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
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