To a lazy journalist or busy blogger, the parallels between bouffant blonde blowhard Donald Trump and bouffant blonde blowhard Geert Wilders seem irresistible. The American Presidential hopeful and Dutch Prime Ministerial hopeful are both winning headlines with their incendiary rhetoric about immigration and Islam, both delighting right-wing fans who feel neglected by the political establishment, and both clearer about what they oppose than what they support. They also both seem to share a hairdresser with a 1990s-era Hillary Clinton.
On policy, there is much that the two men agree on. Both pledge to speak up for the working man, and to rebuild a country destroyed by socialism and political correctness. Trump says “there’s a problem in this country, and it’s Muslims”, while Wilders says “we have a great problem with Islam in the Netherlands”. However, there is also one crucial difference between the two men: their endurance. Surprisingly, a Dutch MP with an unpronounceable name looks set to have a far more lasting impact than a billionaire Presidential candidate in the most powerful country in the world.
Like superhero movies and teenage boys, populist politicians often peak too soon. Good at winning headlines, they tend to be rather less good at winning the elections which follow. In Britain, for example, the UK Independence Party dominated media coverage in the run-up to this year’s election, but ultimately won just one seat in Parliament. A few years previously, Nick Griffin’s British National Party secured acres of anguished newsprint, but then received less than 0.1% of the vote. In France, the National Front has proved more resilient, but party leader Marine Le Pen (yet another bottle blond) remains a relative newcomer, and it’s unclear how long her popularity will last. The US, meanwhile, has long tradition of blustering demagogues like Herman Cain dominating the early primary campaigns without ever getting within shouting distance of the White House. For all his talk of “making America great again”, Donald Trump looks set to follow the same path as his predecessors; providing an amusing sideshow which will soon be eclipsed by moderates like Marco Rubio. On the nationalist right, rising stars often turn out to be shooting stars.
Geert Wilders, though, is an exception to the rule. First elected to the Dutch parliament in 1998, he has demonstrated unusual staying power. Wilders’ became a national figure in the Netherlands when he broke away from a mainstream party to form his own Partij voor de Vrijheid (Freedom Party, or PVV), and became a household name when he denounced Islam and was named on a terrorist ‘death list’. Today, he lives in a bullet-proof safe house and attends Parliament under heavy armed guard. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) this notoriety, he has proved adept at winning votes; collecting at least nine seats at each of the last three elections. In the 2010 elections, his party won nearly sixteen per cent of the vote, making it the third largest party in parliament and giving it a formal role in the coalition government. Unlike many other radicals, Wilders has not just a popular Twitter feed, but a hand on the levers of power.
Of course, the Geert Wilders fan club remains relatively small. To many Dutch, the bombastic blonde is anathema to everything their country stands for; a living violation of the principle that all are welcome and all are equal. In my book, I quote one mild-mannered Dutch woman comparing Wilders to a Nazi. However, there’s also something typically Dutch about Wilders’ refusal to tone down his language and avoid causing offence to others. In a country where politics is based on compromise and coalition, and where Prime Ministers are usually dull technocrats who look like Harry Potter, there will always be room for a maverick showman. The complex Dutch voting system also means it’s possible to win a seat in Parliament even if a fairly small number people vote for a party, spread across the entire country.
As a result, Wilders is no transient force. In recent weeks, the Netherlands has (like many other countries) been gripped by concern about the refugee crisis. To many Dutch, the solution is clear: let them in, let them stay, and make them welcome. But to others, hospitality is an unaffordable luxury, and immigrants a threat to the culture of a country which already imports much of its entertainment from the US, its language from the UK, and its economic policy from Germany. Angry mobs have disrupted public meetings, councillors’ cars have been torched and a leading politician was sent bullets in the post.
Wilders has been quick to exploit the crisis with a “Grenzen Dicht” (“Borders Shut”) campaign, gaining popularity with every outrageous comment he makes. Like Trump, he has elevated trolling into a national campaign, but a certain portion of the electorate views him in Churchillian terms, as the only man clear-sighted enough to save his country from a gathering storm. According to aggregate polls released this week, support for Wilders’ party has just reached an all-time high, backed by around a quarter of all Dutch voters. If there were an election tomorrow, the party would more than double its number of seats in parliament.
Support for Donald Trump is already fading, but it seems clear that Wilders is here to stay, and will keep surprising an establishment which writes him off as a cartoon extremist. As the noted political commentator Pamela Anderson once said; “It’s great to be a blonde. With low expectations it’s very easy to surprise people.”