Can Europe Make It?

Democracy will not pacify Trump. He is democracy.

Polish sociologist Slawomir Sierakowski discusses the "Trumpification" of Europe and what the US election means for Russia, the Baltic States and Poland.

Maciej Stasiński Slawomir Sierakowski
15 November 2016

A series of Trump books in a Moscow bookstore. PAimages/Alexander Zemlianichenko. All rights reserved.

Maciej Stasiński (Gazeta Wyborcza): During the interview for “Gazeta Wyborcza” in July you said: 'I am certain of Trump’s victory just as I have been certain of Brexit'. Others did not believe you, but it turns out that you were right. What’s next?

Sławomir Sierakowski: Brexit and Trump mean a farewell to liberal democracy as the canon of western politics. Since there is no model to turn to, can we expect that Poland will buck global trends and restore liberal democracy? Trump’s election means that the US will be governed by the same kind of lunatics as Poland.

Trump is an oligarch, worse even than Russian oligarchs. The latter are calculating, they are realists, you know what they want and it’s possible to make a deal with them. Trump is a poorly behaved child with nuclear matches, an unpredictable madman. There is not one person on earth who knows what Trump wants. He himself doesn’t know. But he is overly ambitious, and he will want to show off. This type of government is disliked by global geopolitics and the economy, for which predictability is of paramount importance. And Poland has only the current geopolitical situation to thank for its independence and democracy.

MS: Why has this happened?

SS: Since American elites did not want to share their prosperity with the downwardly mobile masses, the pissed off masses brought Donald Trump to Washington. Since the west did not take care to share its wealth, the division of wealth will be carried out in wild fashion, through some kind of catastrophe precipitated by the populists.

Hillary Clinton had no right to win this election. For at least 15 years, the income of the average American family has been falling, while the incomes of a narrow elite have been invariably rising. Everyone is glad that unemployment is falling, but at the same time participation in the labor market is also falling, which means that the unemployed do not believe that they can find work, and so they disappear from the statistics.

This election was not a popularity contest for politicians; it was yet another plebiscite on liberal democracy. Those who have suffered economically have renounced the liberal democratic pact. Philosophers and economists have been harping on this fact for ten years. Krytyka Polityczna alone has published some hundred books on this subject.

Mainstream politicians have ceased to be credible when they claim that they will improve the lot of average Americans. So when Trump comes in from outside and says that he will do what he will do, why shouldn’t we believe him? He is like an avenger of the wronged who will punish Washington politicians. He has already punished them symbolically. They are humiliated, just as the impoverished masses have been humiliated. 

MS: What effect will this have in Europe?

SS: The catastrophe is not Trump’s electoral victory in and of itself. The catastrophe will come later. In some sense Trump is right when he says that America should turn inward. It is no longer capable of being a superpower. That’s why Trump wants to get along with Putin, negotiate with China. The United States will share power with other strong countries.

We will have something like the Congress of Vienna or the Concert of Powers. Europe will do the worst out of this because it is fractured and conflicted. The United States itself will benefit from such a system, because it will come to the table as the strongest player. But it will no longer act in the name of the world, just in its own. It will no longer defend democracy internationally. It will concern itself with its own well-being.

This election was not a popularity contest for politicians; it was yet another plebiscite on liberal democracy.

For us this is a disaster. We will pay for it, because it is always the west’s peripheries that pay for the west’s mistakes. Poland will do worse than Hungary, because Orban is playing a game diametrically opposed to ours. He is playing for a change in Hungary’s borders, so hated domestically, and therefore for the destabilization of the region. He wants to rebuild Greater Hungary, diminished by the loss of Transylvania, Transcarpathia, etc. A rapprochement with Putin is profitable for him. 

Poland, on the other hand, only stands to lose as the result of regional destabilization. Only a complete idiot can bet on an alliance with Orban. We are governed by complete idiots like minister of foreign affairs Witold Waszczykowski and minister of defense Antoni Macierewicz. Because of them we are in no one’s camp. They pushed away Paris, Berlin, and Brussels. The west will not want us, but the east will. This is the essence of PiS patriotism. Out of sheer stupidity and hatred they are bringing down themselves and all of us for the glory of the motherland.

Poland will not be able to defend democracy on its own. A Trump presidency can result in 20 years of Kaczyński for us. The only effective pressure on Kaczyński to observe the rules of liberal democracy will disappear, and the world will descend into an auction of nationalisms.

MS: It wouldn’t have been effective anyway, just as EU objections are not effective. The most important thing is domestic resistance: the defense of democracy, the rise of women. Opposition to removing us from Europe, to which Poles want to belong. And with time, protest against the economic crisis that awaits us.

SS: Attachment to Europe? The Europe that we joined no longer exists. It’s coming apart and “Trumpifying.” And if we face an economic decline, the protests of the opposition might be drowned out by the rise of nationalist sentiments. Already this year, according to statistics from the prosecutor’s office, hate crimes have increased by 13 percent; NGOs cite a higher rate. We are capable of worse populism than that represented by PiS. Kaczyński is leading us towards catastrophe.

But when that catastrophe comes, how do we know whom Poles will choose? I assure you that there are people far worse than PiS. Poles are not genetically predisposed towards liberal democracy. We are mobilized and fighting, but let’s not delude ourselves that the west will do it for us or that only one side has the proper strategy.

When KOD [Committee for the Defence of Democracy] is discredited for “neoliberalism” or some mistake or other, and the party Razem for leftism and sectarianism, then the opposition will turn itself into an object of ridicule. The proliferation of internal divisions in Poland in the current situation is political stupidity that only helps the government. 

MS: After Trump’s election in the US, if I were in Putin’s place I would check whether the descendants of Latvian or Estonian SS units are killing Russian peasants and seek to look out for the oppressed Russian minority in those countries. Boris Yeltsin wanted to defend them, but in the end he did not pursue such a policy. Will Putin remember?

SS: Why shouldn’t Putin test the west now? He’s done it before.

After all, what is it that he wants? Does he want progress and economic development in Russia? Not at all. He’s taken Russia backwards, and his economy is like that of Nigeria, based on the export of raw materials. Does Putin want to join the west as an area of democracy and freedom? No. He has his own “sovereign democracy.”

So what’s left? Strength and territory. That’s what Russia has always wanted. And Russia boasts the largest territory of any country in the world, even though two thirds of it is completely unnecessary.

MS: Will Russia put the west to a “hard” test or a “soft” one? Maybe it will send little green men to Estonia and see how Trump treats Article Five of the NATO treaty?

SS: A way around Article Five has already been engineered. Russia just has to act below the reaction threshold defined by NATO, so that no one knows how to invoke Article Five. In the United States, only Congress can declare war. That’s why Article Five is worded the way it is—softly. Article Five does not mean a common declaration of war by NATO countries against the aggressor. It only means a common reaction. And that can be a diplomatic note or a committee, sent to submit a report after a month.

For Russia, it’s sufficient to destabilize Europe through Estonia or Latvia. Russians are already present in those countries. An easy pretext is supplied by the fact that Russians’ civil rights are infringed upon in Latvia, and their language and culture are discriminated against. Trump will want to reach some kind of agreement.

As for the EU, it has no army, and its members have been disarming themselves over the past few decades. Now there will be several thousand soldiers on NATO’s eastern border. On the other side of that border, meanwhile, you have several hundred thousand troops with incomparable weapons. Perhaps Macierewicz will want to move on Russia, but the west will surely conclude that it’s better to negotiate.

The west will not want us, but the east will.

This even favors the increasingly obvious idea of a two-track Union. Western Europe will jettison what is increasingly a burden for it onto us and others who don’t want refugees or integration. And Russia will expand its sphere of influence. I don’t know what that will look like. But the de facto rather than de jure withdrawal of western Europe and NATO from our region is entirely possible.

That could be followed by some kind of energy, economic, and diplomatic integration with Russia. This concerns the Baltic States first and foremost, as they are approaching the situation Ukraine was in some time ago. In Estonia the most recent elections were won by a pro-Russian party, which is about to enter the ruling coalition. Then it will be our turn. And probably not just ours, because others have already embraced Putin, or they have no other alternative and won’t look for one. 

MS: But Trump promised that he will make America great again. How can America be great if it is to withdraw from the world and focus on itself?

SS: Isolationism and the slogan “Make America Great Again” are contradictory, but only at a superficial level. America can be a great power in terms of its own prosperity. It will still be the largest producer of technology, mass culture, energy; it will remain a young and demographically healthy country.

What America missed most was the comfort of looking after itself. Trump sensed that. This kind of America will be liked rather than hated by the rest of the world, because it won’t meddle anywhere. Is that insignificant? No other country can boast of such a status.

MS: A billionaire swindler will give average impoverished Americans a sense of prosperity and national greatness? Clinton or Sanders, maybe, but Trump can’t do that.

SS: Clinton could have done it. But elections are not about who is right, but about who is credible. Those are two different things. It’s clear that Trump’s voters will be his first victims. That’s always the case. Up until now they’ve been punished with pauperization in the neoliberal economy, and now they will be punished again by a populist leadership that will inevitably disappoint them.

MS: Optimists hope that Trump the demagogue and destroyer will be contained by the strength of American institutional democracy.

SS: Yes, I’ve already heard voices claiming that he will be tamed by checks and balances, institutions, reasons of state, the generals. People said the same thing about Duda and Kaczyński. And how did that turn out? They immediately renounced liberal democracy. Orban has changed the Hungarian constitution more than 600 times. Kaczyński is constantly breaking Poland’s constitution. Nothing has stopped them.

With Trump it will be the same. He can carry out the same kind of destruction. How is democracy supposed to stop him, when it’s democracy that chose him? At the same time it’s no longer clear what liberal democracy is and why it’s supposed to be so cool, since for so many people it hasn’t worked out that well. It’s a delusion to think that Trump wont do any damage. The average mayor in Poland is five times better and more reasonable than Donald Trump.

I’ve already heard naïve voices claiming that the world won’t collapse. The president elect delivered such a nice speech. The markets calmed down. Maybe it won’t be so bad. But it will be. Will Trump get lost in the maze of Washington? Will he choose a competent cabinet?

The Europe that we joined no longer exists. It’s coming apart and “Trumpifying.” 

Kaczyński also could have chosen reasonable ministers, but he picked those who were most unhinged. Trump will not recant and he won’t be tamed. The Republicans will toe the line after being trained for so many years in opportunism. Democracy will not pacify Trump. He is democracy.

MS: Then perhaps there will be a beneficial reaction, at least in Europe? Maybe France and Germany will try to rebuild the EU?

SS: But what was the west’s reaction to Brexit? Was it decisive? A fiscal pact? Did Germany share its wealth with the poorer south? The reaction to Brexit has been lethargic. Europe is not saving itself.

MS: We can already see a nationalist internationale heartened by Trump: from Orban to Le Pen. But isn’t a nationalist internationale a contradiction in terms? Nationalisms have to clash. PiS’s Polish nationalism has already clashed in Great Britain with the British dissatisfaction with immigration.

SS: Indeed, that contradiction is called war. Egotism and nationalism are on the rise. We will have a return to protectionism, which will have devastating effects, because you can’t solve anything by moving backwards. There will be no free trade agreement between the United States and the EU. NAFTA will probably collapse. But no sensible alliance will arise.

The fact that we are not solving the refugee problem is a ticking time bomb. We are surrounded by several hundred million hungry people. The west does not want to share with them, it wants to close itself off. The reaction of those hungry people will be much like the reaction of Trump’s supporters—they will seek revenge.

Because we have not had an effective fight against inequality or reasonable regulation of the global economy, those changes will come about “wildly,” as the result of some kind of disaster. That’s how it always is in the west.

A Trump presidency guarantees the safety of all local populists. The only effective pressure on Kaczyński to observe the rules of liberal democracy will disappear. The point of reference has disappeared. We are left alone with Kaczyński. Things have never gotten better in Poland when they were getting worse in the west.

Originally published at Gazeta Wyborcza

Translated from Polish by Maria Blackwood

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