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Polish-Americans in the Donald Trump 2016 Presidential Campaign

This lecture was given as a part of the Kosciuszko Chair Spring Symposium on April 8, 2017.

Polish-Americans in the Donald Trump 2016 Presidential Campaign
Dr. Lucja Swiatkowski Cannon, Chairman, Polish-Americans for Trump Advisory Council,
The Institute of World Politics, Kosciuszko Chair Spring Symposium, April 8, 2017

In the 2016 presidential election, Polish-Americans were important members of the emerging Republican majority. I organized the Polish-Americans for Trump Advisory Council, one of the most active and effective coalition groups. We reached out nationwide but had a major focus and impact in key swing states: Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and North Carolina.

I. Background

Polish-Americans traditionally voted for the Democratic Party, but generational change and conservative social attitudes are leading the young Poles to vote increasingly Republican. Last year’s presidential election and the hostile stance of the Democratic Party only reinforced and accelerated this realignment.

From potential GOP presidential candidates, Donald Trump seemed most suitable to Polish-Americans because he talked about the “forgotten man”: Poland and Polish-Americans were certainly forgotten. As with other Americans, the Polish-American middle and working class were hurt by economic policies of the last 20 years, the outsourcing of jobs and wage stagnation. In addition, Democratic Party politics were alien to Polish-American values: there is an emphasis on identity and gender politics and a militant secular agenda with an anti-Catholic tone.

This neglect was compounded by President Obama’s foreign policy. Poland was sacrificed on the altar of the reset policy with Russia and his general neglect of Europe. In the summer of 2016, Obama tried to repair the damage by making a decision to bolster the eastern flank of NATO at the NATO Summit in Warsaw. But this change came too late and mainly resulted from pressure of European partners.

All these issues came into focus in Bill Clinton’s speech of May 2016, who campaigned on behalf of his wife, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate. He stated that Poland and Hungary decided that democracy is too much trouble and they wanted Putin-like, authoritarian leadership that kept the foreigners out, presumably Moslem refugees. His speech sparked outrage and demonstrations among Polish-Americans due to ideologically driven distortions reminiscent of George Orwell.

Bill Clinton’s charges amounted to a political attack on Poland and a radical ideological distortion of issues. He echoed the attacks of the previous leftist government of Poland that just had been defeated in the parliamentary and presidential elections. In order to preserve its court monopoly and prevent the new government from implementing its agenda, the leftist politicians packed the Constitutional Tribunal with their own candidates to positions whose terms had expired after the conservative party won the election. The new government’s rejection of this illegal scheme brought unreasonable accusations of Putinism and authoritarianism.

Further, Poland’s refusal to accept Moslem refugees as demanded by the German government, which unilaterally broke the EU law to bring them to Europe, led to further aggressive attacks. The Polish government’s position is that Poland already has over one million Ukrainian refugees, over 100,000 Chechen refugees, and is providing aid to Syrian refugees in camps on the Turkish border. It feels that the unsuccessful experience of West European countries with their own Moslem residents and problems like ghettoes, police no-go zones, terrorism, and oppression of women, does not entitle these countries to lecture others on this issue.

Bill Clinton’s hyperbolic, radical attack on Poland came to symbolize the insulting attitude of the current Democratic Party toward Poland and Polish-Americans, and subsequently it resulted in electoral rejection of the Clintons and a turn toward the Republican Party.

II. Organization of our group and recruitment of leaders

As you know, I am a Republican activist and worked on numerous presidential and congressional campaigns in the past. I was involved early in the Trump campaign. After the Republican convention, I got in touch with the Trump campaign HQ and presented my Polish-American campaign group that I assembled during the previous George W. Bush and Mitt Romney presidential campaigns. This group was augmented by new members. It was accepted by the campaign management and was one of the first advisory councils to be announced publicly. Ultimately, the official Trump campaign press release was published on 28 September 2016 right after the Catholic coalition group.

Our group was very diverse: it contained old generation immigrants who were long time activists of the Republican Party, Tea Party or Catholic organizations and new immigrants who were born in Poland and were activists in the Polish community. The third part was the Polish-American delegates to the Cleveland Republican National Convention supplied by the campaign. What made our group so effective were its wide-ranging and deep connections with influential political, religious and cultural organizations.

In fact, our group was much larger than indicated in the campaign press release. We had other activists who were not vetted in time by the campaign when it was decided to announce our formation in the press release. We also worked closely with the Trump campaign leaders both in the headquarters and in the states. Some of our members had important roles in the general campaign: such as Eva Neterowicz who was chairman of the Trump campaign for Columbia County, Wisconsin or Tom Zawistowski who is a Tea Party activist in Ohio. They all worked hard to mobilize voters in their areas to vote for Donald Trump. The press release just names the original leaders of the group; others joined us later.

We also had many volunteers who were performing the day-to-day campaign work and spreading the Trump message through handing out flyers and putting up yard signs in their neighborhoods and parishes, making phone calls and posting our campaign bulletins on numerous websites and email lists.

III. Our communications:

I would like to emphasize that during the campaign, we engaged in dual communications: communicating the Trump agenda to Polish-American voters and communicating the Polish-American agenda to the Trump campaign.

To begin with, it was important to establish ideological unity with the Republican Party and the Trump campaign on both domestic and international issues. On domestic issues, it was easy because the general issues of the Trump campaign were the same as Polish-American middle class issues, such as: economic growth, the outsourcing of jobs, conservative social values, and respect for the Catholic Church.

However, on international issues there seemed to be a difference: Polish-Americans cared the most about the Polish-American friendship and the strengthening of its institutional expression — the NATO alliance. Donald Trump made campaign statements that criticized the alliance by saying that NATO was obsolete and that the United States was defending other countries for free.

The most important contribution that I made to the campaign was to point out the need to offer reassurance to the Polish-American community about a US commitment to a strong NATO and Polish-American friendship. In policy memos to the Trump campaign, I presented Poland as an almost ideal NATO partner. I emphasized that Poland contributed its fair share to the common defense under NATO auspices: Poland spent the recommended 2% of its GDP on defense expenditures, it contributed significantly to missions in the Middle East, it set up a NATO counterintelligence center, and it accepted an anti-missile defense system. These points were fact-checked by the campaign and included in Donald Trump’s speech to the Polish-American Congress in Chicago.

IV. Campaign activities

I informed the Polish-American community about the presidential candidate through my own Polish-American Republican network, the Polish Events DC mailing list, Polish-American radio stations, and the Polish-American Congress Internet Forum and member organizations’ websites across the United States. I was also interviewed by radio and TV stations based in Poland, whose audience included Poles living in the United States. Most cochairmen of the Advisory Council were also interviewed and were active in their own communities.

The Council members recruited additional volunteers to make phone calls, put up signs. and give out literature in Polish-American neighborhoods in swing states.

The Council produced its own campaign materials aimed at interests of Polish-Americans, including Polish-Americans for Trump stickers, my appeals on “Why Polish-Americans should vote for Donald Trump,” photos from the Florida meetings on the Trump plane, and various other information bulletins and Catholic materials such as: A Comparison of the 2016 Republican and Democratic Platforms: A non-partisan guide on issues of concern to the electorate prepared by Priests For Life.

We made numerous efforts to establish direct contact with the presidential candidate. Many proposals were made to the campaign but it was difficult in a very dynamic political environment. We had to obtain an agreement and schedule from both sides, such as appearances by Donald Trump at Polish-American events like festivals or the Pulaski parade.

The campaign asked us to organize small rallies of at least 500 people at Polish clubs in key states in cooperation with the Trump campaign state directors. Such rallies were being organized in West Palm Beach by Jerzy Bogdziewicz, in Philadelphia by Michael Blichasz, in Wisconsin Dells by Eva Neterowicz, and the Pulaski parade in New York by me.

However, there was a change of strategy, and the campaign decided to abandon small rallies because it was so successful in organizing big rallies. Other events were abandoned due to concerns about security, incompatible schedules, and the campaign strategy having to do with locations of key voters.

Two important personal meetings between Polish-American leaders and Donald Trump really underlined his interest in the Polish-American community and his reassurance about its important issues. These meetings were widely reported and discussed. The first meeting in Chicago with Frank Spula, President of Polish-American Congress, was organized by the campaign and Bill Ciosek, a Republican activist.

Mr. Trump’s speech was very effusive toward Poland and Polish-Americans and made some of the points that I outlined in my memos to the Trump campaign. He said that Poland was “an incredible friend to America since its founding,” “a strong ally for freedom during the Cold War,” and “kept the flame of freedom under communist oppression.” He pledged that “the Trump Administration will be a true friend of Poland and to all Polish-Americans.

On NATO, Donald Trump said that “we are committed to a strong Poland and a strong Eastern Europe as a bulwark of security and liberty.” He praised Poland as one of only five NATO countries that makes a fair contribution to the common defense by “paying two percent of GDP to provide for its own defense.” “We want NATO to be strong, which means we want more countries to follow the example of Poland…. If every country in NATO made the same contributions as Poland, all of our allies would be more secure and people would feel better about NATO.” “We’ll work with Poland on strengthening NATO when I am president. We will strengthen NATO.” Rudy Giuliani who accompanied him stressed that “Poland will have a totally reliable ally in the USA.” These were important words of reassurance to Polish-American leaders.

The second meeting with Polish-American leaders in Florida on the Trump plane in Palm Beach was organized by our Council’s Jurek Bogdziewicz. Similar issues were discussed. Photos of this meeting were widely published, including on the cover of Nowy Dziennik, the Polish newspaper on the East coast. He said “You will not be disappointed” if you support me.

I also requested an interview with Donald Trump for Michael Blichasz’s American Worker Radio program in Philadelphia on the outsourcing of jobs, one of the main themes of Donald Trump’s campaign. However, the candidate could not fit it into his schedule and the campaign provided a surrogate speaker and expert Curtis Ellis.

In addition to Polish-Americans, the Council worked with Catholic, American worker and other groups and was particularly effective in Pennsylvania. There, our group, in partnership with local Polish-American organizations, was most active in the Polish suburbs of Philadelphia,  

Pittsburgh and the Polish Czestochowa Monastery neighborhood in Doylestown. In the last week of the campaign, I recruited additional volunteers who made thousands of phone calls, sometimes in Polish, to Pennsylvania voters and went door-knocking. Pennsylvania was regarded as the key to the victory of Donald Trump. Right after the election, there were many newspaper articles about the importance of Polish-Americans to victory in Pennsylvania.

V Piast Institute study on voter behavior

The Piast Institute of Hamtramck, Michigan is currently engaged in a study of the Polish vote in Macomb County, Michigan. The county has the largest Polish population in Michigan. Poles make up the second largest ethnic group in the county, after the Germans. Previously, Macomb County has been the object of national studies since the 1980s, when it was identified as the iconic home of the “Reagan Democrats.” The Piast Institute study focuses on 26 census tracts that number about 20% or more of the Polish vote. The majority of them voted for Mr. Trump, by margins ranging from 2.77% to 23.7%.

Eight out of the twenty-six census tracts with 20% or more Polish population gave Mrs. Clinton a majority of their votes; all these were on the southern edge of the county bordering on Detroit and Eastpointe. Almost all had 13% or more African-American population.

Most of these areas voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Studies indicate that surveys and focus groups held during the 2008 campaign season found that Obama was viewed as a candidate who was an agent of change who would break the perceived grip of corporations and traditional politicians on Washington. The voters saw as their major adversaries: corporations, the wealthy, and companies that ship jobs overseas. In many ways, the expectations of Macomb County voters of Mr. Obama in 2008 were remarkably similar to those voters who supported Mr. Trump in 2016. They expressed vague hopes that they would be able to bring about a significant change.

County Vote Totals:

Trump/Pence: 53.6% (224,665)
Clinton/Kaine: 42.1% (176,317)

Obama/Biden: 51.6% (208,016)
Romney/Ryan: 47.6% (191,913)

Obama/Biden: 53.4% (223,784)
McCain/Palin: 44.8% (187,663)

In summary, our Advisory Council was very effective and helped to mobilize the majority of 10 million Polish Americans to vote for Donald Trump, particularly in swing states, which made a significant contribution to his victory in the Presidential election. What we need now is to build on our initial successes to make Polish-Americans fully fledged members of the emerging Republican majority.

For videos from this event, please click here.

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