What does the election mean for Poland and Polish-Americans?

Last week the Polish news outlet Onet.pl did a long Q & A with me about the  US election, its relevance for Poland, and its relevance for Polish-Americans. A Polish-language excerpt of our conversation is up now on the website. This was an interesting interview, because I rarely get asked about Polish-American issues, and given the heated racial/ethnic rhetoric of this election — and Trump and Bill Clinton’s controversies regarding Poland and Polish-Americans — it was a good opportunity to write about things I can’t elsewhere. Here is the full transcript in the original English.

Ms Kędzior, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump probably will be the official candidates in the 2016 US presidential elections (after their parties’ conventions in July). Who would be a better US president for the United States’ interests in the 21st century – Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton?

Hillary Clinton is the better candidate, mostly because Donald Trump is the worst major party candidate of my lifetime. He is an open racist who has called for mass deportation, a US database of Muslims, indiscriminate bombings of foreign countries, and torture. He has no legislative experience and a history of corrupt business ventures and is being investigated for fraud. He is backed by white supremacist groups like the KKK, and his rhetoric has empowered them and led to physical attacks on non-white American citizens. A Trump presidency would be a disaster for the US.

That said, the one thing Trump does convey more compellingly than any other candidate is the dismal reality of the US economy. Our 4.7% unemployment rate hides the fact that most jobs created since 2008 have been low-wage, part-time jobs, and most Americans cannot pay their bills. Nearly half of Americans have less than $400 on hand. Americans are suffering and Trump taps into that suffering very effectively. If Clinton wants to win, she needs to better acknowledge the urgency of the US economic crisis. It’s not that she’s uninformed, but she does not know how to connect with voters in an emotional way like Trump does.

How could the 2016 presidential elections change The United States? Is The United States at a turning political point in 2016? What impact on the US could the 2016 presidential elections have?

Trump could not have won the nomination if the US were not already a broken country. We have had fifteen years of war and eight years of a decimated economy, decades of partisan gridlock, and constant racial strife. We are a wounded nation. People feel desperate, and that desperation shows in the support for Trump. But while some voters think Trump is the cure, he’s really a symptom of the disease.

If Trump wins, the US will have a mix of chaos and authoritarianism. It’s important to consider who Trump would select in his cabinet, since he is likely to be bored as the president and outsource the bureaucratic aspects of the job. He will likely select officials who advocate for war and propose policies that hurt the most vulnerable Americans. It’s difficult to predict who will be in his cabinet since Republicans vacillate in their support of him. It is also difficult to predict how the military will react to Trump as Commander in Chief.

If Clinton wins, we will likely have a continuation of the Obama administration, which is preferable to Trump but still doesn’t adequately address the economic problems the US faces. We will also be dealing with millions of angry Trump supporters, some of whom have warned they will form militias if Trump loses. The social problems created and exacerbated by Trump’s rise will not disappear with a Democratic win.

Ms Kędzior, who has a greater chance to win presidential elections in November in your opinion? Many people thought that it was Hillary Clinton who could win votes from minorities (for example, ethnic minorities) but support for Donald Trump in national polls started to rise in the latest weeks. So does Trump have a chance to win the election? Is such a political surprise possible?

The Democratic primary was the most racially divided in US history. Clinton won nearly every state with a black or Latino population of 10% or over. Sanders won the states dominated by white people, and the whiter the state, the more they liked Sanders. It speaks to a troubling racial divide. It’s difficult to say who Sanders’ voters will support – some may vote for Clinton, some may not vote, and some are already saying they will vote Trump, joining his coalition of angry white men.

Clinton’s coalition resembles Obama’s coalition in its diversity, and demographically, the odds are in her favor. However, demography is not destiny. New voter laws have been created that make it difficult for non-white citizens to vote. This is especially important in “swing states” where a few thousand votes might make a difference. Clinton also faces obstacles as the first female candidate, and as someone who many Americans dislike for other reasons: her policy decisions as a Senator and Secretary of State, her husband’s record, or because they believe the conspiracy theories about her that have been swirling for 25 years. Clinton has enthusiastic supporters, but she also has some voting for her simply because she’s not Trump. (She has picked up some Republican supporters for this reason – another factor that complicates the election.)

I also think Trump’s skill as a campaigner is underestimated. He’s a master con man who has used tabloids and reality TV to build himself up for years, and is now using the internet to do the same. He is currently in a crisis, but he has a long track record of bouncing back from crises. I think it will be a very close race. It’s possible either of them could win, and unpredictable factors – like if there’s a terrorist attack or a big financial collapse – could sway the vote between now and November.

4.What about the electoral campaign in coming weeks, what should we expect? Is Trump going to use the e-mail scandal to attack Hillary Clinton? Does Hillary Clinton have any chance to defend herself and attack Trump on some other issues? Should we expect that campaign is going to get really ugly?

The campaign is already really ugly! Right now Trump is imploding due to racist comments he made about a Mexican-American federal judge presiding over a corruption case against him. Republicans are struggling to figure out how to maintain their support when he has attacked a fellow federal employee based on his ethnicity. A lot of people tried to dismiss Trump’s racism by saying it was an act and that he would not behave this way as president. Now they know exactly how he will behave, and they are trying to figure out whether to endorse his behavior. This is the lowest moment of his campaign. But like I said, he has a track record of bouncing back.

Both candidates have plenty of ammunition to attack each other. Clinton will have every scandal she has been associated with over the past 25 years dragged up. This has already happened as she ran against Sanders and against Obama in 2008, so it’s not anything new. Clinton has an advantage against Trump because many of Trump’s most horrifying moments have occurred over the last 12 months, whereas the issues Trump raises to attack her are often decades old. I do not expect the email scandal to lead to an indictment. It may make voters question her judgment, but I do not think Clinton will face criminal charges.

What about internal divisions in Republican Party and Democratic Party and among voters? Some politicians from GOP establishment probably won’t support Trump, there’s also the possibility that some voters who backed Sanders won’t vote for Hillary Clinton in November. Are Trump and Clinton divisive candidates in your opinion? Do they have any chance to unite their electorates?

I’ve answered this a bit in the previous questions, but yes, they are both deeply divisive candidates. They are the two most disliked candidates in US history. We are likely to see some strange bedfellows – Republicans for Hillary, Sanders fans for Trump. The biggest divides fall along lines of gender and race. Clinton will have a racially diverse group of supporters with many women involved in the campaign. Trump appeals primarily to white men. This divide reflects a broader debate over diversity and power in the US.

Ms Kendzior, don’t you get the impression that current presidential campaign is more populist and extreme in nature? There are many personal attacks and little substance in electoral platforms, especially on Trump’s side. It seems to me that this campaign is very similar to the electoral campaigns in Europe that often are emotional and populist – would you agree with that?

Yes, Trump’s campaign is in line with the rise of right-wing populism in Russia, Austria, France, Poland and other European countries. The West is still recovering from the 2008 crash, and many citizens take their frustrations out on immigrants – that is one of the themes of Trump’s campaign that is also seen in anti-immigrant actions in Europe. Trump’s campaign appeals to a lot of white people nostalgic about earlier eras in the US, when they had good jobs and did well. I’ve interviewed many Trump fans, and some of them live in poor, majority white towns with few jobs, and they believe their jobs were stolen by immigrants and foreigners. (This is usually not true.) I’ve also met other Trump fans who are openly racist and believe the US is a country meant for white Christians only.

Who would be better US president for Poland’s interests – Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton? Who would favor the Polish American community in November in your opinion? Polish people are worried by Trump’s words about “obsolete NATO”, but many people in Poland don’t trust Hillary Clinton either.

Donald Trump is an interesting figure when it comes to the treatment of Poles and Polish-Americans. He hired hundreds of undocumented Polish laborers to build his real estate properties in 1979 and 1980, and many of these Polish workers said they were treated terribly and exploited. Some Poles were never paid for their work. This eventually led to a lawsuit in which Trump had to pay millions of dollars. So Trump has a pretty terrible record in terms of how he treats Poles.

However, this does not mean he does not have support in the Polish-American community. His campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, is Polish-American, as are other members of his staff. His key advisor, Paul Manafort, is from New Britain, CT, which is historically a Polish-American city. Manafort has a long relationship with Polish-American communities in the northeast, and I think he knows how to target Polish-American voters.

Unlike all the other campaigns, Trump has cultivated support groups for white ethnicities – “Italian-Americans for Trump”, “Polish-Americans for Trump”, etc. Usually candidates divide voters into broader demographic categories – “white”, “black”, “Latino”, etc – while ignoring white ethnic heritage. But that heritage matters to a lot of people. Trump’s approach is unique, and I think savvy, because white ethnic groups (especially ones who immigrated to the US more recently) don’t want to feel like they and their heritage are being ignored.

That said, as a Polish-American myself, I hope that other Polish-Americans recognize that Trump will not be good for our country. When my family immigrated to the US 100 years ago, they were treated like Mexicans and Muslim immigrants are today. Poles weren’t considered “white”, they were deemed suspicious because of their Catholic religion, and they were viewed as potential terrorists because of Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President McKinley. Polish-American newspapers had to write op-eds begging US citizens not to judge all Poles based on Czolgosz’s actions. The way politicians and journalists talked about Poles in the early 20th century resembles the terrible way Trump discusses Mexicans and Muslims now. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now. As a Polish-American, I think we are obligated to stand up for ethnic and religious groups who are being persecuted.

There are also some worries about perspectives of cooperation between the next US president and the Polish government which is accused (by some politicians from the European Union and The United States) of breaking democracy rules. Would such cooperation be hard? Or maybe right-wing Trump would be a better president for right-wing Polish government interests?

Trump and the right-wing elements of the Polish government would probably get along well, but I think that their relationship would be damaging for both Polish and American people. They would likely agree on many things, such as the erosion of free media, the disparagement of Muslims, and how to manipulate the legal system to maintain power. This sort of collaboration is not good for anyone.

One factor that would complicate US-Polish relations under Trump is Trump’s cozy relationship with Vladimir Putin and Russia. Putin and Trump are mutual fans, and Manafort, Trump’s advisor, has worked for pro-Russia forces in Ukraine. So Trump would have to deal with competing strains of right-wing nationalism when it comes to Poland and Russia. I suspect Trump will side with Russia.

Bill Clinton last month said that some people in Poland (and Hungary) favor democracy more in Vladimir Putin’s style (than in Western style). He was harshly criticized in Poland for those words. Ms Kedzior, could Bill Clinton’s words have an impact on the 2016 US presidential elections and could it harm Hillary Clinton’s chances for victory among Polish Americans?

Bill Clinton said a deeply stupid thing. Hillary would be better off if she kept him quiet until November. His comments led to protests among Polish-Americans in Chicago and understandable anger. I think it is fair to critique the political direction Poland is going, but to say that Poland aspires to be like Putin’s Russia is a slap in the face to any Pole who endured Russian oppression. I don’t think the Clinton campaign addressed Bill’s comments adequately, in part because they don’t consider Polish-Americans to be an important voting bloc. However, I don’t think Bill’s comments will determine the Polish-American vote, because Trump also has a terrible history with Poles and Polish-Americans – and of course, Polish-American voters consider all sorts of issues when choosing a candidate, not just ones that concern their ethnicity.

It’s also worth noting that this incident was not covered much by the US press. The two main outlets that covered it were Breitbart, a very right-wing website that has endorsed Trump; and the New York Observer, which is run by Trump’s son-in-law. Most Americans are not paying attention, and it is possible many Polish-Americans don’t even know about it.

Will there be a chance for lifting the visa regime for Polish citizens who would like to come to The United States after 2016 US residential elections? It’s almost an eternal problem (still without solution) in US-Polish relations. It seems that there won’t be even a slight chance for lifting visas if isolationist Trump wins? But what about Hillary Clinton’s stance on this issue?

Trump is an interesting guy when it comes to Eastern European immigration – he rails against foreigners, but two of his wives are from Eastern Europe. However, I don’t think that necessarily means he’ll be open to easing visa restrictions for foreigners who do not intend to marry Donald Trump. I doubt that Trump even understands how the visa system works, and his rhetoric is very isolationalist. I’m not sure what Clinton would do – she has not addressed this issue, to my knowledge – but I’m confident she at least knows how the visa system works.

Matuesz Morawiecki (Polish Deputy Prime Minister and influential Minister of Development) said on Polish television several weeks ago that “the choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton would be the choice between plague and cholera”. (It’s a very pejorative saying in Poland). Ms Kedzior, what do you think about such harsh words? Should any member of Polish government say such things publicly? Trump or Hillary Clinton could win elections in November so won’t Morawiecki’s words make Polish relations with future US president (Trump or Clinton) harder? Could Morawiecki’s words be costly in a political sense?

Morawiecki is expressing a sentiment that many Americans have also expressed, so it’s not anything Trump or Clinton has not heard before. The difference between Trump and Clinton is that Trump is very thin-skinned and becomes enraged at the slightest insult. He expects to be flattered. If any foreign official were to criticize him in office, he will likely have a tantrum – but may be held in check by his staff, so that he doesn’t cause a diplomatic crisis. (This will be a constant challenge for whatever staff Trump appoints.) Clinton has experience working in a diplomatic capacity with leaders around the world, and while I’m sure she doesn’t appreciate Morawiecki’s comments, I doubt they’ll have much impact. She has heard worse and continued to behave in a diplomatic manner. That said, if elected, she should make Bill apologize for his disparaging comments comparing Poland to Putin’s Russia, in order to improve US-Polish relations.

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