The Brexit leader and far-right Dutch politician travel to Cleveland for a Trump victory they see as their own.
- By Molly O’TooleMolly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian.
CLEVELAND — A tall man with a heavy Dutch accent and thick wave of platinum blond hair stood behind the podium in a darkened ballroom, and told the American audience what it came to hear.
“If you allow Islam to be planted on your soil, don’t be surprised when you grow Sharia law,” Geert Wilders, the far-right Dutch politician, said to roars of approval.
Wilders may be not be a household name in the United States, but an enthusiastic crowd of Trump supporters gave him a hero’s reception Wednesday night on the sidelines of the Republican party convention in Cleveland.
Chanting “Geert! Geert! Geert!” the audience welcomed his warnings about the dangers of Muslim immigration.
“We should stop the Islamicization … it is a matter of our survival,” said Wilders.
Whether facing lawsuits in European courts over his alleged hate speech or threats to his life that have prompted a constant security detail, Wilders maintains a defiant stance. And he is an avowed admirer of a certain American presidential candidate known also for his distinctive hair and distrust of Muslim refugees.
Wilders’s presence at the GOP convention, along with the British Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage, highlighted an extraordinary convergence of nativist, nationalist sentiments surging on both sides of the Atlantic.
Both Wilders and Farage were recognized by cowboy hat-wearing, sequin-covered GOP delegates around the halls of the convention this week. And both believe the shift to nativist politics is personified in the United States by Donald Trump, the New York businessman and Republican nominee who has made building a wall on the Mexico-U.S. border to halt illegal immigration a signature of his unlikely campaign.
However, the event where Wilders spoke, titled “Wake Up! The Most Fab Party at the RNC,” was not exactly a typical Republican affair, as it was sponsored in part by LGBTrump and emphasized the threat posed by Islam to gay rights. The LGBT community is not a mainstay of support for Trump or the GOP, and Wilders’s references to gay rights would have not gone over well with many in the convention hall. Flanking the podium behind Wilders were posters of naked and half-naked men sporting various versions of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hats.
Wilders told the small but enthusiastic audience that his message — and Trump’s message — was gaining growing political support — whether in Austria or Arkansas.
“Parties like Mr. Trump, my party, all over Europe, from France to Germany and Austria to Italy, they are winning,” he said, and he added: “I could become the next prime minister.”
The crowd roared again.
A few hours later and across the river, journalists and Republicans in professional attire sipped coffee in porcelain mugs and forked frittata as another populist politician from across the pond took to the stage.
The conversation hosted by McClatchy newspapers was one of Nigel Farage’s first appearances since stepping down as the leader of Britain’s right-wing U.K. Independence Party, a major force behind the shocking June 23 referendum in which British voters opted to leave the European Union. Well-dressed in a slate gray pinstriped suit and shoes that shone off the spotlights, Farage was unapologetic over the political shakeup he helped unleash.
“There is no xenophobia to saying we are proud to be the United Kingdom, and that we should control the people who come into the country,” Farage said of the movement he led, fueled in part by anti-immigration fervor in Britain.
“People accuse me of being ‘anti-European,’ as if I thought everybody south of Calais was frightful,” he laughed.
Farage said he was not attending the GOP convention at the invitation of the newly minted nominee Trump, but added, “I’m going to enjoy other independence movements.”
His and Wilders’s visit to the GOP gathering amounts to a blessing by European nativists of the Republican nominee’s “America First” doctrine, a neo-isolationist, anti-trade, anti-immigration foreign policy that turns traditional Republican tenets upside down. Throughout the campaign, Trump has drawn the admiration of some right-leaning European politicians but also the dismay of other leaders alarmed at his talk of overturning decades of U.S. policy.
In a bombshell interview with the New York Times on Wednesday, Trump took his “America First” slogan to a new level, suggesting he might ignore the Article 5 principle at the foundation of the NATO alliance that pledges protection for any member state that comes under attack.
Still, Wilders and Farage are not totally aligned with the GOP nominee.
The Dutch leader’s heated anti-Islamic rhetoric goes beyond what even the blunt-speaking Trump dares. He came to the convention at the invitation of Tennessee State Sen. Bill Ketron, a controversial figure who has pushed legislation in the southern state prohibiting the practice of Sharia and challenging the Obama administration’s authority over where to resettle refugees.
Ketron describes his state as being overrun by refugees, though in an interview with Foreign Policy he produced little evidence to prove that, and alleged the federal government is lying about the true connections between Islam and terrorism.
Ketron dismissed critics who faulted him for inviting Wilders, whom he’s known for five years. “None of the people he’s met or that I’ve introduced him to this week think that — they respect him so much, because they get it,” he said. “They understand what’s happening in France, in Berlin, in the Nordic countries, here — they’re trying to enforce Sharia.”
As for Farage, he said he was close to several Republican U.S. senators, but declined to name them. He insisted he came after an initial invitation from McClatchy. Although he was highly critical of President Obama’s decision to weigh in on the Brexit referendum before the vote was held, urging U.K. voters to remain in the European Union, Farage insisted his visit was not aimed at inserting himself into America’s presidential campaign.
“I’m not American, I haven’t got a vote, I haven’t come to endorse anybody, I’ve come to tell a story,” he told FP.
He was in admiration of the freedoms afforded delegates and protesters at the Republican convention. He noted that the crowd was allowed to chant “Lock her up!” in response to a fiery speech delivered by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, which he watched in person. Christie accused Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton of a litany of alleged crimes and mistakes.
“The crowd was saying things that if I said in the U.K. I’d be locked up for,” he said, grinning.
But he drew some distance between himself and the Republican nominee. He pointed to Trump’s on-again, off-again Muslim ban and insinuations of violence against some reporters. Although controversy can be an effective political tool, Trump pushes things to the point “that makes even me wince just a little bit,” he said.
“If we make an enemy of everyone of Islamic faith we are committing a grave error,” he told FP.
Although he believes the British exit from the EU will allow the U.K. to have more control over its national security strategy, he also disagreed with Trump’s anti-NATO stance.
“Am I supportive of NATO in the sense that it’s sovereign states cooperating together?” he said. “Yes, of course I am.”
But Farage also argued that the rise of far-right parties in Europe has been prompted by liberal political correctness, rather than politicians exploiting people’s fears.
Farage was once dismissed and scoffed at by Britain’s political elite, who assumed his campaign to lead the U.K. out of the EU would fail. Although he wouldn’t make any predictions about the outcome of America’s election in November, Farage said the U.S. political establishment should not to underestimate Trump’s appeal.
“I think Trump has surprised everybody all the way through to now.”
Photo credit: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images