How patriotic populism empowers authoritarian politics
March 11th 2017 | The Hague | Melih Uzun
Photograph by Getty Images
Ever since Donald Trump was elected into office, critics have been suggesting that it is an indication of the global rise of right-wing populism, with similar rhetoric set to emerge victorious in European countries as well. The upcoming elections in the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PVV) tops the polls, could prove to be a major trial for this hypothesis.
Islam and integration
Geert Wilders is arguably one of the most polarising figures in Holland. He is infamous for his outspoken anti-Islam views and has been a constant source of controversy for over a decade. The numerous death threats he has accumulated over the course of the years have even led him to require full-time police protection.
Besides religion, he is also often accused of inciting hatred against ethnic minorities – especially the local Moroccan community – over issues related to violence, crime, and lack of integration. In 2014, his Freedom Party held a meeting in The Hague that was illustrative of the polarising rhetoric adored by many, while leaving others trembling with indignation.
Having asked his audience whether they wanted to see more or less of the European Union and Labour Party, both questions were met with chants of “less, less, less”. He then went on to ask them whether they wanted more or fewer Moroccans and – upon hearing them chant the same answer once again – ensured his supporters that he would “get it done”.
Photograph by Fabrizio Bensch
Hundreds of people filed police complaints and he was tried for charges of incitement to discrimination. Wilders was finally found guilty (but not penalised) in December – a decision which he vowed to appeal against.
Wilders enjoys the support of a substantial part of the population. However, he is also widely criticised for his evasive tendencies, for his preference of bold statements over elucidated plans (his election manifesto is just a single page), and for shying away from settings which would allow his agenda to be questioned.
He has withdrawn himself from public debate on two occasions, the most recent of which was caused by a feud with a media outlet. The hosting TV station had contacted Wilders’s brother earlier for an interview, which angered the PVV politician. Wilders, however, maintains that the boycott is a matter of principle, claiming that his privacy was violated and rejecting any allegations about him “dodging” the debate.
Make the Netherlands Ours Again
As much as Wilders is accused of being evasive towards the media, British journalist John Sweeney managed to land an invitation to interview him for BBC Newsnight. Upon meeting Wilders at the House of Representatives, he was quick to ask him a frank question: “are you going to do to Holland what Mr. Trump is doing to America?”
Wilders rejects the notion that he is merely a Dutch copy of Trump, but he has admitted that there was “indeed, a patriotic spring going on”. He considers Brexit to be a turning point, where Brits supposedly reclaimed their country “even though the political elite made sure to scare the people away from voting in favour of leaving the European Union”. The same applies to the US, where “despite all the rhetoric of the elite, Mr. Trump won the election”.
Furthermore, Wilders confirmed his admiration of Trump by stating that he hopes to “repeat the same thing, because once again, the people want to be in charge again”. According to his vision: “It’s not only America first; it’s also Holland first, and that’s what I’m trying to accomplish.”
Photograph by Yves Herman
In an attempt to gauge his stance on threats of terrorism other than those stemming from radical Islam, Sweeney asked Wilders what the biggest loss of Dutch lives (by terror) has been in the last few years. His response was that the Netherlands have been “lucky not to suffer the kind of attacks that Germany, France, Belgium, and even the United Kingdom” have faced.
Wilders was caught off guard by Sweeney’s prompt mention of flight MH17, referring to the Malaysia Airlines plane that was shot down near the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, killing everyone on board. The lives of 193 Dutch citizens were lost that day, and Russia remains the prime suspect – despite denying any such allegations. Sweeney hinted at this attack to illustrate why he believes Wilders might be obsessed with “one element of the spectrum” (Islamic extremism) while ignoring more pressing issues such as “Russian fascism”.
Wilders chuckled slightly and asserted that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with freedom. Therefore, he says “the Islamisation of Dutch society needs to be stopped, or we will cease to exist”. His critical outlook on Islam is reflected in the PVV’s ideology, which is further characterised by staunch Euroscepticism and nationalism.
These ideas became apparent once again in Wilders’s rebuttal of Sweeney’s concern about slogans like America First or Holland First, which he considers reminiscent of the zeitgeist of Europe at the brink of the Second World War. Wilders dismissed this as fearmongering by politicians to distract from the establishment of “another totalitarian institution, which is called the European Union”.
Fake news and fake Parliament
The BBC journalist was clearly taken aback by Wilders’s characterisation of the EU as a “totalitarian institution”, but perhaps remarks like these need not come as a surprise from somebody whom he likened to Donald Trump – a man who is no stranger to stirring up controversy.
By his own admission, Wilders admires Trumps victory against the “political elite”. This quintessentially populist pretence of aligning with the people as opposed to the elite seems to be a part of both of their success formulas.
Experts attribute Trump’s popularity to his unconventional ways that distinguish him from the archetypal politician. Despite being a billionaire, Trump won the hearts of millions of ordinary Americans by presenting an eccentric anti-establishment alternative to the tired, old, sophisticated-sounding candidates people had grown increasingly sceptical about.
Photograph by CNN
Likewise, the fact that Wilders is one of the longest-serving Members of Parliament doesn’t keep him from condemning the “political elite”, whom he deems to be ignorant of the life of the average Dutchman. On one occasion, he even denounced the National Assembly and its MPs altogether, calling it a “fake Parliament” that does not represent the will of the people.
Wilders’s position to lecture an elected parliament on democracy is questionable at best, as he is de jure the only member of his Freedom Party, allowing him to single-handedly dictate their entire policy agenda.
This statement bears another striking resemblance to Trumpisms, and more specifically to his unfounded denunciation of various media as “fake news”. Both politicians evidently see no issue in arbitrarily delegitimising institutions such as media outlets – or even the House of Representatives.
What makes this most worrisome is that this mindset, when sufficiently empowered by populism, could lead to dangerous forms of authoritarian politics. After all, if there is any common ground between the regimes of countries like China, Russia, and Turkey, it would be their aversion to voices of dissent.
Patriotic spring or Democratic autumn?
Whilst some may argue that it is a bit of a stretch to compare populists like Trump or Wilders to real authoritarians, there is much more to it than meets the eye.
In fact, concerns that have been raised thus far are arguably just the tip of the iceberg; an investigation initiated by the Dutch Bar Association uncovered a multitude of proposals from the PVV’s one-page election manifesto that were found to be detrimental to the rule of law.
Their programme was found to be at odds with EU and International Law (including the United Nations’ Refugee Convention), as well as the Dutch constitution, as it intends to endanger freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of education, and the right to a fair trial. One cannot help but wonder if Wilders was being ironic when he named his party.
Diagram by Peilingwijzer
His disdain for the establishment runs much deeper than his attack on parliament suggested, because his objection goes far beyond feuds with fellow MPs. He has publicly accused judges and prosecutors of being politically biased against him and his party, which is a straightforward denunciation of the entire justice system and the separation of powers.
There is no apparent limit to the lengths Wilders would go to in order to play the victim of an arbitrarily defined set of forces and institutions – or rather the “political elite” – who are unanimously set on conspiring against him and his beliefs.
With just a few days to go until the elections, Wilders’s popularity in polls appears to be stagnant, but his Freedom Party may still win up to 28 out of 150 seats. The PVV is matched with the governing Conservative Liberals (VVD), who have a fair chance at retaining the largest number of MPs, despite a projected decline from their current 41 seats.
However, the sitting government is a coalition of Liberals and the Labour Party (PvdA), and the latter is set to face an even sharper decline from 38 to a projected 14 or even 9 seats. Other parties who are expected to receive a considerable amount of votes on March 15 include the Christian Democrats (CDA; ~19 seats), the Liberal Democrats (D66; ~18 seats), the Green Party (GL; ~16 seats) and the Socialist Party (SP; ~14 seats).
Europe marches on
Most mainstream parties have vowed to exclude the Freedom Party from coalition talks. This offers consolation, as it seems their vision for the Netherlands will never see the light of day.
However, given the distinctly fractured state of Dutch politics, forming a coalition without the PVV might also prove to be a challenge. Furthermore, excluding Wilders from government will undoubtedly add fuel to the fire, contributing to his narrative of fighting for the neglected common man.
This seemingly prolific narrative, as employed by Donald Trump, may pave the way to a milestone for the Freedom Party in this election, as well victories for other right-wing movements like Le Pen’s Front National. But only time will tell if this patriotic spring, as Wilders calls it – a staggering resurgence of nationalist and populist rhetoric – will lead to an actual victory in the name of freedom.
If you want to protect yourself, protect journalism
February 17th 2017 | Wisconsin | Xavier Ward
Illustration by Mike Reddy
Freedom of press is a fundamental tenet of the United States and is even written into its Constitution. Its purpose was to monitor the operations of government, protecting the people from tyranny creeping up on them before they could realize it.
Journalists are often tasked with taking the humdrum language of statutes, bills, and meetings and translating them into common, easily understandable language. This serves the essential purpose of allowing those who would not otherwise be aware of the inner workings of governmental bureaucracy to stay informed – at least to a certain level.
Fake news or no news?
When Thomas Jefferson was asked whether he would rather have newspapers without government or government without newspapers, he replied: “A government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”.
In Jefferson’s more eloquent, longer response, he goes on to spell out the importance of honest journalism. In short, it protects people from the government and allows us to actively participate in democracy without having to go through the pain of deciphering the language of bills and statutes.
Tweet by Donald Trump
It is no secret that the Trump administration has its qualms with journalists. Throughout his campaign, Trump consistently berated the media and reporters, calling them dishonest and unreliable as well as accusing them of adhering to a hidden agenda.
The phenomenon of fake news is particularly damaging. It is always good to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism, but complete distrust and disqualification is an entirely different story.
What he is doing is not simply puffing out his chest; he is creating mass distrust against major news sources which do not support his political onslaught. This is destructive, as it delegitimizes an industry that should be serving as a lookout for society.
Trump has long been subjected to an echo chamber of his own bigotry, and he does not like it. From the beginning of his campaign he castigated the media for any sort of negative attention, even when it was simply repeating what he said.
He has instilled a distrust in media to the point where many of his supporters no longer believe the news if it offers a conflicting viewpoint to their own narrative. This may be indicative of other issues plaguing the mind of Trump supporters, but that is another story entirely.
Tweet by CNN
This unprecedented behavior – tarnishing the media’s credibility – is far more destructive than making a mockery of a long-respected career.
Most recently, White House chief strategist and author of a number of the president’s executive orders, Steve Bannon, told the media to “keep its mouth shut”. This is not even a sly attempt at censorship: “The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States”.
Later, when questioned about his concerns regarding White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s standing with the media, he responded: “Are you kidding me? We think that’s a badge of honor. Questioning his integrity – are you kidding me? The media has zero integrity, zero intelligence, and no hard work”. This is dangerous and hypocritical language from a man who once ran a rather questionable publication called Breitbart.
Journalists typically avoid cliché as it tends to be less impactful than an original commentary and it can be easily dismissible, but sometimes it is too relevant to ignore.
In this case, the cliché of likening George Orwell’s fantastic novel 1984 to our current political situation is all too easy. It is low-hanging fruit. That novel is not supposed to be a manual, but it seems the Trump administration is hell-bent on giving it a good try.
Barely a week into his presidency, Trump ordered a total media blackout at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which was suspiciously close in time to his executive order to push forward the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. It ordered all EPA agencies not to access social media or send out press releases, stipulating that any press contact must be approved by a member of the Trump administration.
Photograph from Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
“Incoming media requests will be carefully screened”, a directive said. “Only send out critical messages, as messages can be shared broadly and end up in the press.” The Ministry of Truth would approve of these actions, but they are not conducive to a free and open society.
As of the first week of the presidency, Sean Spicer is not as loquacious as a press secretary should be when fielding questions from reporters. He has given a lot of short or dismissive answers, and in his first press conference he was reluctant to call on reporters from major news organizations.
The fine print of this action is far more frightening than it may appear. That is because journalism is more important than some care to admit. This unnecessary muckraking puts a strain on an already struggling industry, but whether you like it or not: you need journalism.
This inherent distrust in the media is dangerous because it allows the new administration to act without discretion. Newspapers, and this newer generation of online publications, should serve as a watchdog for its readers.
Journalism is a flawed necessity
Trump has made a lot of wild, inflammatory claims; most recently that he believes 3 to 5 million people voted illegally during the election. This claim, like most others, is entirely unsubstantiated, and the fact that his investigation focuses on states in which he lost to Hillary Clinton seems to indicate that he is still a little sore about losing the popular vote.
However, his tendency to spit wild, unsubstantiated claims is exactly why we need journalism. His populous following will blindly adhere what he has to say, but the greater American people, and the rest of the world for that matter, have a right to know what he is saying, how he is, saying it, and whether there is any truth to it.
Illustration by Shutterstock
This is not to say media organizations are without flaw. Many popular news outlets are wildly biased and their content adheres to an agenda instead of laying out the facts. A good example of this was Breitbart’s attempt to discredit climate change, which was swiftly refuted by Weather.com. Breitbart cited one organization’s estimates, ignoring the plethora of other organizations giving exceedingly different assessments.
Another example is NowThis, a popular left-wing media source, which chopped up a video of one of Trump’s speeches in response to the Orlando shooting. Put side by side, the NowThis version shows a doctored and somewhat dishonest representation of what Trump said. In reality, it was far more moderate than it was made out to be. It is easy for media to enforce a certain narrative by presenting things out of context.
These organizations, by adhering to a biased agenda, have the same effect as Trump’s media onslaught. They create a distrust in media and contribute to the deligitimization of major news sources, lumping them all together with tabloids and profit-driven sensationalism.
Skepticism vs. deligitimization
It is true that one should approach all matters with a dose of healthy skepticism, and that rings especially true when consuming media in today’s world.
However, to attempt to entirely discredit an industry which was instrumental to sustaining democracy and is integral to governmental transparency stinks of something viler, and much more malicious than the surface level actions would have one believe. While some media outlets do express an inherent bias, trying to paint all conservatives in a negative light, this is not true of many major media outlets.
While the media as a whole is far from perfect, encouraging and protecting honest journalism is vital to protecting civil liberties. If you want to protect society from governmental wrongdoings – not just the Trump administration’s – then protect and support free media.
If you want to protect yourself, protect journalism.