In his speech this year, written by his staunchly nationalist adviser Stephen Miller, Trump framed America’s new introversion as a function of just another country being great by being itself.
"The dreams that fill this hall today are as diverse as the people who have stood at this podium and as varied as the countries represented right here in this body are,” Trump said. “It really is something. It really is great, great history."
He praised India and Israel. He offered kind words for Saudi Arabia, “where King Salman and the crown prince are pursuing bold new reforms.” And he reserved a sweeping bit of praise for Poland.
"In Poland,” he said, “a great people are standing up for their independence, their security and their sovereignty."
This is an interesting way for a U.S. president to frame the changes in Poland’s politics. Another way those changes might be framed is as a slide toward autocracy.
In an essay for the Atlantic, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, whose husband used to serve in the Polish government, outlined the changes that have been seen in that country under the leadership of the Law and Justice party.
After the party won a slim parliamentary majority in 2015, its leaders violated the constitution by appointing new judges to the constitutional court. Later, it used a similarly unconstitutional playbook to attempt to pack the Polish Supreme Court. It took over the state public broadcaster, Telewizja Polska; fired popular presenters; and began running unabashed propaganda, sprinkled with easily disprovable lies, at taxpayers’ expense. The government earned international notoriety when it adopted a law curtailing public debate about the Holocaust. Although the law was eventually changed under American pressure, it enjoyed broad support by Law and Justice’s ideological base ... who believe anti-Polish forces seek to blame Poland for Auschwitz.
Those moves have been decried repeatedly, including by The Post’s editorial board last year. After Hungary’s Viktor Orban led that country down a path toward increased autocracy, the leader of the Law and Justice party offered his praise.
“You have given an example, and we are learning from your example,” Jaroslaw Kaczynski said.
Normally, a U.S. president would hold a country to task for moving away from democratic systems and personal freedoms. Instead, Trump presented Poland’s change as a positive, a country doing what it believed to be right. (Thousands of Poles protested changes to the country’s Supreme Court this year.)
“Many countries are pursuing their own unique visions,” Trump said after praising Poland, “building their own hopeful future and chasing their own wonderful dreams of destiny, of legacy and of a home.”
Why would Trump not only refrain from criticizing Poland but even offer praise for its shift? Certainly in part it's a function of the speechwriter. Miller's embrace of nationalism drives a substantial part of Trump's public commentary on the subject. At a speech in Poland in 2017, written in part by Miller, Trump praised Poland's opposition to Nazi and Soviet occupation as an example of how Western countries needed to stand up to terrorism — and immigration.
"The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive,” he said then. “Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?"
Trump’s praise for Poland’s “independence” was also apparently a jab at the European Union, of which Poland is a part. When Trump visited Poland last year, it was seen by the E.U. as an unwelcome endorsement of the shifts that had already occurred in that country’s politics. On Monday, the E.U. sued Poland for undercutting the independence of its courts. The next day, Trump praised the country’s sovereignty.
Part of the reason that Trump praised the changes in Poland is also that he regularly praises autocrats such as President Vladimir Putin of Russia and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (whom he praised Tuesday). He regularly praises “strong” leaders solely for their strength. The Post spoke with Amy Zegart, a director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, after Trump praised Kim’s leadership.
“What makes Trump’s comments so disturbing is that they reveal a president who believes in projecting American power but not American values — he believes in might but not right,” she said.
More to the point about Poland, Trump also has encouraged autocrats-in-the-making, such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After an attempted coup in his country in July 2016, Erdogan cracked down on dissent and pushed for revisions that solidified his power. When the country passed changes to the constitution to that effect shortly after Trump’s inauguration, the State Department criticized Turkey’s shift. Trump congratulated Erdogan on the vote.
Erdogan visited Trump at the White House in May 2017. After that meeting, Erdogan traveled to the Turkish ambassador’s house in Northwest Washington. Erdogan’s guards attacked demonstrators who’d gathered to protest his presence. Charges were filed against several of the bodyguards, but most of the charges were later dropped.
In front of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, Trump offered more abstract words of praise for a country that, like Erdogan’s Turkey, has moved away from the ideals that U.S. presidents have traditionally endorsed. There was a message that other budding autocrats might have taken away from Trump’s speech: If stepping away from democracy is your “own unique vision,” a move that allows you to stand up for your own sovereignty — have at it.