Poland’s Leaders Are the Better Trumps

The Polish government has cracked the code for making nationalist populism a lasting economic and electoral success.

US President Donald Trump clenches his fist as he stands in front of the Warsaw Uprising Monument on Krasinski Square during the Three Seas Initiative Summit in Warsaw, Poland, July 6, 2017.
US President Donald Trump clenches his fist as he stands in front of the Warsaw Uprising Monument on Krasinski Square during the Three Seas Initiative Summit in Warsaw, Poland, July 6, 2017. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

If U.S. President Donald Trump is serious about wanting to advance a nationalistic, conservative agenda while maintaining broad popularity at home, he may come to regret cancelling his trip to Poland this week. He would have benefitted from the opportunity to closely observe the country’s Law and Justice government.

Since taking power in 2015, Law and Justice has fought a pitched battle with the liberal media, turning state TV into government propaganda; cracked down severely on women’s rights, threatening to ban abortion with virtually no exceptions; packed the courts, taking the teeth out of the Constitutional Tribunal; fought EU immigration agreements, keeping Muslim refugees out; and, recently, launched a frontal attack on gay rights, declaring “LGBT-free zones” in certain towns and regions it controls. Steve Bannon would be proud.

Yet despite these controversial policies—many of which are opposed by a majority of Poles—Law and Justice looks likely to win the next parliamentary elections on Oct. 13. It holds a large margin over its liberal rival, Civic Platform (40-45 percent versus 25-30 percent) in public opinion polls and could win an even larger victory than it won in 2015. Meanwhile, Trump has taken a less extreme conservative stance on many of these issues, but his political fortunes are uncertain. How did Law and Justice do it?

The lesson that Trump may be tempted to learn from Law and Justice is that a xenophobic, nationalist conservative party can win reelection, despite draconian policies that anger the population. But this is only part of the story. Law and Justice has taken a lot of risks pushing its conservative agenda in the face of public outcry. Its initiative to declare LGBT-free zones has been met with much anger and controversy in a country where public opinion polls show minority support for these discriminatory policies. Similarly, the government defied a majority with efforts to further restrict abortion by forcing women to carry unhealthy and malformed fetuses to term. Law and Justice’s party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, stated that this was desirable “so that the child can be baptized, buried, and have a name.” Millions of women disagreed and thousands came out on the streets, wielding black umbrellas, and forced the government to back down.

The Law and Justice government has also risked a backlash by going head to head with the European Union, which enjoys 90 percent support in Poland, over attempts to dismiss current judges and pack the courts with conservatives. European bodies sharply criticized Law and Justice’s reforms, calling them anti-democratic and antithetical to the rule of law and EU norms. Millions of Poles likewise protested the reforms and won some slight adjustments, but Law and Justice continued in the face of determined EU criticism.

Trump and his minions clearly see Law and Justice’s Poland as an inspiration. They are likely to draw the lesson that Poland’s conservative agenda is popular, that Poles are terrific nationalists and conservatives, and that if Trump could only wrest control from the liberal media, he would be popular, too.

But that is not the lesson of Law and Justice’s electoral success. The lesson is this: that Law and Justice has combined its unpopular conservative appeals with highly popular social democratic welfare policies that boost poor and average families. Law and Justice is a populist party that has done something for the people. This has allowed it to reach outside its traditional conservative voter base.

Law and Justice’s signature social program is called Family 500+. Launched in 2016, it provided Polish families with 500 zlotys per month, approximately $130 today, for having a second child—and each subsequent child. It sought to fight Poland’s super-low fertility rates by encouraging women to have more children. Rich and middle-income families are eligible for support. Poor families also get support for their first child. Each September, millions of Polish families apply and receive their monthly payments, which they use to purchase school supplies, take family vacations, and provide for family needs.

The program is wildly popular, particularly in poor and rural regions in Poland, where cash incomes are more scarce. It bolsters support for the government’s conservative, pro-family agenda. It also appeals to Poland’s socialist tradition. Most Poles opposed the reduction and elimination of communist-era social benefits and welcome a government that wishes to provide for people again.

Moreover, Law and Justice’s opponents badly misplayed their hand by coming out forcefully against the most popular new social program since 1989. Civic Platform liberals hate Family 500+. They see it as a return to the socialist policies of the past. They have warned that it would bankrupt the government, wreck the national economy, and lead women to drop out of the labor force and become wards of the state.

Yet none of these things has happened. Family 500+ not only drastically cut child poverty, but it also stimulated Poland’s economy by bolstering domestic demand. Nor have the country’s exports suffered. Under Law and Justice rule, Poland has continued to export heavily to Germany and other EU countries. Leading EU companies continue to use Poland as a low-cost production hub, taking advantage of cheap Polish (and now Ukrainian) labor to produce high-quality Audis and Hugo Boss products at a fraction of the cost, transporting them to the rest of Europe tariff-free along new highways built with EU money. Poland’s growth rate has accelerated from around 3 percent in 2015 to 5 percent today, more or less in keeping with its long-term trend since 1995.

The naysayers who predicted that Family 500+ and other expensive social reforms, such as reducing retirement ages, would bankrupt Poland were entirely wrong. Poland’s budget deficit has gone down since these policies were initiated, not up. The government made a point of this recently, when it announced plans to balance the government budget in 2020 for the first time in 30 years. The much-feared demobilization of female labor also failed to materialize in a strong economy. The main effect of the reforms has been that Polish families are living better—because of Law and Justice. In June, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki proposed to eliminate income taxes for people under the age of 26 to encourage them to stay in Poland rather than emigrate abroad, another bold policy that will win Law and Justice votes.

The right lesson to draw from Poland is that populists can win reelection when they enact bold policies that do something for average people. This would be a smart lesson for Trump and his team to learn, but it seems unlikely that they will. It may be too late in any case.

Trump has shown no intent or ability to benefit the median voter with his economic policies. His tax cut, the major reform of his presidency, vastly favored the rich and corporations, costing $1.5 trillion and creating trillion-dollar budget deficits as far as the eye can see. This makes it very difficult to initiate other bold reforms that would benefit the lower half of the income distribution, as his abandoned proposal for a payroll tax cut demonstrated.

Perhaps it’s just as well that Trump’s trip was cancelled. His White House seems inclined to learn exactly the wrong lessons from Law and Justice’s electoral success while overlooking its socialist secrets. Even if the Trump team did learn, the lessons would be almost impossible to implement, given the preferences of Trump’s own party.

Poland’s Law and Justice also had a steep learning curve. During its first term in power, from 2005 to 2007, it ran anti-communist witch hunts with such vigor that it targeted its own coalition partner and did not hold back until its government collapsed. It took a few years in the wilderness for Law and Justice to realize that the key to political success was to backpedal on some of the conspiracy theories and unpopular reforms, when needed, and concentrate on doing something positive for the people. Many people will forgive draconian conservative reforms if they feel the benefits of a caring state.

Mitchell A. Orenstein is a professor and chair of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is the author of The Lands in Between: Russia vs. the West and the New Politics of Hybrid War.