Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
Another election, another Islamophobic nationalist with a memorable blond hairdo, another populist about to surprise observers and upset elites by beating the establishment at the polls. That is what the March 15 Dutch general elections look like to many observers on the U.S. side of the Atlantic. And there is some truth to that impression.
The incumbent prime minister, Mark Rutte, of the center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), has led a coalition with the center-left Labor Party (PvdA), its historical ideological antipode, since 2012. Even as the de facto leader of the establishment, Rutte has not managed to take a significant lead in the polls. Geert Wilders, head of the Party for Freedom (PVV), is the outsider candidate receiving significant attention as the potential next Donald Trump. He has managed to stay within reach of Rutte, and even pulled ahead in some early polls. Wilders’ fear of and opposition to Islam are if anything even more extreme than Trump’s. And, like Trump’s, much of Wilders’ policy platform feels like an afterthought designed to maximize electoral appeal without even pretending to adhere to a coherent philosophy of government.
There are stark differences as well. Wilders is a lifelong politician, not a lifelong celebrity. He rose to prominence as a member of parliament elected on the ticket of a traditional center-right party, not as a real-estate developer, casino operator, or yellow-press protagonist. It’s isolation, not aggressive omnipresence, that has marked much of his adult life. And, perhaps most important: unlike Trump, he won’t lead his country’s next government.
A POPULIST TRAJECTORY
Over the course of his career, Wilders has gone from respected mainstream politician to Trumpesque threat to the Dutch establishment. Skipping college, Wilders came to work as a staffer for Frits Bolkestein, the first respected voice in Dutch public discourse to openly declare his skepticism of multiculturalism in Holland. Bolkestein was the leader of the VVD, and Wilders became a member of the Dutch parliament himself for that party in 1998. He was by all accounts a solid player on the team, not rocking the boat that helped him rise through the ranks. But then a series of events appears to have gradually awoken Wilders’ inner radical. First came the September 11 attacks. And less than a year later, the Netherlands suffered its own first major terror attack, when an animal-rights activist assassinated Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn.
Fortuyn was an openly gay populist who rapidly rose to the top of the polls in 2002. His independent campaign relied on full-fledged opposition to the mushy establishment politics of the previous decade, symbolized by a coalition government that involved both the center-right VVD and the center-left PvdA. He also publicly shared his negative views about the role of Islam in Dutch society in unusually harsh terms. After an overwhelming local-election victory in Rotterdam, Fortuyn was on the brink of winning the 2002 general elections when he was murdered. His party—the List Pim Fortuyn—received 17 percent of the vote posthumously, by far the most successful debut performance in modern Dutch history. Fortuyn’s legacy was twofold: he threw Dutch politics into disarray, which continues even today, and he showed that there was a significant constituency for populist, colorful anti-immigration politicians.
That constituency must have seemed alluring to Wilders, then an eloquent member of the right-most party of the establishment. He started focusing his attention on Islamist extremists, particularly after former PvdA researcher turned Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali joined the VVD and became Wilders’ colleague in parliament. That increasingly obsessive positioning halted his march up the party ranks, and he eventually broke with the VVD in 2004 over his outspoken opposition to both headscarves and EU accession talks with Turkey. Shortly afterward the Netherlands witnessed a second traumatizing act of terror: the assassination, by a Moroccan-Dutch Islamist, of film director Theo van Gogh, who had just completed, with Hirsi Ali, a controversial movie project on Islam and violence against women. Around the same time, thanks to death threats targeting Wilders himself, he was surrounded by increasingly strict security measures, restricting his ability to travel freely and rapidly isolating him from everyone outside his inner circle. Meanwhile Wilders had started his own political organization, the PVV: a party in name only, of which Wilders became the sole member and absolute ruler.
The PVV started out with a platform that was almost Anglo-Saxon in the classical liberalism of its economics, but economics was never really important to its appeal. What truly drove the party was its opposition to European integration, to immigration, and to Islam. Widespread discontent about the 2005 proposal to adopt a European constitution helped catalyze Wilders’s new movement, and he secured nine seats (out of 150) in the 2006 general election.
It has now been over ten years since the PVV’s first foray into Dutch electoral politics. That means that the party has an actual political record, unlike Trump or the Brexiteers. In that span, Wilders’ moments of greatest success came shortly after the financial crisis hit: the PVV finished second in the 2009 elections to the European Parliament and won 24 seats in the Dutch Parliament in the 2010 general election. That result led to a minority coalition of VVD and Christian Democrats (CDA) that relied on Wilders’ support for most of its legislative activity, his most direct involvement in the nation’s governance to date. The experiment came to an end after two years, when the PVV started moving to the left on economic policy: Wilders grew unwilling to sign on to entitlement reform and to meet European budget deficit goals. By then, the party was already under strain after one of its MPs quit the party over concerns involving its lack of internal democracy and Wilders’ escalating attacks on minority groups.
Those last two issues have remained central to the PVV’s fate since then. Its attacks on Islam, immigrants, and the EU have, if anything, escalated over time. Long before Trump proposed creating an agency to track immigrant crime in his address to a joint session of Congress, Wilders supported the idea for the Netherlands. He has also long argued that Islam is not a religion but an ideology, allowing him to support banning the Koran while pretending to embrace religious freedom. He opposes the construction of new mosques, wants to close down existing mosques in residential areas, as well as all Islamic schools, supports a tax on head coverings, and has said he wants “fewer Moroccans” in the Netherlands. (For some reason, this last item is the one that got him into the most serious legal trouble under the Netherlands’ speech laws.) As for the EU: he has gone from rejecting an ever-closer union to demanding “Nexit.”
Long before Trump proposed creating an agency to track immigrant crime in his address to a joint session of Congress, Wilders supported the idea for the Netherlands.
The PVV’s lack of internal democracy has continued as well. Although Wilders’ hold over the party facilitates a uniform message, he has—not unlike Trump—struggled to attract competent people and dealt with a never-ending stream of scandals. Members and would-be members of parliament have quit the party, committed fraud, been accused of domestic violence, head-butted other customers at bars, engaged in sexual assault in the military, made up previous positions and doctorates, and threatened to urinate into their neighbors’ mailboxes. (There have been no known secret calls with the Russian ambassador.)
A LIMITED APPEAL
All of these problems have not hurt Wilders with his base. Although the rest of the political spectrum has fragmented around him, he has held more or less steady around 10–15 percent of the vote. It is that core of voters who agree with him on his signature issues that had him leading some early polls this year. But while the VVD in particular has been willing to adopt some of Wilders’ rhetoric for electoral gain, that same dedication to a small number of extreme positions has made him unacceptable to other major parties. Come March 16, he may have nominally won the election and held 25 seats in Parliament, but there will not be 76 MP coalition to sustain a first Wilders administration. And there will still be only nine PVV senators in the Dutch parliament’s upper house (out of 75) and nowhere near 29 others who will want to cooperate with them.
That is not to say that Dutch politics are back to a state of calm. As many as five different parties (an all-time high) may need to join up to form a majority government. Straight-up proportional representation will deliver what a skeptic might expect: a customized political movement for practically every voter, with seats for a senior citizen party (50 Plus), a green party (Green Left), an animal rights party (PvdD), a Turkish nationalist party (DENK), and a pro-Russia party (Forum for Democracy). But the complicated bargaining process that will eventually produce a workable majority is unlikely to trigger radical policies, test democratic institutions, or lead to the continued unraveling of the European Union. If those are the changes you are hoping for, Wilders’ ally Marine Le Pen may be a better bet.