Amsterdam

On the first day of June in 2017, Dutch national television crews were at the ready when a moving truck pulled into the stately cobblestone courtyard of the parliament in The Hague. The truck’s load, a black grand piano, had been the subject of conversation for months. As the movers wheeled the blanket-covered instrument into the parliament building under the watchful eyes of its 34-year-old owner, it was clear they were ushering in a fresh chapter in the history of Dutch right-wing populism. The movement to save Dutch national culture has a new leader—and he plays Brahms.
Three months earlier, the Netherlands had held parliamentary elections. To the relief of many on the left and right alike, the anti-immigrant Freedom Party (PVV), led by the peroxide-blond populist Geert Wilders, failed to win the victory that some earlier polls had predicted. Still, it earned a record 1.4 million votes, coming in second with 20 of the 150 available seats, behind the neoliberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, but far ahead of the social-democratic Labor Party, which was governing with the VVD and saw its support decimated. As the crestfallen social democrats resigned themselves to a stint in the opposition, the other major parties agreed that Wilders, too, should be barred from joining the government. His radical anti-Islam positions—he wants to shutter all mosques and ban the Quran—placed him too far outside of the mainstream. And his obstructionist attitude did not jibe with the Dutch political culture of consensus, coalition, and compromise. Given his behavior, some commentators openly wondered whether Wilders aspired to govern at all. In the wake of the election, disillusion began to set in among the PVV’s disgruntled constituency.

The man who stood to benefit most from Wilders’s deflation was Thierry Baudet, the freshman deputy who excused himself from a parliamentary debate last June to personally supervise the arrival of his piano. Shortly after the election, he had requested official permission to move the instrument from his Amsterdam apartment to his new office in The Hague, making good on a flippant campaign promise. The piano was a necessary part of his “entourage,” he argued, and would allow him to decompress in between sessions with some Schubert or Brahms. After three months, Baudet got his wish.

Thierry Henri Philippe Baudet, who just turned 35, is an intellectual who claims to loathe politics, modern art, and popular culture. He is also the rising star of the Dutch alt-right. His flamboyant image and rapid ascent resemble that of Pim Fortuyn, the gay populist pioneer who railed against Muslim immigrants and was killed by an environmental activist in May 2002, in the country’s first political assassination since the 17th century. Two years later, a radicalized Dutch-Moroccan Muslim murdered progressive filmmaker and Islam critic Theo van Gogh in broad daylight on a busy Amsterdam street. Both deaths changed the face of Dutch politics. Since then, disagreements over national identity and the integration of immigrants have dominated public debate and divided the country into sharply opposed camps. In topic and tone, the boundaries of the acceptable have been shifted to the right. Fueled by social media, mainstream political discourse has gone places that were unthinkable 20 years ago.

Baudet is poised to push it even further. He is the leader of the Forum for Democracy (FvD), which he founded as a think tank in 2015. Transformed into a political party only six months before the March 2017 elections, the FvD won a surprising 1.8 percent of the vote, good for two seats. (The Dutch electoral system is strictly representative, making it relatively easy for small parties to break through but almost impossible for any single party to win an absolute majority.) By June, when the piano was delivered, the polls pegged the FvD at five seats. Ten months later, Baudet’s party now boasts more than 20,000 dues-paying members and a fast-growing youth movement. Polls indicate that if elections were held today, Baudet would win as many as 15 seats—and he hasn’t hit his ceiling yet. “I think 30 seats are within reach,” Baudet declared in a television interview in December. According to a leading pollster, such a gain is not unlikely. This would make Baudet a candidate for prime minister—a position he has said he doesn’t covet but is willing to take on. After all, he says, someone has to save the Netherlands—and Western civilization—from their impending downfall.

For Baudet is convinced that his country is on the brink of disaster. He believes that Dutch political and intellectual elites harbor a pathological hatred of their own national culture. Fed by cultural Marxism, postcolonial guilt, victim culture, and political correctness, this oikophobia—Baudet’s fancy term for “fear of the home”—has sapped the country’s defense mechanisms, leaving it open to the invasion of non-Western values. These threats are embodied particularly in Muslim immigrants and refugees.

“The West is suffering from an autoimmune disorder,” Baudet said when he addressed his party’s congress in January of 2017. “Part of our organism—an important part: our immune system, that which should protect us—has turned against us. We’re being weakened, undermined, surrendered in every respect. Malevolent, aggressive elements are being smuggled into our social body in unprecedented numbers, while true causes and consequences are kept hidden. Police reports about violent incidents at refugee centers are not made public. The attorney general’s office looks the other way when it runs into sharia courts.”

Instead, Baudet proudly defends Western values, which he predictably associates with the Judeo-Christian tradition—but in which he less predictably includes the defense of women’s and gay rights against the religious intolerance of fundamentalist Islam. His party has proposed a “Law in Defense of Dutch Values” that, among other things, would prohibit arranged marriages, demand that the Holocaust be taught in all schools, and ban any face-covering garments, including balaclavas and niqabs, from public spaces.

Like Wilders, Baudet is a so-called Euroskeptic. While immigration and multiculturalism have been “diluting” national values from below, he says, the sovereignty of the Dutch nation-state has been further undermined by its subservience to the European Union and other international bodies. “Control over our lives is insidiously and increasingly taken away from us by devious acts of surrender that transfer our sovereignty to impersonal political mega-projects in which citizens have lost all forms of democratic control,” he said at the party’s congress in January of last year.

With less than 5 percent unemployment and a healthy 3 percent economic growth, the Netherlands has been faring better than many other EU nations. Still, Baudet’s apocalyptic rhetoric has proved a hit among voters who are anxious about national identity, suspicious of the European Union, and disenchanted with Dutch politics-as-usual—as manifested by the current four-party, right-of-center governing coalition, once again led by Rutte, and installed in October after a grueling six-month negotiation.

Some of Baudet’s rapidly rising support comes directly from Wilders’s PVV. But he is also expanding and diversifying the base of the radical right, says Leo Lucassen, research director at the International Institute for Social History. As Lucassen, an expert on migration who frequently calls out far-right fearmongers, told me when I met with him in Amsterdam, “Baudet is popular among new voters, but he is also attractive to higher-educated people who always found Wilders too lowbrow or too coarse. Although Baudet’s ideas are clearly very extreme, he packages them in a tremendously charming, attractive way.”

FvD meetings attract a disproportionate number of young white men. But the party has also found support among ethnic minorities and the intellectual elite. Among its early supporters was Frank Ankersmit, an internationally renowned philosopher of history. (Ankersmit left the party in December.) And one of its initial top candidates in the City Council elections in Amsterdam this past March was Yernaz Ramautarsing, a libertarian of East Indian descent born in Suriname, who maintains that black people have a lower IQ than other races. A follower of Ayn Rand, Ramautarsing first became known as a vocal critic of “left-wing indoctrination” at Dutch universities. Following a controversy over homophobic comments, he withdrew from the City Council race. But Baudet’s party still won three out of the 45 available seats in those elections.

Baudet is certainly no Wilders. For one thing, he is smarter, more photogenic, and much more coy. The 54-year-old Wilders, born in the southern province of Limburg, was raised a Roman Catholic, though his mother is of Indonesian descent. He founded the PVV in 2006, after a 14-year career in the right-liberal VVD. The target of frequent death threats, Wilders has lived under permanent police protection for more than 13 years. Baudet, 20 years younger, is from a nonreligious middle-class family in Haarlem descended from 18th-century Huguenot exiles. He learned Latin and Greek in high school and exudes the aristocratic air of a Leiden University fraternity member. After earning undergraduate degrees in history and law, he finished a PhD thesis in 2012 co-directed by the British conservative philosopher Roger Scruton. Published in English as The Significance of Borders and in Dutch as The Assault on the Nation-State, the book became an unlikely best seller in the Netherlands. In it, Baudet argues that democracy and the rule of law can only thrive in a strong, self-confident nation. Both have been eroded, he continues, by the weakening of national sovereignty in Europe.

In his latest book, Break the Party Cartel!, Baudet describes the Dutch political class as a cabal of incompetent administrators who put their own and their parties’ interests above those of the country. As a result, he says, all top public management positions—ranging from board seats at state-run entities to posts as city mayors, who in the Netherlands are appointed by the national government—are neatly divvied up among the party elites in a self-serving “job carousel.” The cartel, he says, stifles political change and suffocates democracy “like a thick blanket covering society.” To break up the power of the established elites, the FvD proposes to replace appointments to all public or semi-public management positions with an open application process. It also wants to move to mayoral elections and install an electronic voting system in the parliament so that deputies can be held individually accountable for their votes.

To further weaken the power of professional politicians, the FvD wants to introduce Swiss-style direct democracy through binding referendums on important political issues. Here, the party is tapping into a source of widespread discontent. Since 2015, Dutch law has allowed for grassroots-initiated referendums—which are put on the ballot after 300,000 signatures have been collected—but they are nonbinding, meaning that the government can ignore the results. In April 2016, when the country voted on an association treaty between the European Union and Ukraine, Baudet played a leading role in the “no” campaign. With a 32 percent turnout—just barely clearing the validity threshold—the “no” camp won, with 61 percent, though polls showed that many voters were uninformed and confused. In 2017, the parliament voted in favor of the treaty anyway.

The current government has openly expressed its unease with the referendum law. In late February, a narrow majority of the Dutch parliament voted to repeal it. Nonbinding votes create false expectations, Interior Minister Kajsa Ollongren argued. “As a result, [they] do not contribute to [voters’] faith in politics.”

“There she is,” Baudet said after the parliamentary vote, looking directly at Ollongren, “the assassin of democracy.”

Baudet is not your typical populist. For all his elite-bashing, he is a full-blown member of the cultural upper crust. Rather than hide his high-class tastes and manners, however, he has turned them into a signature brand. In March of last year, he baffled his fellow deputies by kicking off his maiden speech in parliament in Latin. At the same time, he hates modern art, contemporary classical music, and contemporary architecture, which he considers arrogant scams. He idealizes the 19th century and is inspired by Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, a classic of cultural pessimism. Having recently spent three years in psychoanalysis, Baudet sprinkles his conversations with esoteric terms in a homegrown mix of Freud and neoconservatism. (Baudet declined to be interviewed for this piece.)

“Thierry is not anti-elite; he’s antiestablishment,” says historian Geerten Waling, who met Baudet nine years ago and has stayed friendly with him since. “Every society needs a top layer,” Baudet said in an online conversation with Waling and his other dissertation adviser, the conservative legal scholar Paul Cliteur. “Our problem is that those [at the top] are suffering from a kind of spiritual disease…. We have to replace the [current] elite with a new one.” Waling sees an unresolved tension between Baudet’s elitism and his embrace of direct democracy. “I once asked him: ‘Are you really in favor of referendums because you believe in democracy, or only because you know you’ll agree with their results?’” On the other hand, Waling adds, Baudet “does believe in increasing democratic participation from below. In Break the Party Cartel!, he argues that the Dutch system is outdated. The population is better educated and informed than 200 years ago; it is therefore better equipped to participate in political decision-making. As a historian, I’d say that such a development would be in line with a Dutch tradition of self-government. Mayoral elections, for example, should have been introduced long ago.”

Baudet’s 19th-century tastes and controversial ideas have not diminished his attractiveness among younger voters. “I suspect they actually like his old-fashioned air,” Waling says. “There is something exciting about the fact that he doesn’t know who Snoop Dogg is and is not embarrassed to admit it. In the end, people prefer to vote for someone like Fortuyn, who wore a pinstripe suit, had two dogs, and drove a Bentley, than for someone who tries too hard to look like them.”

Baudet’s distinctive image has a flip side, however. “What surprises me most is the aggressive reactions Baudet incites, especially among progressive academics,” says Koen Vossen, a political historian who has studied populism in the Netherlands. “They claim he’s more dangerous than Wilders. Some have said his PhD should be revoked. What they still don’t seem to understand is that characters like Baudet thrive on those over-the-top responses. It’d be better to ignore him. He’s clearly a poseur, and a complacent one at that. He knows how to play the role of the snob.”

Charming, provocative, and unpredictable, Baudet has managed to wrap the Dutch media around his little finger. In December, the annual poll of a leading Dutch news show voted him politician of the year. That same month, the progressive newspaper De Volkskrant ran a long interview digging into Baudet’s youth, psychology, and personal life, accompanied by a GQ-style photo shoot with a nod to Fifty Shades of Grey. Over a glass of expensive white wine, Baudet proclaimed that modesty was overrated, confessed to finding himself extremely sensitive (“That’s why I speak so movingly at party meetings”), and revealed that his current girlfriend is an Iranian refugee. Again, he painted himself as his country’s savior. “The completely derailed mob in The Hague that’s sending this country to the dogs has to be called to order,” he said. “But I see nobody doing anything—so I’ll have to do it myself.”

Soon after, the online newspaper De Correspondent discovered that, in October, Baudet had had a secret five-hour dinner meeting in Amsterdam with Jared Taylor, the well-known US white supremacist. Taylor, who founded the magazine American Renaissance, wants to “rekindle” a defensive “racial consciousness” among whites that would encourage them “to love, first and foremost, the infinite riches created by European man.” Asked about the dinner, Baudet once again played coy, invoking privacy and his right to inform himself about all sorts of ideas. “I don’t comment on the women I sleep with or the people I eat with,” he said. “But generally [I believe that one should] investigate everything in life and hold on to the good.” In February, De Correspondent followed up with a piece about Baudet’s longtime fascination with the ideas of Jean-Marie Le Pen.

“Baudet speaks with a forked tongue,” said Volkskrant columnist Harriët Duurvoort, who is of Dutch, Surinamese, and African-American descent, when I talked with her in January. “He clearly flirts with fascism, almost in a romantic way—although he’s eager to distance himself from the real racists when held accountable.” As a representative and spokesperson for Dutch multiculturalism, Duurvoort has firsthand experience with the coarsening of the public debate, having become the frequent target of right-wing hate campaigns. “At school on the playground in the 1970s, they’d call you ‘monkey’ and tell you to go back to Africa,” she says. “Now the same thing happens again on Twitter.”

Baudet’s relationship with the extreme right is nebulous. While he’s popular with Dutch nationalists and white supremacists, he claims to forcefully reject racism and anti-Semitism, and says he will not allow them in his party in any form. At the same time, he dog-whistles through provocative statements that he later retracts, adds nuance to, or claims were intended ironically. One thing is clear: In his crusade against political correctness, he knows what buttons to push to prompt an attention-generating outcry. In the process, he strikes a chord with those who feel most threatened by the demands of minorities for equal treatment, but who balk at the thought that they might be branded as racist or sexist.

Some years ago, Baudet said he agreed with the controversial “pickup artist” Julien Blanc’s assertion that women desire “to be overpowered and dominated.” Baudet’s novel, Conditional Love, contains a rant by the narrator—who often sounds very much like the author—claiming that women enjoy rape. In March of last year, Baudet stated that cultural self-hatred has led to attempts to “homeopathically dilute the Dutch population with all the peoples of the world, so that the Dutch will cease to exist.” After a media firestorm, Baudet said he wasn’t talking about race but about culture. And yet, this past February, when the party’s second national deputy claimed that the connection between race and intelligence has “long been scientifically proven,” Baudet remarked: “I don’t see what the problem is.”

While Baudet has said that he thinks Wilders’s stringent anti-Islam policies go “too far,” in practice it’s hard to distinguish their positions. “When you look at the world today,” Baudet said in January 2017, “you have to conclude that the nicest countries are the Christian ones.” The columnist Annabel Nanninga, who led the FvD in the Amsterdam City Council elections, said during a televised debate in January, “Islam is a breeding ground of things that are unpleasant…things that are not right, things that make us all unfree.”

“I don’t believe Thierry is a racist,” says Waling, the historian. “He loves to argue, and he thrives on the battle of ideas. He likes to explore taboos—even if they are morally dubious. Of course, that’s easier to do as an intellectual than as a politician. He’s learned that the hard way—for example, when he met with Jared Taylor. I honestly don’t think he’d adopt Taylor’s ideas just like that. His meeting with Taylor allows the media to draw that inference, but I don’t think that’s warranted. True, Thierry is a nationalist. Yet his nationalism is more civic than ethnic. People often forget that, in the conclusion to his dissertation, he called for a multicultural nationalism. In his view, the national narrative can incorporate those who join from elsewhere.”

Lucassen, the professor and expert on migration, is less forgiving. “Baudet has concocted a fairly coherent amalgam of right-wing ideas that include an authoritarian streak,” he says. “His rejection of modern art, for example, reminds one of the Nazi ban on entartete Kunst [‘degenerate art’], or Stalin’s and Mao’s cultural policies. I don’t know how much he actually believes what he says. As a scholar, I don’t really care. What’s important is the way he mobilizes these ideas and how they radicalize public debate. It’s been proven that populists don’t just voice popular discontent—they also define and fuel it.”

Baudet shares some basic notions with the new European right, Lucassen continues: for example, the idea that Europe is prey to a process of Umvolkung—a loss of ethnicity driven by demographic change. “Supposedly, the white European is being displaced. Besides all its racist assumptions, that idea is utter nonsense in statistical and demographic terms,” Lucassen says. The European alt-right further claims that a large part of Africa seeks to migrate to Europe. “Research has shown that that, too, is baloney,” Lucassen says. Finally, there’s the blanket demonization of Islam—“a tune Wilders has been playing since 2004.”

For his part, Waling sees important differences between the Dutch radical right and its European neighbors. “Marine Le Pen’s Front National, for example, is Catholic conservative,” he says. “And it has a stronger racist tendency. Right-wing populism in the Netherlands, on the other hand, has fully incorporated progressive ideas around gay rights and gender equality, and real racism is much less pronounced. At Baudet’s Forum for Democracy, they don’t care about skin color; they are just strongly critical of Islam.” Similarly, Alternative für Deutschland, Germany’s radical right-wing party, is more prone to racist positions, Waling says. Paradoxically, he argues, that’s partly due to Germany’s attempts to deal with its Nazi-era past. The demonization of the radical right in Germany makes it easier for the movement to be dominated by its most extreme elements. By comparison, Waling says, the Dutch political game is more mature, allowing for a more open debate. “Fortuyn and Wilders helped detach radical right-wing ideas from the extreme-right fringe,” he says, giving them democratic legitimacy. “As a result, no one calls for an outright prohibition of a party like Baudet’s.”

“In fact, some have welcomed Baudet’s party with relief,” says Merijn Oudenampsen, a sociologist who’s just finished a dissertation on the rise of Dutch conservatism. “Unlike Wilders, Baudet clearly aspires to occupy power, and can therefore be assumed to play by institutional rules. For one, he’s building Forum like a real political party. This has never been the case with Wilders’s PVV.”

Oudenampsen’s thesis explains how the Dutch radical right came to embrace part of the progressive legacy. Unlike the United States or the United Kingdom, the Netherlands—massively secularized in the 1960s and ’70s—never had a strong conservative movement. As a result, the conservative backlash of the 1980s passed the country by; it wasn’t until the 1990s that Dutch conservatism found its groove. But rather than focus on abortion, sexuality, or gender relations, it embraced the progressive mainstream positions on those issues and identified them with Dutch national culture in order to decry the threat posed by unassimilated immigrants. “The culture wars of the Dutch radical right have championed freedom of expression,” Oudenampsen says. “Linking the idea of political correctness to the Dutch culture of consensus, they’ve called for the need to break taboos.” Since the 1990s, that has prominently included addressing the lack of cultural integration among Dutch Muslims. The European right’s obsession with Muslim immigrants, in other words, preceded that of American conservatives. Oudenampsen points to a transatlantic feedback loop: It was conservative European thinkers who first inspired the American alt-right—which has now become an inspiration for Europeans like Baudet.

What draws people to parties like Baudet’s FvD is, in part, the excitement of the forbidden, Lucassen says. “In the 1960s and ’70s, young people looking to buck the mainstream were drawn to the far left. Now, the market for dangerous ideas is on the right. Someone like Baudet is quite aware of that fact. And so far, he’s been pretty successful in exploiting that potential.”

How great that potential really is remains to be seen, says Koen Vossen, the political historian. For one thing, Baudet will have to build his party. And growth comes with risks. In early February, when Baudet dismissed two prominent FvD members whom he accused of wanting to “hijack” the party, several others wrote in protest, complaining about a lack of internal democracy—and were then expelled. “Undoubtedly, he’ll attract people with controversial backgrounds who say controversial things,” Vossen says. “More importantly, he hasn’t been tested yet. He still has to prove himself as a crisis manager. So far, he’s had it easy—not just politically, but in life generally. That’s also his weakness. The white working class that supports Wilders won’t vote for someone who hasn’t suffered.” Wilders, Vossen points out, has been politically ostracized and convicted several times, while the death threats have prevented him from living a normal life for years. By comparison, Baudet’s career has been a breeze. “So I would not discount Wilders’s electoral future yet,” Vossen says. “We’ll have to see how Baudet deals with his first setbacks.”

Oudenampsen doesn’t rule out that Baudet’s rise may herald a period of increased popularity for the radical right in the Netherlands. Still, even if the FvD surpasses the 15 percent support that the radical right currently enjoys, it will run into other limits, Oudenampsen says. “Dutch political culture is based on coalitions. You simply can’t join a coalition and hold on to radical positions. At one point, the FvD will have to adapt to the culture of negotiation and compromise. That’s the eternal dilemma of the Dutch protest vote. We don’t have a system like the United States, in which someone like Trump can actually come to power.”