We've seen this before: Donald Trump visits a foreign country, blesses its autocratic rulers, then a few weeks later those same rulers pull something obviously authoritarian. In the case of Saudi Arabia, it was the tacit go-ahead to ostracize Qatar while giving Riyadh a pass on Sunni Wahhabist extremism. Now it's happening in Europe, where in the wake of Trump's visit ahead of the G20 summit earlier this month, Poland's ruling party has now shifted to take over that country's Supreme Court.
Imagine a government deciding one day that the country’s supreme court is corrupt and needs to be purged completely. A bill is introduced that will force all of the court’s judges to retire and be replaced—and it is pushed through with lightning speed and without regard for procedures. Unthinkable? Yet this is exactly what is happening here in Poland, until recently considered one of the biggest success stories of democratic transition in Eastern Europe.
This month the government’s most authoritarian tendencies were encouraged by the July 6 visit of U.S. President Donald Trump, and now a different sort of transition is underway—to what some call a “hybrid dictatorship.”
For anyone who values the checks and balances essential to democracy wherever it exists, the events of the last few days present a frightening precedent.
Shortly after Trump’s visit, which served as a ringing endorsement of the current illiberal government, the country is facing the most serious political crisis since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.
The tensions between the government and the opposition have turned to unprecedented open hostility and threats; chaos and confusion reign in the parliament; and fears are widespread that the fate of Polish democracy itself may well hang in the balance.
The crisis started coming to a head last week when, emboldened by Trump’s visit and taking advantage of the summer holiday season, the populist government of the Law and Justice (PiS) party pushed through a reform of the judicial system and of the National Council of Judiciary (KRS), a body charged with nominating and promoting judges.
The amendment, widely considered unconstitutional and yet to be signed by president Andrzej Duda (also PiS), would give the government virtually unrestrained control over the body—and therefore much of the judicial system.
That wasn’t all, however.
That same day a new, even more shocking law was introduced. Ostensibly aimed to eliminate corruption and the remnants of the old communist system from the judiciary, the bill amounts to a total purge of all 83 judges in the country’s supreme court, giving the minister of justice, Zbigniew Ziobro, a virtually free rein in appointing their successors.
And you can thank Trump directly for this. After all, we did much the same thing here when Mitch McConnell and the GOP stole a Supreme Court nomination and nobody so much as batted an eye. If America can do it, so can Poland. After all, it's not like we're going to punish them.
Besides, it's what Putin wants. And Trump makes sure Putin gets it.