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America could learn a lesson from Poland. Taking it to the streets works

Massive street protests in Poland thwarted efforts by that country's right-wing government to co-opt the judiciary branch. Why can't that happen in America, where the threats to democracy are becoming just as dire?

A mass protest against justice reforms in front of the highest court at Krasinskich Square on Saturday, July 22, 2017 in Warsaw, Poland. Protestors lit up masses of candles. (Jakob Ratz/Pacific Press/Zuma Press/TNS)
A mass protest against justice reforms in front of the highest court at Krasinskich Square on Saturday, July 22, 2017 in Warsaw, Poland. Protestors lit up masses of candles. (Jakob Ratz/Pacific Press/Zuma Press/TNS)Read moreJakob Ratz/Pacific Press/Zuma Press/TNS

It seems like just the other day (because it was) that President Trump was in Warsaw, Poland, reading aloud a speech that some of his defenders hailed as a stirring defense of "Western" values and civilization at a time when Europe is coping with a surge of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Asked the president: "Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?" Much was left unsaid, including the fact that the "Western" values embraced by his Polish hosts more recently aim to devalue what many of us consider to be basic political and even human rights, thanks to the efforts of that Eastern European nation's right-wing governing Law and Justice Party.

Contrary to its name, the ruling faction in Warsaw — working in concert with President Andrzej Duda — started moving against justice last year with a push against fundamental press freedoms that was only rolled back when citizens protested en masse. Poland's conservative government has also pressed to make courts, prosecutors and its version of the Secret Service into rubber stamps for the ruling party (why does this sound familiar?). But the latest move that would have handed the Law and Justice Party much greater authority over the judiciary went too far for the Polish populace, which took to the streets in even greater numbers this time.

Warsaw, Poland (CNN) — Thousands of chanting and flag-waving protesters took to the streets in this Polish capital Sunday evening to demonstrate against a controversial bill putting the Supreme Court under government control.

In a rally at the Presidential Palace, demonstrators wielded Polish and European Union flags, held posters saying "constitution" and "I love and understand freedom," and shouted "we want a veto," "free court" and "free Poland." After the throng dispersed, many continued their protests at other locations, in front of the High Court and at the Sejm, Poland's lower house of parliament.

You'll never believe what happened next … OK, maybe you will.

Duda decided to veto the despised legislation. Not only did the protesters win this battle, but there are rumors of a permanent rift between the Polish president and far-right ideologues of the Law and Justice Party, offering hope for a new direction for the country that once won American hearts by fighting forced Communist domination in the 1980s.

It's hard to miss the parallels between Warsaw and Washington. Like his political pals in Poland, Trump has waged war on the notion of a free press, moved to restrict journalists' access, and is now trying to bend the Justice Department to do the bidding of White House rather than the American people. But unlike the situation in Poland, the response in the streets has been … well, not non-existent, but underwhelming. To be sure, the glass is half-full: the epic 4-million person Women's March event in January, some spirited community protests, and floods of calls to members of Congress that — so far — have helped thwart the repeal of Obamacare.

But the glass is also half-empty — the lack of wider protest in the style of Poland, or South Korea, where the unpopular president was forced out by large-scale street demonstrations, has arguably empowered congressional leaders to bring up their unpopular health care bill again and again and again. And now Trump seems to be daring citizens to take to the streets by threatening to fire Trump-Russia special prosecutor Robert Mueller or pardon his aides, family members and himself. He's betting that any protests will be mild and easy to shrug off.

In a timely piece today, Slate's longtime legal wizard Dahlia Lithwick notes that the decision on issues such as whether Trump can pardon himself ultimately rests less with the courts and more with the people. She wrote:

But the law is slow and reactive, and it is methodical and conservative by design. It depends on a vast machinery of lawyers and judges acting soberly and carefully, which is why it's so very maddening, and also heartening, in perilous times. The rule of law is precisely as robust as our willingness to fight for it. And to fight for it is not quite the same thing as to ask, "Isn't there a law?" While a nation founded on laws and not men is a noble aspiration, I am not certain that what the Framers anticipated was a constitutional regime predicated on the Harry Potter hope that all the lawyers would fix all the stuff while everyone else crossed their fingers and prayed.

In other words, Trump is perfectly capable of forcing out the attorney general, getting the special prosecutor fired, quashing the Russia collusion probe and/or pardoning everyone involved, including himself, and also engaging in business practices that pose a massive conflict of interest — as long as we, the people, let him do it. The flip side, as the good people of Poland proved yet again this week, is that protest on a massive scale actually works — especially in countries that are clinging by their fingernails to their remaining democratic norms, which seems like a fair description of the United States these days. But it requires persistence and a level of engagement that many modern folks aren't used to.

Lech Walesa, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for fighting repression in Poland in the 1980s and who supported this weekend's mass marches, said it best, in words that should echo all the way across the Atlantic and back:

But Mr. Walesa called on protesters not to slacken their efforts. "What's comforting is that the nation is waking up, that the youth are waking up," he said. "Don't stop protesting!"

Or maybe, as strange as it sounds, we should recall the words that Trump himself uttered in Warsaw: Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?