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Artillery Row

Platinum populism

Right-leaning discontent comes in many different forms

Venlo is an unlikely breeding ground for a populist revolution. Its wide streets are walkable, safe and clean, and its infrastructure is modern and functional. There are no obvious signs of economic decline, as in the Red Wall or the Rust Belt — I was pleasantly surprised to see the streets thronged with young families, while the city’s independent businesses seemed to be making a spirited post-Covid recovery. 

Yet in November’s election, a plurality of voters in Venlo voted for Geert Wilders and his anti-Islam Party for Freedom (PVV). This pleasant middle-class city — about the same size as Worcester or Carlisle — backed a party that has explicitly called for a ban on Islamic schools, Qur’ans, and mosques. 

The platinum-haired Wilders first came to international prominence for his 2008 short film, Fitna, which condemned Islamic influence in the West, and highlighted violent atrocities committed in the name of Islam. The film provoked outrage in the Islamic world; Wilders was personally targeted by Al-Qaeda, who issued a fatwa against him, calling upon Muslims to kill him in the name of Islam. 

Since Fitna, Wilders has remained one of Europe’s most prominent critics of Islam. In 2011, he was tried for inciting hatred and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities. In 2016, a second trial accused him of inciting hatred against Moroccans in the Netherlands; after an initial conviction, the verdict was overturned in 2020.

Much of the English-speaking press has tried to situate Wilders in the same space as other right-wing populists who have seen success in recent years. However, those hoping to identify the bleach-blonde populist as the “Dutch Trump” should look elsewhere. In fact, Wilders is a peculiarly Dutch phenomenon. 

An agnostic who once appeared at a “Twinks For Trump” rally, he is at once more radical and more moderate than many of his international counterparts. His rhetoric is more Christopher Hitchens than Jared Taylor; he criticises Islam for its treatment of women, its prohibition on homosexuality, and its intolerance towards Jews. 

Wilders isn’t the first Dutch populist to criticise Islam from a position of liberalism. Frits Bolkestein, former leader of the governing People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), caused controversy in 2010 when he encouraged practicing Jews to emigrate to Israel or the United States in order to escape the latent antisemitism of new arrivals from Turkey and Morocco.

Nor is Wilders the first politician in this mould to suffer for his beliefs. In 2002, Pim Fortuyn was assassinated by a left-wing extremist just nine days before that year’s general election, after a campaign spent criticising Islam from a similar position to Wilders. In 2004, film director Theodoor van Gogh was killed by a Dutch-Moroccan Islamist in response to his film Submission, which criticised the treatment of women in Islam. 

So why did so many in sleepy Venlo … vote for the controversial firebrand?

In hopes of avoiding a repeat of these incidents, the Dutch state has channelled extensive resources into protecting Wilders against assassination attempts. He is accompanied by a security detail of plainclothes police officers at all times, and lives in a state-provided safe house. His daily commute involves an armoured police vehicle, within which he must wear a bulletproof vest. 

So why did so many in sleepy Venlo — and across the country — vote for the controversial firebrand?

At a little wood-panelled pub along a side-street, I speak to punters in an attempt to find out. 

Henk and Pieter, two men in their late 40s, have dropped in for a lunchtime pint after a morning spent walking in the nearby countryside. They’re curious about what a young Englishman is doing in Venlo, and agree to give me their thoughts; both voted for the PVV for the first time in November, having previously supported parties on the centre-right.

“The other parties don’t know what they’re doing — things are a mess at the moment. Food is much too expensive, and young people can’t get houses,” says Pieter. “My son had to move away from Venlo after university into a tiny flat. It’s not right when people who came here recently get so much help while we have to struggle.”

Since 2010, Prime Minister Mark Rutte has headed up a series of centrist coalitions, relying on the support of parties from across the political spectrum to hold onto power. Dubbed “Teflon Mark” for his ability to survive scandals with his reputation intact, Rutte’s first government (2010-2012) even relied on Wilders himself, who supported the government from outside cabinet in a “confidence and supply” agreement. 

Frustration with the status quo has only grown in recent years

Frustration with the status quo has only grown in recent years. Since unveiling plans to down-scale industrial livestock farming in order to limit the human impact on the nitrogen cycle, Rutte has been met with four years of protests from the country’s farmers. In March’s Provincial Elections, the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) romped to victory on an agrarian platform. 

This dissatisfaction is also reflected in the fragmentation of the Dutch political system; sixteen parties won seats at the most recent election. In such a fractious landscape, Wilders will need to join hands with former adversaries if he wants to govern. After decades spent deriding his opponents as establishment stooges, I wonder aloud whether this will really be possible. 

Henk nods. “Maybe. Or maybe there will be more elections. At least it will be different.”

I ask why they believe so strongly that Wilders will be different; they tell me that “Geert will put the Dutch people first” and that “we trust him; he’s one of us”. 

And does it help that Wilders is from Venlo?

“Absolutely. He knows how we live here and understands our lives. The PVV is strongest in Limburg. That’s not a coincidence.”

Of course, not everybody that I spoke to was quite as supportive. Despite topping the polls, Wilders won just 23.5 per cent of the vote; even in his firmest strongholds, he scarcely won more than a third of the vote. Others in Venlo supported the centre-right VVD, or the centre-left GL-PvdA. Some older voters that I spoke to backed Peter Omtzigt’s “New Social Contract” party, believing that Omtzigt could be trusted to reform the country’s welfare system.

Overhearing our conversation, we’re tentatively joined by Caroline, the 25-year-old graduate who is working here while she looks for a more permanent career. Quietly, as if confessing some inexcusable social transgression, she admits that she voted for the PVV.

“I voted for Geert. I’ve voted for parties of the left before, but I’ve been disappointed. I didn’t tell my friends; a lot of them didn’t vote, but I know that they’d be upset if they knew that I’d voted for Wilders.”

If there’s such a taboo around the PVV, what drove her to vote for Wilders? 

“I wasn’t sure about who to support, but the protests [over Gaza] really changed my mind. You had people on the streets intimidating Jewish people, it’s not right. And anyway, I’m tired of working hard and still not being able to move forward like my parents did.”

Fortunately, my next stop was to be the epicentre of those protests. 

Unlike quaint Venlo, with its hanging baskets and street-side cafes, Rotterdam is a staple of the country’s dense urban fabric. While Venlo has long-since confined its marijuana-peddling “coffee shops” to the outskirts of the city, they form an integral part of the city-centre nightlife here in Rotterdam. The effects of immigration are visible, and extensive — as of 2018, just 46 per cent of Rotterdammers had two parents born in the Netherlands. Restaurants serving Surinamese and Indonesian food are a reminder of the long-gone Dutch Empire, about which the English-speaking world thinks little. 

This context makes it all the more astounding that Wilders also topped the poll here; more than one-in-five Rotterdammers voted PVV. In the city-centre, there was little love lost for the PVV. Those who would speak to me — mostly students and ethnic minorities — called Wilders “dangerous” and “racist”; particular contempt was reserved for his strident support for Israel. 

“It’s wrong. He deliberately provokes Dutch Muslims, who live here and work hard just like everybody else,” says Ahmet, a 31-year-old of Turkish descent. “My parents moved here because the Dutch wanted them to work. Now they’re saying that we can’t practice our traditions in peace.”

Posters in support of centre-left parties adorn lampposts across the city, including some in support of DENK, a party which explicitly champions the interests of Muslim immigrants in the country. There are no such public displays of support for Wilders — nobody that I spoke to voted for the PVV. If they did, they’re not willing to admit it. Where are Rotterdam’s hidden Wilders voters? 

A short walk away from the city centre is Delfshaven, where I find my answer. This is the most attractive part of the city by far, retaining the iconic red-brick architecture which the country is famous for. Delfshaven’s old harbour, from which the Pilgrim Fathers sailed for America, is one of the few parts of Rotterdam that survived the Luftwaffe’s bombardment in 1940. 

At a quiet pub around the corner from the old harbour, a group of middle-aged men crowd around a table in the corner. Of the five, three voted for Wilders; the other two are sympathetic to his criticisms of Islam and supported parties on the centre-right. 

“Immigration has changed things. The country is not the same as it was,” says Theo, a 52-year-old mechanic. The others around the table nod their agreement, between sips of beer. 

It’s easy to see what he means. Around the corner, the gin bars and cafes that line Schiedamseweg have been joined by Turkish barbers, kebab shops, and shisha lounges, all housed beneath the same red-brick gables. 

“You can’t bring people from all over the world and let them do whatever they want to. We have a way of life here that’s very good. People who come here should respect that. They treat the women awfully.”

They tell me that, while there’s still a taboo around supporting Wilders due to his deliberately provocative rhetoric, more and more Dutch people are starting to feel politicians aren’t responsive to their needs. They see unchecked Islamic immigration, and a lack of integration, as emblematic of this. 

The anger that underpinned the Trump campaign is nowhere to be found here. Most people that I spoke to expressed a level-headed and rational frustration at the current state of affairs in the country; they felt let down by successive centrist governments and resented the fact that new arrivals had been accommodated at the expense of the Dutch people themselves. 

The unpredictable rise of Wilders shouldn’t have been so unpredictable after all. He is the latest in a long line of Dutch critics of Islam, who fear that the religion’s orthodox conservatism is incompatible with Dutch society. The country that he hopes to govern is tired of conformist, consensus politics, while recent protests over Gaza have highlighted the failure of successive governments to integrate new arrivals into the cultural mainstream. Add to these facts a few impressive debate performances, and it’s no wonder that Wilders came out on top. 

It remains to be seen whether Wilders will see any success in actually delivering on his agenda. For my money, it seems far more likely that he will be confounded by the Dutch political system, which has a tendency of forcing insurgent movements into awkward coalitions with more established parties. Don’t expect a swift resolution to the question of coalition-forming, either — talks after the March 2021 election took a record-breaking 299 days.

For those in doubt about the strength of feeling on immigration and Islam in Europe, Wilders leaves no room for debate. While revisionist narratives about Brexit and Trump have attempted to minimise the role that immigration played in those campaigns, the same could never be said of Wilders. His campaign, plain and simple, was about immigration and Islam. 

And for Western critics of Islam, the PVV’s successes provide a blueprint for channelling public discontent into political success. Like it or not, mild-mannered voters in Northern Europe are unlikely to be persuaded by the “clash of civilisations” narrative presented by figures like Eric Zemmour. Could Wilders’ Islamo-critical liberalism be an alternative? Only time will tell.

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