Donald J. Trump started his European tour in Poland, a country whose politics bear a striking resemblance to his own. In November 2015, Polish voters ousted the centre-right ruling party, Civic Platform. Poland had experienced remarkable economic growth during Civic Platform’s near-decade in power. But parts of Poland felt left behind. Like the communities in the US that Trump’s campaign targeted, many Poles felt that conventional measures of Civic Platform’s success—GDP figures and global standing—glossed over the issues that affected their lives. Law and Justice, also known by its Polish acronym PiS, won the election and tainted Civic Platform as the out-of-touch party of the “establishment”.
PiS told a story about Poland much like Trump told a story about America. Poland was a “country in ruins”, betrayed and trampled on by foreign powers, its coal mines and industry collapsing under the weight of globalisation, its Christian heritage at risk from the creeping multiculturalism of the liberal west. To them, Poland, like Trump’s America, was a country whose greatness was trapped within a shell of modernity; somewhere beneath the alien “world of cyclists and vegetarians who push for renewable energy” was a world of traditional Polish values. Like Trump’s tired promise to “make America great again”, Poland’s ruling party promised a “good change”, a correcting of past wrongs that would unlock Poland’s potential.
PiS and Trump share a yearning for greatness and an insistence on victimhood. Maybe this is why PiS chose the memorial to the Warsaw Uprising as the venue for Trump’s address. The 1944 rebellion was an unmitigated disaster. On the orders of the Home Army operating from exile in London, Polish combatants waged a 63-day struggle against the Nazi occupation, while Soviet troops watched from the other side of the Vistula River. By many accounts, the Home Army believed the uprising would fail. When it did, the Nazis destroyed Warsaw and murdered a generation of its brightest minds.
The uprising was one of the most searing episodes in the dark years of Polish wartime history. But for the Polish right, it stands as a memory of a time of bravery and martyrdom, great Polish virtues that would have been rewarded but for the betrayals that sealed our defeat; the Allied forces stood by while Warsaw burned. (Trump’s speechwriter recognised as much, calling the Nazi occupation “trouble”, while celebrating Poland as “a land of great heroes”.) These dual nostalgias—for a bygone era of valour and for the privileges afforded by victimhood—have much in common with Trump’s vision of a great America that is also somehow the embattled victim of foreign power.
This idea—of simultaneously winning and losing—is so incoherent that it requires its proponents to play both friend and foe at once. Trump and PiS have taken steps to dismantle or discredit democratic institutions, including the judiciary and the free press—the greatest threats to their power. And both have been relentless in their scapegoating. The Germans are to PiS what the Chinese are to Trump. Poland’s border controls thwart Muslims carrying “parasites and protozoa”, while US Immigration and Customs Enforcement works to deport Mexican “drug dealers, criminals, rapists”. Both PiS and Trump empower bigotry while decrying the collapse of civility. They destroy in order to create. This is the only way they can become both saviour and martyr within the warped historical narrative that has been their tinder.
Trump’s speech—incidentally, about the threats facing the “West”—was broadcast on LED screens around the square surrounding the Warsaw Uprising memorial. Some people came to protest. Others came to cheer. Most just came, because that’s what we do when there are screens and other people stand around them. For the passive spectators, politics had become reality television and he had become its star. Trump has all the tools of power at his disposal—leading intelligence services, awesome weapons of war and an arsenal of economic power unprecedented in its might. But being seen is still his only real strength, and the passive consumers of Trump-as-brand remain its only real source. The Polish government reportedly promised him large crowds and then bussed in Trump supporters and party loyalists from around the country. For them, too, it was important to be seen.
If Trump’s visit to Poland was an orgy of ego, the rest of his Eurotrip was a pitiful denouement. At the G-20 summit in Hamburg, an international forum for leaders of 20 major economies, he was side lined from all-important discussions about climate change, while ally after ally rebuked him for his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. He failed to propose a concerted response to North Korea’s successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, which may have the capability to carry a nuclear warhead to the United States, and instead struck a conciliatory tone in bilateral meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the topic.
The wannabe-strongman was so humbled by the presence of an actual one (Trump had previously described Vladimir Putin as “strong” and “very smart!” and speculated whether he could become Trump’s “new best friend”) that, for the second time in two days, he went off script and shed his distrust for the man who allegedly hacked the American election. Trump announced that he and Vladimir Putin would launch a “Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things” will be prevented. The romance, in all likelihood unrequited, was short lived. Trump had to back down, as he does so often—reluctantly, we imagine, yielding to those who know better.
Trump walked away from the G-20 a diminished leader of a diminished world power. His only memento is a bizarre stream of zooming images that he posted on Twitter—an old man’s vacation reel broadcast for the world to see. From this brief getaway, we learn nothing that we didn’t already know. He is impotent at home and destructive for America’s standing globally. But we also see that there are those for whom Trump’s presence is a boon, not a stain: aspirants who see themselves as even weaker and more vulnerable than he is. And that might be the legacy of the man who once lived in a gilded penthouse. As he diminishes his nation’s standing, he empowers others who are caught in fragile pursuits of personal gain. He’ll visit them again and again because that is where the shallow sources of his power lie: in crowds, cheers and feudal adulation. I expect that we’ll be welcoming him to Poland again.
Lead photo by Shealah Craighead / The White House.