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He has withdrawn himself from public debate on two occasions, the most recent of which was caused by a feud with a media outlet.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.
You might ask yourself – how is this possible? How did a candidate who was widely regarded as a dangerous joke by the media, the establishment, and even among his own party members, clinch the highest office in the country?
When this country was founded, it was founded on the basis of freedom and equality for all. That idea is what made America “great”.
Yet, at that time, black Americans were kept as property, and women were seen as second-class citizens. America was not great, and America still is not great. The ideas espoused by the American constitution are valuable, but the nation itself still has a lot progress to make in the 21st century.
Photograph from Obergefell v. Hodges
Depending on your race, social class, and identity, there’s a good chance America is a place where you live in constant fear of being harassed, assaulted, and even killed.
Now, being faced with the results of the election, there’s a fear amongst these groups of marginalized Americans that their very livelihood is in danger. That fear is legitimate.
Donald Trump, a reality television star, real estate mogul and President-elect, paints a picture of America in which we see our friends and loved ones being hurt just because of their background or identity. Make no mistake, he doesn’t care about you or anyone else.
A Democratic failure
Trump’s opponent in the race, Hillary Clinton, was the biggest mistake in Democratic history.
When the Democratic National Committee (DNC) colluded with Clinton to manipulate the primaries against a widely supported progressive candidate like Bernie Sanders, it became instantly clear that this would lead to an inevitable Trump presidency.
Sanders’s supporters were already suspicious of her anti-democratic behaviour during primary season, but when Wikileaks released dozens of DNC e-mails in support of those claims, it was the last nail in the coffin. As a result of this monumental mistake, dangerous populism triumphed over corrupt liberalism.
Another dimension to the Democratic party’s failure is that they backed an establishment candidate during an election cycle where anti-establishment politics were spectacularly popular.
Hillary Clinton is a lifelong politician who personifies the epitome of American establishment politics. She speaks loudly and carries a small stick, so to say. In the words of the late Christopher Hitchens, “she’s never met a foreign donor she doesn’t like”. The public distrusted Clinton from the very beginning for her past decision-making, both as Secretary of State and Senator.
Photograph by Bloomberg
In fact, Bernie Sanders issued this exact warning in August 2015, when he addressed the Democratic party and told them that her campaign could not possibly win the election:
“Let me be very clear. In my view, Democrats will not retain the White House, will not regain the Senate, will not gain the House and will not be successful in dozens of governor’s races unless we run a campaign which generates excitement and momentum and which produces a huge voter turnout.
With all due respect, and I do not mean to insult anyone here, that will not happen with politics as usual. The same old, same old will not be successful. The people of our country understand that — given the collapse of the American middle class and the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality we are experiencing — we do not need more establishment politics or establishment economics.
We need a political movement which is prepared to take on the billionaire class and create a government which represents all Americans, and not just corporate America and wealthy campaign donors. In other words, we need a movement which takes on the economic and political establishment, not one which is part of it.”
Although it may also reflect a general distrust for politicians, mostly because people are told they have many reasons to be angry, Hillary Clinton’s criticisms are not illegitimate.
However, when given the choice between a Clinton or Trump presidency, there is no doubt that she was the correct choice, or at the least the most acceptable choice to the reasonable voter.
The pitiful state of America
This election is telling of the state of the American mindset.
In the face of racism, sexism, homophobia, police violence, and islamophobia, half the country managed to believe that Trump wasn’t merely touting those issues as speaking points to get elected. We were wrong, and we will have to live with that decision for the rest of our days.
What Trump did was mobilize a group of non-voters. Americans who felt so far separated from politics that they would vote for any candidate who represents radical change. Trump’s running mate and Vice President to be, Mike Pence, the gay-bashing theocrat and friend of the Falwells, is really the cherry on top. In fact, he supports such a backwards agenda, that he and his wife have even funded gay conversion therapy.
Photograph by Michael Henninger
Considering that when John Kasich met with Eric Trump, Eric assured him that the Vice President would be making all real policy decisions, Pence will likely be the puppeteer pulling the strings. When Kasich asked what Donald Trump’s role would be, he simply replied “making America great again”.
Trump’s supporters, mostly uneducated white people, were energized by his charisma, can-do attitude, and general disregard for the rules. “He speaks his mind,” says the Trump supporter. It doesn’t matter to them whether or not his raucous incoherence is based in fact or fiction. It also does not matter whether or not Trump has foreign policy experience, whether he understands the intricacies of macroeconomics, or even if he’ll actually fight for them.
They simply heard an echo of their own bigotry. An echo chamber of American exceptionalism, the idea that we are inherently better, while ignoring any of our own faults.
With Trump comes an era where the truth literally does not matter anymore. Facts don’t matter. Science doesn’t matter. Rhetoric rules supreme.
The most immediate effects of a Trump presidency, coupled with an entirely Republican-held Congress, will be the complete unravelling of President Obama’s progressive policies, to be replaced with the GOP’s toxic agenda.
Republicans now effectively control all three branches of government (executive, legislature, judiciary). What can we expect from them?
Supreme Court: with a vacant seat already left from Republican obstructionism against Obama’s nomination, Donald Trump could potentially appoint 2-3 new conservative justices – leading to the overruling of many important principles like gay marriage.
Economy and society: regressive policies against almost everyone in society, including the repeal of Obamacare – leading to continued rapid decline of the middle class.
Perhaps what matters even more is that Trump’s hateful ideology has now received national recognition, it has been given a voice on the highest of podiums. This sort of bigotry is what first shocked people about Trump, but no one took it seriously until it was too late, and soon it will be represented by the White House itself.
Even Trump’s braggadocious remarks of sexually assaulting women were not enough to unseat him. This is who we have elected, a man who brags of assaulting women and gets away with it. It was written off as “locker room banter”, but really it is an absolute slap in the face to the millions of survivors of sexual violence in our country.
Since the announcement of his candidacy and the publication of his views, we’ve seen an unfortunate rise in hate crime. Videos have emerged showing Confederate flag-flying Americans berating immigrants and minorities with racial slurs and threats of violence. Muslims being beaten and harassed in a country which holds freedom of religion as one of its most fundamental tenants. This is a farce.
Progress is the future
We’ve seen the danger of allowing hateful rhetoric to rule a country’s policy-making. Open a history book and you’ll find a litany of regimes which were all birthed from a single idea: “make this country greater than the rest”.
We need to examine what a “great” country actually is. Trump does not want greatness for America, he wants dominance, and he wants to be at the head of this movement.
A “great” America under Trump is a global hegemon who rules with an iron fist. It is a fearless leader who charges head-first into battle and emerges victorious, regardless of the cost. This is an image out of a tall tale, this is not the reality of the world we live in.
For a country to be great it does not need to be a domineering world power, but rather a global team player that values the lives of all and actively tries to make the world safer for everyone. The race to be the number one world super power is a dangerous and frightful game, and what goes up must come down.
In the face of adversity, Americans have only one option: to unify and hold one another up. Donald Trump will not make this country great, but its people can.