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Geert Wilders and the future of European populism

Apr 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 30 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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"Do you know this man?” Geert Wilders asked, gesturing at a closed-caption screen set up in his heavily guarded office in the Dutch parliament. “Some kind of fundraising guy who just became your ambassador?” The new U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands is Timothy Broas, a wealthy “bundler” for many Democratic campaigns. It was the week of President Obama’s visit in late March, and Broas was using the occasion to make his first major pronouncement. He warned that a recent statement by a certain Dutch politician about Moroccans “conflicts with Dutch values.”

Geert Wilders by Jason Seiler

Jason Seiler

That politician would be Wilders. On the night of municipal elections the week before, he had greeted supporters in the Tijd café and—more important—launched his party’s campaign for the upcoming election of Dutch representatives to the European parliament. Wilders asked the riled-up crowd three questions. Did they want more or less—meer of minder—of the European Union? “Min-der! Min-der! Min-der!” the crowd began to howl. Of course they wanted less of the EU. The whole country had said so again and again. The Netherlands had voted almost two-to-one against a European constitution when it was put to the voters in a referendum in 2005, and yet its politicians had kept handing over more and more sovereignty to officials—“scoundrels,” Wilders calls them—in Brussels. Wilders’s PVV, the most stridently anti-EU party in the country, held a commanding lead in the polls. 

Wilders then asked a second question. Did the people in the room want more or less of the PvdA, the country’s center-left party? Again: “Min-der! Min-der! Min-der!” You didn’t need the crowd to tell you that. The PvdA’s own voters had already done so. It had suffered an electoral wipeout that night, losing Amsterdam, Groningen, Utrecht, The Hague—cities where a non-PvdA government would until recently have been unthinkable. The whole electorate wanted less of the damn PvdA. Once a benefit-bestowing powerhouse that commanded a third of the 150 seats in the national assembly, it has lost touch with the country’s working class. Although the party still serves as a junior partner in the national coalition, it would take only 13 seats—fewer than a tenth—if elections were held today. 

It was replaced in the hearts of an increasingly upper-middle-class left by D66. That party was named after the year it was founded, and it has never traveled far from the mid-1960s limousine liberalism of then-New York mayor John Lindsay—a politician to whom the D66 leader, the equine Alexander Pechtold, bears a striking stylistic resemblance. So the PvdA are the leading victims of what the pollster Maurice De Hond has called “the slow-motion demolition of the Dutch political system,” just as Wilders seemed, until that night in March, to be its greatest beneficiary. 

Wilders had one more question, though. After explaining that his party rested on straight talk and avoided political correctness, he asked the room: “Do you want, in this city and in the Netherlands, more or fewer Moroccans?” Wilders would explain in an interview a few minutes later—the post facto clarification is his political signature—that he didn’t mean all Moroccans, only the criminal ones. But the room did not insist on that qualification and hollered, “Min-der! Min-der! Min-der!” as lustily as it had for the other questions. 

The fallout was almost immediate. One German news agency compared Wilders to the Nazi rabble-rouser Joseph Goebbels. Two of his 14 members of parliament exited the party. So did two city councilors and one of his European candidates. Then Wilders’s adversaries began to file judicial complaints against him for discrimination, 500 of them in a single day in the left-wing city of Nijmegen. The other parties debated whether to freeze Wilders’s party out of any involvement in governing, through what is called a cordon sanitaire. (Labour said yes; D66 said it would be undemocratic.) Wilders fell from 27 percent to 22 percent in the polls. 

It was a signal that there are limits to what a populist candidate can say—but also that those limits might be getting less and less constraining. Five percentage points is not that many. As the days passed, it appeared that Wilders might be in the process of winning them back. 

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