Perhaps the silliest of President Donald Trump’s associates is Sebastian Gorka. Dr. Gorka, as he insists on being called, is an orotund concoction of specious opinions, dubious academic credentials, and titanic self-regard. He was previously a talking head on the cable shouting-match circuit, the sort of character bookers call because he is always, always available.
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Now serving in an undefined capacity in the administration, Gorka’s past ties to Eastern European neo-fascism have been widely reported. He is apparently a member of a Hungarian order of merit called the Order of Vitéz, a clubby society of genteel anti-Semitism that was once full of military and government officials who allied themselves with the Axis powers and later, under German occupation, collaborated in the deportation and extermination of Hungary’s Jews.
Fascism has always been equal parts terror and kitsch. Its clubs and societies are darkly comic peformances. Horrifying though they are, in their post-war incarnations there is something awfully tacky about dress-up societies where men in sashes and medals pretend to defend The West from whatever subhuman ravening hordes they imagine to be knocking at the gates of Europe – and now, with the same tropes finding influential hosts in the White House, crossing the Atlantic on their way to America.
But we cannot afford only to snicker at these malevolent fools in private; they must be drummed from public life. That is what makes the recent decision of the American Jewish online publication Tablet to mount an ongoing defense of Gorka and the fascist Order to which he belongs, to accuse his critics of distorting the memory of the Holocaust to their own end, so dispiriting – and perhaps an early signal of an accomodationism with, if not apologetics for, the nastier ethno-nationalist advisers that the Trump administration has invited in.
The article allows that Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s post-independence leader and a founder of the Vitez, did “on at least one occasion, co-operate with the Nazi plan for the extermination of European Jewry.” This refers to his deportation of 20,000 Jews, “most of them slaughtered by the Nazis.”
“But otherwise,” the article continues, almost laconically, in one of the most infelicitous uses of that phrase ever, he didn’t actively orchestrate the murder of Jews. I suspect we’re supposed to imagine that his subsequent (and temporary) uncooperativeness with Hitler and genocide was a (temporary) attack of conscience, which the Wehrmacht managed to pick apart by 1944.
There had been cycles of Trump rehabilitation already. Several times on the campaign trail, he managed to speak coherently, and he was rewarded with breathless tales of a “pivot” toward a mythical political center. After a cruel, clumsy, failed plan to close the border to refugees and Muslims, he wowed the cable news by reading a speech in front of Congress. It was a grim, dour address whose high point was an embarrassing ovation for his callous use of a military widow. No one seemed to remember that her husband died in a botched and stupid raid in a country where we’re not even supposed to be at war. Finally he launched missiles at Syria and dropped a big bomb in Afghanistan. Fareed Zakaria pronounced him President at last. American talking heads like nothing so much as a big kaboom written in comic-book letters.
We can understand the love affair with Trump rehabilitation stories. The desire to live in normal times is a strong one, stronger among those who have little to worry from abnormal times. But Jews should know better.
Now, I don’t for a minute believe that Trump is himself an anti-Semite; I don’t believe that Trump has a single fixed belief, but it is doubtless the case that he is surrounded by anti-Semitic sentiment and its enablers, however much we reassure ourselves with the blank, smiling faces of his Jewish daughter and son-in-law.
Chief among these is Steve Bannon, who ran Trump’s campaign in the heady months that led to his victory. He then took a triumphant seat in the White House before being supposedly cut down to size by the machinations of Jared Kushner. Bannon, notoriously, was the publisher of Breitbart, a rightwing publication notorious as a platform for the neo-Nazi shut-ins of the so-called alt-right. During his dust-up with Kushner, Bannon reportedly referred to Trump’s young protégé as a “globalist,” a favorite euphemistic neologism that is this century’s version of calling someone a Rothschild or a rootless cosmopolitan.
The problem with defending men like Gorka based on a very narrow and tendentious reading of history—or with the Anti-Defamation League rushing to tweet about the President’s “bold” Holocaust remembrance speech simply because his staff remembered to include Jews!—is that it engages in a far more dangerous lowering of the bar than simply praising a man because he manages to talk for twenty minutes without screaming “Lock her up!” or “Build that wall!”
We allow ourselves to be taken in by this grotesque gang’s air of dissipation and ridiculousness. Trump is a grumpy old man. Bannon dresses like a hobo. Gorka is a Nazi by way of Monty Python. Yes, yes, they are all quite absurd. And they are in charge of the most powerful, terrifying nation in the world.
Jacob Bacharach jacobbacharach.com is a writer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is the author of the novel The Bend of the World. Follow him on Twitter: @jakebackpack.