When Lionel Trilling said, in 1950, that the conservative impulse manifests itself in “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas,” he had no idea just how irritable some conservatives might become. Fast-forward to July of 2019, when former presidential adviser Sebastian Gorka was a guest at a Rose Garden ceremony in the White House. Hearing some clownish remarks among the peanut gallery by Playboy White House reporter Brian Karem, Gorka walked up to Karem to yell, “You’re a punk! You’re not a journalist; you’re a punk!”
Gorka’s gesture was a bit overstated; prior to this viral (like meningitis) moment, few Americans would have guessed that The Lonely Wanker’s Illustrated Monthly even employed a White House correspondent. Hamlet praised those who “find quarrel in a straw / When honor’s at the stake.” Gorka can find quarrel in a tweet, or a joke wafting over from the press pen, or a Jonah Goldberg wisecrack, but like Hamlet he fights with his lips, which flap endlessly and with decreasing consequence. His sword remains sheathed, his dueling pistols locked away, his fists restful, though doubtless balled up for much of each day. Irritable is the word.
Thing is, Gorka first gained admittance to White House grounds as one of the ideas chaps, not one of the irritability specialists. Irritability is plentiful; you can find it in any saloon or comments section. Irritability-wise, we’re in an age of plenty. Irritability seeks out the most irritable TV news-channel personalities for succor, gets extra irritated, and goes looking for people to follow-on irritate on social media. Gorka is the embodiment of all this, our champion jouster on the lists of stupidity. Brian Karem, whoever you are, you got PWNED, son!
Gorka temporarily passed as an ideas man by leveraging a slightly ridiculous credential, an exotic background, and a misleading accent. (It sounds clever.) He came across as a mix of a foppish Hungarian aristocrat and withering British don. At the very least, he seemed like a diabolical genius, not what he turned out to be, which is a pathetic dope with a good tailor. Gorka lasted eight months in the Trump administration, another couple of years on Fox News Channel, and now hosts an afternoon radio show on the Salem Radio Network.
But that’s not all he does! A source of income to Gorka these days is endorsing long-shot wingnut Republican candidates who happen to pay him speaking fees. A Sebastian Gorka endorsement is not for sale, of course, because, as Gorka has said, “that would be illegal.” It’s merely coincidental. As Philip Wegmann wrote in the Washington Examiner, Gorka endorsed an insurgent GOP challenger to then-senator Dean Heller of Nevada (Jerry Tarkanian) on December 20, 2017 — just one day after the candidate paid the speaker $5,000. Wegmann could find only two previous instances in the preceding three election cycles of candidates paying their endorsers. Another gig finds “Dr. Sebastian Gorka,” as a chyron identifies him, pitching $19.95 fish-oil pills as cures for back pain: “I’m out of pain, and chances are you can be in less or no pain, too, by ordering the three-week quick start!” Thanks, I’ll stick with Advil.
You will be unshocked to learn that Gorka is not a doctor of medicine, or even fish oil. His doctorate is courtesy of the not-over-lauded Corvinus University in Budapest, where Gorka’s thesis adviser had no expertise in terrorism or national security but did have expertise in being friendly with Prime Minister Viktor Orban, for whom Gorka once served as adviser and whose policies he backed through a think tank in Hungary in the early 2000s. Georgetown professor Daniel Nexon, writing in Foreign Policy, read Gorka’s dissertation so you don’t have to. He said it betrays a “ridiculous understanding of Islam,” includes “nothing resembling a methodology” and is “just plain weird.” Nexon concludes, “If his dissertation is any guide, then Gorka is, in fact, bluster all the way down. His thesis is part smoke and mirrors, part testament to self-importance, and not at all serious scholarship.” Gorka has apparently published only one article in a peer-reviewed journal, and even in that case he had two co-authors. “Gorka’s thesis is about as legitimate as if he had been awarded it by Trump University,” University of North Carolina professor Andrew Reynolds told Rolling Stone.
Hey, but there’s one guy who thinks that would be a dandy credential! Thanks to his Bannonite view of the world, developed in stories such as his 2014 scoop for Breitbart, “MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD OVERRUNS NATIONAL CATHEDRAL IN D.C.,” which revealed that an interfaith prayer group had been convened by the cathedral’s Episcopalian leaders, Gorka accompanied Steve Bannon to the White House to try to dress up their irritable gestures in some sort of half-decent ideological raiment. With his ferocious blot of facial hair — known to cognoscenti as “the Tom Nichols” — Gorka became the Rasputin of counter-terrorism in the White House. He earned $155,000 as deputy assistant to the president. No one could figure out what he did besides go on Fox News Channel (which quickly banished him from its hard-news, as opposed to opinion, programs) and shout talking points designed to impress the founder of Trump University. To burnish his importance, he gave out Fox News Channel business cards he apparently had made himself (the giveaway is that he got the logo wrong) in which he promoted himself to “National Security Strategist” from his actual title, which was “Contributor.” In the White House, Gorka “would show up at random meetings, even though it was never clear whether he had the proper security clearance, and he would often raise unrelated points,” reported Politico. One official recalled that when Gorka would say things like “If you look at what Napoleon did,” “We’d all be like, ‘I don’t even know how to respond to that.’” When Politico asked Gorka for a reply, he responded in character: “Take a long run off a short pier, you utter hack.”
Post-Trump and post-Fox, Gorka remains a colorful figure, celebrated at gatherings like CPAC and dashing about town in his convertible Mustang with its Sun Tzu of suburbia ART WAR license plate, which he once left conspicuously parked on a sidewalk in Virginia. When a small but feisty Mediaite writer named Caleb Ecarma mocked the good doctor’s “s***ty four-cylinder Mustang” on Twitter, Gorka fired back the words “where do you want to meet.” When the writer suggested Gorka name the time and place while asking for clarification that a pistol duel was in the offing, Gorka backed down, saying this would be a violation of the law, then called Ecarma “You dolt of a snowflake.” When Gorka specified the challenge would be a televised debate, the writer again accepted, and Gorka faded away mumbling that Breitbart would be in touch with him. Later, at CPAC, Ecarma introduced himself to Gorka, who replied with an irritable “f**k off” and a shoulder touch that kinda became a shove. Then he turned and stalked away.
Gorka continues to supply entertainment for those who wish politics would be less about boring policy stuff and even less about boring fixed principles. On May 23 he released a video of himself that sounded like he thought he was Alan Rickman in Die Hard, only he was sure he had the Democratic party stuck in an air shaft. “I knew this day would come, but I didn’t expect it so soon,” he said, or intoned. “The president has brought forth his decision, and the Kraken has been unleashed. With his decision tonight to allow the attorney general to declassify any information relating to the illegal surveillance against his presidential campaign. . . . Watch, in the next two days, the rats, the hyenas, start to eat each other. Clapper. Brennan. Lynch. Even Obama. The fun and games have begun. I’m Sebastian Gorka. Stay tuned.”
Two days, huh? It’s been 130 days, and I’m not sure Obama panicking about being grilled on the 2016 campaign is the top story in D.C. right now. But what do I know? I don’t have a doctorate from Corvinus University in Budapest, a license plate that reads ART WAR, or a ready supply of fish-oil pills to stimulate my diabolicalness.