The eagle has landed, late in the evening and without much fanfare. Greeted on the tarmac of Frederick Chopin International Airport in Warsaw by only a few government officials and an abbreviated military guard of honour, Donald Trump and the First Lady were quickly whisked away in the official limousine nicknamed “The Beast” to start combating jet-lag before a full day of Thursday.
It’s uncertain how much Donald Trump knows about Poland and Poles, though no doubt in his almost seven decades on this planet he would have come across a large number of prominent and famous compatriots of Polish descent (without realising, as most people also don’t, of their Polish roots). Don will hopefully not take against Poland Mika Brzezinski’s heritage, but will instead consider Poland’s favourable genetic contribution towards legends like Tom Brady, Ronda Rousey, Stanley Kubrick, Liberace, Martha Stewart or Tim Pawlenty. Or, indeed, seeing the 4th of July just passed, he might recall the role that Kosciuszko and Pulaski played in the War of Independence.
It’s safe to say that of all European countries Trump might visit, he will most like what he sees in Poland.
Poland is one of those strange countries where for the past decade or so the left has disappeared as a significant electoral force, and the main political and ideological battle has been fought between two forces and faces of the centre right – the liberal (in the classical sense), pro-market Civic Platform and the conservative, statist, Catholic and nationalist Law and Justice party (at the risk of oversimplification, you could see them as the moderate Republicans and Trump Republicans respectively). After two terms of the Civic Platform, Law and Justice is now in government and it’s charting an international course that is more antagonistic towards both the European Union (which finds some of its new laws worryingly authoritarian and resents Poland’s refusal to take in any Middle Eastern refugees) and Russia (whom the party still blames for the 2010 Smolensk plane crash, which killed, among many others, Lech, the then president and twin brother of the party’s eminence grise and current chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski – no relation to Unabomber Ted or CNN’s Andrew).
The government is very much on the same wavelength as Trump – perhaps with the exception of Russia (then again, Trump doesn’t have to live next door) – but what about the people?
The Poles have traditionally been one of the most pro-American of Europeans, in large part through centuries of migration, which resulted in some 8 million Americans claiming Polish heritage and almost everyone in Poland having some, however distant, family across the Atlantic. Throughout the Cold War, the United States as the enemy of Soviet communism was seen by the majority of the population as the “good guy” in the struggle against the “evil empire”. But Poland has been let down by her allies far too often over the past hundred years to unreservedly trust anyone, particularly someone so far away from the cauldron of the Central Europe.
Ronald Reagan, not surprisingly, is fondly remembered as the statesman who helped lay the foundations for the return of independent and democratic Poland after 1989. Obama, by contrast, while generally well liked (though not nearly as much as elsewhere around the world) has been more of a disappointment, considering his lacklustre treatment of allies and his perceived weakness in foreign policy (including his decision not to include Poland in a missile shield, announced rather stupidly on 17 September, which happens to be the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939).
The centrist “Gazeta Wyborcza” (which, like the Civic Platform it generally supports, is Atlanticist but also pro-EU) proclaims in its editorial: “Today we welcome Donald Trump – the leader of the United States – without illusions or naive enthusiasm, but with hope”.
Which pretty much seems to sum up the general attitude.
While the Polish government shares Trump commitment to secure borders, and will no doubt find favour as one of the very few NATO allies who contributes more than 2 per cent of the GDP towards defence, it will no doubt try to press Trump on behalf of itself and its eastern and central European allies for a less ambivalent international stance by America. While the government understands the “[insert the name of your country] first” attitude, which it shares, it also knows that the United States is ultimately the last and the only hope to protect the “free world” against any rogues.
In exchange, Trump will get some nice photo-ops and footage of friendly crowds, which he doesn’t normally get outside his political rallies in the heartland. To make sure that happens, each Law and Justice parliamentarian is bussing 50 of their supporters to ensure a cheering audience that might drown out any protests, such as feminists who plan to dress up as characters from “Handmaid’s Tale” (yes, even in Poland).
The Poles are friendly, but more than a quarter of a century into the “normalcy” of democracy, like people elsewhere towards the Western world they are more interested in how the visit will affect traffic rather than any public displays of affection. Poland still remains a country with the most favourable view of the United States in Europe (at 74 per cent, and 82 per cent among young people), though confidence in Trump is not very high – if slightly higher than elsewhere. Trump is no Reagan, or even George Bush Sr.; large spontaneous crowds going wild with joy to see an American leader are a thing of the past.
Nevertheless, Trump will enjoy this brief and pleasant interlude before the tough business of G20 shenanigans. Welcome, Don; you’re safe from CNN around here.