Why the Dutch Are Drawn to Right-Wing Populist Geert Wilders

Why the Dutch Are Drawn to Right-Wing Populist Geert Wilders

Why the Dutch Are Drawn to Right-Wing Populist Geert Wilders

He’s among the most radical of the new-right politicians in Europe—and he’s poised to win the March elections.


Amsterdam, The NetherlandsOn January 23, Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister and leader of the center-right Liberal Party (VVD), wrote a 500-word letter “to all Dutch people” that appeared as a full-page ad in the country’s major newspapers.

“By far the most of us are of good will,” Rutte wrote. “We work hard, help each other, and think the Netherlands are pretty neat. But we do worry a lot about how we are treating each other. Sometimes it seems like no one acts normally any more.… We become increasingly uncomfortable when people take advantage of our freedom to ruin things here, whereas they came to this country precisely because of its freedom.… People who refuse to adapt, criticize our customs, and reject our values. Who harass gays, yell at women in short skirts, or call regular Dutch people racists. I completely understand that people would think: ‘If you reject our country so fundamentally, I’d prefer you’d leave.’ Because I feel the same way. Act normally, or get out.”

Behind the appeal to common decency, the message was clear: “We” are the real Dutch; those “people” are not; and anyone who can’t behave “normally,” in the Dutch way, is not welcome in the Netherlands. As critics were quick to point out, Rutte’s letter took for granted the widespread but unfounded notion that crime and public misbehavior are on the rise and that immigrants, particularly Muslims, are undermining a Dutch tradition of peaceful, tolerant coexistence.

The public letter was a shrewd attempt on Rutte’s part to fend off Geert Wilders, the right-wing populist whose Party for Freedom (PVV) is poised to win the Dutch parliamentary elections on March 15. Polls predict that Wilders—who wants to leave the European Union, “de-Islamicize” the Netherlands by putting a ban on Muslim immigrants and refugees, lower taxes, abolish public broadcasting, and dramatically increase military spending—will garner close to 20 percent of the vote, corresponding to 30 deputies in the 150-seat Parliament. Rutte’s own party will likely end up in second place, with around 16 percent of the ballots.

Meanwhile, the Labor Party (PvdA), the longstanding bastion of Dutch social democracy that is currently governing in a coalition with the VVD, is paying a heavy price for its support of EU-imposed austerity—ruthlessly enforced from Brussels by the PvdA’s own finance minister, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who is also president of the Eurogroup. The PvdA’s constituency clearly finds this hard to swallow. In March, the party’s electoral share is predicted to shrink to 8 percent, down from 20 percent in 2012—landing the party in sixth place overall, a couple of percentage points behind three other parties on the left: the liberal democrats (D66), the Green Left (GroenLinks), and the Socialist Party (SP).

Rarely has a Dutch parliament been so fragmented. Although Rutte has vowed he will not govern with Wilders, it will be very hard to keep him out of government—and, if he does join the cabinet, to prevent him from becoming prime minister. As the polls stand now, it would take a five-party coalition to force the PVV into the opposition. But even in that case, Wilders cannot be discounted, journalist Tom-Jan Meeus wrote in Politico in early February: “No political leader has had a larger impact on Dutch politics over the past decade.”

The Dutch are struggling to make sense of this impending electoral earthquake. Wilders’s likely victory is something of an embarrassment for a country that has long liked to see itself as a beacon of forward-thinking common sense: as libertarian as the French but less arrogant; as hard-working as the Germans but with a better sense of humor; as socially conscious as the Scandinavians but more diverse; and anti-nationalist to a fault. An Islamophobic, Netherlands-first prime minister does not fit this picture. To be sure, it is tempting to see Wilders simply as another instance of the wave of right-wing xenophobia that is taking Europe by storm. But while the PVV’s links to France’s National Front, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Britain’s UKIP and Italy’s Lega Nord are real enough, Wilders’s rise has deep Dutch roots.

“Wilders’s emergence on the national stage really goes back to two assassinations,” Koen Vossen, a political scientist at the University of Nijmegen who has followed the PVV for years, told me in January. “The murders of the politician Pim Fortuyn, in 2002, and the filmmaker Theo van Gogh two years later were something of an electroshock to the Dutch national brain.” The country never fully recovered.

Pim Fortuyn (1948-2002) was the founding father of a homegrown, Dutch brand of xenophobic populism. A sociology professor and high-level state appointee, Fortuyn passed through the labor party and liberal party before forming his own. He ran for the 2002 parliamentary elections on a radically anti-immigrant and anti-Islam platform. The Netherlands, he said, was “full,” and Islam was “a retrograde culture.” As an openly gay academic and libertarian—he liked to say that he abhorred Muslims’ intolerance but enjoyed sleeping with Moroccan boys—Fortuyn put a new face on right-wing Dutch nationalism, laying the foundation for Wilders’s later rise. Until then, the radical right had been associated with Hans Janmaat, an anodyne politician who looked like a disgruntled office employee and was treated like a pariah in parliament, where held a seat for four years in the 1980s.

Fortuyn’s emergence sent tremors through a political landscape that had been extraordinarily stable for decades. Government coalitions, based on carefully negotiated compromises, were generally forged among the three largest parties—Labor, the Christian Democrats (CDA), and the Liberals—sometimes with support from smaller groups. (No one political party in the history of postwar Dutch democracy has ever held an absolute majority.) The system was thrown into permanent disarray in May 2002, when, nine days before the elections, Fortuyn was assassinated by a Dutch environmental activist. Two years later, in November 2004, the day George W. Bush was re-elected president, the Netherlands suffered a second trauma. Filmmaker, journalist, and professional provocateur Theo van Gogh—a ruthless critic of Islam—was killed in broad daylight while biking through a busy street in the eastern part of Amsterdam. This time the assassin was a 26-year-old Dutch Muslim of Moroccan descent.

Fortuyn wasn’t the first Dutch politician to talk tough on immigration. Still, “Fortuyn used to say that he was the only one who dared break the politically correct taboos surrounding the growing immigration problem, but that he’d no doubt be punished for it,” says Vossen, the political scientist. “For many, his death proved that he was right.” Van Gogh’s murder two years later further strengthened the growing anti-immigrant sentiment among the lower middle classes. But it also drew a segment of the country’s intellectual elite into that camp—for starters, the filmmaker’s devastated personal friends, several of whom experienced a Christopher Hitchens–like conversion overnight. With this unusual elite endorsement, anti-immigrant rhetoric gained a new legitimacy. Meanwhile, in public opinion the notion solidified that the country’s immigration policies had failed and that the presence of “unintegrated” foreigners—particularly from Turkey and Morocco—was a problem that called for a drastic solution.

Statistics don’t exactly support this impression. True, with almost 17 million inhabitants in a country twice the size of New Jersey, the Netherlands is Europe’s most densely populated state, and since the early 1960s, the country has seen the percentage of foreign-born inhabitants double—thanks, first, to an influx from former colonies like Surinam and Indonesia and, later, labor migration from the Mediterranean. Still, compared with other European countries, immigration has been a relatively minor factor in the growth of the population since 2000. In 2016, 22.1 percent of the population was non-Dutch, including some 385,000 citizens of Moroccan descent and 400,000 of Turkish ancestry. (Until very recently, Holland divided its population into two categories: “autochthonous,” originally Dutch, and “allochthonous,” defined as anyone who was born abroad or has at least one parent who was.) In 2014, ten other EU countries had higher percentages of immigrants.

Among the intellectual converts during the traumatic fall of 2004 was Martin Bosma, a 40-year-old political scientist who had worked for years as a mainstream journalist. Days after the Van Gogh assassination—which happened to occur 600 feet from his doorstep—Bosma quit his job and offered his services to Geert Wilders, a deputy in parliament who at that point had just left the center-right VVD but held on to his seat, determined to start his own movement.

Bosma helped Wilders set up the PVV. Elected to parliament in 2006, Bosma became the party’s main ideologue. As a journalist and politician, he understood that the battle ahead was rhetorical and affective—and that it could be won in the media and in parliament. “No other party has taken as much advantage of the possibilities offered by parliamentary politics,” says Vossen. “The PVV uses all the means at their disposal to make sure they are constantly in the spotlight. As deputies they are incredibly activist—and they never stop repeating their core message.”

By now, Bosma’s success is indisputable. Concepts championed by the PVV have become household notions in Dutch political debate. Terms like “Islamicization,” “mass immigration,” and “leftist hobbies” are serving to frame an alarmist narrative that’s proven increasingly effective. The story goes more or less like this: The unrelenting influx of Muslim immigrants is about to turn the Netherlands into an Islamic nation, thanks in large part to the complicity of left-wing elites. These elites, who came to power after winning the 1960s culture wars, have ignored the plight of their fellow Dutch citizens. Instead, they have been busy attending to their left-wing hobbies: taxpayer support for the arts and public media; the defense of multiculturalism; development aid; opening the country’s doors to refugees from the entire world; and newfangled pedagogies that have wrecked the country’s educational system. To make things worse, those same elites have allowed EU bureaucrats to impose ruthless cuts, eroding public services for regular Dutch citizens, at the same time that lavish amounts of money are spent on free food, clothes, and housing for ungrateful refugees who pose a danger to Dutch society. Meanwhile, the Dutch have seen their neighborhoods taken over by Muslim hordes.

“In a sense, the PVV’s success is textbook populism,” Vossen says. “To cite the Argentine theorist Ernesto Laclau, Wilders and Bosma have managed to establish a ‘chain of equivalence’ between Islam and the left, as forces opposed to the interests of the people.”

In a 500-page book from 2015 that received broad attention in the media, Bosma claimed that the Netherlands is facing nothing less than “ethnocide.” The “original” Dutch, he warned, are about to suffer the same fate as the white descendants of Dutch colonialists in South Africa. The Afrikaners, he wrote, are systematically oppressed by the racist regime of the “terrorist” African National Congress—which ironically came to power thanks in part to the fellow-traveling support of the progressive Dutch elite: “The tribal affinity of progressive Holland with the ANC is part of something bigger: the transformation of the Netherlands into a multicultural society—in which the original Dutch will become a minority in their own country.”

The PVV is hard to classify. Unlike other Dutch political parties, it has no formal members other than Wilders himself, who is determined to rule his “movement” with an iron hand—although he hasn’t been able to prevent some highly embarrassing behavior from his associates. “I don’t think it makes much sense to call the PVV fascist,” says Vossen. “To be fascist, a party must have a clear anti-democratic component. And although the PVV’s internal structure is anything but democratic, programmatically the party does not reject democracy; to the contrary.” The core of Wilders’s electorate are members of the lower middle classes with a relative low level of education, who feel alienated from the college-bred political class. They include long-term unemployed and others who depend on Holland’s steadily eroding social safety net. Those drawn to his message feel they have lost—or stand to lose—a lot: job security, quality of life, and access to public services.

Many of Wilders’s voters don’t agree with everything he stands for. But they share his contempt for politicians, who they believe are incapable of acknowledging, let alone solving, the country’s problems because they have stopped caring about the interests of the great majority of the Dutch population—and actually look down on the common citizen. “I am here in my own country, and don’t think I should have to adapt to them. Let them adapt to me!” a retired cleaning lady told the sociologist Koen Damhuis, who traveled the country for in-depth interviews with 64 Wilders voters. “They say it’s wrong to say ‘put your own people first,’ but that’s the way it should be. Even if the neighbor’s kids are hungry, I’d first feed my own kids. That’s how that works.” “When I’m doing my job, I can often tell that customers think I’m stupid because I’m less educated,” a man in his 20s who makes a living delivering home appliances, told Damhuis. He is good at what he does, he adds, but his boss only cares about saving money. “Instead of me, he’ll hire Somalians, even if they barely speak Dutch.”

Much like Trump, Wilders has publicly questioned the legitimacy of two of the three branches of government: congress and the judiciary. And while Bosma has helped the PVV achieve a patina of respectability, Wilders himself has consistently pushed the boundaries of Dutch law, which establishes strong restrictions on hate speech and other forms of discrimination. But so far the attempts to curb him have backfired, increasing his political capital by allowing him to assume a martyr’s mantle. (The target of death threats, Wilders has been under permanent police protection for more than twelve years.) “Wilders has boxed in his opponents,” Meeus, the journalist, wrote in Politico. “The harsher they criticize him, the better his chances of winning the election.”

In November, a Dutch court found Wilders guilty of instigating discrimination. “Do you want more or fewer Moroccans?” he had asked at a rally in 2014. As the crowd chanted “Fewer! Fewer!” Wilders quipped: “We’ll take care of that for you.” The trial last fall was televised, and Wilders took full advantage of the opportunity to broadcast his message. “Here I am standing before you—alone,” he said in his closing statement, directly addressing the judges. “But I’m not alone.… Almost 1 million Dutch citizens voted for me in 2012. And there will be many more starting March 15.… I’m sure you know these people…you run into them every day.… They may be your driver, your gardener, your doctor or your cleaning lady, the court clerk’s girlfriend, your physical therapist, the nurse in your parents’ nursing home or the person running the bakery in your neighborhood. They are regular people, regular Dutch people. These are the people I am so proud of.”

Pride is an important weapon in Wilders’s battle against political correctness. Like his German AfD counterpart, Frauke Petry, who is telling Germans they should stop being ashamed of their own history, Wilders assures his voters that disliking their Turkish neighbor does not make them racist, despite what the left elites might say. This line of argument has hit a deep collective nerve. Ironically, the very thing that makes Wilders an international embarrassment to the Dutch—his challenge to their cherished self-image as the epitome of progressive tolerance—is one of his strongest trump cards.

The Netherlands has never fully come to terms with its slave-trading past, its bloody colonial repression, or, for that matter, its collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. This collective bad conscience prompts neuroses that to outsiders can seem baffling. Over the past couple of years, for example, the country has been engaged in a cultural battle over the feast of Saint Nicholas. As part of this tradition, for several weeks every November and December, white men dressed as bearded bishops distribute gifts and candy to children, along with an army of “Black Petes”: servants in blackface, donning afro wigs, Moorish clothing, and bright-red lips. When civil-society groups joined in a campaign to change the casting, arguing that the servant’s character was offensive to many Dutch citizens of color, a heated national debate ensued. A broad set of the population rose in defense of what they saw as an innocent tradition; some claimed, implausibly, that race had nothing to do with it because Pete’s face was black from chimney soot. It was hard to say what piqued people most: changing the tradition or the suggestion that, by celebrating it, they had been racists all along. Prime Minister Rutte’s January letter subtly tapped into this resentment by stating that those who do not belong in the Netherlands are the people who “harass gays, yell at women in short skirts, or call regular Dutch people racists.” Healthy Dutch pride, in other words, is not a gateway to fascism; in fact, it’s their lack of racism that makes the Dutch who they are.

“The big challenge for right-wing populists in Western Europe has been to cast their language in forms that are digestible to the majority,” Vossen says. “Wilders has been particularly good at this—for example, by turning the controversy about his statements into a debate about freedom of expression, or by casting his call for a stop on Muslim immigration in the name of progressive values. He is also anything but anti-Semitic, and is actually strongly pro-Israel.” And this is not just a rhetorical game, says Vossen. “I am convinced that Wilders really believes we are at war with Islam. In his framework, we are the Chamberlains while he sees himself as Winston Churchill. In other words, he is the antifascist.”

It is difficult to predict the national fallout of a Wilders victory in March. Rutte’s promise not to join forces with the PVV is meant in part to convince the electorate that a vote for Wilders would be wasted. Still, Rutte would no doubt be delighted if, after March 15, he could afford to give the white-haired populist the cold shoulder. Wilders is a wild card. He refuses to play by the rules of Dutch politics, which are based on compromise and mutual trust. In 2010, the PVV pledged support for a Rutte-led coalition between the liberal VVD and the Christian Democrats, only to withdraw it two years later, causing the cabinet to fall. Rutte hasn’t forgotten that act of sabotage. The other parties, too, have made clear they’ll do what it takes to keep Wilders from governing. But the five-party agreement that would be needed for a PVV-less governing coalition will be hard to forge. A more serious problem is that quarantining Wilders on principle further confirms his constituency in their conviction that the political elites will continue to ignore their concerns. Wilders, for his part, has shown some willingness to soften some of his positions. In early February, he said this his plan to prohibit the Quran—which he’s called a “fascist book” that “incites violence”—would not mean that the police would be instructed to raid Muslim households.

Internationally, a Wilders first place would be a boost to Euroskepticism. Although not strictly speaking a fascist, on some issues Wilders is among the most radical of the new European right-wing leaders. Of all the populists in Europe, moreover, Wilders has the strongest ties to the Trump administration. He spoke at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and is a longtime ally of Trump advisers and Breitbart writers like David Horowitz, Brigitte Gabriel, and Frank Gaffney. The day after Trump’s inauguration, Wilders joined in Koblenz, Germany, with Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front, Frauke Petry of Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland and Matteo Salvini of Italy’s Lega Nord in a euphoric gathering. “Friends,” he said, “we are living historic times. The people of the West are waking up. They are throwing off the yoke of political correctness. They want their freedom back, their national sovereignty, and we, the patriots of Europe, will be the instrument of their liberation.”

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