The past year has shown that western democracies are increasingly vulnerable to a growing tide of populism and nativism. Brexit, the British vote to leave the European Union, proved to be an early warning of a trend that also swept Donald Trump into office. Now Europe is hunkering down for the next wave.
Tomorrow’s Dutch elections are the first big test. Geert Wilders — a bombastic, blond-haired populist — seems to be a cross between the hard-right nativism of Trump and the liberal populism of Bernie Sanders. He may very well lead all other candidates when the votes are counted.
However, the nature of Dutch politics is such that even if he gets 20 percent of the vote (a big number by Dutch standards), he may be unable to form a coalition government. In an election campaign influenced by American money and Russian manipulation, the world is watching closely to see what it means for the upcoming elections in France and Germany.
In this podcast, WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman talks to Financial Times reporter and columnist Simon Kuper. A British national himself, Kuper has been closely following Europe’s rightward tilt.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
Populism and nativism have certainly come to America. The Brexit vote was a kind of canary in a coal mine for the US and for the world. And now that wave of populism and extreme nationalism seems to be spreading throughout the rest of Europe. Marine Le Pen continues to make inroads in France, and in the Netherlands Geert Wilders could take control of one of Europe’s most liberal democracies. To get a better view of what’s happening in Europe and in the Netherlands specifically, I’m joined by Simon Kuper of the Financial Times.
Simon, welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Simon Kuper: Hi. How are you?
Jeff Schechtman: First of all, tell us a little bit about who Geert Wilders is.
Simon Kuper: Well, Geert Wilders calls himself the Dutch Trump, but he has been a nativist politician since 11 years now. He leads a party that is way more anti-Islam than Trump is, he proposes closing mosques in the Netherlands, banning the Quran, shutting borders and leaving the European Union, so he really appeals to white Dutch people who feel that they’ve lost their country. Some of that will be familiar to Americans but he’s like Trump, he’s a great Twitter performer, he’s very articulate, he’s immediately recognizable because like Trump, he has this long blonde hair although in his case, I think it’s real although dyed. He’s very entertaining when you see him on TV. I met him in person last year and I have to say, in person he is witty, he’s intelligent, he’s good company.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that has been written about him is how smart he is, how effective he is as a politician.
Simon Kuper: Yeah, I mean he knows how to put his finger on the sore spot as the Dutch say. He continued, there was in a whole network of nativists a leader in 2001-02, who was Pim Fortuyn, who just when September 11 happened, came up and started attacking Islam, called it a backward religion, got very popular and then was assassinated by a Green activist within months of his rise. Wilders has already taken over that role and he found that there was a lot of hidden discontent about immigration, about Islam, and he has written in a very articulate way. He has total control of his party; he is the only member of his party. You can vote for the party but you cannot join it and so he has complete control over everything that happens. But I would say this guy is not going to be prime minister because in the US, you pretty much have a two-party system. In Holland, there’s about 15 parties now, the government is always a coalition. You need more than 50% of the votes to form a successful coalition. Wilders is going to get, say, 15 to 20% and nobody wants to rule with him. So he, I think, is going to remain a kind of critic, somebody who says this whole thing doesn’t work, you’re all doing the wrong thing. He’s not going to be prime minister and I’m not even sure he wants to be prime minister. I’m not sure that’s his goal.
Jeff Schechtman: Given that he is only going to get 20% of the votes roughly, to what extent does that view represent a really strong influence in Dutch politics?
Simon Kuper: It’s definitely an influence. I mean it’s forced the established parties to tack to the right on issues like immigration and integration of Islam but most of the Dutch parties are pretty small, they’re split. So, if you add up the center right parties, they’re bigger than Wilders. If you add up the left wing parties, they’re bigger than Wilders. You could make a Green coalition that’s bigger than Wilders. People say he’s going to win the Dutch election, foreigners say that but that’s only because yes, he might become the first biggest party, he might not but he might. Becoming the biggest party is not that important. It’s about having a coalition. He could be the biggest party only because he’s the only serious nativist party, there’s nobody else on that flank. He has it to himself. He influences the debate, he pushes the other parties to the right on these social race issues, but that’s his main role. I also think he wants to speak more to Americans to some degree, to Israelis, and to be a player in global politics. I mean, he went to the Republican Convention in Cleveland. Holland is a small country, being the Dutch prime minister is not a very powerful job because you’re representing a coalition, your army is not very significant. It’s more like leading a group of people who disagree; you don’t have that much power. But what he wants is to be heard by people like Benjamin Netanyahu, to be heard by American neocons like David Horowitz, to get funding from them, to give speeches that are heard around the world and so in a way, he’s more an international politician than he is a Dutch politician.
Jeff Schechtman: How much of what he’s appealing to is as a result of the waves of immigration and refugees that have come into the country and how much represents a kind of economic nationalism for the Netherlands?
Simon Kuper: When I grew up in Holland in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was very white. There were small groups of Turks, Moroccans, people from the Dutch Caribbean, but there weren’t many and they weren’t that visible. Now, more than 10% of the population is nonwhite immigrants, more or less. Suddenly, the biggest cities: Rotterdam and Amsterdam have a very different look than they did when I was a child. You see mosques, for example, and you see all sorts of ethnic shops, and for some people that’s been a shock. Yes, he has written that and then of course, the fear of terrorism which came up after 9/11, that has been an important part of his appeal. What you don’t have in America is the idea of the European Union that is taking decisions for us and is usurping our national rights, that’s a big thing for all the European populists. But on economic nationalism, in the US you have Trump saying let’s be protectionists and that’s not a complete insane strategy for the US because you have a very large domestic market. The Netherlands has always traded with foreign countries, it’s a very open economy. A big part of the Dutch economy is just sending goods into and out of Germany, which is the world’s biggest manufacturing exporter. A lot of Holland is just tailed to having trains coming from Germany with stuff, we put it on a boat in the harbor and send it to China. So, the idea of closing off the Netherlands, having a kind of protectionist Trump agenda, nobody wants that, that wouldn’t fly, that’s not what he’s proposing either. The other big difference with the US Republicans is that he’s quite left wing on economics and social protection because his voters tend to be poor or white and they want a strong state, they want high unemployment benefits. They want good healthcare from the state. So, he’s in favor of protecting all that, he’s not really much of a free marketeer when it comes to these kinds of social issues. So, he’s this weird combination of socioeconomically quite left wing and then on identity politics very right wing.
Jeff Schechtman: Where does he stand with respect to the European Union?
Simon Kuper: He hates it; he wants to leave. He favors the Nexit as it’s known but there’s very little constituency for that. In Britain, you do have this idea: we’re a big country so we can cope without the EU but the Netherlands, one of the founding members of the EU as I say, a small country totally dependent on international trade; if the Netherlands leaves the EU, nobody is going to hear the Dutch voice in the world whereas through the EU, the Netherlands has some influence. It has a seat at the table of the biggest economic power. It’s not going to happen that the Netherlands is going to leave the EU, unless the EU completely collapses as a result of France pulling out in the wake of a Marine Le Pen presidency after Britain, but the Netherlands will be one of the last countries still on the ship.
Jeff Schechtman: There was a story last week about the potential influence of American money, American dollars coming into this election. Is that really significant and is there any attempt at Russian influence in this election?
Simon Kuper: Yeah, I mean Wilders has always raised a lot of money in the US from neocons, from people who think that Europe is about to become an Islamic caliphate and he plays up to that fear. He says, I’m here to protect Europe. When I interviewed him, we sat in his office under a portrait of Churchill so he presents to be the European Churchill, saving Europe from a new kind of fascism. He gets these donations, he has to fight a lot of legal cases because he’s constantly breaking the Constitution, which forbids discrimination; he says nasty things about ethnic groups. He has a lot of legal cases to fight and he spends American money on that. It doesn’t really make much difference. What you don’t have in Europe – which you get in the US – is kind of wall to wall advertising during an election campaign. We don’t really have any of that, so it’s not that significant in that way. But I think what the funding from people like Horowitz, and Pamela Geller has also been a big supporter for Wilders at least as a propogandist, what that shows is that’s really a lot of his constituency. These are the people he cares about, that he’s trying to reach and influence. The French far right is quite anti-Semitic in its tradition. Wilders is not; he’s very pro-Israel. He worked on a kibbutz when he was in his late teens and he’s always been one of the loudest voices for the Likud style politics in Israel, promoting that in Europe. He wants to be part of that conversation in the world and he has become so. In a way, he is heard almost as much in these American circles as he is in the Netherlands.
Jeff Schechtman: What about Russian influence, if any?
Simon Kuper: Russia, you asked about that. The Dutch are very worried. It’s hard for Russia to kind of spread fake news in Dutch because they don’t know many people who speak Dutch and there doesn’t seem to be much sign of that happening. But they’re going to count all the ballots by hand on March 15 because they’re afraid of Russia manipulating the voting booths. What Russia would like is for Wilders to win very big to become by far the largest party and then there would be a powerful anti-EU voice in the Netherlands as well. There’s a lot of anxiety and the Russians have been hacking Dutch state institutions. The Dutch do know that but they don’t seem to have the same influence on the election as you had in the US.
Jeff Schechtman: What kind of coalition might emerge after this election assuming that Wilders obviously doesn’t become prime minister but does get 15, 16, 20 percent of the vote?
Simon Kuper: If he becomes the biggest party, then traditionally he will have the job of trying to form a coalition. So, people will say okay, fair, give it a go. Then he’s going to say, of course in my government we’re going to ban Islam in the Netherlands, close the borders and leave the European Union, which is his program and the other parties say well, we don’t want to be in coalition with that and so he will fail to form a coalition. He’ll then blame the other parties, they’ll blame him. Then, the other parties will give it a go or if Wilders is not the largest party and the center right VVD is the largest party, the other parties then get their go. They sit down together, there’ll be months and months of coalition talks and in the end, there’ll be a very big coalition, probably four or five parties going from center right to center left with maybe the Greens in there as well and just some tiny parties in there to get to 50 plus percent of the vote. It’ll be a very complicated coalition but the thing is, we have had that kind of thing in the Netherlands before. There have always been big coalitions with several parties and you have something similar in Germany. You have a center right, center left coalition in Germany between the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats; the Dutch also have center right and center left coalitions now. Imagine if in the US, instead of the Republicans and Democrats, you had ten parties and there was a Trump party, there was a Conservative party, there was a Hillary party, a Bernie party, each representing a small slice of the political spectrum, that’s what the Netherlands looks like.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent will his policies have an influence, regardless of what that coalition looks like?
Simon Kuper: He does kind of keep the heat on the party, so they almost all are mean about Brussels. Almost all say immigrants must adapt or leave, almost all are in favor of quite stringent restrictions on refugees coming in. To some degree, Wilders has already shaped the country. Without him, it would still be the much more liberal country that it was until 2001.
Jeff Schechtman: Where is and what candidates, what parties are really engaged in the strongest, most viable pushback to his ideas and his candidacy?
Simon Kuper: There’s a kind of liberal centrist party called the D66 and its leader, Alexander Pechtold, he just says I’m going totally with liberalism because it’s out of fashion and if you want to be a liberal, you have to come with me. So, D66 is totally pro-Europe, they like multiculturalism, they say that things are good in the Netherlands, which is broadly true. The economy has been doing well. So that’s the kind of party of unabashed liberalism. Then you have Groen Links, the Green party, which says we must do more for the environment, we must be nice to immigrants and poorer people. You do have parties which are saying whatever Wilders does, we don’t care, we’re going to stick with our thing and there is a constituency for us. In the States, you have to build a party that’s big enough to get half the vote. In Holland, you don’t have to do that. If you get five or ten percent of the vote, you can still be a player in a coalition, so it’s fine to be a niche party. In fact, there’s even a party for the animals, which is also very different from Wilders, which is all about animal rights and vegetarianism and they have a couple of percent of the votes as well. They could be in a coalition.
Jeff Schechtman: What is the economic state of the country at the moment and what is the state of unemployment and the economy in general?
Simon Kuper: The 2008 crisis hit very hard and there were years of austerity and that was very painful. There’s now a care crisis for the older people who can’t get enough care but things have got a lot better in recent years. The economy has been growing quite quickly by European standards, by Europe’s slow economic growth standards. Unemployment is now down to 5%, so it’s fallen quite sharply in the last year. Things are pretty good, it’s much more like Germany than like Greece. As it has been pointed out by Cas Mudde of the University of Georgia, who’s a Dutch expert and a populist expert points out, Dutch voters don’t compare themselves to Greeks, they compare themselves to how Dutch voters were ten years ago and they still are feeling some of the pain of the financial crisis.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things I think you pointed out is not unlike the election in the US, that education is one of the biggest predictors of Wilders’ support.
Simon Kuper: Absolutely. His supporters tend to be people in small towns, in the southeast and in the exurbs of big cities who have not been to a university. White people who feel that they’ve been displaced and left behind. It looks a little bit like the US white working class that voted Trump, but I have to say that the Dutch white working class is in a much better situation. You don’t have the falling life expectancy that you have in the US; you don’t have the opioid epidemic. If you go to an American small town in a poorer area, you can hardly see evidence of the State, but in a small Dutch town, the State will be very present, there will be a state library, there will be state healthcare, there will be state sports fields. So, it’s just not as bad as from what I’ve understood of the reporting of the last year, the situation in the American Rust Belt. There is nothing like the American Rust Belt in the Netherlands. Holland had the big advantage that it was never really an industrial economy, it always stayed a service economy. There was very little manufacturing so you didn’t have that massive post-industrial collapse that you had in the US or in Northern England.
Jeff Schechtman: When did the wave turn with respect to pushback to immigration. As I think you point out in one of your stories, immigration was taken for granted for so long there.
Simon Kuper: When I was growing up, nobody really talked about it, it wasn’t a political issue. In the ‘60s, they talked to Turkey and Morocco and said well, we need people to sweep the floors and empty the bins and the Turks and Moroccans sent people and this was never really discussed by political parties and nor was Europe. This all seemed to be fine and go without any debate and then, to me the day it changed was 9/11, which was an enormous shock in the Netherlands. There were TV pictures of what turned out to be a small group of Dutch-Arab teenagers singing that they were happy about the attacks of 9/11 and that shocked people. There was this fear it would happen in Holland and then Fortuyn was assassinated. Really, from 9/11 through Spring 2002, everything changed. Suddenly, you started getting people saying immigration has been a disaster, we must send them back home, we must stop all of this, the elites have betrayed us. That was completely new because the Netherlands had been an immensely satisfied country. It had a sense that it was leading progress in the world, that elites had made all the right decisions. There was a pride in modernity. The Netherlands did gay marriage first, they legalized marijuana first, it had bike paths before anyone else. It really was the country of the future, even in the ‘80s. There was this great satisfaction and self-satisfaction and that really shrank from 2001.
Jeff Schechtman: What does the press look like and how has the press played these events?
Simon Kuper: Dutch trust in the media is a lot higher than it is in the US. You have mostly state radio, you have a mix of state and private TV and you have newspapers whose circulations are falling of course, like everywhere else in the world but are still pretty respectable and trusted. There are a couple of bright spot websites which have done quite well so there is a kind of voice for Wilders voters in the media as well, not in the main newspapers but on these websites. But on the whole, Dutch people believe what they read in a way that Americans no longer seem to.
Jeff Schechtman: Finally, talk about the impact you see this election having on the upcoming elections in France and Germany and Austria.
Simon Kuper: I grew up in Holland. I went to school there. I speak Dutch; I still sometimes write articles in Dutch, so I have experienced this to a large degree from the Dutch point of view. When I talk to foreigners about it, I realize that for most foreigners, the Dutch election is only about Wilders. He’s the only character, so it’s like a replay of Trump and the only question is, will the bad guy win. In Holland, it’s not really like that. Wilders is a much smaller character, people really don’t expect him to go into government. So, how will it play? I think what happens is Wilders, if he becomes the biggest party but only fractionally or if he doesn’t become the biggest party, people are going to lose interest and then you’re going to have months of months of months of coalition formation, it’s going to be very boring. Nobody abroad is going to care and the kind of Wilders spectre will have disappeared from the European scene and then the question will be Le Pen. There’s three big elections in Europe. Germany and France, bigger than Holland. Germany is not going to go populist, it’s going to be between center right and center left. Holland is not going to go populist, but France might very well.
Jeff Schechtman: Simon Kuper, I thank you so much for spending time with us.
Simon Kuper: Thank you.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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Related front page panorama photo credit:Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Geert Wilders (Rijksoverheid/Phil Nijhuis / Wikimedia).