The rise of Poland’s far right has important lessons for Americans who hope Donald Trump is just a one-term president

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, chairman of Poland’s Law and Justice party, is widely thought to be the mastermind behind the country’s shift to the far right.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, chairman of Poland’s Law and Justice party, is widely thought to be the mastermind behind the country’s shift to the far right.
Image: Reuters/Kacper Pempel
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“The choice between us and them will be the choice between the bright future and kicking this whole country 500 years back into the Middle Ages,” said Ewa Kopacz, then the standing prime minister of Poland, while running for re-election in October 2015.

At that point, two days before the vote, the writing was on the wall: Kopacz’s party, the Civic Platform, had been running the country since 2007, but they were about to lose control to Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party, who were promising to make Poland great again.

By “great,” Kaczynski meant patriotic, traditional, Catholic, pro-life, able to stand it’s ground against the European Union, and deeply anti-Russian. But first and foremost, Kaczynski’s great Poland entailed ridding the government of “corrupt” elites, among which Kopacz was a prominent figure.

This probably sounds familiar to US readers. President-elect Donald Trump has talked a big game about his plans to “drain the swamp” in DC. He’s said the establishment in Washington is made up of criminals and that he would “lock them up. A year before Trump, Kaczynski promised the same thing called his own political opponents criminals, and also promised to throw them in jail.

Kopacz, along with the rest of the Civic Platform’s leadership and the Polish liberal media, never really saw Kaczynski coming.

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It started with the 2015 presidential race.

In Poland’s presidential election, there’s a first round of voting, in which all citizens can choose among all the running candidates. If any of those get more than 50% of total votes, it’s over—he or she is president. But if not, there’s a second round of voting: a runoff between the top two vote-getters of round one.

On May 7, 2015—three days before the first round of the elections—Civic Platform candidate Bronislaw Komorowski had a comfortable 12% lead ahead of Law and Justice opponent Andrzej Duda, according to Millward Brown, one of the top pollsters in Poland. But on May 10, Duda, with 34.76% to 33.77% of total votes, beat Komoroski. In the second round of voting, May 24, Duda took the presidency, with 51.55% of the vote to Komoroski’s 48.45%.

In Poland, though, the real power lies in the parliament—and Law and Justice rode the coattails of Duda’s win to take that, too. On June 1, Law and Justice led the polls by 2%. By the end of the month, its lead grew to 11%—and it would hold all the way to the parliamentary elections in October. On Oct. 25, 2015, over 5.7 million people voted Law and Justice into power.

Conspiracy theorists all over the country claimed the apparent abrupt change of national heart was really just fraud—pollsters were in the pocket of Civic Platform government officials, and had lied to create the false impression that Law and Justice was so far behind that voting for their candidates was pointless. Others thought it was the other way around: the people lied to the pollsters.

Millward Brown was using a polling technique called Computer-Assisted Telephone Interview. Basically, the interviewer sits in front of a computer running a software application that auto-dials the potential interviewees. Then the interviewer reads a list of questions off their screen and marks the answers; the CATI software translates that to poll results on the fly. The problem, though, is those calls were made mostly during business hours, so, all those people would have had to pick up their phones and in the presence of their coworkers say loudly and clearly “I will vote for Law and Justice.”

Imagine the same thing happening in the US in October: “Yes, I plan to vote for Donald Trump,” your colleague from across the cubicle says over the din of clacking keyboards.

In the US, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton coined the term “deplorables” to describe the half of the Trump supporters she saw as “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it.” In Poland, liberals likewise bemoaned a group they called “Poland B,” the Law and Justice party crowd, who they saw as uneducated and rural, living barely above the threshold of poverty, struggling from one paycheck to another—in contrast with “Poland A,” living in big cities, drinking café lattes, and participating in the global exchange of culture and finance. Poland B was also deeply religious, xenophobic, homophobic, and racist. At least, that’s how the mainstream media depicted those people.

Of course, the actual people who were thinking of voting for the Law and Justice party didn’t want to be associated with that sort of company—and that’s why the CATI method was so disastrous for Millward Brown and other major pollsters. The media, for years, has said holding a particular set of political beliefs is something to be ashamed of, something that makes you an idiot. And so when it was time to talk to the pollsters, those who held those beliefs kept their mouths shut.

*  *  *

To understand the rise of Law and Justice, you need to know at least a little bit about Poland’s complicated relationship with communism. In early November, The New York Times Magazine ran a story headlined “The Party That Wants to Make Poland Great Again” by James Traub. Traub wrote, ”Law and Justice’s particular resentments, above all its virulent anti-communism in the absence of actual Communists, may be distinctly Polish.”

In 1989, Poland was at a crossroads. The Communist power structure was in decay, and the state was nearly bankrupt. Totalitarianism was dying,and  Solidarity, a broad anti-Communist social movement, was on the rise—they had enthusiasm, and the overwhelming support of the nation. But the Communist government still had some cards to play. They could still use the military against the people, like they’d done back in 1982 when they introduced martial law. Solidarity knew this would likely result in a bloodbath. So the parties made a deal.

At a meeting in Warsaw, the Solidarity party told the Communists that if they would agree to let go of political power—and allow for free elections, no censorship, free-market economy and true democracy—they would ensure members of the communist party would become owners or at least shareholders of the then state-owned companies that would have to be turned into private corporations. There were well over 12,000 such companies. The Communists said “deal,” and the Round Table Agreement was signed. Now, instead of driving junky, Russian-made Ladas, ex-communist bigwigs could tool around in Porsches paid for by salaries generated by the factories, ironworks, and other companies thriving under western-style democracy. Long live capitalism.

In June 1989, Adam Michnik, one of the architects of the Round Table Agreement, explained the rationale behind it in an interview for a Belgrade, Serbia-based weekly NIN. He said that Communists, as owners of or shareholders in all those corporations, would be personally interested in the success of the newborn democracy, rather than in its demise. The argument sounded quite reasonable at the time. But 27 years later, it’s become painfully clear that capitalism only made some rich: Poland’s GDP per capita has doubled since 1989, making the country the sixth-largest economy in the European Union—but 6.2 million people still live in relative poverty.

And so “Poland B” began to wonder why they fought so hard for a country where they now struggle to get a job at a post office, while leaders and bureaucrats of the former regime that deployed tanks to keep them in check back in the 80s were now driving Porsches and sipping Martinis.

And that’s exactly the sentiment Kaczynski tapped into. His message was simple: “This is not your fault. You’re not miserable because you lack merit—you’re miserable because you were betrayed, back then, in 1989. But that will no longer stand.”

His bottom line was this: Michink’s ideas might have appeared reasonable, but they had nothing to do with justice. The solution? Drain the Warsaw swamps and lock up the establishment. And the only response our liberal media could offer to his electorate was “see, even The New York Times says you are paranoid, there are no ‘actual Communists’—these are just successful businessmen. Get a job you angry, little people.”

Kaczynski took a lot of flak from Poland’s liberals, especially for being, apparently, so anti-European. But in practice, on numerous occasions he has stressed that the future of Poland lies in being deeply part of the EU. He has, as James Traub put it, told Brussels to “mind its own business”—but he wasn’t the first European leader to say so, and certainly won’t be the last one. So far, it’s been the UK that quit the Union, not Poland.

Complete ban on abortion? Given the opportunity, nearly all Law and Justice parliamentarians have voted against it. Locking up the establishment? Nobody has been locked up so far. World War III? Nukes and daisy-cutters aren’t flying outside of my window, and there are no signs it’s about to change anytime soon.

According to the European Commission’s forecasts, Poland’s GDP will grow 3.1% this year and 3.4% in 2017. Unemployment sits at 6.2% and is expected to fall to 5.6% next year. Law and Justice is certainly not making Poland “great again,” but it’s not making it bad either. For most, it’s just business as usual.

*  *  *

I agree with Traub that the same sociopolitical mechanism was behind Law and Justice in Poland, Brexit in the UK, and Donald Trump in the US.  But I disagree with Traub’s explanation. He traces it back to the 2007-08 financial crisis “which shook the faith of many working-class and middle-class voters in the wisdom of liberal elites.” I think it was about dignity.

In each case those “liberal elites” singled out some “deplorables,” and went on to shame, humiliate, and above all, talk down to them from a position of supposed moral, intellectual, and economical superiority—and failing to treat them with the respect you accord an equal or peer. That’s why Trump, in his victory speech, told his supporters they would be forgotten no longer. That’s why Kaczynski said that very same thing one year earlier in Poland.

This attitude of Polish liberals hasn’t changed a bit. They’re still talking about the supposed end of democracy, and the rise of xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism in Poland. Nobody denies there is anti-Semitism in Poland—but it’s been there since the WWII, has not been violent, and seems to actually be becoming more and more a thing of the past. Islamophobia, on the other hand, is rising and there have been instances of violence. That’s on par with what has happened across the EU, in response to terrorist attacks every few months and huge influx of Middle-Eastern refugees and immigrants. Neither phenomenon has much to do with the Law and Justice party taking power—in fact, party officials have explicitly condemned both.

Meanwhile, support for Law and Justice holds steadily at above 30%, making them the most popular political party in Poland. So here’s the most important reason why this attitude has to change—it doesn’t work anymore. If you want to get Trump elected for a second presidential term, just keep calling 61 million people “deplorable.”

There is a bright side, though. There’s really no need to fix the polls. Take a close look at what happened in Poland between our presidential and parliamentary elections last year: using the same methodology, our pollsters magically became totally accurate. Millward Brown predicted Law and Justice would win the majority in parliament with a 12% lead over Civic Platform. They were just 1.5% off the mark. “Deplorables” had won, and they didn’t need to lie anymore.