The US Elections through a Polish Mirror

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The US Elections through a Polish Mirror

After arguing for years that we should stop treating Poland as an exotic, “backward” corner of Europe, I may have finally found something that is truly unique about that country: Poland may be the only place in the world where people have a higher opinion of Donald Trump today than they had in 2016.

A survey just released today by the Centrum Badania Opnii Społecznej (CBOS, which goes by the name “Public Opinion Research Center” in English) revealed who Poles considered the best candidate for the US presidency, from the point of view of Polish interests. 41% chose Donald Trump, and only 15% picked Joe Biden. Another 15% said that either would be fine, and 29% did not know.

Contrast that with a survey carried out four years ago, in which 57% of Poles polled (eventually I was going to use that phrase) supported Hillary Clinton, and only 6% (!) supported Trump. Another 14% thought either would be the same, and 23% didn’t have an opinion. Where else in the world has Trump’s approval rating increased by 35% over the past four years?

A couple interpretations of this bizarre data come to mind. First, it might reflect a Machiavellian assessment in which the key phrase is “from the point of view of Polish interests.” As long as the far-right Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) governs Poland, having an ideological ally in Washington will help the country, unless you define “help” as “help save us from PiS.” It is doubtful that Poland would be discussed much in a Biden White House, given the monstrous domestic challenges the administration would face upon taking office. However, US relations with the EU would improve dramatically and relations with Russia would sour. Despite the ostensible anti-Russian stance of PiS, an American turn against Putinesque authoritarianism would inevitably sweep up Turkey, Hungary, and Poland. If even the Trump-appointed US ambassador was willing to publicly attack the PiS government’s homophobic bigotry, one can only imagine that criticism from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (or at least al. Ujazdowskie 29/31 in Warsaw, where the US Embassy is located) would intensify. The past four years of fraternal right-wing warmth between Washington and Warsaw would fall into a deep chill, akin to Poland’s dismal relations with Brussels.

An opponent of PiS in Poland might cheer such a development, but that is a risky attitude. A Biden administration might put pressure on Poland that would constrain some of ambitions of PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński (particularly regarding his campaign against the independent media, given that the opposition television channel TVN is owned by an American corporation). But I doubt the State Department would take any initiatives against PiS—that’s a job for the EU. Meanwhile, official propaganda in Poland could stoke hostility against yet one more enemy. This idea is not as improbable as it might seem: thirty years ago, Americans were more beloved in Poland than just about anywhere else, but despite an uptick recently, we’ve been finding less and less affection along the Vistula. It would not be difficult to revise the tirades against the Western decadence of the EU to include the US as well. I’m sure Mr. Putin would be happy to stoke those fires, should the occasion arise.

Another interpretation of the strange contrast between 2016 and 2020 might be a straight-forward case of ideological affinity. Four years ago the Polish press was depicting Donald Trump as a buffoon with no chance of winning the election; meanwhile, Hillary Clinton was relatively well known as Secretary of State, and the Clinton name had a lingering glow from those years of pro-American sentiment in the 1990s. Particularly after Trump’s visit to Warsaw in 2017, where he gave an address that could have been written by PiS speechwriters, he was adopted by the Polish far right as one of their own. If we consider that current support for PiS is almost identical to the support now given by Poles to Donald Trump, this makes sense.

As to Biden’s lack of popularity, that might be a result of simple unfamiliarity. Polish media coverage of the United States is certainly more comprehensive than American media coverage of Poland, but it would be unreasonable to expect that a US Vice President would be a household name. It is easy to imagine that a Bernie Sanders candidacy would have generated a lot of excitement, particularly on the Polish left. Though this has rarely been noted, Sanders would have been the first Polish-American president (his father was born in Słopnice in Małopolska, and emigrated from Poland in 1921). Biden, in comparison, is largely an unknown. So we might be dealing with ideological excitement on the right, combined with either apathy or a lack of knowledge among everyone else.

The one interpretation I need to debunk is that Poles, being so conservative, are prone to support Republicans. It is true that Ronald Reagan has a statue in Warsaw, and that Polish-Americans tend to vote Republic. There was a vague impression in Poland in the 1990s that the Republicans had been the “hawks” vis-à-vis the USSR, while the Democrats had been more “dovish.” This impression changed in the 21st century, particularly during the presidency of George W. Bush. He recruited Poland to support the American campaign in Iraq in exchange for a promise to lift visa restrictions for Poles. Not only did the Iraq campaign come to be viewed as a disastrous quagmire in Poland, but the visa rules were never changed. So prior to this year (again, according to a series of CBOS reports over the years), there has been a dramatic shift in the Polish attitudes towards US political parties.

It is certainly possible that 2020 will lead to a reversion to the patterns of the 1990s, but I can’t think of any reason why this would be the case. If I am correct that unfamiliarity is a key reason for the low score received by Joe Biden, we could expect a rapid shift in attitudes if he wins the election. Not a turn to an imbalance in the opposite direction, but more likely an alignment that would more closely mirror the ideological divides within Poland itself.  If it comes to pass that Poles view American politics through their own ideological prisms, this would actually be something new. I’ve repeatedly had conversations with Polish leftists who admire Ronald Reagan, and the stunning support for Clinton in 2016 shows that she was likely getting favorable ratings by people who voted for PiS.  Given an increasingly globalized politics, and increasing political polarization within Poland, I don’t anticipate such a disconnect to persist much longer. 

About Author

Brian Porter-Szucs

Brian Porter-Szucs is a Thurnau Professor of History at the University of Michigan, where he specializes in the history of Poland, Catholicism, and modern economic thought.