Still in shock over the “populist victories” of Brexit and Donald Trump in 2016, the world is zeroing in on the small country of the Netherlands as it kicks off a year of elections that, according to the most sensationalist accounts, could determine the fate of European integration if not democracy.
There is a lot going on in Dutch politics right now – the disappearance of big parties, the implosion of the Social Democrats, and the ascendance of GreenLeft, which might become the biggest left-wing party in the Netherlands – but most international media have paid an inordinate amount of attention to the radical right-wing Geert Wilders and his “race for first place” with Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD).
In American media Wilders is often described as “the Dutch Trump,” whereas most European media place him in the broader group of European populist radical right, together with Heinz-Christian “HC” Strache’s Austrian Freedom Party (ÖVP), Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN), and Frauke Petry’s Alternative for Germany (AfD).
Yet the truth is less convenient. Geert Wilders is a unique politician, who shares some features with Trump, others with Le Pen and Co., and a few with none at all.
In addition to a signature hairstyle (the Dutchman sports a blinding, bleach blonde slick-back), Wilders and Trump share an obsession with Twitter. But whereas Trump is an emotional tweeter, known for unleashing ill-constructed and ill-informed Twitter rants, Wilders has traditionally been cool and collected – though he does block almost anyone who criticizes him (including this author). He sends one or two well-crafted tweets for maximum effect, and it works. For years he has dominated the Dutch political debate through his tweets, which get picked up by the media and force mainstream politicians to respond to his latest “outrageous” remark. Unlike Trump, who was always willing to be interviewed on TV during the campaign, Wilders hardly ever agrees to an interview. Why would he? He gets all the media attention he wants through his tweets, and he keeps complete control over the message.
“Both Trump and Wilders are riding the coattails of movements that they played virtually no role in.”
Their different Twitter styles aren’t just about personality but also, and more importantly, about their respective political experience. Trump is a political amateur, who still as president seems uninterested in developing the skills of a good politician, whereas Wilders is a professional politician, and a very skillful one at that. In fact, Wilders is the fourth-longest-serving member in the current parliament, currently in his 19th year. He knows Dutch parliamentary politics inside and out, tends to be well-informed, and is a strong debater. He lives for the real politics, not just for the political rallies.
What the two do have in common, however, is that both Trump and Wilders are riding the coattails of movements that they played virtually no role in. While Trump wasn’t active in the Tea Party, many of his issues and supporters were — including right-wing media like Breitbart News and Fox News’ Sean Hannity. Similarly, Wilders was still a back-bencher in the conservative VVD when right-wing populist Pim Fortuyn took Dutch politics by storm in the early 2000s, infusing it with new levels of electoral volatility, changing the issues and tone of the political debate forever. While Wilders is fundamentally a different politician than Fortuyn, who shared a flair for the dramatic and a disinterest for “normal politics” with Trump, the PVV profits from the continued dominance of sociocultural issues, most notably the three Is: immigration, integration, and Islam.
Ideologically and organizationally Wilders is perhaps closer to Trump than to Le Pen. The PVV is literally a one-man party, Wilders is the only official member, and he’s beholden to no one. He expels anyone who challenges his power and takes all decisions by himself, consulting only a small group of loyalists. For instance, PVV MPs received the newest election manifesto just hours before the press, having had no influence on it. The program fits on one page and mainly expresses Islamophobia, anti-EU sentiments, and welfare chauvinism. In sharp contrast, the FN is an exceptionally well-organized party, with tens of thousands of members all across France (and beyond), and a very elaborate election program, which is integrated into a decades-old tradition of French radical-right ideology.
But Wilders does share much with Le Pen. Like the FN leader, he attacks the establishment from the outside, not the inside. Wilders is also a dedicated politician and a true believer, who is convinced that the West is fighting a war for survival with “Global Islam” – also a guiding principle for Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon. Given that Wilders has been under 24/7 protection of the Dutch Secret Service for 13 years now, this is the defining issue for him and keeps him in politics, as he literally has no other choice.
His ideological core is much more modest than Le Pen’s, however, and closer to the radical right instincts of Trump and his top adviser. And though he is clearly enamored by Trump, regularly tweeting his support and even incorporating some Trumpisms (like “losers”), Wilders knows his future lies in long-term alliances with European radical-right parties, which existed long before Trump came on the scene, and will be around long after his presidency.
Cas Mudde is an associate professor at the School of Public and International Affairs of the University of Georgia and researcher in the Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX) at the University of Oslo. His most recent books include “On Extremism and Democracy in Europe” (2016), “SYRIZA: The Failure of the Populist Promise” (2017), “The Populist Radical Right: A Reader” (2017) and “Populism: A Very Short Introduction” (2017).