Pity the Dutch, if you can. The party led by a far-right, anti-immigrant, anti-Islam populist named Geert Wilders is on course to gain the most votes in next week’s parliamentary elections in the Netherlands. But the journalists who have dubbed Wilders “Holland’s Trump” and “the Donald Trump of the Netherlands” may owe the U.S. president an apology.
Yes, Wilders is running as a divisive outsider who wants to “make the Netherlands great again,” and he rails against his opponents on Twitter. Yes, he has been lauded by a range of far-right U.S. conservatives, from Republican legislators Michele Bachmann and Steve King to “counter-jihad” activists Frank Gaffney and David Horowitz. And, yes, there’s his bleached-blonde bouffant hair.
Nonetheless, when it comes to Islam and Muslims, the bombastic leader of the Party for Freedom makes the president of the United States look positively moderate. Trump, remember, is trying to ban immigrants from six Muslim-majority countries; Wilders wants to stop all Muslim immigration. Trump plans to surveil mosques; Wilders wants to ban mosques. Trump says he will eradicate “radical Islamic terrorism” from “the face of the earth”; Wilders wants to eradicate Islam, period.
Think I’m exaggerating? Wilders claims Islam “is not a religion, it’s an ideology … the ideology of a retarded culture” and a “totalitarian” ideology. “Islam is the Trojan Horse in Europe,” he has declared. “If we do not stop Islamification now, Eurabia and Netherabia will just be a matter of time.” For the Dutch politician, “there is no such thing as ‘moderate Islam.’”
Consider also his tweet from late last year: “#2017in3words. No More Islam.”
No more Islam? How do you get rid of a religion without getting rid of the 1.6 billion people who follow it? This is the language of genocide, plain and simple. Wilders has always claimed that he hates Islam, not Muslims, but his explicit targeting of Muslim immigrants and institutions suggests otherwise.
Trump may have surrounded himself with anti-Islam ideologues but Wilders is an anti-Islam ideologue — and has been, according to his elder (and estranged) brother Paul, for a long time. He visited a kibbutz in Israel in his late teens, and more than 40 subsequent visits to the Jewish state helped convince him that Islam wants to “dominate” Western civilization.
There is also another fundamental and very important difference between Wilders and Trump. I asked former member of Parliament Fadime Orgu, who knew Wilders when they were both members of the center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy between 1998 and 2004, about the constant media comparisons between Wilders and Trump. “He is not like Trump,” laughs Orgu, one of the first Muslims elected to Parliament in the Netherlands. Wilders, she tells me, is a “real politician” — the third longest-serving member of the Dutch Parliament — and he “is clever.”
Indeed he is. Unlike other far-right firebrands, Wilders cloaks his anti-Muslim bigotry in the language of liberalism and the Enlightenment. The Dutch demagogue has won over voters on the left by arguing that the Netherlands’ tolerant stance on social issues such as same-sex marriage is threatened by an “Islamic invasion.”
His attachment to liberalism, however, is as superficial as it is opportunistic. How can you support freedom of speech while calling for a ban on the Quran? How can you support freedom of worship while pledging to close down all mosques? How can you claim to be fighting Islamic extremism in the name of gay rights while allied with France’s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Matteo Salvini, both of whom oppose gay rights?
And how can you claim not to be a racist or xenophobe while smearing and threatening immigrants from Morocco and their Dutch-born children? Wilders launched his election campaign in February by denouncing “Moroccan scum” whom he blamed for making “the streets unsafe.” Earlier, in December, a court in Amsterdam found him guilty of public insult and incitement to discrimination over remarks he made at a rally in March 2014. As Newsweek’s Winston Ross reported in a profile of Wilders:
Flanked by two bodyguards, he walked to a small podium as “Eye of the Tiger” played on a cheap PA system, to scattered cheers. “I ask all of you,” he said, waving his finger at the crowd, “do you want in this city, and in the Netherlands, more or less Moroccans?” His audience gleefully chanted, “Less! Less! Less!,” to which Wilders replied with a smile, “Then we will arrange that.”
Again, is this not the language of genocide?
Wilders has insisted that he isn’t advocating violence. Yet words have consequences, because hate speech can lead to hate crimes. Look at Anders Breivik, the self-described fascist who murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011 as part of his fantasy “civil war” against the “ongoing Islamization of Europe.” Breivik approvingly cited Wilders 30 times in his online manifesto and is reported to have attended a Wilders rally. Wilders may have denounced Breivik’s crime, but he implicitly acknowledged the latter as an ideological fellow traveler when he condemned him for “violently” distorting “freedom-loving, anti-Islamization ideals.”
As in the U.S., the U.K., and (so it seems) France, “anti-Islamization” is a vote-winning platform in the Netherlands. Astonishingly, Wilders’s party is polling neck and neck with Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. Can “Captain Peroxide” pull off one of the biggest political upsets in Europe since the Second World War and secure the Dutch premiership? For now, all of the major Dutch political parties have pledged not to form a coalition government with Wilders’s party. Cas Mudde, a professor at Georgia University and an expert on populism, tells me it is therefore “unlikely” Wilders will be prime minister come next Wednesday, but concedes that “everything is possible.”
Whether or not he becomes prime minister, Wilders has already succeeded in pushing the Netherlands — and by extension, the wider European Union — to the extreme right on issues such as Islam and immigration. “For a long time, Wilders has been able to set the Dutch political agenda,” notes Mudde. In January, for example, in a shameless attempt to woo Wilders’s supporters, Prime Minister Rutte published a full-page newspaper ad calling on people who “refuse to adapt, and criticize our values” to “behave normally, or go away.” Across the continent, and even across the Atlantic, politicians from across the spectrum have begun to follow his lead and borrow from his playbook.
As a result, it is difficult to disagree with Wilders’s own assessment of the future. “Even if I lose this election,” he said last month, “the genie will not go back in the bottle again.”