John Nichols, who is national correspondent for the leftist Nation magazine, thinks people are writing too much about how terrible Donald Trump is.
It’s not that he disagrees. Nichols is worried that an obsessive, if understandable, focus on the president is allowing the backgrounds and activities of his senior appointees and major supporters—the people actually implementing his agenda—to go virtually unscrutinized.
So he’s written a book. “Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse” has handy individual chapters on many of the key cabinet members, administrative commissioners, aides, financial backers and lawmakers who are making important things happen under Trump’s aegis, even as the president often seems to be treading water in a sea of anger, invective and legislative morass.
“A president is an individual,” Nichols explained in a phone interview with the Forward. “But a presidency is a much bigger operation. Many key people in it have their own backgrounds and obsessions. Because Donald Trump was going to be empowering a lot of people, I wanted to highlight the individuals who were going to do the most damage.”
Nichols’ 366-page book comes out next Friday, with chapters detailing the backgrounds and actions of diverse figures ranging from Robert and Rebekah Mercer—press shy donors to Trump’s campaign and backers of his recently departed aide Steve Bannon; to Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, who traded stocks in medical companies while also writing legislation that could affect them—and who is now seeking to do in Obamacare, to Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency chief who rejects the existence of human caused climate change and spent years working with corporate polluters to sue the agency he now leads.
And then, there’s Sebastian Gorka.
As deputy assistant to the president, Gorka is supposed to be Trump’s advisor on counter-terrorism. Instead, he’s most prominent as a seemingly ubiquitous talking head on television, where his strident defenses of Trump’s latest statements or actions, combined with frequent attacks on the professionalism of those interviewing him, have gained him an avid following among Trump supporters.
Gorka gets a seven-page chapter all to himself, and much of it is about his earlier political career in Hungary, before he immigrated to the United States. There, as first disclosed by the Forward, Gorka forged strong ties with far-right anti-Semitic and racist forces and supported the formation of a non-governmental paramilitary group led by known anti-Semites.
Leaders of the modern day incarnation of the Vitézi Rend, a group listed by the U.S. State Department as having been “under the direction of the Nazi Government of Germany” during World War II, also told the Forward that Gorka had sworn an oath of lifelong fealty to their order. According to the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual members of the group are “presumed to be inadmissible” to the United States. (Gorka denied that he ever “swore allegiance formally.”)
Three senators have called on the administration to investigate whether Gorka, who immigrated to America in 2008 and became a citizen in 2012, answered questions fully and truthfully about his affiliations when he applied for his visa and his citizenship. Fifty-five Democratic House members have called on Trump to fire him.
The Forward caught up with Nichols to talk to him about his new book, and why he thought Gorka merited a chapter in it. Some excerpts from that interview are below:
The Forward: How did you choose whom to include?
Nichols: I focused on ideologues and impassioned supporters. Militarists, who are very interested in the military industrial complex are also very powerful in this administration. Then there are the privatizers. And finally, the political hacks.
Where did Sebastian Gorka fit in?
Sebastian Gorka came to head of list very quickly, even before he went in to White House, because it was very clear that he impressed Steve Bannon; then, via Bannon, he impressed Donald Trump. This gave Gorka tremendous power. Here you have a guy who was writing op-eds on the internet and you’ve put him suddenly in the thick of White House, where big decisions made about how this administration will relate to Muslims. And his history is very extreme and troubling.
There were also questions about his claims of expertise on terrorism. But what the Forward did, I’d argue, was the best reporting on any of the president’s appointees. By burrowing into Gorka’s past and revealing the details, what it got was profound and profoundly significant in telling us about this administration. It was also very sad, because those reports should have led to Gorka’s immediate removal They should have rocketed up the media food chain and brought an immediate response from many more members of Congress.
In our reporting, we’ve been careful to avoid calling Gorka an anti-Semite or a fascist. Do you consider Gorka to be a fascist?
I don’t know Sebastian Gorka. I’m careful, because that’s such a profound term. At the very least, taking someone [on staff at the White House] who has worked with and had ties to organizations with anti-Semitic and fascist histories, even if they don’t themselves speak the words—this legitimizes and raises up those groups and that history, and puts them in a different place than they should be.
I worry a great deal about historical memory. We as a people lose sight of where those bright lines should be. Now, that people would march under Confederate flags and see that as acceptable is very troubling; [even more so] that they rally in significant numbers with symbols of Nazism and racism. To me, its astounding that we have someone in the White House appearing relatively regularly speaking for the president who has not begun to adequately explain his association with groups and people from such backgrounds.
Do you think his background is connected to his media appearances prior to Charlottesville in which he rejected extremist right-wing violence as something serious people in America should be concerned about?
Here you have Gorka, who’s supposedly an expert on counter-terrorism, saying we don’t have to worry about extreme right-wingers while the dominant players in this field are quite worried about it. This is the thread of attention that becomes important. If you look at the reporting that the Forward did and what Sebastian Gorka has now said in his empowered position, it should raise fundamental questions about what he’s said and what he’s doing.
Larry Cohler-Esses is the Forward’s senior investigative writer. He joined the staff in December 2008. Previously, he served as Editor-at-Large for the Jewish Week, an investigative reporter for the New York Daily News, and as a staff writer for the Jewish Week as well as the Washington Jewish Week. Larry has written extensively on the Arab-Jewish relations both in the United States and the Middle East. His articles have won awards from the Society for Professional Journalists, the Religious Newswriters Association, the New York Press Association and the Rockower Awards for Jewish Journalism, among others. Larry Cohler-Esses can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.