WARSAW — One the best days of Donald Trump’s nascent presidency unfolded 4,400 miles away from the White House, where he was greeted Thursday by party leaders whose nationalistic instincts mirror his own and a bused-in crowd of Poles whose chants of his name punctuated his lofty speech about patriotism and the clash of civilizations.
The last-minute trip was, in a way, Trump’s attempt to eat dessert before dinner. At the Warsaw Uprising Monument in the city’s Old Town on Thursday, Trump was greeted by American flags, chants of, “USA! USA!,” and banners reading, “Make Poland Great Again.” But his reception at the G-20 summit in Hamburg on Friday will likely be much chillier.
The US president and Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) share a distrust of international organisations and are wary of accepting refugees — two qualities that set them apart from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a staunch globalist with an open-door immigration policy who has been called the new leader of the free world.
Trump’s visit was meant to show Merkel, whom he met later Thursday, and other European leaders that have clashed with him on issues ranging from his controversial travel ban to his withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, that he has allies elsewhere. Poland’s minister of internal affairs, Mariusz Błaszczak, went as far as to compare Trump to Ronald Reagan.
But the Poles, who have been urging Trump to visit since November and went to enormous lengths to impress him, may have underestimated his transactional and capricious approach to virtually everything.
At a press conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda on Thursday morning, Trump said the 5,000 American troops currently stationed in Poland to ward off any aggression from Russia will stay, for now. But there was never “a discussion of guarantees” that they would remain there long-term, he said.
Later, at the Warsaw Uprising Monument in Old Town’s Krasiński Square, Trump laid a wreath at the landmark erected in honour of Poland’s resistance to the Nazis’ occupation during World War II. Supporters lined the streets carrying American flags and banners reading “Make Poland Great Again,” crowding bleachers and periodically booing Polish opposition figures. Trump spoke to them directly, loudly, and often.
“While we will always welcome new citizens who share our values and love our people, our borders will always be closed to terrorism and extremism of any kind,” Trump said to loud chants of, “Donald Trump! Donald Trump!”
“We are fighting hard against radical Islamic terrorism,” he continued, “and we will prevail.”
Visibly discouraged by Trump’s initial ambivalence toward keeping US troops stationed in Poland, Poles breathed a sigh of relief when he reiterated the US’s commitment to NATO’s
mutual defence clause known as Article 5. In typical Trump fashion, however, that too came with caveats.
“My administration has demanded that all members of NATO finally meet their full and fair financial obligations,” Trump said, reciting one of his favourite talking points.
“To those who would criticise our tough stance, I would point out that the United States has demonstrated not merely with words but with its actions that we stand firmly behind Article V, the mutual defence commitment,” he continued.
“Words are easy but actions are what matters. And for its own protection — and you know this, everybody knows this, everybody has to know this — Europe must do more. Europe must demonstrate that it believes in its future by investing its money to secure that future.”
Trump said Poland is “one of the NATO countries that has actually achieved the benchmark for investment in our common defence.” But he reiterated that, ultimately, the Poles’ will and national pride will determine the country’s success, no matter how much money they commit to the defence organisation.
The message was aimed at amplifying Poland’s national pride, delineating the limits of the globalist institutions he and his advisers so mistrust, and glorifying western civilisation “in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it” — including Russia, whose expansionism and “destabilizing activities” he denounced to wild applause.
“As the Polish experience reminds us, the defence of the West ultimately rests not only on means, but also on the will of its people to prevail and be successful and get what you have to have,” Trump said, citing “strong families” and “strong values” as some of the West’s defining characteristics. “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.”
Parts of the speech were a clear reflection of the Trump camp’s populist impulses — the president twice condemned the “steady creep of government bureaucracy” and cited it as an impediment to individual freedom that risks undermining western civilisation.
But there were hints of cognitive dissonance as he held up Poland, whose ruling party has sought to stifle free speech and control the media, as “an example for others who seek freedom.”
“We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression,” Trump said, hours after slamming CNN in his press conference with Duda as “fake news” and “dishonest.” He said NBC was “equally as bad,” prompting Duda to agree that Poland’s media shares similar “pathologies.”
Their remarks stood in stark contrast to President Barack Obama’s last year, when he used his visit to Warsaw to emphasise that a free press is “what makes us democracies.”
“Not just by the words written in constitutions or in the fact that we vote in elections,” he told Duda, “but the institutions we depend on every day — such as rule of law, independent judiciaries and a free press.”