The upcoming GOP primary donnybrook between the establishment right and the antiestablishment right has had a foreshadowing in Polish politics over the past dozen years in the war between Poland’s two dominant parties, both conservative. If you want to know what a Trump presidency might be like, the bumptious populist conservative government elected in Poland three months ago offers some clues.
In the U.S. before the rise of Trump, the emerging schisms on the right—globalism versus nationalism, elitism versus populism, diversity versus solidarity—were mostly papered over by Republicans for the sake of putting up a united front against Democrats. But Poland’s recent history is revealing because the left is so discredited there (in last October’s parliamentary elections, the top five parties, which won 83 percent of the vote, were all more or less on the right) that the tensions among 21st-century conservatives already dominate national debate. This was exemplified by the Polish rightist parties’ clashing over how to respond to German chancellor Angela Merkel’s diktat to invite a million-Muslim mob into Europe, which wound up with a single party winning an absolute majority in parliament for the first time in the history of modern free Poland.
Polish politics tend to baffle Anglophones because the spelling of the leaders’ names is so eye glazing. Moreover, to a slightly lesser extent than Hungarian, Polish is a language little known by outsiders, so it’s hard for Anglophones to get an unbiased sense of what’s going on politically in Poland or Hungary. Most of the opinions we hear out of Poland and Hungary come from English-speaking cosmopolites who find the populist policies backed by the majorities deplorable. (Of course, another perspective is that separate languages are a good reason for having separate countries.)
To Westerners, the most visible representative during last fall’s migration mania of Poland’s conventional conservative party, Civic Platform, was the Polish politician with the simplest name to spell, Donald Tusk. He’s the former two-term prime minister who in 2014 kicked himself upstairs to the European Union’s prestigious but ill-defined top job, President of the European Council.
Granted, Polish politics would be simpler for Americans to follow if Donald Tusk embodied the Donald Trump wing of Polish conservatism, but instead the Polish Donald T. is more representative of the inoffensive Mitt Romney wing, while the new power behind the throne, Jarosław Kaczyński, is a definite member of the Awkward Squad.
The once-popular Tusk’s travails in 2015 are worth recounting because they suggest that the failures of American establishment conservatives, such as former GOP front-runner Jeb Bush, aren’t just due to idiosyncratic personality flaws, but are systemic. In a world in which the biggest political issue is borders, the globalist right has a hard time answering to voters’ satisfaction the basic political question: “Whose side are you on?”
To roughly analogize recent Polish political history for Americans, it’s as if Mitt Romney (Donald Tusk) had won two terms as president, but his plan to hand off power to Paul Ryan had suddenly been disrupted by a landslide for Donald Trump (Jarosław Kaczyński).
Well, that would be a good analogy if Trump were a brooding former child movie star turned éminence grise who has a dead identical twin brother (Lech Kaczyński) whom he suspects Vladimir Putin of conspiring to assassinate…
Okay, Polish politics are actually pretty distinctive and colorful.
The Kaczyński twins were the stars of the hit 1962 Polish children’s movie The Two Who Stole the Moon. In 2001, they formed a populist conservative political party, Law and Justice, that’s socially conservative but favors more of a welfare state for Poles to boost birthrates. As politicians, they seldom appeared together in photos because, while children are fascinated by identical twins, adults tend to be weirded out by them.
In 2005, the twins’ party led the parliamentary elections with 27 percent to Civic Platform’s 24 percent. It was widely assumed that the two conservative parties would form a coalition, but instead they quarreled. Perhaps this was due to the Kaczyński twins’ obstreperousness, or perhaps it marked what will someday be seen as a significant fork in the right worldwide.
In 2005, Lech Kaczyński defeated Donald Tusk for the presidency. But in 2007, Tusk beat Jarosław Kaczyński for the more important prime ministership, and Tusk easily won reelection in 2011. In 2010, Lech dramatically died in a plane crash in Russia on a visit to commemorate the massacre of Polish officers by the Soviets at Katyn.
Which of the two parties is more to the right is a question of perspective. While Tusk’s Civic Platform is usually considered more centrist, Kaczyński’s Law and Justice is less doctrinaire on the economic issues that used to define left versus right. It appeals to voters who believe Poland is finally affluent enough to enjoy a Northern European-style welfare state. But Poles understand that they can’t afford to attract Third World spongers, as Sweden did. The realities of chain migration mean that it’s important to resist allowing beachheads to form for symbolic feel-good reasons, which can grow rapidly in the Internet era because word gets around so fast.
Poland is everything you are not supposed to be in the 21st century: a conservative, religious, and homogeneous nation-state.
At home in the center of the vast Northern European plain that runs with few natural defenses from the North Sea to the Urals, the Poles attained national consciousness as a Slavic-speaking outpost of Roman Catholicism. As the Poles’ neighbors grew into domineering Great Powers, the English-speaking world increasingly sympathized with Poles as being more geostrategically sinned against than sinning. Polish patriotic resistance played a leading role in bankrupting the Soviet Empire. Both major Polish parties are descended from the anti-Communist Solidarity movement of 1980.
Due to Hitler and Stalin remaking Eastern Europe at vast expense in lives of Jews, Slavs, and Germans, Poland is now one of the most ethnically and racially homogeneous countries in the world. The CIA’s World Factbook says that Poland is 96.9 percent ethnically Polish, with the next biggest ethnic group being the 1.1 percent who are Silesian. Similarly, 98.2 percent of Poland’s inhabitants speak Polish and 86.9 percent are Roman Catholics.
Poland is home to a few thousand Tatar Muslims of ancient residence. Besides the indigenous Tatars, Muslim immigrants and converts are roughly estimated to be only about 0.1 percent of the population. And unlike Southeastern Europe, Poland has only about 12,000 gypsies.
Due to Poland having had no colonies, and still having low pay, not much welfare, and little sunshine, it’s racially one of the whitest countries in the world. The largest racial minority, making up perhaps 0.2 percent of the population, is Vietnamese (due to a pan-Communist program during the Vietnam War).
According to the reigning ideology of our times, Poland’s lack of diversity should be crippling.
But, of course, instead Poland is in a rather enviable position going forward. The years since 1989 have not been particularly easy for Poland, but by the tragic standards of Poland in the 19th and 20th centuries, or of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine since then, free Poland has been a relatively successful country.
Unlike Ukraine, which has been torn apart by ethnic, linguistic, and cultural-religious diversity, or autocratic and kleptocratic Russia, Poland’s post-Communist history is rather upbeat. Poland is richer than Ukraine and more equal than Russia. With one-fourth the GDP of Russia, Poland has about one-sixteenth as many billionaires, according to Forbes.
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