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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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Amsterdam 
"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. 

Wilders is often cast, along with Marine Le Pen in France, as a hangdog reactionary, a voice of the aging white working classes of the immigration-swamped welfare states of northwestern Europe, a tribune of the losers of globalization. He is actually not typical of much. Wilders stopped school at age 18. He sports a wild peroxide-blond pompadour. Much of his family comes from “India,” as the Dutch called the much-lamented Indonesian colony they abandoned in 1949. He traveled as a young man to Israel and worked on a kibbutz. That experience became a lodestar of his political thinking, reinforced by his twin obsessions: sovereignty (which he likes) and Islam (which he does not). Islam is the one issue on which Wilders is unambiguously radical. He has suggested taxing headscarves, has attacked fellow legislators of Turkish and Moroccan background who hold two passports, and considers the Koran a “fascistic” book, an utterance for which he had to defend himself in a celebrated court case.

Wilders, 50, comes from Venlo, in Catholic Limburg, but his conservatism, if conservatism it is, is not at all of a traditionalist kind. Wilders cares a lot about fighting homophobia and protecting the Dutch welfare state. In this he is one of many Dutch politicians shaped by the example of Pim Fortuyn. A flamboyant gay academic, Fortuyn rose out of nowhere in the months after September 11, 2001, arguing that immigrant violence and Muslim piety were incompatible with the freewheeling Dutch lifestyle that he considered the country’s proudest achievement. Fortuyn might have become prime minister had he not been assassinated on the eve of the 2002 elections by an animal-rights activist, Volkert van der Graaf, who felt Fortuyn was using Muslims as “scapegoats.” Two years later, the filmmaker and anti-Muslim cracker of jokes Theo van Gogh was knocked off his bicycle and stabbed to death by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch Islamist of Moroccan background. After multiple death threats the Somali-born feminist politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali left the country. 

Wilders has lived under heavy police protection for more than a decade. Credible threats have been made against him on many occasions, and plots broken up to take his life with bombs and guns. The spokesman for a group called Sharia4Holland called for giving “this dog of the Romans” the same treatment van Gogh got. More recently, hundreds of jihadists have left the Netherlands to fight in Syria, including one—“Khalid from Almere”—who can be seen on right-wing websites posing with heads he has separated from infidel bodies. (Wilders’s party is the top vote-getter in Almere.) All this immigration-related violence has changed the country from top to bottom. It was announced the week of Obama’s visit that van der Graaf will be released in May after serving 12 years of an 18-year term. The usual reaction among the Dutch has been incredulity that they once lived in a country that sentenced people so leniently. 

 

The Netherlands is the country in Europe in which a negative assessment of Muslim immigration is most openly voiced. The liberal VVD party’s posters for March’s elections in Rotterdam read: “In Rotterdam we speak Dutch.” Even before Wilders’s outburst, worries about the country’s 400,000 or so first- and second-generation Moroccans were freely expressed. Moroccans commit a wildly dis-proportionate percentage of street crime—40 percent have been arrested by age 24, according to a notorious 2011 report from the Erasmus University of Rotterdam. Somalis and Antilleans may commit more crimes per capita, but there are more Moroccans. On the true-crime series Opsporing Verzocht, the perp the policemen run down at the end of the show is almost always some Moroccan kid, or a “Mocro,” to use the street slang. The tabloids are full of stories about Moroccan gangs robbing nursing homes. “These places are defended as if they’re Fort Knox,” one of Wilders’s candidates told me. An anti-Wilders march held in Amsterdam and attended by the mayor, Eberhard van der Laan, was supposed to be dedicated to the proposition that “We are all Moroccans,” but wound up marred by signs reading: “Wilders—Dog of Israel.” 

There are signs that Moroccans are slowly becoming part of the Dutch mainstream. The PvdA once claimed the whole Moroccan (and Turkish) electorate. To an extent, the unanimous vote of ethnic minorities carried the left through the years in which it was losing the votes of the Dutch working class. But today, young immigrants’ children are abandoning the PvdA, some for the D66, some for new Islamist parties. Wilders’s postelection remarks were greeted by a Twitter campaign in which stylish-looking young Dutch Moroccans held up their passports under the words (in English) “Mocros be, like, born here.” Dutch attitudes towards their young Moroccan fellow-citizens are full of pathos, as were those of Americans towards violent black youths during the crime wave of the late 1970s. In many quarters, a genuine despair about Moroccans co-exists with a genuine wish to assimilate them. 

James Kennedy, an American-born historian at the Free University in Amsterdam, was struck by a question nobody asked: whether Wilders meant “Moroccan” as a legal description of Moroccan citizens or an ethnic description of certain Dutch citizens. Kicking the former out was fine; kicking the latter out was unthinkable. Alas for clarity, the two definitions overlap. Dual citizenship is common. Wilders really does want fewer Moroccans in almost every sense of the word. He intends to stop fresh immigration from Muslim countries. He would like to encourage those already in Holland without Dutch passports to leave. And he hopes that a law passed more than a decade ago which permits stripping terrorists of dual nationality can be adapted and used for all crimes. So there has been a shift: Wilders used to criticize a body of belief. Now he criticizes a body of people. 

Wilders, though, does not see this as such a shift at all. When I last interviewed him, in 2005, he was already living under death threats and had just left the free-market/liberal VVD party. He said at the time that his new party would be very different—and very distant—from the French National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen, with his habit of baiting Jews about the Holocaust, or the Flemish Bloc of the Belgian separatist Filip Dewinter, with his anti-immigrant vitriol. “That’s not me,” he said. And yet last winter, Wilders agreed to an electoral pact with Le Pen’s daughter and successor, Marine, and was scheduled to speak in late March before Dewinter’s group in Antwerp until he canceled amidst controversy over his Moroccan remarks. He now speaks of “parties like mine” in France, Sweden, Austria, and Italy, which he calls “patriot” parties. While such parties differ in tactics and values—Wilders would leave both the European Union and the euro currency, for instance, while Italy’s Northern League would leave the euro but not the EU—he unquestionably now sees himself as part of a Europe-wide movement. The anti-Wilders daily NRC Handelsblad now holds that the question is no longer whether Le Pen is too right-wing for Wilders’s tastes, but whether Wilders is too right-wing for Le Pen’s. What has changed: Wilders, those parties, or the world?

“I think all three,” he says. “Let’s be happy that nothing stays the same. Certainly there is a big difference between Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter. You cannot get so successful and so big in polls if you are extreme or radical.” This seems to be a core belief of his, that above a certain size there is no such thing as a radical party, and he sounds sincerely hurt by the Hitler comparisons and all the other imputations of radicalism. “Did we change? Well, of course,” he says, but he adds, “Not so much on the issues. I still would not work closely with parties that come close to racism, or hatred of Israel or Jews.” 

It is a secret to Wilders’s success that he so often confounds our expectation that an extremist be someone who makes you go, “Yikes.” Wilders seldom seems angry or out of control. There is a humor, albeit a bitter humor, in his description of how Dutch immigration policy was handed over to the European Union’s bureaucracy. “Today, when it comes to 90 percent of our immigration policy,” he says, “there is a leftish liberal hippie lady from Sweden, Cecilia Malmström, the European commissioner in charge of immigration. And she is in charge of our immigration policy. Nobody in Holland knows who she is. Nobody in Holland voted for her. And she’s in charge of what we do on immigration.” Wilders has used Malmström again and again on the hustings as a symbol of violated sovereignty. 

Wilders has an unusual freedom from “spin.” One expects an honest, if slanted, account from politicians regarding the state of their society—but one almost never expects the truth regarding their own prospects. Speaking to Wilders days after the minder-minder incident, I found him strikingly candid about the damage it had done him. “It got more turmoil than before,” he said. “I have to be honest, Thursday, Friday .  .  . there was a lot of criticism internally. For the first time, I said, ‘I don’t know where this will end, but whatever happens, I will continue.’ ” 

It is this direct and straightforward side, as much as any dark and devious side, that caused Wilders trouble. From a Machiavellian perspective, it was a foolhardy thing for him to raise Moroccans the way he did. Every last Dutchman who considers North African immigration the country’s largest problem will vote for him, and has long known he will vote for him. What Wilders needed to do—and what his high percentages in the polls show he has been doing—was harvest as many votes as possible among the vast number of Hollanders uncomfortable with globalization and for whom establishment politicians are, for whatever reason, unwilling to speak. 

This may well be a majority. The vote against the European treaty in 2005 was 62 percent to 38. Every day in the newspapers, Dutch people see their traditions run down. Consider Zwarte Piet. Although the Dutch celebrate Christmas, the highlight of their holiday season comes earlier in December with the festival of Sinterklaas—Santa Claus. To say “highlight of their holiday season” is to put it mildly. Sinterklaas is the symbol of Dutch childhood. Even more than clogs and raw herring, it may be the most Dutch thing about being Dutch. There are Sinterklaas societies and a Sinterklaas magazine. There are women in middle age who (much like our own frequenters of Christmas stores in the Midwest) spend much of their year planning for Sinterklaas. 

The Dutch tradition varies slightly from our own. Where our Santa Claus gives coal to bad little boys and girls, the Dutch Santa Claus has a coal-black sidekick, Zwarte Piet, or “Black Pete,” who carries bad little children off to Spain in a sack. A rapper has compared this tradition to the Holocaust, and a young immigrant performance artist from Curaçao named Quinsy Gario, rich with the cultural sensitivity of his twenty-some-odd years, has led a campaign called “Zwarte Piet Is Racisme.” 

A few years ago, such remarks would have been derided. Yet it was not the young multiculturalists but the prime minister Mark Rutte who became the subject of ridicule in the press when he said his friends in the Antilles were fortunate that when they dressed up as Zwarte Piet they didn’t have to ash their faces. A majority of people in Amsterdam today are of non-Dutch background, and momentum is gathering to either ban the Zwarte Piet tradition or turn it into some kind of festival of diversity, with Piets of different colors. In March, Ineke Strouken of the Dutch Center for Popular Culture told a national newspaper that she had been involved in such discussions since last fall. These things are not a big deal, except that they are a big deal. Strouken told the press that she is misunderstood, and that she gets mail from people threatening to behead her. 

These are the subjects Wilders talks about well. He caters to people who think a lot about Sinterklaas. Most Dutch politicians cater to people who think about the World Economic Forum in Davos. While the Netherlands has come through the financial and economic crisis relatively well, life has gotten worse for ordinary people in a whole bunch of ways. Unemployment has risen to its highest level in 20 years (nearly 9 percent). The country’s sales tax is at 21 percent. In 2010, Wilders commissioned a study from NYFER, the Forum for Economic Research, on the effects of immigration and found, controversially, that non-Western immigrants to the Netherlands cost the country $10 billion a year. “We have to make a choice,” he said in March. “Either we will be an immigration country, or we will have a welfare state.” When he gets rolling he has a gift for bundling all of these and many other problems into a brief against Europe. While he condemns Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Wilders—who has visited Ukraine many times—was just as harsh against members of the European parliament who incited the Ukrainian protesters. 

“People are fed up that, in the Netherlands, the government has austerity programs, is raising taxes, while at the same time they send billions to Eastern and Southern Europe.” He resents the $15 billion EU package for Ukraine, and EU efforts to keep Greece and Cyprus in the euro currency zone, which he calls a one-size-fits-none policy. “People are fed up with it. They don’t feel ‘European.’ There is no European people, so there is no European democracy.”

Why, then—with such a rich variety of European issues to talk about and such a fine-tuned repertoire of one-liners for winning votes with—did Wilders alienate people with his comment about Moroccans? “It’s the same problem, Moroccans and Europe—it’s the same. Today we are not in charge of our own borders. We want to regain national sovereignty. Budget, borders, money, immigration, laws. I am not saying we should accept nobody under any circumstances,” he says, meaning immigrants, “but we should decide ourselves. We signed our sovereignty away and I want it back.” 

Dutch is the language from which we get our word “boss.” The way he described his wish to his followers on the night of March 19 was to say he wanted “that we be the boss again in our own country.” In a way that few of Wilders’s foes probably understood at the time, what made the evening ominous was not so much what Wilders said—he has said such things before. It was how the crowd behaved. When politics grows heated and unpredictable, followers can lead. Things take on a life of their own. Note how, during the Ukraine crisis, the moment of maximal Western alarm and maximal Western resolve came not after any pronouncement or maneuver by Vladimir Putin but after the people of Crimea voted overwhelmingly (even if not so overwhelmingly as reported) in a referendum to join Russia. 

The clash between Wilders and the Dutch political establishment, although it has over the past decade been largely a matter of reciprocal posturing, could now be growing more serious. Both pro-Europeans and anti-Europeans share a belief in what we could call the conservation of sovereignty. Any power the historic nation-states lose is acquired by Europe and can be “taken back,” undamaged, by the nation-states. Hardened Brussels bureaucrats believe this as ardently as the most dug-in supporters of Wilders. But it is wrong. The “European project” is about dismantling states, and then reconstituting the powers they used to wield at the level of the EU. The two processes do not necessarily take place simultaneously. It may be that Europe is not competent to replace the nation-state in its most important tasks. And it may be that, through disuse, nation-states will have lost their capacity to take up the work of governing again.

A few days after Wilders asked whether Dutch people wanted more Moroccans or fewer, David Pinto, the Moroccan-born director of the country’s Inter-Cultural Institute, published a disturbing op-ed in the daily De Volkskrant. “With a level of confidence verging on certitude,” Pinto wrote, “I can say that in no case would the answer ever be ‘More.’ ” A more troubling question for Pinto was “What violation did Wilders commit, exactly, that was the cause for so much rage?” That really is a poser. A tradition-minded country could respond that Wilders’s question was just wrong, that it’s simply not done, that it ought to be a matter of common sense, and that’s that. But for decades, public debate in the Netherlands has snickered at tradition whenever it has been invoked in matters of sex, religion, sovereignty, the nation, and much more besides. Where does anyone get the idea that it can be summoned back now?

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West.

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