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.
Sebastian Gorka: Failed Courtier in a Killer Culture
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.