Polarization. Conspiracy theories. Attacks on the free press. An obsession with loyalty. Recent events in the United States follow a pattern Europeans know all too well.
.. Poland is now one of the most polarized societies in Europe, and we have found ourselves on opposite sides of a profound divide, one that runs through not only what used to be the Polish right but also the old Hungarian right, the Italian right, and, with some differences, the British right and the American right, too.
.. Some of my New Year’s Eve guests continued, as my husband and I did, to support the pro-European, pro-rule-of-law, pro-market center-right—remaining in political parties that aligned, more or less, with European Christian Democrats, with the liberal parties of Germany and the Netherlands, and with the Republican Party of John McCain. Some now consider themselves center-left. But others wound up in a different place, supporting a nativist party called Law and Justice—a party that has moved dramatically away from the positions it held when it first briefly ran the government
.. Since then, Law and Justice has embraced a new set of ideas, not just xenophobic and deeply suspicious of the rest of Europe but also openly authoritarian. 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—the journalists, writers, and thinkers, including some of my party guests, who believe anti-Polish forces seek to blame Poland for Auschwitz.
.. he described how, one by one, they were drawn to fascist ideology, like a flock of moths to an inescapable flame. He recounted the arrogance and confidence they acquired as they moved away from identifying themselves as Europeans—admirers of Proust, travelers to Paris—and instead began to call themselves blood-and-soil Romanians. He listened as they veered into conspiratorial thinking or became casually cruel. People he had known for years insulted him to his face and then acted as if nothing had happened
.. This is not 1937. Nevertheless, a parallel transformation is taking place in my own time, in the Europe that I inhabit and in Poland, a country whose citizenship I have acquired. And it is taking place without the excuse of an economic crisis of the kind Europe suffered in the 1930s. Poland’s economy has been the most consistently successful in Europe over the past quarter century. Even after the global financial collapse in 2008, the country saw no recession. What’s more, the refugee wave that has hit other European countries has not been felt here at all. There are no migrant camps, and there is no Islamist terrorism, or terrorism of any kind.More important, though the people I am writing about here, the nativist ideologues, are perhaps not all as successful as they would like to be (about which more in a minute), they are not poor and rural, they are not in any sense victims of the political transition, and they are not an impoverished underclass. On the contrary, they are educated, they speak foreign languages, and they travel abroad—just like Sebastian’s friends in the 1930s... What has caused this transformation? Were some of our friends always closet authoritarians? Or have the people with whom we clinked glasses in the first minutes of the new millennium somehow changed over the subsequent two decades? My answer is a complicated one, because I think the explanation is universal. Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all societies eventually will.
..Dreyfus was not a spy. To prove the unprovable, the anti-Dreyfusards had to disparage evidence, law, and even rational thought. Science itself was suspect, both because it was modern and universal and because it came into conflict with the emotional cult of ancestry and place. “In every scientific work,” wrote one anti-Dreyfusard, there is something “precarious” and “contingent.”
The Dreyfusards, meanwhile, argued that some principles are higher than national honor, and that it mattered whether Dreyfus was guilty or not. Above all, they argued, the French state had an obligation to treat all citizens equally, whatever their religion. They too were patriots, but of a different sort. They conceived of the nation not as an ethnic clan but as the embodiment of a set of ideals: justice, honesty, the neutrality of the courts.
.. Lenin’s one-party state was based on different values. It overthrew the aristocratic order. But it did not put a competitive model in place. The Bolshevik one-party state was not merely undemocratic; it was also anticompetitive and antimeritocratic. Places in universities, civil-service jobs, and roles in government and industry did not go to the most industrious or the most capable. Instead, they went to the most loyal. People advanced because they were willing to conform to the rules of party membership.
.. Above all, they favored people who loudly professed belief in the creed, who attended party meetings, who participated in public displays of enthusiasm. Unlike an ordinary oligarchy, the one-party state allows for upward mobility: True believers can advance. As Hannah Arendt wrote back in the 1940s, the worst kind of one-party state “invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”
.. Lenin’s one-party system also reflected his disdain for the idea of a neutral state, of apolitical civil servants and an objective media. He wrote that freedom of the press “is a deception.” He mocked freedom of assembly as a “hollow phrase.” As for parliamentary democracy itself, that was no more than “a machine for the suppression of the working class.” In the Bolshevik imagination, the press could be free, and public institutions could be fair, only once they were controlled by the working class—via the party.
.. This mockery of the competitive institutions of “bourgeois democracy” and capitalism has long had a right-wing version, too. Hitler’s Germany is the example usually given. But there are many others. Apartheid South Africa was a de facto one-party state that corrupted its press and its judiciary to eliminate blacks from political life and promote the interests of Afrikaners, white South Africans descended mainly from Dutch settlers, who were not succeeding in the capitalist economy created by the British empire.
.. In Europe, two such illiberal parties are now in power: Law and Justice, in Poland, and Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, in Hungary. Others, in Austria and Italy, are part of government coalitions or enjoy wide support. These parties tolerate the existence of political opponents. But they use every means possible, legal and illegal, to reduce their opponents’ ability to function and to curtail competition in politics and economics. They dislike foreign investment and criticize privatization, unless it is designed to benefit their supporters. They undermine meritocracy. Like Donald Trump, they mock the notions of neutrality and professionalism, whether in journalists or civil servants.
.. Notably, one of the Law and Justice government’s first acts, in early 2016, was to change the civil-service law, making it easier to fire professionals and hire party hacks. The Polish foreign service also wants to drop its requirement that diplomats know two foreign languages, a bar that was too high for favored candidates to meet.*
.. You can call this sort of thing by many names: nepotism, state capture. But if you so choose, you can also describe it in positive terms: It represents the end of the hateful notions of meritocracy and competition, principles that, by definition, never benefited the less successful. A rigged and uncompetitive system sounds bad if you want to live in a society run by the talented. But if that isn’t your primary interest, then what’s wrong with it?
.. Why should different parties be allowed to compete on an even playing field if only one of them has the moral right to form the government? Why should businesses be allowed to compete in a free market if only some of them are loyal to the party and therefore deserving of wealth?
.. the rules of competition are flawed because the reforms of the 1990s were unfair. Specifically, they allowed too many former Communists to recycle their political power into economic power.
.. in late 1990, Wałęsa ran for president and won, by galvanizing people who already resented the compromises that had accompanied the negotiated collapse of Communism in Poland (the decision not to jail or punish former Communists, for example). The experience made Jarosław realize that he didn’t like politics, especially not the politics of resentment: “I saw what doing politics was really about … awful intrigues, searching for dirt, smear campaigns.” That was also his first encounter with Kaczyński, “a master of that. In his political thinking, there is no such thing as an accident … If something happened, it was the machination of an outsider. Conspiracy is his favorite word.”
.. A friend of both brothers told me she didn’t think Jacek had any real political philosophy at all. “Is he a conservative? I don’t think so, at least not in the strict definition of conservatism. He’s a person who wants to be on top.” And from the late 1980s onward, that was where he aimed to be.
.. Asked about this invention, Jacek reportedly told a small group of journalists that of course it wasn’t true, but “Ciemny lud to kupi”—which, roughly translated, means “The ignorant peasants will buy it.” Borusewicz describes him as “without scruples.”
.. Under Law and Justice, state television doesn’t just produce regime propaganda; it celebrates the fact that it is doing so. It doesn’t just twist and contort information; it glories in deceit.
.. Jacek—deprived of respect for so many years—is finally having his revenge. He is right where he thinks he should be: at the center of attention, the radical throwing figurative Molotov cocktails into the crowd. The illiberal one-party state suits him perfectly. And if Communism isn’t really available anymore as a genuine enemy for him and his colleagues to fight, then new enemies will have to be found... the polarizing political movements of 21st-century Europe demand much less of their adherents. They don’t require belief in a full-blown ideology, and thus they don’t require violence or terror police. They don’t force people to believe that black is white, war is peace, and state farms have achieved 1,000 percent of their planned production. Most of them don’t deploy propaganda that conflicts with everyday reality. And yet all of them depend, if not on a Big Lie, then on what the historian Timothy Snyder once told me should be called the Medium-Size Lie, or perhaps a clutch of Medium-Size Lies. To put it differently, all of them encourage their followers to engage, at least part of the time, with an alternative reality... In Hungary, the lie is unoriginal: It is the belief, shared by the Russian government and the American alt-right, in the superhuman powers of George Soros, the Hungarian Jewish billionaire who is supposedly plotting to bring down the nation through the deliberate importation of migrants, even though no such migrants exist in Hungary... In Poland, at least the lie is sui generis. It is the Smolensk conspiracy theory: the belief that a nefarious plot brought down the president’s plane in April 2010. The story has special force in Poland because the crash had eerie historical echoes. The president who died, Lech Kaczyński, was on his way to an event commemorating the massacre in Katyn, the place where Stalin murdered more than 21,000 Poles—a big chunk of the country’s elite—in 1940. Dozens of senior military figures and politicians were also on board, many of them friends of mine. My husband reckons that he knew everybody on the plane, including the flight attendants... The truth, as it began to emerge, was not comforting to the Law and Justice Party or to its leader, the dead president’s twin brother. The plane had taken off late; the president was likely in a hurry to land, because he wanted to use the trip to launch his reelection campaign. There was thick fog in Smolensk, which did not have a real airport, just a landing strip in the forest; the pilots considered diverting the plane, which would have meant a drive of several hours to the ceremony. After the president had a brief phone call with his brother, his advisers apparently pressed the pilots to land. Some of them, against protocol, walked in and out of the cockpit during the flight. Also against protocol, the chief of the air force came and sat beside the pilots. “Zmieścisz się śmiało”—“You’ll make it, be bold,” he said. Seconds later, the plane collided with the tops of some birch trees, rolled over, and hit the ground... Perhaps, like so many people who rely on conspiracy theories to make sense of random tragedies, Kaczyński simply couldn’t accept that his beloved brother had died pointlessly; perhaps he could not accept the even more difficult fact that the evidence suggested Lech and his team had pressured the pilots to land, thus causing the crash. Or perhaps, like Donald Trump, he saw how a conspiracy theory could help him attain power.Much as Trump used birtherism and the fabricated threat of immigrant crime to motivate his core supporters, Kaczyński has used the Smolensk tragedy to galvanize his followers, and convince them not to trust the government or the media. Sometimes he has implied that the Russian government downed the plane. At other times, he has blamed the former ruling party, now the largest opposition party, for his brother’s death: “You destroyed him, you murdered him, you are scum!” he once shouted in parliament.
.. Although the Macierewicz commission has never produced a credible alternate explanation for the crash, the Smolensk lie laid the moral groundwork for other lies. Those who could accept this elaborate theory, with no evidence whatsoever, could accept anything. They could accept, for example, the broken promise not to put Macierewicz in the government. They could accept—even though Law and Justice is supposedly a “patriotic” and anti-Russian party—Macierewicz’s decisions to fire many of the country’s highest military commanders, to cancel weapons contracts, to promote people with odd Russian links, to raid a natofacility in Warsaw in the middle of the night. The lie also gave the foot soldiers of the far right an ideological basis for tolerating other offenses. Whatever mistakes the party might make, whatever laws it might break, at least the “truth” about Smolensk would finally be told.
.. The Smolensk conspiracy theory, like the Hungarian migration conspiracy theory, served another purpose: For a younger generation that no longer remembered Communism, and a society where former Communists had largely disappeared from politics, it offered a new reason to distrust the politicians, businesspeople, and intellectuals who had emerged from the struggles of the 1990s and now led the country. More to the point, it offered a means of defining a new and better elite. There was no need for competition, or for exams, or for a résumé bristling with achievements. Anyone who professes belief in the Smolensk lie is by definition a true patriot—and, incidentally, might well qualify for a government job.
.. The emotional appeal of a conspiracy theory is in its simplicity. It explains away complex phenomena, accounts for chance and accidents, offers the believer the satisfying sense of having special, privileged access to the truth. But—once again—separating the appeal of conspiracy from the ways it affects the careers of those who promote it is very difficult. For those who become the one-party state’s gatekeepers, for those who repeat and promote the official conspiracy theories, acceptance of these simple explanations also brings another reward: power.