24th Mar 2018


Stop blaming Trump for Poland’s democratic crisis

Poland has been making international headlines for the last two weeks, over the crisis sparked by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s attempt to take greater control of the judiciary.

If you were to judge events purely on those headlines, however, you would be forgiven for wondering if the Polish government had anything to do with them at all.

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Many leading publications, especially American ones, have pinned the blame squarely on the US president: "When Trump Goes Abroad, Radical Change Follows in His Footsteps" (Bloomberg), "Poland Turns Away From Democracy, Thanks to the U.S." (New York Times), "Poland’s War on Democracy Was Aided by Trump" (Washington Post), and, most dramatically, "How Trump Set Poland on the Path to Dictatorship" (Daily Beast).

While the content is usually more nuanced than the headlines, a consistent theme runs through such coverage. It posits that, by choosing to visit Poland last month, making a positive speech in Warsaw, and refusing to raise the rule of law and democracy, Trump gave his hosts, Poland’s national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, his approval to subsequently launch their attack on the judiciary.

"Emboldened by Trump’s visit … PiS pushed through [its] reform," we read in the Daily Beast. "By not using his visit to press the Law and Justice leader to respect democracy, Mr Trump gave his implicit imprimatur … to carry out a coup," says the New York Times.

Superficial analysis

Yet, as superficially appealing as such analysis can be, it falls apart when confronted by actual events.

The idea that PiS needed Trump’s blessing to overhaul a fundamental state institution ignores the fact that it had been doing so long before he even became president.

Since returning to power in late 2015, PiS has taken control of, and thoroughly politicised, the civil service, public broadcasters, state-owned companies and, most significantly, the Constitutional Tribunal.

As my colleague Stanley Bill at the University of Cambridge has recently written, this series of events has even longer-term roots. Dismantling the current Third Polish Republic, which emerged after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and replacing it with a new, fourth one, purged of alleged ‘post-communist’ influence, has been PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński’s aim for almost three decades.

Moreover, two of the three judicial reforms that caused the current crisis were made public at the start of this year, before Trump’s visit to Poland had even been arranged.

Admittedly, the third, and most controversial one, which would have dismissed and replaced the entire Supreme Court, was only announced two weeks ago. But there is no evidence that this was a result of PiS being "emboldened by Trump".

The more probable explanation is that the government knew the proposal would cause outrage, and so revealed it as late as possible.

The bill was submitted to parliament in the middle of the night, when attention had been distracted by a series of important debates on other legislation earlier in the day, then was rushed through the legislative process and voted on just a week later.

Similarly, the idea that Trump could have somehow put a stop to the latest move, if he had only spoken out against PiS’s illiberal reforms, ignores all previous evidence.

Ignoring evidence

Last year, former US president Barack Obama, during a visit to Warsaw, did precisely that: he raised such issues with the Polish government in private, and publicly "expressed concern over … the rule of law, independent judiciaries and a free press". Yet it had no impact whatsoever on PiS’s programme.

Likewise, criticism from the European Union, the Council of Europe's Venice Commission and other international bodies and national leaders have been brushed off by the Polish government, which tells outsiders to mind their own business.

There is little reason to think that such words would have been received any differently had they come from Trump.

The coverage from US outlets is typical of the way they view the outside world through the prism of their own politics, culture and society, and of the Americanocentric tendency to think that global events revolve around Washington to a greater extent than they really do.

As The Economist recently wrote, Trump himself exemplifies this tendency to "forget that foreigners have politics too".

There is also, no doubt, an element of self-interest involved. Liberal media outlets in the US want to give the impression that Donald Trump is wreaking havoc around the world.

What better way to do that than to claim that "when he goes abroad, radical change follows in his footsteps", while his trips to Israel, Italy, Belgium, Germany and France – none of which have subsequently seen radical change – are conveniently ignored.

They also like to cultivate the stereotype of Trump’s ignorance, suggesting that he is oblivious to the trail of destruction he leaves in his wake.

Poland’s government was able "to manipulate Trump, to take advantage of his lack of knowledge and foreign policy infrastructure", one expert tells Bloomberg. "It’s unlikely that Mr Trump meant to condone Mr Kaczynski’s power grab’", says the New York Times.

Whatever the general validity of such criticism of Trump, that is not grounds for shaping the facts in every case to fit the theory. Trump’s visit had, at most, a marginal effect on the Polish government’s march down an illiberal path.

The media are doing both their American audience and Poland itself a disservice by presenting events simply as an extension of US politics rather than important to understand in their own right.

Daniel Tilles is assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow and co-editor of the Notes from Poland, a blog and Facebook page providing regular commentary on current affairs in Poland.

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