On July 13, Andrzej Duda, the newly reelected president of Poland, received news that the secretary general of the United Nations was about to contact him with a congratulatory phone call. This surely came as a surprise to the populist Euroskeptic leader. True, he had just made a widely reported visit to Washington D.C., becoming the first head of state received by President Donald Trump since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But when Duda answered his cell phone, it wasn’t António Guterres who was on the line, but—unbeknownst to him—a pair of Russian comedians who go by the names “Lexus” and “Vovan,” well known for having pranked, among others, Elton John, Emmanuel Macron, and Bernie Sanders. The call lasted eleven minutes.
Though Duda was taken in by the practical jokers, Polish political commentators have found it hard to mock the victorious incumbent—perhaps because, when we think of him, it is mostly as a proxy for another politician long considered Poland’s real leader. Even after hundreds of stump speeches and long televised spots, not to mention five years in power as president of the republic, Duda lives in the shadow of the man to whom he owes his political career, Jarosław Kaczyński. The short, stout founder of Law and Justice (PiS, pronounced “peace”) has for nearly two decades been the bogeyman of Poland’s educated, Europhile elites. The movement that Kaczyński and his now-deceased twin brother launched in 2001 as a campaign to root out post-Communist corruption has traversed a bizarre, winding road. PiS has built a cult around the 2010 plane crash that killed then-President Lech Kaczyński; won the adulation of the integralist mainstream of Poland’s Catholic hierarchy; normalized venomous epithets like “Poles of the worst sort” for voters who support anyone else; and waged a dogged fight to dismantle the independent judiciary and capture major cultural and media institutions. Fifty years ago, Jarosław Kaczyński defended persecuted Jews against the Polish communists’ “anti-Zionist” campaign; now, he accrues political capital through partners and proxies trafficking in anti-Semitism. Once mocked as a middle-aged bachelor whose closest family was his cat, Kaczyński has put family front-and-center in PiS’s campaign to “purify” Polish culture.
Five years ago, Kaczyński plucked Duda from obscurity to unseat an incumbent who had previously beaten Kaczyński for the presidency. This summer, Andrzej Duda won reelection in two successive rounds of voting: the first, held on June 28, with 43.5 percent of the final tally; and the run-off, held on July 12, with 51 percent. Duda, who is forty-eight, makes for a good visual, with a devoted spouse at his side and a university-age daughter. Duda was only seventeen when the Soviet bloc fell, yet he regularly trades in terms like “neo-Bolshevism” to denounce corrupting influences on the Polish body politic. There is a blood-and-soil nationalism in his statements that harkens back to the inter-war Right, though the enemy now is the twenty-first century. His is the voice of backlash against recognition of Poland’s LGBT+ community, instilling fear in religious parents and presenting himself as the only thing standing in the way of their children being forced to declare neutrality of gender identity and sexual orientation. One of Duda’s most-quoted campaign statements was “LGBT is not people; it is an ideology.” His winning electoral strategy, then, was predicated largely on a politics of fear and prejudice in defense of the heteronormative family, and by extension an assault on Church-state separation and its role in public education.
The fight against LGBT+ and gender “ideology,” which has dominated Polish public life for some time, continues even in the face of pandemic. Support for a “normal” Polish family—memorably illustrated by a PiS leader with a meme of Jesus and a bird’s nest full of eggs—is predicated on an unforgiving rhetorical onslaught against Poland’s small, disenfranchised LGBT+ community. Despite the intervention of the European Court of Human Rights, pride parades have long been denied permits or, more recently, targeted with violent counter-marches by football hooligans and neo-fascists. Prominent PiS parliamentarians broadcast hate speech against the LGBT+ community: “Let’s put an end to this idiocy about some sort of human rights or equality. These people are not equal with normal people, and let’s leave it at that.” In 2019, local PiS councilors began trumpeting the creation of “LGBT-free zones” across almost one-third of the country. The powerful documentary film Tu nie chodzi o ludzi (This Is Not About People) depicts the extent and variety of anti-LGBT+ activism across rural and small-town Poland. This is not, in other words, just some right-wing phantasmagoria, but a reflection of the real beliefs of real people. After Duda claimed in a June 14 stump speech that the “ideology” of LGBT+ “is even more destructive to human beings” than was communism, he was excoriated by international news outlets from AP and Reuters to the Guardian and the New York Times. The response was so furious that the president even felt the need to take to Twitter in two languages to paint himself as a victim of “fake news.” His message may have been truncated, but the reporting was accurate enough.