LONDON – This week I’m supposed to be on vacation, taking in a half-dozen Shakespeare plays in an effort to escape the sturm und drang as President Donald Trump travels abroad to Poland and Germany.
But there was something so disturbing about Trump’s remarks at his first stop in Warsaw, Poland – especially as they came during the week of America’s Independence Day – that I can’t refrain from weighing in. His choice of words, and of Poland as the place to deliver them, lay bare the real threat facing U.S. democracy today.
First, note the symbolism of visiting Poland first before Germany, where Trump has a testy relationship with Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom some call the new leader of the free world. The conservative, religious, right-wing Polish government, on the other hand, has been tugging democratic Poland back toward a semi-authoritarian model that would subordinate the judiciary and the press.
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Second, take note of Trump’s speech in Warsaw’s old town square, the epicenter of the 1944 Polish uprising against the Nazis. “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive,” the president proclaimed, using his typically draconian language. “Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost?
But exactly what values was the president seeking to defend with his oration? It certainly was not the separation of powers or the freedom of the press that our Founding Fathers envisioned as the key to maintaining a democratic system. Not at all.
The threat that Trump was referring to was immigration: “Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders?” he went on. “Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”
In other words, the main danger to democracy, as far as the American president was concerned, is the hordes, presumably Muslim, that are threatening our civilization. And he was issuing this warning in a country that has taken in zero refugees.
What makes this speech so extraordinary is where the president chose to deliver it: in a country whose main power broker, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of the governing Law and Justice Party, has hobbled Poland’s constitutional court, defamed the men who led the 1980s fight for freedom from Moscow, and made public media into a government bullhorn.
No wonder Trump couldn’t resist launching into his interminable riff about fake media, and slamming CNN and NBC yet again, while standing next to a Polish president, Andrzej Duda, who has been accused of curbing press freedoms. “Do you have that also, Mr. President?” Trump asked. Duda nodded vigorously in agreement.
In other words, in the city where the Nazis crushed Polish resistance, in a country that struggled to free itself from Soviet communist domination, the U.S. president chose to denounce American media while his Polish counterpart concurred.
“The great objective of this government is to reorganize Poland into a Putin-like system,” the great Polish journalist Adam Michnik told The New York Times last year. He meant a government with democratic trappings that conceals an authoritarian system underneath. First Hungary, now Poland, seem headed in this direction.
True, the Polish government is a firm supporter of NATO, because it fears encroachment by its historic enemy, Russia, next door (even if Kaczynski and Duda are leaning towards a Kremlin-like governing system). And, in Warsaw, Trump paid lip service to NATO while taking a slap at Russia’s “destabilizing activity” in the region.
But standing by Duda, Trump still refused to squarely admit that Moscow had meddled in America’s elections. And we know that the U.S. president also admires Putin’s tough guy image. This doesn’t bode well for his meeting with the Russian president this week.
As a result, rather than burnishing the values of “our civilization” in Warsaw, Trump demonstrated how he is undermining those values from within, dumping on a free press in cahoots with a Polish leader who has undermined his own country’s democratic institutions.
Obviously, Trump is not familiar with the words of Thomas Jefferson: “The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”
The “fundamental question of our time” is not whether America keeps its borders closed but whether Americans will continue to cherish the institutions that the Founding Fathers bequeathed them. Especially when the leader of the free world doesn’t seem to grasp what those values are.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.