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Geert Wilders, the Islamophobe some call the Dutch Donald Trump, explained

Wednesday - 15/03/2017 11:58
He'll likely lose today's election. But his brand of populism is winning.

His Twitter page is emblazoned with the phrase “Stop Islam.” He’s called some Moroccan immigrants “scum” who make Dutch streets “unsafe.”

Meet Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician and rabble-rouser known nearly as much for his thick head of peroxide platinum hair as for his Islamophobia.

Wilders, who heads the Freedom Party, is often dubbed the Dutch Donald Trump. But this far-right populist is both more ideological and less impulsive than America’s president. He has called for making the “Netherlands great again,” banning the Quran, taxing the hijab, shutting down all mosques, sealing off Dutch borders to Muslim newcomers, and pulling the Netherlands out of the European Union.

“All the values Europe stands for — freedom, democracy, human rights — are incompatible with Islam,” he said in a 2015 video. It was both shocking and hardly the most controversial thing he’s said.

He is a darling of the American far right and at the forefront of a wave of anti-immigrant populism sweeping Europe. After leading in the polls, his party is now projected to finish third in Wednesday’s Dutch elections, though because of the fractured nature of Dutch parliamentary politics, Wilders himself was unlikely to ever ascend to the prime minister’s office. That doesn’t mean he’s been marginalized: Wilders has already successfully dragged the political conversation in the Netherlands to the right — and may be helping to do the same for the rest of Europe.

Here, then, is a primer on Geert Wilders, the man who has put parliamentary elections in a country that rarely makes the news squarely at the center of the world’s stage.

Wilders rose to prominence on the back of a flamboyant gay politician with strong anti-Muslim beliefs

Dutch Right-Wing Politician Pim Fortuyn
Photo by Michel Porro/Getty Images

Wilders was born in 1963 in Venlo, a largely Catholic town in the southeastern region of the Netherlands, near Germany. His mother was half-Indonesian, a fact he does not much discuss.

At 17, he headed to Israel, and worked on a moshav — an Israeli collective farm. There, he fell in love with Zionism, Jews, and the idea of Israel as a bulwark against the Arab world. (Unlike other far-rightists, his outreach to Jews is not about covering up ancient anti-Semitism — Marine Le Pen’s father, in France, for example, was a known Holocaust minimizer, a fact Le Pen has scrambled to make up for after taking over the Front National.)

When Wilders returned to the Netherlands, he worked for a conservative member of parliament named Frits Bolkestein. Bolkestein recently told the New York Times that his former protégé was akin to the sorcerer’s apprentice — in other words, that Wilders has lost control and has gone too far.


But it was a far more ideological, and far more flamboyant, leader named Pim Fortuyn who truly paved the way for Wilders’s eventual rise.

Fortuyn was an openly gay man, charismatic and attractive. He was a member of the right-wing “Livable Netherlands” party until he was dropped from the party. His dismissal came after he gave an interview in which he promised to keep out Muslim immigrants — “As far as I am concerned, no Muslim will ever come in,” he said. He then formed the Lijst (List) Pim Fortuyn, a party predicated on his personality and a rejection of immigration.

How a gay European sociology professor’s political career explains Donald Trump

Fortuyn was the first Dutch politician to champion, and run with, the idea that the values of liberal democracy are inherently in conflict with those of Islam and immigrants from majority-Muslim nations.

He was also an unabashedly out gay man. (He famously described the taste of semen on live television.) In positioning his out-gay identity against migrants, he attempted to appeal to the way many Dutch liked to see themselves — as exemplars of a very Western, very tolerant, post–sexual revolution society. Indeed, the Netherlands was the first European country to legalize same-sex marriage, in 2001.

As Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in the New Yorker in 2002:

Fortuyn arrived at a form of xenophobia ideally suited to a nation that prides itself on its tolerance. The problem with immigrants is that they are intolerant. In this context, Fortuyn’s flamboyant gayness probably was an asset. After all, if you’re willing to back a man who brags about sleeping with Arab boys, how much of a bigot can you really be?

But Fortuyn’s outspoken positions won him enemies as well. He was assassinated in 2002 by an animal rights activist.

Then two years later, filmmaker Theodore van Gogh was brutally murdered. Van Gogh, along with Somali Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, had created a film called Submission in which words of the Quran were projected onto a woman’s body. Van Gogh was fatally stabbed and shot — an angry letter was stuck into his body with a knife; his assailant was a Muslim man angry over his film. The country was in shock.

After van Gogh’s murder, Hirsi Ali and Wilders were given 24/7 police protection. Hirsi Ali eventually left Holland; Wilders has lived under round-the-clock surveillance ever since.

Fortuyn, van Gogh, and Wilders were all, in some way, responding to an increasing discomfort with the presence of Muslim immigrants in Dutch society.

“If it wasn't for Fortuyn there wouldn't be a Wilders phenomenon,” says political scientist Andrej Zaslove of Radboud University in Nijmegen, Netherlands. “In the 1990s, there was growing frustration over migration issues.” Fortuyn, he says, was the first to frame the issue as “protecting Dutchness” threatened, as Fortuyn put it, by Islam and immigrants.

Wilders is often compared to Trump — but he’s actually much more calculated

Wilders heads a one-man political party, the Freedom Party (Dutch acronym PVV). As Cas Mudde of the University of Georgia explains at Vice, the PVV’s political platform “fits on one page and mainly expresses Islamophobia, anti-EU sentiments, and welfare chauvinism.”

And Wilders’s entire platform really does fit on one 8-by-11 sheet of paper. It includes a call to “de-Islamize the Netherlands,” including “zero asylum seekers and no more immigrants from Muslim countries: we are closing our borders.” It goes on to call for leaving the EU, lowering rents, and giving every citizen a pension at age 65.

The Trump similarities come from Wilders’s increasingly outrageous positions, and his reliance on social media to circumvent the press and speak directly to the people. He uses Twitter far more than public appearances to present his case.

In 2009, Wilders created his own short Islamophobic film, “Fitna,” which was a mishmash of images from 9/11, the Madrid bombings, and words from the Quran. It was seen as incitement; he was temporarily banned from entering Britain after it aired. The entire episode served as publicity, and provocation. In 2012, he wrote a book, Marked for Dead: Islam’s War Against the West and Me.

But “there are two major differences between Trump and Wilders that should be emphasized,” Sarah de Lange, a professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam, told me.

“Wilders is more ideological than Trump. He has a more coherent idea of the way in which society should look and what kinds of problems are most pressing and how they should be addressed,” she said. “That vision is routed in a very strong nativism — nationalism and xenophobia and Islamophobia.”

De Lange compared Wilders to Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart News editor turned Trump campaign chief turned chief White House strategist.

“The second big difference is that Wilders is very rational and very calculated; every move he makes in social media or on the campaign has been thought through in terms of strategy,” she said. He is parsimonious about interviews, for example, and he carefully controls his image. De Lange adds that Wilders, who is a fan of Twitter as much as the American president but carefully considers each tweet, uses the social media platform “to create issues” rather than respond to news or other tweets.

Unlike Trump, Wilders is also a career politician — he is, in fact, the fourth-longest-serving Dutch parliamentarian.

But perhaps the biggest difference is that Wilders, as much as he may want power, may, more than anything, want to exert influence — especially on the international stage. In that respect, he has already succeeded.

His extreme positions have won him a fan base in the US, and he has become something of a regular on the American far-right speakers circuit. He was invited as a guest (not speaker) to the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2009 and to the Reagan Library that same year. At a dinner at the latter, Wilders reportedly told those assembled that Islam is, “first and foremost, an ideology; to be precise, like communism and fascism, a political, totalitarian ideology, with worldwide aspirations.”

In 2010, when an Islamic center was proposed near ground zero, Wilders was brought in as a special guest star speaker at a protest against the proposal. He led the crowd in a chant of, “No mosque here!” and told those assembled that “New York, routed in Dutch tolerance, will never become ‘new Mecca.’”

In April 2015, he was invited by Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King to address the Conservative Opportunity Society, a coalition of right-wing politicians in the US House of Representatives. “There is no moderate Islam. Islam has changed Europe beyond recognition,” Wilders toldthe audience. “Our duty is clear: In order to solve the problem, we have to stop mass immigration to the West from Islamic countries.”

This past summer, he was invited to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. As my colleague Zack Beauchamp wrote at the time, Wilders spoke at a party hosted by internet instigator Milo Yiannopoulos. “I hope that Donald J. Trump wins the election,” Wilders told the crowd. “There is only one Islam, and that Islam has no place in a free society. ... We should de-Islamize our societies. It’s a matter of our existence.”

It’s not just ideas that are flowing between the Netherlands and the US, but money. The Dutch press began reporting in 2014 that far right activist David Horowitz of Freedom Center had donated to Wilders in 2012 and 2014. Daniel Pipes, who runs an ultra-conservative organization called the Middle East Forum, has helped support his legal fees.

Last week, the New York Times reported that funding was far more extensive. Horowitz gave Wilders nearly $150,000 over two years. In an interview with the Times, Horowitz described Wilders as “the Paul Revere of Europe.”

Geert Wilders is a hero,” Horowitz told the reporter. “I think he’s a hero of the most important battle of our times, the battle to defend free speech.”

And just this week, Rep. King 

Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies.

— Steve King (@SteveKingIA) March 12, 2017

What is interesting, though, is that in his Islam bashing, Wilders purports to be championing the cause of liberalism, not conservatism. In a country known for liberal tolerance — of sexuality, of religious freedom — he claims to be in a fight to preserve that identity, not challenge it.

“If you ask Wilders what he is defending, he would honestly say ‘freedom,’ and I think he believes it,” says political scientist Andrej Zaslove. And that’s what makes his message so much more dangerous than Trump’s.

“Geert Wilders is not claiming to be against liberal democracy but claims to defend liberal democracy, he claims to defend rights of women,” says Anton Pelinka, a professor of political science and nationalism at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. Wilders also ardently defends the rights of gays and lesbians. These are far from being traditional, right-wing extremist positions.

“He is a prototype of a new wave of a far-right extremist,” says Pelinka. “In this way, he is quite similar to [France’s] Marine Le Pen. She changed the National Front from a traditional far-right party to a Geert Wilders–like pro-liberal democracy party. [Both say] we have to defend the basic values of Europe ... against those who are not willing and able to adapt to these values.” That means immigrants — especially Muslim immigrants.

Both of these far-right politicians try to siphon voters not just from the right but from the left as well. That appeal to liberal democracy has frightened the other Dutch parties enough that they have begun to speak about culture and migration in a “completely different way,” says Zaslove. “People don’t want to be seen as racist or extremist,” he says, “so instead it is framed as protecting our culture.”

Wilders won’t run the Dutch government. He’s influential all the same.

For months now, Wilders has run neck and neck with current Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Freedom and Democracy Party. But though his poll numbers have slipped in the past few days, for Wilders, success is as much about conveying his message as actually ascending to office.

“It’s all political theater,” Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper, who grew up in the Netherlands, tells me. “He doesn’t like concrete policy.”

Support for Wilders rose during the European economic crisis — like most populists, he thrives on an anti-globalization worldview — but even after the crisis passed, and unemployment diminished, his popularity remained high.

There are two reasons for that: increased Muslim immigration to Europe, and the recent spate of terror attacks. Each terror attack — the ones in Paris and Nice, the Berlin Christmas market attack — seemed to push voters in his direction. Likewise, the refugee crisis further bolstered his opinions — and his support.

He told the Dutch parliament in September 2015 that the refugees were nothing short of an “Islamic invasion of Europe, of the Netherlands.” Polls the week of that speech showed that 54 percent of his countrymen were opposed to accepting more than the 2,000 refugees the Netherlands had originally agreed to take in.

Chantal Suissa-Runne of the New We Foundation, a Dutch organization that works on issues of cultural diversity and understanding, notes that other Dutch parties have moved toward Wilders, rather than away from him.

“They don’t want to be seen as weak,” she says. “People now say things about Islam and immigrants that before wouldn’t have been tolerated.”

That’s perhaps clearest in the election battle itself. Current Dutch Prime Minister Rutte went so far as to take out an advertisement telling Muslim immigrants to “be normal, or be gone.”

Kuper notes that Dutch voters are more likely to be inclined toward Wilders until they actually need to pull the lever for a representative; then they become more practical, and turn back toward politicians who have party platforms beyond nativism.

But Wilders may have also helped influence the conversation beyond the Netherlands’ borders.

“Wilders is, in many respects, the intellectual dominating figure of a post-fascist, extreme right in Europe,” Anton Pelinka of the Central European University told me. “The far right claiming to defend Europe against Islam, and migration, is at the same time undermining the existing Europe, the most peaceful Europe we have ever had — the European Union.”

In a piece he penned for Breitbart, Wilders issued a call for pulling Europe with him to the right.

“We will have to de-Islamize our societies,” he wrote, calling for an end to immigration from Muslim countries, and “preventative detention” as well as “denaturalization and expelling of citizens with dual nationality.” His prescription was not simply for Holland, but for a “political revolution” in Europe.

The next test of just how far to the right Europe is willing to go will come during the April French elections. Marine Le Pen — Wilders’s intellectual fellow traveler — is currently polling a surprising 25 percent going into first-round voting.

 Key: Netherlands

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