The upcoming GOP primary donnybrook between the establishment right and the anti-establishment 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.