For years, the Dutch populist quietly built ties to fringes of the Republican party. Now he’s got friends in the White House.
- By Freke VuijstFreke Vuijst is the American correspondent for the Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland. In 2010, she was nominated for the De Tegel journalism prize for her reporting about Geert Wilders’s American connections.
At a dinner at the Reagan Presidential Library in June 2009, a then-relatively obscure Dutch MP named Geert Wilders was being honored as a “hero of conscience” by an organization called the American Freedom Alliance, which purports to defend Western values.
After cocktails and a three-course meal, the lanky Dutch lawmaker with the shock of peroxide blond hair got up to give what by then was his standard speech. Its core message? That Islam is not a religion, but “first and foremost, an ideology; to be precise, like communism and fascism, a political, totalitarian ideology, with worldwide aspirations.” There is no such thing as “moderate Islam,” he continued, because “Islam’s heart lies in the Quran and the Quran is an evil book.” He then laid out his plan to combat this evil: a stay on immigration from Muslim countries; the expulsion of criminal foreigners and, following denaturalization, criminals with dual nationality; the closing of Islamic schools (“for they are fascist institutions”); and a ban on the construction of mosques.
To Dutch ears, Wilders speech was not new — these ideas had already cropped up in interviews with Dutch media and in articles Wilders had written. Mainstream politicians had dismissed his ideas as “ridiculous” and unconstitutional, but a portion of the Dutch public, at least, was fascinated. And his American audience that night at the Reagan library found the anti-Islam rant exciting, too. When he finished speaking, Wilders received a standing ovation. My tablemate was ecstatic. “I have never heard a politician say this,” she exclaimed.
She was right. Few political figures in the United States in 2009 would have said publicly that Islam is not a religion. But that was then; this is 2017, a time when Wilders’s words could have easily come straight out of the mouth of any number of officials from Donald Trump’s administration, from prominent White House aides Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Sebastian Gorka to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Long before Nigel Farage became a household name in the United States, before Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany had even been founded, and before Marine Le Pen emerged from the local council of a small northern French town, it was Wilders, an MP from a small northern European country, who was laying the groundwork for closer ties between the European far right and a then-peripheral element of the Republican Party. Those ties now have the potential to coalesce into an international populist, anti-Islam movement.
In Wilders, whose Party for Freedom (PVV) is currently in a tight race for the top spot in the polls in the Netherlands’s upcoming parliamentary election, Americans who sought to further the demonization of Islam found a perfect role model and poster child. Wilder wasn’t just an agitator, but a victim of both extremist death threats and politically correct culture — and one untainted by accusations of anti-Semitism or Nazi ties. The up-and-coming Wilders, for his part, found in America what he needed, too: attention, adoring crowds, and financial support.
Geert Wilders first appeared on the American right-wing scene earlier in 2009. He made an appearance that year in Washington D.C., where he spoke at the annual Conservative Political Action Committee conference (though not as an official speaker), and later turned up in Florida, Boston, and California. When I first reported on Geert Wilders’s supporters in the United States, I was struck by how the organizations sponsoring him seemed to overlap. The same people appeared at the same conferences, sat on each others’ boards, gave each other awards. This “Islamophobia network,” as critics called it, operated at the time on the outer fringes of the Republican Party. It included Daniel Pipes’s Middle East Forum, the David Horowitz Freedom Center, Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy. as well as bloggers like Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller, who once called Wilders “the ideal man.” All these organizations would at some point host Wilders as a speaker at their conferences.
A year before, Wilders had released his anti-Islam film Fitna, which led to his prosecution under Dutch law for hate speech. The case against Wilders turned him into a sort of celebrity in American anti-Islam circles: It made him a martyred freedom fighter, a Cassandra of the consequences of allowing Islam to invade the West. Wilders, who had been threatened by extremists, had already been under 24-hour protection from Dutch security since 2004. His court case was seen as a further harbinger of things to come. If Muslims could use the legal system to try to silence a critic of Islam, would similar tactics be used in America? When I spoke to David Horowitz in 2009 about his support of Wilders, he told me that Wilders was “Exhibit A” of the terrible results of the “Islamization of Europe.” Wilders was “the canary in the coal mine,” he said. Daniel Pipes launched an initiative which he called “lawfare,” about the abuse of the legal system to muzzle critics of Islam. Buttons started to appear on the websites of American organizations to donate money for a defense fund for Wilders.
In fact, no such defense fund existed: The buttons took readers to a page where they could donate directly to Wilders’s PVV. The amount raised is not known; at the time, political parties in the Netherlands were not required to disclose contributions from abroad. Wilders himself denied that the money he was raising benefitted him or his party. It was all to finance his defense, he told me at the time.
The hate speech charges, of which he was acquitted after a lengthy trial, turned out to be a pivotal moment for Wilders and his efforts to spread his anti-Islam message beyond the Netherlands. What appeared to be an extremist message incompatible with conservative American ideas, was transformed into a brave stance for freedom of speech and against encroaching jihadi attempts to silence a speaker of truth about the growing assault by Muslim immigrants on the Judeo-Christian, humanist values of Western democracies. I recently talked to Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, someone who has followed Wilders for years. He called Wilders “one of the most effective spokespersons for the idea that Islam is a danger to national security. The fact that Wilders himself is under 24-hour protection gives him authenticity. He is seen as a seer and truth-teller.” It also helped in the United States that he wasn’t tainted by ties to anti-Semitic or neo-Nazi organizations, as other far-right European politicians have been. Wilders is a huge and vocal admirer of Israel, which he has visited numerous times and talks about Israel often as the last defender of democracy in an anti-democratic Muslim region of the world before his American audiences.
In the years since Fitna, a growing number of prominent figures in American politics have become interested in Wilders’s message. In November 2014, Wilders spoke at the “restoration weekend” that the David Horowitz Freedom Center organizes every year in Palm Beach, Florida. Horowitz has financially supported Wilders for years, according to disclosure statements that Wilders’s party filed with the Dutch government. In 2015, the PVV received 108,000 euros from the Horowitz Freedom Center; it is not clear how Wilders spent the donation. On another disclosure form that lists Wilders’s international travel, six trips to the United States are listed in the period from June 2013 to July 2016. They were sponsored by the Freedom Center, the Gatestone Institute, and the International Freedom Alliance Foundation. The latter, according to its 2015 IRS form, lists Robert J. Shillman as the only office holder of the foundation. Shillman is the founder and chairman of Cognex Corp., and he is an important donor to the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The restoration weekend that year was also attended by then-Alabama senator, now attorney general, Jeff Sessions, his aide Stephen Miller, now White House senior policy advisor, and Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), who, at the event, invited Wilders to Capitol Hill. Wilders subsequently spent two days in the nation’s capital in April 2015, when he gave a press conference near the Capitol with Gohmert and Steve King (R-Iowa) and spoke at a breakfast meeting organized by King. Congressmen King and Gohmert are known for their anti-gay and anti-women’s rights positions, but Wilders, though he himself holds much more liberal views on gay rights and women’s issues, and describes himself as agnostic, had no problem aligning himself with American-style religious conservatives. The anti-Islam, anti-immigrant message had become their unifying issue.
Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, who has studied Geert Wilders’s forays in America for years, told me that Wilders played a pivotal role in the convergence of America’s anti-immigration movement with the anti-Islam movement. “What were in the past distinct movements, became one because immigrants came to be portrayed as a threat to national security and Wilders played a part in this.” As early as May 2009, Wilders raised the issue of immigration in an address (via telecast) at a conference in Nashville, Tennessee organized by the conservative magazine New English Review. He was giving advice on how to deal with “the enormous amounts of Somali people coming to your city.” If they commit crimes, send them back to where they came from, Wilders recommended. “If they are not willing to integrate, the penalty should be as harsh as possible.”
Congressman King recently told Politico that he has sent messages to the White House recommending that they reach out to Wilders. But Wilders hardly needs an introduction. Since January 2016, Wilders has written a monthly column for the right-wing news site Breitbart, where White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon was, until recently, the CEO. Wilders’s “Netherlands First,” anti-immigrant, anti-Islam writings are a natural fit for the website. In his columns, Wilders often depicts the Netherlands as a country under siege from crime committed by Muslim immigrants and Dutch youth of Moroccan descent. “Yesterday, I visited Maassluis,” wrote Wilders last September. “It is town near Rotterdam, where the indigenous Dutch inhabitants have become the victims of immigrant youths of Moroccan descent. Cars have been demolished, houses vandalized, people threatened. The Dutch no longer feel free and safe in their own city.”
For now, Wilders’s U.S. outreach is on hold. His priority is the upcoming Dutch parliamentary elections, scheduled for March 15. For the moment, he has suspended his public appearances after a member of his security detail was arrested. The officer, of Moroccan descent, allegedly leaked details of Wilders’s whereabouts. Last December Wilders was found guilty of inciting discrimination against Dutch Moroccans, but he received no punishment. When he kicked off his election campaign, he called Dutch youth of Moroccan descent “scum” (in English). Currently, his Party for Freedom has a slight lead in the polls, but even if the PVV becomes the largest party, it’s far from clear that Wilders will become prime minister. In the Dutch system, he will have to find other parties with which to form a coalition government. At least for the moment, those other parties have shunned him, finding his inflammatory brand of politics too alienating and his campaign promises of closing mosques and banning the Quran unconstitutional.
Until recently, those proposals and that sort of language would have been too alienating in the United States, too. But today, even if Wilders doesn’t become prime minister in the Netherlands, he can feel safe knowing he can always go where he has plenty of friends these days: Washington, D.C.
Image credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images