly racist individuals and groups.

Less complex is the signal Gorka chose to send in wearing politically-charged regalia on his and Trump’s big night. Whether in honor of his father or not, it seems that an advisor to the U.S. president purposefully imported Hungary’s culture wars to the United States, publicly winking at a movement that provides intellectual cover for ethno-nationalist politics. In Hungary, as now in President Trump’s White House, the target has changed — Muslims have supplanted Jews as the proximate threat to national greatness — but coded symbols endure.

Such symbols matter, and they’re worth being fought over. When confronted by U.S. diplomats back in 2015, the Hungarian government initially denied any involvement with the statue being built to honor Balint Homan. Only when presented with incontrovertible evidence did Orban disavow the effort. Days before the memorial was to be dedicated, with its base already assembled in stone, Hungarian officials and their boosters called off the statue’s erection.

Remarking on the episode in January 2016, President Obama noted that the diplomatic tussle over the Homan statue “was not a side note to our relations with Hungary, this was central to maintaining a good relationship with the United States, and we let them know.”

Almost exactly one year later, it’s safe to say that the White House again communicated a message to Hungary’s far-right ideologues. This time, the message was even more clear: we’ve arrived, and so have you.

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Rob Berschinski is the Senior Vice President for Policy at Human Rights First. He served in the Obama Administration as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. He’s on Twitter @RobBerschinski