Is the #FakeTerrorismExpert’s Ph.D fake?

Early on a mustache-twirling villain emerged as the face of the Trump White House. With the mannerisms of a pompous English B-movie baddy, Sebastian Gorka is to Donald Trump what the Sheriff of Nottingham was to King John. The malevolent sidekick.

Dr. Gorka styles himself as the crusading academic. A Kissinger for our troubled times. The brilliant scholar of terrorism who has taught at elite colleges and published groundbreaking research. He often reminds the imbeciles of the press that as a man of great learning only he truly comprehends the threat of Muslims.

But experts have listened to Gorka’s advocacy of the Muslim ban, attacks on the media and sterling defence of Trump’s “well-oiled’ administration and wondered how could such a well trained academic make such baseless and ignorant claims about topics he purports to be an expert on? In March he became embroiled in a remarkable spat with a Republican National Security consultant, Michael S. Smith. Gorka is flailing widely – tilting at enemies real and imagined.

I started digging and it didn’t take long to find out that Gorka is a fraud – a charlatan of the most brazen hue – a snake-oil salesman whose supposed Ph.D dissertation would have never passed muster in America or Britain and to put the cherry on the cake was approved by an fraudulent panel of examiners. The polar opposite of Lt. Gen H.R. McMasters celebrated dissertation awarded by UNC Chapel Hill.

Gorka is Hungarian-English. He gained an American passport in 2012. His nationalist parents fled to London from Budapest in 1956. His dissertation – Content and End-State-based Alteration in the Practice of Political Violence since the End of the Cold War: the difference between the terrorism of the Cold War and the terrorism of al Qaeda: the rise of the “transcendental terrorist” was apparently granted in 2007 by Corvinus University of Budapest. The tract is long on Islamaphobia and the unsubstantiated claims of the polemicist but short on theory, evidence or academic rigor. Corvinus is not an institution with a profile, so I looked: sadly it doesn’t even make the top 1,000 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

Even Gorka’s attendance poses a mystery. When exactly was he a graduate student at the university? Did he take classes? Did he receive any training in Islam or Islamic studies? His CV notes that he left Hungary in 2004 to work for the US Defense Department in Germany and then in 2008 relocated to the US. There is no evidence that he ever returned to live and study in Budapest.

The dissertation is online and includes the ‘evaluations’ of three referees who each presented a page of generalized comments – completely at odds with the detailed substantive and methodological evaluations that I’ve seen at every Ph.D defence I’ve been on over the last twenty years.

Two of the three referees did not even have a Ph.D. One was the US Defense Attaché at the American Embassy in Budapest at the time, while the other was employed at the UK’s Defence Academy and just had a BA from Manchester University awarded in 1969. This ‘neutral’ examiner had published a book in Hungary with Gorka three years previously. While graduate students sometimes collaborate with their advisors the independent external examiners must have no nepotistic ties with the candidate. More important, a basic principle of assessing educational achievement is that your examiners have at least the degree level of the degree they are awarding. Undergraduates do not award Ph.Ds. In Gorka’s case the only examiner who lists a doctorate was György Schöpflin – an extreme right wing Hungarian Member of the European Parliament who recently advocated putting pigs heads on a fence on the Hungarian border to keep out Muslims. I have been told that Schöpflin was a family friend. Both Schöpflin and Gorka’s father fled from Budapest to London in the 1950s and both moved in exile right-wing nationalist circles.

If that is true, we are left in sum with a degree that was awarded in absence – on the basis of a dissertation without basic political science methodological underpinnings – and apparently from an examining committee of two of Gorka’s diplomat friends, with only BA degrees; along with an old family friend, Schöpflin.

In sum, Gorka’s Ph.D is about as legitimate as if he had been awarded it by Trump University. Facts matter, but so does the gathering, synthesizing and creation of knowledge that is what we call ‘education.’ If you fake a Ph.D you are faking your credentials. He delivers provable untruths to the American public but is believed by many because he presents himself as an esteemed scholar of Islam. Gorka would never have got away with such hutzpah in the UK. Experience and scholarship work in harness to produce answers to questions. When you have neither experience nor training you are likely to not merely get the answers wrong, but not even have an inkling of which questions to ask.

Clearly Gorka yearns to be taken seriously and he uses the ‘Dr’ epitaph in a way that no one who earned the degree would ever do. In his 2016 screed, Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War, he is Dr. Sebastian Gorka on the front cover.

Tacky or just an alternative fact? This is the man we have as a chief national security advisor to the President. That may not change, but lets give him the professional respect he deserves and stop calling him ‘Dr.’

Andrew Reynolds is a Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.