Shadow Government

What’s Happening in Poland Is Sebastian Gorka’s Dream

“Western civilization” isn’t under threat. Universal values are.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 22:  White House Deputy Assistant To The President Sebastian Gorka speaks as he is interviewed by Fox News remotely from the White House June 22, 2017 in Washington, DC. Gorka discussed American Otto Warmbier's death after his return from North Korean detention.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 22: White House Deputy Assistant To The President Sebastian Gorka speaks as he is interviewed by Fox News remotely from the White House June 22, 2017 in Washington, DC. Gorka discussed American Otto Warmbier's death after his return from North Korean detention. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Last week, presidential advisor Sebastian Gorka took to the pages of the Hill to proclaim that roughly six months into President Donald Trump’s tenure, “America is back.”

Given the president’s escalating scandals at home and America’s plummeting reputation overseas, what exactly America is “back” to is anyone’s guess. Behold, Gorka proposes to solve our conundrum: America has been made great again, he offers, because we no longer “apologize for our civilizational values and our culture.”

Gorka’s talk of “civilizational” values echoes a term recently taken up with vigor by Trump. In his July 6 address to the people of Poland, the U.S. president used the word “civilization” 10 times. Contrast this to his use of the words “democracy” and “human rights,” each of which he uttered precisely zero times, and one begins to wonder what Trump and Gorka are onto.

Before analyzing what exactly Gorka is defending, it’s worth reacquainting ourselves with him as a messenger. An unofficial if nevertheless effective spokesperson for the administration’s nativist wing, credible reports allege that Gorka has in the past associated with Hungarian ultranationalist groups with anti-Semitic tendencies — claims that Gorka strenuously denies.

More recently, Gorka has staked his reputation on his academic background, with its focus on links between Islam and terrorism, despite reports that have called into serious question his academic credentials, and the disclosure that he was fired by the FBI in 2016 for erroneous work deemed anti-Muslim.

Gorka’s background reflects his worldview, which in turn illuminates why he and the president have moved away from speaking in terms of “universal values” — to speak one’s mind, to worship as one pleases, to assemble, to protest, and so on — and landed instead on “civilizational values.”

What are civilizational values? In Gorka’s mind, “Western civilization” is defined not primarily in terms of what we stand for, but what we stand against. He does not speak to the objective of this defensive posture, but through context the answer is clear: Historically, the “we” has often stood against Jews, and, in the Hungarian context, the Roma. Today, the “we” stands against refugees, who are primarily Muslim.

Such is the unmistakable dog whistle embedded in Gorka’s op-ed, and the specific reason that Trump chose Warsaw as the spot for his major overseas address.

Over recent months, many thousands of Poles have repeatedly taken to the country’s streets in the largest demonstrations since the end of communism, vigorously protesting a government moving rapidly to dismantle perhaps the greatest post-Cold War democratic success story in Europe. By undercutting a free media and independent judiciary, Polish leader Jaroslaw Kaczyński’s Law and Justice (PiS) party is attempting to eliminate checks and balances at a clip that Trump could dream of only in his most wild-eyed tweets.

Polish President Andrzej Duda’s decision on Monday to veto legal provisions that would have enabled the PiS-led government to appoint all of the country’s Supreme Court justices is likely to provide only a temporary respite to democratic institutions under systematic assault. Though Poland’s opposition, notable communist-era dissidents, the EU, and — one presumes based on its recent statements — the U.S. State Department, welcomed Duda’s announcement, it still allows the Polish minister of justice the ability to hire and fire lower court judges.

This power grab follows earlier moves by PiS to render Poland’s constitutional tribunal an ineffective check on government power, and to assume control of the state media. Equally worrying, the Polish government has undertaken a multi-pronged effort to delegitimize and weaken the country’s robust civil society sector, centralizing and politicizing funding decisions and using state media to attack non-governmental organizations.

Concurrently, the Polish government has positioned itself as a hardliner on taking in refugees. Prime Minister Beata Szydlo recently stated that Poland would not accept a single man, woman, or child fleeing war or persecution. Poland’s interior minister has characterized the country’s earlier agreement to accept refugees and asylum seekers as a “ticking bomb.”

When he stepped to the lectern in Warsaw’s Krasiński Square, Trump may or may not have been ignorant of these facts. In either case, the president said, today’s Poland serves as an “example for others who seek freedom and who wish to summon the courage and the will to defend our civilization.” Ever the scholar, Gorka is almost certainly aware of Poland’s democratic reversal, but he also likely doesn’t care. To Gorka, the current Polish government “shares the values that made the West great, and is prepared to defend them.”

These words reflect tribalism in its purist form. When one’s “civilization” is at risk — either from outsiders desperate to get in, or from political opposition with the audacity to demand fair treatment under the law — no government action to curtail universal rights is too extreme. Thus an American president who privileges personal loyalty over blind justice finds common cause with a Polish leader eager to disassemble democracy, not to mention with a Russian autocrat eager to package repression as civilizational revitalization.

If this is what Gorka has in mind when he says, “America is back,” we should have nothing of it. “Western civilization” isn’t under threat. Universal values are.

Photo credit: ALEX WONG/Getty Images

Rob Berschinski is the senior vice president for policy at Human Rights First. He served in the Obama administration as a deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor. He is also a former director for human rights at the White House National Security Council, and a U.S. Air Force and Iraq War veteran. Follow him on Twitter: @RobBerschinski. Twitter: @RobBerschinski

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