WARSAW—President Donald Trump arrives in Warsaw on Wednesday for his first visit to Poland as President. And while the Polish government is pulling out all the stops—dragooning “fans” from across the country and reportedly enlisting Catholic clergy to give Trump the kind of ecstatic welcome he craves—Trump’s visit inevitably will fan the flames of a highly polarized political and social environment here.
The kind of right-wing populism that Team Trump once thought would sweep through the European Union and tear it apart has been defeated at the polls in Austria, the Netherlands, and France over the last few months. But it remains strong, in power, and increasingly authoritarian here in the East.
Law and Justice (PiS), the country’s ruling party, reportedly used a December 2016 meeting with Trump’s cybersecurity advisor Rudy Giuliani to lobby for a visit from the new President. The follow through to actually get him to Warsaw is being touted as a huge PR win for the party, but the celebrations aren’t being felt throughout Poland’s parliament, the Sejm.
In what’s either a shocking oversight, or an effort to keep opposition leaders away, the leader of the left wing Nowoczesna (Modern) party, Ryszard Petru, told one of the country’s largest publications, Rzeczpospolita, that he only received an invite for Trump’s visit after receiving word from the U.S. embassy.
PiS came to power in 2015 and although their election campaign was relatively moderate and centrist, their political maneuvering since then has caused considerable political and societal chaos. Their actions have not only dismayed many within the country, but also outside partners, especially within the European Union, to which the country owes a large part of its modern success.
Poland entered the European Union in 2004 and the relationship has been widely regarded as very beneficial, but PiS and its supporters see the situation in a different light. While the statistics show that as a whole Poland has experienced rather astonishing economic growth during its time in the E.U., PiS’s support base, which largely stems from rural regions, believes that the E.U. has exploited Polish workers, caused a massive outflow of skilled Poles to the U.K., and sacrificed the interests of Polish businesses for those of German companies.
While this rhetoric shows no sign of slowing down, neither does Poland’s economy, posting the strongest growth of any country in central and eastern Europe in the first four months of 2017.
One of the drivers of that growth was a commitment to the European project, necessitating a focus on the rule of law, independent monetary policy, robust competition, free press, and democracy. However, the government's actions and words, spearheaded by its leader in all but title, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, have partners across the E.U., including Polish-born President of the E.U. Council Donald Tusk, worried that the PiS has thrown that commitment to the wind in favor of right-wing populism.
But one thing is for certain, their commitment to courting President Trump, who seems to align with many of their eurosceptic and anti-immigrant viewpoints, seems steadfast. So much so that, recently, one of the country’s top liberal publications, Gazeta Wyborcza, revealed that PiS had asked each of its members of parliament to invite 50 people to the president’s speech on Thursday in Krasinski Square, the site of the monument of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis.
The party is hoping the 300 PiS members can help rope together a crowd of several thousand to meet Trump in Warsaw. In order to bring in these fans from across the various Polish regions, the party will be financing free transportation for all willing participants. The PiS reportedly used its notorious influence with the Catholic Church as well to ask priests to encourage parishioners to make the trip.
One of PiS’s members of parliament, Grzegorz Puda, posted the request to his official Facebook page, indicating that the roughly 230-mile bus ride from his constituency is free but seats are limited. The move to pad numbers will likely be appreciated by the American president, who lashed out after media reports stated the actual size of his inauguration crowd was far smaller than he’d claimed.
The visit will come on the heels of a New York Times op-ed by Polish journalist, Bartosz T. Wielinski, which paints an ominous picture of the Polish government and has caused widespread vitriolic backlash amongst pro-PiS commentators on the country’s heavily controlled public broadcasters.
In the piece, Wielinski argues that “Poland began abandoning the path of democracy and the rule of law” after the PiS took power in late 2015, and specifically called out the country’s state-run media for producing “pure propaganda” that paints the opposition, as well as the European Union as a whole, in a negative light.
On Wednesday, Wielinski tweeted a clip showing how public broadcasters have responded to his op-ed. In it, on-air personalities are seen proclaiming Wielinski’s op-ed “black PR,” full of lies, unpatriotic and an attempt to undermine Poland. In one interview, the subjects refused to even state his name, claiming he simply was not worthy of it.
The battle Wielinski finds himself in is reminiscent of the American media environment, where those who report facts that run contrary to the narratives put out by the Trump administration are dismissed as liars or worse.
In a highly polarized country, on an increasingly polarized continent, Trump’s words, whatever they may be on Thursday, will no doubt carry significant weight. Given his track record, it seems unlikely that President Trump would shame the PiS for their actions, as President Barack Obama did in the summer of 2016. On the contrary, PiS officials expect the visit to be an endorsement of their domestic and European policies which clashed with Brussels and Berlin.
“It’s obvious to all observers. Everybody sees the visit in this way,” says Adam Bielan, a PiS senator and a right hand man of the country’s de facto ruler, party chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski. “The Germans, the Americans, even diplomats from Asia. The panicked articles in the German press just prove this.”
“Based on what we’ve heard so far,” said Bielan, “the speech is going to be everything we wanted. Trump will underscore the importance of Polish-American friendship, he is going to strengthen our historical narrative of Polish heroism during World War II, and issue a ringing endorsement of the Three Seas Initiative,” a conference among the eastern members of the E.U.
What Trump will actually say is anyone’s guess, but Michal Baranowski from the German Marshall Fund tells The Daily Beast that he believes the president’s address has been largely written by deputy national security adviser Dina Powell, who is seen as a moderate voice within the administration. Baranowski’s belief is that Powell was tasked with writing the speech in order to ensure that Trump doesn’t inflame already tense relations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel prior to his visit to Hamburg for the G20 summit later in the week.
“The National Security Council officials understand the risk of using the Warsaw speech to hit out against Germany,” says Baranowski. “Creating divisions within Europe would be bad for Poland, the alliance and good for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.” He adds however, that given Trump’s eccentricity nothing can be certain, as was evidenced by the debacle of the president’s NATO speech in Brussels.
Indeed, a new report has surfaced on the eve of the visit, suggesting that the speech will very much be what Merkel and others in the West have feared, and will draw the contrast between nationalist Poland and the globalist outlook of the Western European leaders. The architect of the alt-right version of the speech is reported to be Stephen Miller.
“If this happens, it may actually be worse than Brussels,” predicts Baranowski.
But, fresh off the bus, there will be quite a crowd to cheer him on.