Sebastian Gorka: Failed Courtier in a Killer Culture

He played for the 'deplorables' -- he just didn't know the rules.

The courtier culture in Washington, the imperial city, is not recognized for what it is. It is sensed by all, while called out by none. Yet the courtier culture is the managing class for all foreign and domestic policy, and the lubricant of all palace intrigue. The invidious intimacy of the courtier ethos was curiously laid bare in the Aug. 25 exit of a loud anti-courtier courtier: Sebastian Gorka.  

Was ever such a short-lived, minor retainer like Gorka accorded such an extravagant send-off? True, he was fêted in rebuke rather than bon mot, yet the farewell remains, notwithstanding, a tribute of a kind. I am sure Gorka feels insulted and injured, and not without cause. Yet his departure actually represents something of an achievement.

Courtiers with larger followings and longer legs, after all, found him profoundly worthy of insult, and surely, their need to inflict injury is a mark, however unintended, of deep respect. All those bilious column inches expended on a man of little influence and zero role in the intrigues of palace chambers! How does that happen?

Dan Drezner, an international politics professor and high-profile columnist for the city’s paper of record, the Washington Post, lays on a funeral oration worthy of an iambic Mark Anthony. He came to bury Gorka, not to praise him, yet he seems wholly, even innocently, clueless as to what his rhetorical labor actually represents.

Permit me to explain Mr. Gorka—man and phenomenon—if not to praise him.

First off, he was never in the White House to seriously help the emperor understand Islam. Gorka’s vision of Islam is at best rudimentary and unreconstructed. I have read most of what he has published—including major sections of his dissertation.

But here is the thing: The West has suffered from a disabling impediment since the 9th century—it always makes Islam the Islam it wants it to be. For centuries this wish was an existential force to crusade against. Then, in the 16th century, French kings wished the Ottomans as allies (for three hundred years), and the Islamic empire even became a supportive beacon to Dutch insurgents fighting Spain. After Napoleon, the Muslim world was “orientalized,” to such an extent in America that musicals like Kismet, or movies like Thief of Baghdad dominated America’s vision of Islam, and have continued to do so through Lawrence of Arabia to Wind and the Lion to Kingdom of Heaven.

Americans are incapable of seeing the Muslim World on its own terms—and never as they see themselves. Yet Gorka’s take on Islam—naively juvenile as it is—quite possibly represents a more practical guide to U.S. policy than the muddy and self-defeating worldviews of the Bush and Obama administrations.

Both Bush and Obama insisted on projecting their calling of American Exceptionalism onto Islam. The Bush neoconservatives sought to “transform the greater Middle East” into believers of “freedom and democracy”—a form of religious conversion (as Muslims recognized). Less aggressively, President Obama’s Cairo speech became a famous cultural marker of the Blue State path to the same end.

Yet in truth there are a thousand Islams—past and present, moving into the future—and we know almost nothing of them, and care to know even less. Almost all of these “Islams” constitute thriving (and sometimes besieged) communities, and nearly all of them represent no imaginable threat to American Exceptionalism.

Gorka’s point is that there is one “Islam” that does threaten. He is addressing the resurgent, universalist vision of Islam—a true siren song since Muslim beginnings—that I have called the lure of a Muslim Renovatio. It is a vision existentially embedded in tradition—traditions that can be neither discarded nor denied. It is a vision of renewal, rebirth, cleansing, and purification that demands fulfillment through blood sacrifice. It is not wrong of Gorka to bring our attention to this dynamic movement, because it has the potential, even now, to undermine the Western way of life.

It must be said, however, that Gorka’s role and purpose was not really to raise our consciousness of Islam. His representations here have been frankly so primitive that they could never seriously translate into useful policy.

But they were never designed to do so. Gorka’s true role and purpose in the Trump imperial palace addressed, almost entirely, the realm of domestic politics. Sebastian Gorka was never acting as a policy figure at all.

His role was altogether ceremonial in nature. Let me explain.

Sebastian Gorka’s academic pedigree may be thin to the point of translucence, or even transparency—but that is the point. He was meant to serve as the face of the ravager-scholar, who would lay waste to the claims of aristocratic superiority that is so hated and despised by the Trump legions.

Hence, his brittle Ph.D. became, potentially, a badge of authenticity. The very fact of his proximity to the Oval Office represented a triumph over the sway of academic aristocracy. To be fair, over the decades we can see clearly how academic social pedigree has become equated to quality of thinking.

Moreover, however primitive they appear to Blue elites, the mass of “deplorables” actually understand this dynamic—like a Klieg light illuminating the bigger, embedded inequality in American life. Millions of “left behind” who surged for Donald Trump understand perfectly how the Harvard lock on national policy speaks directly to an ancien regime lock on thinking and ideas—and that this fact is integral to a larger web that translates into elite control over their lives.

Taking liberally from American origins, the emperor’s media model riffs triumphantly off the mythic seed of Yankee Doodle Dandy. The British held the Continental Army in high contempt, as Macaronis—“faggots” in the opprobrious argot of another era—to which Americans exuberantly responded with “so call me Macaroni.” In other words, “up yours.”  Trump was adroit enough to key into an ancestral call that millions of Americans wholeheartedly embraced.

Gorka, famous alpha male, was thus adopting, in the manner of his leader, the role of a bull in the bric-a-brac store—at least for how the United States does war and strategy.

Sebastian Gorka was a subaltern mini-me of the emperor himself: in which his media appearances were also meant to stoke emotional fires within the legions. Like throwing red meat to lions in the arena, Gorka presented himself as a living affront to the aristocratic class—Washington’s rulers—in the realm of strategy and war. Take that, you sniveling Yuppie handmaids!

Truth was, the shiv was out for him among the courtier class, and he offered them an easy target.

Paradoxically, Gorka started showing his chinks and weak spots shortly after his first, successful, ceremonial performances. Drezner relished, like other anti-Red courtiers, how Gorka began to take mortal offense at the razor-like, if understandable, critique of his bona fides. His notoriously thin skin became as celebrated among Blue stiletto artists as his notorious Fox News eruptions.

Rather than lashing out at his Yuppie tormentors, Gorka should have reveled in his stained professional notoriety, throwing slings and arrows right back at the madding crowd. Rather than taking shrill umbrage when mere students impugned his bona fides, he might have instructed them: “This is what you get for creating venal PhD-for-profit factories to enrich a debased university system.” Or, “Are ideas now to be ranked according to a Miss Manners’ pecking order, like a latter day Pride and Prejudice?”

Thus, in the colorful Trumpian parade, Sebastian Gorka got it half right. The power of the emperor remains undiminished, because it still relies on two unimpeachable sources of authority: 1) That the elites, both Blue and Never Trump Red, still cannot recognize their enabling role, and so continue to blurt out, reinforce, and re-ratify the hated emperor; and 2) That a never-apologize, throw-it-back-always, and make your-double-down-better ethos will always authenticate your commitment to the legions who acclaimed you emperor in the first place.

Sebastian Gorka forgot that in the courtier’s game, the monarch is expected to be thin-skinned. The courtier, in contrast, must grow a hide like a whale. Yet the knife fights attending Gorka’s demise show us, in stark relief, how much this town—meaning the Government—hews to the iron custom and taboo of its talented and ever-ruthless retainer class.

Gorka’s fall is thus less about him than it is a reminder of how the stiletto-wielders— the Little Fingers—still rule America’s Imperial City—restless emperor notwithstanding. This awareness in itself should be further reminder that no nation should carelessly entrust its welfare to such as these.

Michael Vlahos is a professor of strategy and war at Johns Hopkins Advanced Academic Programs and formerly of the Naval War College. He currently teaches a course in Identity, Insurgency, and Civil War in the World System, and is the author of the book, Fighting Identity: Sacred War and World Change.

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40 Responses to Sebastian Gorka: Failed Courtier in a Killer Culture

  1. PhDPoly says:

    Just to be clear about a few things.

    1. Sebastian Gorka’s PhD is almost completely fraudulent, and doesn’t stand to any kind of academic rigor. http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2017/02/sebastian-gorkas-dissertation-part-i

    2. If Gorka doesn’t have anything of value to say, and was simply there to “be a voice to the deplorable”, I have to ask is this the best voice for them? You don’t need a Hungarian Nazi party supporting fraud to be the voice of the people.

    3.Was this written while drunk? There are far too many GRE words, phrases in Latin and French, as well as Italicized items in such an emotional and ineffective use with wildly unpersuasive language I honestly have to wonder about the sobriety because the article makes very little sense, other than from what I gleamed to gather in #2.

    4.Michael Vlahos himself is only an adjunct professor, not a full professor at JHU. He does not have tenure and should not present himself as a member of the faculty. He undoubtedly knows the difference, but isn’t present himself honestly.

  2. Brendan Sexton says:

    Your pretty strong implication is that Gorka’s critics or opponents were all “courtiers” or academics (is there a worse insult?) If this is as deep as you can see into this situation, i suggest you click on Wikipedia or get some history books and look up ‘nazi.’

    Gorka is among the most toxic figures to sit in the white House in our lifetime. Why in the world you would bestir yourself to defend or ‘explain’ him is beyond me. But he is not worth your time.
    He was a poison on the realm. Trump had clutched an asp to his bosom with this one and whoever got him kicked out of the Admin did the country and even the President a major favor.

  3. rif879 says:

    I can’t believe that TAC would publish such an evidence-free personal attack. Let’s list the various juvenile insults: “a loud anti-courtier courtier: Sebastian Gorka….Was ever such a short-lived, minor retainer like Gorka accorded such an extravagant send-off?”, “a man of little influence and zero role,” “Gorka’s vision of Islam is at best rudimentary and unreconstructed,” “Yet Gorka’s take on Islam—naively juvenile as it is,” “[Gorka’s] representations here have been frankly so primitive that they could never seriously translate into useful policy,” “Sebastian Gorka’s academic pedigree may be thin to the point of translucence, or even transparency,” “his brittle Ph.D.,” “Gorka, famous alpha male,” “Gorka began to take mortal offense at the razor-like, if understandable, critique of his bona fides. His notoriously thin skin….”

    At the end of all this vitriol, however, where is the evidence? Where is the analysis of Gorka’s speeches and writings? (hey, at least the author claims to have read “major sections of his dissertation”) I imagine such hurling of sandbox “Lincoln logs” may impress some, but it is unworthy of any serious intellectual publication. Such accusations are free from any presented evidence, yet reek of envy. With the spirit of the above piece in mind, let me offer the following nugget; such a column is more appropriate for a high-school “slam book” than anything read by adults.

  4. whine.merchant says:

    I must add my concern that this article, [if it is to be published in the TAC], is in serious need of an editor with a sharp blue pencil and a predilection toward succinct brevity.

    It is telling when so many comments focus on the form over the content. The form seriously distracted readers from the content.

    Thank you –

  5. Lily Lee says:

    I wonder how Gorka would answer this pseudo psycho surgery of himself!

  6. WorkingClass says:

    This writer might place a higher value on clarity.

  7. Kalmia says:

    “Was this written while drunk?”

    I certainly hope so!

  8. max skinner says:

    Seems like a lot of words spent on a man of short and limited influence who spoke with a plummy British accent and thus was accorded more credit for knowledge than that which he possessed

  9. jook78 says:

    @Brendan Sexton

    What is the evidence that Dr. Gorka is a Nazi? If you have none, then you are a defamer.

    I really am curious.

  10. jook78 says:

    @PhdPoly:

    Thanks for the enlightening link! I would encourage everyone to read the 1990’s-looking “Lawyers Guns Money” blog post to which you referred. It is amazing how a 240 page thesis can be debunked in a single-page blog post, especially when the blogger only read to page 17!

    But hey, at least the blogger is confident that, “it would not earn [Gorka] a doctorate at any reputable academic department in the United States. Indeed, it would be unacceptable as an undergraduate thesis for the Department of Government or the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. My guess is that Gorka wanted to call himself “Doctor,” and his PhD-granting institution was happy to oblige.” Unfortunately, the blogger fails to offer any sort of support for this declaration, but I’m sure that’s because he had much better things to do, like downloading MP3s off Kazaa and burning them onto CDs.

    Good luck with the PhD, Poly! Hopefully no blogger reads 1/12 of it and rips your reputation!

  11. Mia says:

    “Sebastian Gorka’s academic pedigree may be thin to the point of translucence, or even transparency—but that is the point.”

    I often wonder at the strange dichotomy in our modern interpretation of American universities. On the one hand, we get all outraged over credentialling, but then on the other we acknowledge that the universities are overwhelmingly leftist (not liberal mind you, leftist) and their offerings are getting more and more biased and frivolous. Adjuncts are the rule now, not the exception, so the reader above is way behind in factoring that reality into his analysis.

    The Ivy Leagues have long since shown they are untrustworthy and their degrees suspect, so when are we going to have a downgrading in granting them automatic prestige? We seem to not be able to reconcile those two attitudes to changing realities, and there’s too little discussion about what a more acceptable conservative academia would look like. On the one hand, it can’t just be a parroting of favorite party lines; on the other hand, our side of the aisle is too anti-intellectual to make a good go of it if they wanted to challenge the status quo.

  12. JohnS says:

    “Hence, his brittle Ph.D. became, potentially, a badge of authenticity.”

    So, only the incompetent are authentic, now? Is this what Trumpism is all about?

  13. Shirley says:

    How is the author related to TAC managing editor Kelley Beaucar Vlahos?

  14. Argon says:

    “To be fair, over the decades we can see clearly how academic social pedigree has become equated to quality of thinking.”

    Methinks the orator doth protesteth too much…. or something like ‘bearing a chip on one’s shoulder’.

  15. Brighton Rock says:

    “3.Was this written while drunk? There are far too many GRE words, phrases in Latin and French, as well as Italicized items in such an emotional and ineffective use with wildly unpersuasive language I honestly have to wonder about the sobriety because the article makes very little sense, other than from what I gleamed to gather in #2.”

    Hmmm. “Italicized” capitalized. “Gleamed” mistaken for “gleaned” + “gleamed to gather” oddly redundant. Was this written while drunk? His fear of “GRE words” to one side, I honestly have to wonder about the writer’s basic English skills.

    “He undoubtedly knows the difference, but isn’t present himself honestly.”

    Gah! And where does he “isn’t present himself honestly”? I seem to have missed that.

  16. pitchfork says:

    “It is amazing how a 240 page thesis can be debunked in a single-page blog post, especially when the blogger only read to page 17!”

    Like a lot of folks, probably, I assumed the various attacks on his PhD were just partisan sniping. But then I read it!

    If you’ve ever written a dissertation, or simply read one — heck, if you’ve ever read a scholarly book or article of any kind, you don’t need to read past p. 17 to see that his “dissertation” is absolute garbage. It makes some random points here and there, but there’s no sustained argument and he provides almost no evidence for the random claims he makes. Plus, he almost never bothers to give sources or references. It’s not that the citations are simply deficient — there barely are any.

    As an American academic, I’m nearly 100% certain that no U.S. institution would grant a PhD for what Gorka wrote.

    But go read it for yourself and prepare to be amazed:

    http://phd.lib.uni-corvinus.hu/314/1/gorka_sebestyen.pdf

  17. pitchfork says:

    BTW, there are 3 or 4 separate blog posts that criticize Gorka’s dissertation (not just one). And the author of those posts was pretty fair, in my opinion.

    http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/?s=gorka+dissertation

  18. Mac61 says:

    This article should win an award.

  19. TheIdiot says:

    All you smart people are missing the point. Trump got elected by people who with more common sense, more desire for the common good, than any of those clever, educated, self serving, tax dollar sucking, people in charge.

    Those of you that want to defend the elites in power, by minimizing those that are against them, are arguing with simple ad hominem attacks; good for you, you clever rhetoricians. But you all seem blind to the reality that we are all living on a house of cards built by these elites. Sure, we can trust that they have too much at stake to let it all fall down. But know this, as you look in your dimly lit mirror: they could care less about real betterment of the American people’s lives, only the betterment or maintenance of their own lives.

    So, give me a self agrandizing fool like Trump (or Gorka) over a clever professor like Obama any day of the week.

    Truth be told, there is nothing barring the fall of this house of cards that will bring all these smart academics to heel.

  20. Jon says:

    While the focus of the responses here have been on the author of the blog and on Sebastian Gorka whose views are readily challenged, Sadly, I have often countered on other sites this same rigidly biased view misrepresenting a religion and its practices. And, I have often explained in responses to these purveyors of falsehood coupled with a modicum of patience how Islam is not a monolithic sect but a diverse religion with its rationalist and mystical aspects.

    But then I also mentioned the golden age when both Islam and Judaism coexisted side-by-side stressing how the former had made a profound influence upon the latter. But, all to no avail as these trolls and their supporters continue to attempt the impregnate other sites with their poison.

    Of course my comments here are but a sidebar to the themes discussed centering on the folly of this Mr. Gorka and the writing style of the author Michael Vlahos.

  21. Brendan Sexton says:

    jook78–I never said Gorka is a nazi. He might as well be, but i didn’t say that either. As to ‘defaming’ him, thank you, i certainly hoped to do damage to any fame he might want to claim, but to be called ‘defamation’ in the usual legal sense, a charge has to be found false. I’m ok there.
    What was your point, anyway? that i was too harsh on Gorka? he certainly seems to be tough enough to stand up for himself. Although in this case–his unwillingness to separate himself from nazi sympathizers–he has no leg to stand on.

  22. peterc says:

    Embarrassing ad-hominem article – not what I expect from TAC.
    Yes, Dr. Gorka was too much of a hard-liner (IMO), but the author combines too many undocumented assertions with an obvious dislike.
    Could it be academic envy?
    @Brendan Sexton:
    Just being a right-wing Hungarian does not make somebody a Nazi.
    I recommend reading a little about the subject.

  23. TheIdiot says:

    Jon,
    I appreciate your sentiment. And you are definitely right that Islam is not monolithic. But, we are far past the golden age. The same could be true of the republicans and democrats: that they are not monolithic. But we live in a polarizing age. Now, even though you are not on the fringe, you are obligated to defend the fringe. Against who? The other side’s fringe, which is also defended by those not as radical.

    Let’s pray for a new golden age.

  24. Kevin says:

    “Truth be told, there is nothing barring the fall of this house of cards that will bring all these smart academics to heel.

    And here it is, pure resentment brought to its logical conclusion.

  25. g.e.Taylor says:

    Aren’t the questions as to the bona fides of Gorka’s academics more relevantly addressed to Soetoro’s claims?

  26. TheIdiot says:

    Kevin,
    Resentment, maybe. Should we resent that some academics told mothers to avoid peanuts because of potential peanut allergies, then, come to find out their advice CAUSED a peanut allergy epidemic?

    I admit ‘bring them to heel’ was a bit strong. You might be surprised to find out that you and I probably agree on many issues. We disagree on where they should be solved.

    My point is, they will not admit mistake. Their arrogance will cloud their judgment. They will fail forward, progressing toward more control, when what we really need is less nanny state, more self reliance. I do not despise government – it is not a necessary evil, it is a necessary good. We should be free to govern ourselves. That cannot be done from an empire where you can only achieve 60% consensus. An all powerful empire like we have in DC is an unnecessary evil.

  27. joe says:

    removing gorka and bannon
    was not a good thing.

    the swamp is winning. badly.

  28. Dale says:

    I enjoyed the article. I did want to say something about the self-conscious overwrought style, but the hilarious expression “GRE words” made it unnecessary. So thank you PhDPoly.

    But congratulations to the author for having had the stomach to read so much written by that vile man. Was it worth it?

  29. Dykeward says:

    Whilst attacking Gorka’s bona fides, this article itself reads like intellectually insecure verbosity and at the end of it, we have barely enough rhetorical content to construct a reasonable argument in plain English .

  30. Tyro says:

    The author misunderstands the humor of Gorka the man: that he was both clearly foolish and uninformed while also believing himself to be a modern “elite scholar” advising the most powerful with their deep insights.

    So much of the Trump administration is like this: a group of people adopting the trappings of “the elite” which they claim to disdain while at the same time clearly failing to measure up to those same standards they believe they can easily exceed.

  31. Jon S says:

    “Millions of “left behind” who surged for Donald Trump understand perfectly how the Harvard lock on national policy speaks directly to an ancien regime lock on thinking and ideas—and that this fact is integral to a larger web that translates into elite control over their lives.”

    Interesting thought. Hopefully grist for another article Mr. Vlahos.

  32. bt says:

    My wife is Hungarian. And I have to let you in on this, the big thing in Hungary is to call yourself a Dr. of something.

    When we socialize, every other Hungarian will introduce himself as Dr. this and that. The area of expertise is never too clear, and they have always received their diploma from some university in Budapest you have never hear of. It’s a standing joke among the Hungarian community.

    I’m just sayin.

  33. Al Neuman says:

    Disappointing pretentious hatchet job which generally fails to note the big picture about Gorka’s role in the Trump administration and I’m the significance of his abrupt departure.

    It’s clear to most clear – minded Pres.watchers that Gorka’s unceremonial separation came at the hands of the closet “deep state” types, who have insidiously infiltrated the Trump administration and regularly undermined the conservative agenda which got him elected.

    It’s clear that the likes of McMaster, Kelly ,Cohn,etc. have succeeded in pushing Trump away from his original stances on illegal immigration, the Mideast and radical Islam, pursuing the abundant and clear crimes of the Obama administration and other Democrats, etc.

    It’s extremely disappointing to many who supported Donald Trump that as a result, he is rapidly abandoning many of the positions so heartily embraced by his most loyal supporters. I fear that we are seeing the club or a manipulative hand of Obama and his minions now working very effectively inside the Trump White House.

  34. Janwaar Bibi says:

    “Islam is not monolithic”

    Is there anything on earth that is monolithic other than a monolith? Is America monolithic? No. Are Seventh-Day Adventists monolithic? No. Are ants monolithic? No.

    In the end, the phrase “Islam is not monolithic” is a pointless cliche, devoid of any information content.

  35. nemo says:

    The genuine Muslim ‘Renovatio’, for those interested in a serious understanding of Islam: https://renovatio.zaytuna.edu/

  36. ScottA says:

    Just look at all of the Harvard alumni responsible for the financial crisis, the Iraq war and other disastrous decision making for this country.

    Apparently it’s a great place to go as a springboard for acquiring wealth and power in this country, but a lot of the alumni haven’t been doing a great job in leadership positions other than in advancing their own interests over what is best for the country overall.

  37. Jon says:

    @Janwaar Bibi

    No, it is a response to those who narrow Islam into one single ideology conflating politics with faith and heaping all members of the Ummah into one category qua terrorists. It is the only sane and informative response to such bigotry.

  38. Janwaar Bibi says:

    No, it [Islam is not monolithic] is a response to those who narrow Islam into one single ideology conflating politics with faith and heaping all members of the Ummah into one category qua terrorists. It is the only sane and informative response to such bigotry.

    Nazis were not monolithic either. While a tiny, tiny minority (less than 1%) committed crimes, most members of the Nazi party were ordinary Germans and some like Schindler of “Schindler’s List” fame even saved thousands of Jews. The Third Reich had almost a million Germans of mixed blood (mischelinge), who were Jews according the Nuremberg laws and the laws of Israel, who served in the Wehrmacht. Some became Field Marshals.

    Given that Nazis were not monolithic, would it be bigoted in your opinion to say “the Nazis during WWII were antisemitic”?

  39. Jon says:

    We are speaking of belief systems and not ethnic makeup. If Nazism was not monolithic from the get go it became that way when Hitler purged the party of its left wing.

  40. Jon says:

    I was discussing attitudes towards Islam and not the ethnic makeup of Nazis before and during WWII.

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