A Polish Warning for an America on the Brink

There are Trump hotels, Trump buildings, Trump golf courses, and—for better or worse—a Trump Presidency. What’s next: “Fort Trump”?  Yes, it’s possible according to the entreaties of the current Polish President, Andrzej Duda, who recently paid a visit to the White House and for whom President Donald Trump brought out the red carpet.

In a photo taken during the visit, President Duda and President Trump struck an unlikely pose relative to the comparative might of their respective countries. The picture of a laughably austere President Trump and an awe-inspired Mr. Duda speaks volumes: an imperial American President lording over a subservient colonial Roman governor. And yet, ironically, it is the leaders of Poland who enjoy a lot more power than their American counterpart—for U.S. power is yet constrained by checks and balances.

For the most part, the U.S. and Poland are nothing alike. One is wealthy, the second aspires to be. One has the population of over 325 million, the other only nearing 38 million. One is the world’s foremost power that expands over half a continent, the other is sandwiched between Germany and Russia. But both countries have tapped into a populist sentiment and its leaders share an appetite for absolute power. Thanks to America’s strong institutions and mature democracy, Trump’s power-hungry hands are largely tied. Yet, for all the institutional differences between the U.S. and Poland, the former might want to take another look at the latter. Poland is a warning. It shows that illiberalism will sweep in when least expected—leaving nothing free in its wake.

Interestingly, Poland wasn’t always caught in those chains. In the history of modern democracy, the U.S. became an undeniable role model, but Poland has its own long and unsung constitutional legacy. The two earliest examples of written constitutions dating from the late eighteenth century are actually American (1787) and Polish (1791). Yet current Polish democracy—reborn after communist turbulence in 1989— has relatively weak institutions, and its civil society can’t properly fight back when these are dismantled. Even with Trump at the helm, America presents a different picture. Still, Poland is a case study that Americans should keep an eye on. This Central-European country shows that undemocratic transformation can unfold at a breathtaking pace, leaving no time to reflect on why the change occurred in the first place. To complicate matters further, the reason for illiberal populism’s rise is never at all clear-cut. Hence, textbook accounts of populism’s rise don’t translate well to Poland, making it hard to understand how it happened at all.

The young, smiling, English-speaking Duda who paid a visit to Washington is not the true face of Polish leadership. Poland’s real situation is that of a country sliding back into unconstitutional populism. This regime sports multiple faces and Duda’s is merely the most sanitized. Meanwhile, the real center of power in Poland is located elsewhere. It’s not to be found in either the President or the Prime Minister’s offices. Duda is merely an emissary of Jarosław Kaczyński, Poland’s most powerful politician.

Kaczyński is the leader of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), that won an absolute majority in the 2015 election. He is the one pulling all the strings, yet officially he is just a deputy, which makes him unaccountable for his de-facto control over the government. In an ironic twist of fate, this pattern of power is eerily reminiscent of a very dark period in Polish history when the country was under communist rule. In the Polish People’s Republic, the de-facto ruler was the secretary of the communist party, even though, technically speaking, the country had  ”elections,” ”parliament,” a ”president,” and even a “Constitutional Court.”

Kaczyński’s party doesn’t have a constitutional majority, but that hasn’t stopped the PiS leader from undertaking a wholesale transformation of the country. Changes didn’t come all at once and were often buried beneath other headlines. But the Polish political system’s foundation has been shaken ever since the party’s rise to power almost three years ago.

The authorities are guilty of eroding human rights and the rule of law and went so far as to dismantle institutional checks on their arbitrary power. The most important step in this was in PiS’ assault on the judiciary. But in any democracy, checks and balances are also provided by the media and opposition parties. In Poland, the public media became very PiS-friendly after the party implemented new media legislation. The voice of the opposition is yet unheeded, with the parliament morphing into a mere voting machine. Legally speaking, PiS can push for any new bill it fancies (unlike, say, changing the Constitution), but the essence of many of the newly enforced ones is still undemocratic.

To most Poles, the changes didn’t seem alarming at first, even though many of them were pushed through Parliament in a great hurry and many times in the middle of the night. Many took to the streets to protest against Kaczyński’s “law and justice” vision being introduced in Poland. In the end, though, these people turned out to be a minority. Even after three years, most people are still unaware that we are sliding into a freshly revamped form of authoritarianism. Pace this dramatic pace, what truly constitutes the “Polish puzzle” is the fact that the country defies traditional explanations for the rise of populism. There are no migrant camps in Poland, no terrorist attack to be seen. No depression has shaken our economy. Yet, our institutions could not withstand the populist’s attack.

The U.S. institutions are still able to limit populist power. While Trump hugs dictators and whispers sweet nothings to strongmen like Putin, he’s unlikely to join their club anytime soon. And though he seems to enjoy a level of power similar to Kaczyński’s —who in turn does not enjoy the unbridled grip of an Erdogan or a Putin—it is held beyond his reach.

Trump’s presidency is a great natural experiment that will prove whether the U.S. is a nation of laws or a nation of men. The ultimate proof, as political scientist Francis Fukuyama writes, is Mueller’s probe. The investigation continues to produce indictments—even in the face of a direct assault from Trump and his supporters. Anne Applebaum, writer for The Atlantic, reminds us that Americans, with their “powerful founding story, unusual reverence for Constitution…and two centuries of economic success, have long been convinced that liberal democracy, once achieved, cannot be altered.”

But Americans are wrong. Of course, U.S. institutions are stronger and its democracy more mature, but Poland is a useful reminder of how quickly things can go wrong. Illiberalism can slip through objective measures of economic prosperity or facts, and once it finds its way, it’s a destructive force that unfolds at a dramatic pace. Poland, if viewed rightly, is a prime example and warning for America on just how easy it is to grow complacent.

Katarzyna Szczypska is originally from Poland. She is a Young Voices contributor who has worked for the Cato Institute and Civic Development Forum. She is currently pursuing a Russian Studies degree at University College London.