ROTTERDAM, Netherlands — At the Boulevard, a popular pub in the Overschie neighborhood on the northern edge of Rotterdam, the regulars, all older white men, sat at the bar when I visited one late afternoon this month. Willem, a craggy, blue-eyed construction manager nursing a beer, summed up his worries, and those of a great many Dutch people, about the consequences of immigration in the Netherlands succinctly: “You can take over a country by war, or you can take over a country by integration.”
Willem’s daughter is running for parliament in the upcoming national election, scheduled for March 15, on the list of the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam Party for Freedom, or PVV. Founded by Geert Wilders, the Netherlands’s most hated man — as well as, in certain circles, one of its most admired — the PVV is so secretive and self-enclosed, even in the midst of a national campaign, that Willem would not give me his last name for fear of exposing his daughter to publicity. But everyone knows what Wilders stands for. Last month, he kicked off his campaign, in Spijkenisse, a party stronghold just south of Rotterdam, by calling Moroccan immigrants “scum.” (He softened the blow by adding, “Not all are scum.”) He had just started running a five-second television ad that showed a clip of Prime Minister Mark Rutte saying, “Islam is not the problem,” followed by the words, “Do you agree?”
In the weeks leading up to the vote, the Dutch have been preoccupied, almost obsessed, with issues of immigration, integration, and national identity. Overschie is a largely white enclave in a city that, like most major urban centers in the Netherlands, consists about equally of immigrants and native Dutch, and everyone I spoke to in the Boulevard agreed with some part of Wilders’s nativist agenda. Willem thought that immigrants were reproducing so rapidly that they would soon overtake native Dutch and that they were damaging the economy because they refused to work. Nobody else at the bar would talk to me when I first visited; politics has become a very loaded subject in what is otherwise a famously friendly country. But when I came back the next day, I met Pieter Van Koopan, the local city councilman. Van Koopan said he wished most Dutch were as pious as his Muslim friends but didn’t understand why immigrants could jump the queue to get apartments distributed by the state. (They can’t, though refugees can.) Also, he said, Africans don’t work. A different Pieter, also no last name given, said the older generation of immigrants was fine, but the young guys whine about discrimination when they don’t get what they want.
“He’s a strong character,” Pieter said of Wilders. But he wasn’t voting for him. Nor was his friend Pierre, who instructed me to refer to him as Pierre of the Boulevard. “I don’t want the world to think that this guy is our prime minster,” said Pierre of the Boulevard. He was voting instead for the equally nationalistic Party for the Netherlands. Van Koopan belonged to Rutte’s center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, or VVD, the Netherlands’s liberal party. And even Willem said Wilders was “too extreme” for him.
The Dutch parliamentary election is attracting international attention for perhaps the first time ever because, after Donald Trump’s unexpected win and Brexit, it is the first of three pivotal elections this year in European countries (the others are France and Germany) that have been rocked by a wave of populist nationalism. If the right sweeps the board, the liberal project — we say “project” now, rather than “consensus,” because the West’s taken-for-granted reality has begun to look like rickety scaffolding — will be history.
Though it may tempt the gods to say so, it is far likelier that the center-right will win all three ballots. The PVV has been sinking in the polls in recent weeks. The party is now expected to take about 25 of the 150 seats in parliament, as is the VVD. But neither the VVD nor any other mainstream party would accept the PVV as part of a governing coalition. Wilders, in short, will remain in the opposition. But that doesn’t mean that he has lost. He has so thoroughly reshaped Dutch political culture that voters who share his views, but find him ultra vires, can now vote for any number of parties that have taken a hard line on immigrants and on Islam, including the VVD itself. This is Europe’s politics in 2017; the center holds, but only by giving ground to the nationalist right.
The Netherlands never had a 9/11 — in fact, nothing really bad has happened there since World War II. But the country did have a dramatic, perhaps hyperbolic, political awakening at that time. In 2001, Pim Fortuyn, a scholar and public speaker, began saying things widely considered way out of bounds in the Netherlands. “The Muslims should simply leave,” he said in a magazine interview. “You should treat them like Communists during the Cold War.” Even liberal Muslims, he went on, seek to “dominate and enforce their values upon the public domain.” When he insisted that the country should repeal the first article of its constitution, which prohibits discrimination, Fortuyn was drummed out of his own anti-immigrant party, Livable Netherlands. By this time, a follower had established Livable Rotterdam, a local version of the party, to contest seats in a municipal election. In early 2002, the new party, with Fortuyn at the head, won more than a third of the vote in progressive, eclectic Rotterdam — a shock to the tolerant Dutch political establishment.
On May 6, 2002, Fortuyn was murdered — not by an Islamic extremist but by an environmental activist. No political leader in the Netherlands had been murdered in centuries. Fortuyn became a martyr; his issue became the country’s issue. Before his death, Fortuyn had established a new national party, the Pim Fortuyn List. In an election 10 days after his death, the party won 17 percent of the seats in parliament, an unprecedented performance by a new party — not to mention one led by a dead man. Without Fortuyn, the party would soon disintegrate; but from that time to this, the question of whether immigrants are threatening Dutch national identity, whatever that is, has remained at or near the center of political debate.
How to explain the Pim Fortuyn phenomenon? Some part was clearly the man himself: a puckish figure, openly gay. When, in the midst of a debate, an imam said it was clear that Fortuyn had never even talked to Muslims, Fortuyn shot back: “Sir, I sleep with them.” Fortuyn used his homosexuality to reverse the usual terms of debate. Far from being an intolerant reactionary, he was a lone defender of liberal principles against both illiberal Muslims and leftists who wanted to deny him the right to speak. It was him, not the left, who was standing up for Dutch values.
But Fortuyn was also seen as the bearer of an inconvenient truth. After World War II, Dutch employers had imported a steady stream of guest workers — first southern Europeans, then Turks, Moroccans, Surinamese, Antilleans, and others. The Italians and the Spaniards went back home eventually, as envisioned; the others stayed and brought their families. About half the population of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague is now either immigrants or the children and grandchildren of immigrants. This was an outcome that no one had envisioned a generation ago.
And after 9/11, a new element of fear about terrorism and intolerance was added to the anxiety over the balance between native Dutch and immigrants. Muslims were no longer just outsiders; they were also a potential source of danger. Conservatives were vindicated, and progressives shocked and horrified, in 2004 when Theo van Gogh, a filmmaker and anti-Islam gadfly, was brutally murdered as he cycled along a street in Amsterdam by a Muslim with ties to a terrorist group. (Van Gogh was shot and stabbed and almost decapitated.) Like Fortuyn, van Gogh had been murdered for expressing negative views about Islam. Was this, the Dutch wondered, the new price to be exacted for free speech?
Rotterdam remains Pim Fortuyn territory to this day. Livable Rotterdam controls a third of the seats on the City Council. I met the party’s founder, Ronald Sorensen, at the party office in Rotterdam’s stately neo-Gothic City Hall. Pink-faced, goateed, and combustible, Sorensen told me that he had witnessed the rise of sectarianism in the city’s Muslim immigrants as a high school teacher of history and biology. “I began to notice a change about 15 years ago,” Sorensen said. “In the earlier period, most of the immigrants were first-generation, and they felt that they had to learn Dutch.” Then, he said, Turkish and Moroccan officials began to worry that assimilated immigrants would stop sending back remittances and so began to dispatch imams from home to preserve the bonds. (It’s true that imams were sent to the Netherlands; the remittance theory seems to be Sorensen’s own hobbyhorse.) Then Arab- and Turkish-language television and social networks pulled immigrants further from their adopted home.
Soon, Sorensen said, students were refusing to listen to sex education. When he talked about the Holocaust, his Muslim students said, “The Jews deserved it.” His colleagues advised him to keep a tactful silence. But Sorensen would have none of it. “I will talk about it,” he insisted. “It’s insane. They’re taking advantage of our weakness” — that is, the liberal insistence on tolerating the illiberal. Sorensen and Fortuyn soon found one another. And after Fortuyn was assassinated, Sorensen found Geert Wilders.
Wilders was not a polished figure like Fortuyn. Born in 1963, he was raised in the southern province of Limburg, which in Dutch terms made him something of a bumpkin. He had never gone to university. But he was highly intelligent, very hard-working, deeply ambitious, and extremely attached to his convictions. After graduating from high school, Wilders had lived in Israel for several years, working on a moshav, or farm cooperative. Thereafter he had traveled around the Arab world. Wilders returned to the Netherlands with a lasting love for Israel and a suspicion of Arabs and of Islam. As a young politician, he was apprenticed to Frits Bolkestein, a conservative leader who had long tested the boundaries of acceptable speech on Islam. Nevertheless, people who knew Wilders in the period around 2000 thought of him as a classic free market liberal on the right-wing of the VVD. Fortuyn was too harsh for his taste. But Wilders became close to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali refugee who had become active in Dutch politics and openly called for a reform of reactionary Islamic doctrine. Hirsi Ali appears to have given license to Wilders’s darkest instincts. In 2004, he broke from the VVD over the party’s willingness to consider letting Turkey join the European Union.
Wilders had long chafed at his limited role inside the VVD. His biographer, Meindert Fennema, a well-regarded academic and leftist, observes that two things had always held Wilders back: his humble academic background and his bizarre bouffant platinum hairdo. “Nobody knew when he started dyeing his hair or why he did it,” Fennema said. “But he wouldn’t stop.” Like Fortuyn, Wilders needed to be the star of his own show. In the Netherlands, where ambitious politicians routinely start their own parties, this is hardly a problem. Since the country’s electoral system awards parliamentary seats to the top 150 performers in the national election, even the tiniest parties can win a seat or two. Wilders started up the PVV in 2006, though he remains the only actual member of the party. The candidates who run on his ticket, and the staff members who cater to his whims, cannot actually join the party itself. The PVV has no platform, no spokesperson, and no formal organization. It’s just Wilders.
Wilders began receiving death threats from Islamist extremists as soon as he formed his anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim party. With Fortuyn’s death still a fresh horror, he was given an elaborate security detail; he has lived ever since inside a tight cordon. Whether because of the imposed isolation, his status as a cult leader, or the liberation he felt at having escaped the confines of an organized party, Wilders soon threw all rhetorical restraint to the winds. In 2007, he called the Quran “the Islamic Mein Kampf” and proposed that the Netherlands ban “this miserable book,” as it had Adolf Hitler’s text. At the same time, he began moving to the left on economic issues, calling for the socialization of the country’s privatized health-care system and opposing fiscal austerity. In short, he became a modern European populist, like Hungary’s Viktor Orban or France’s Marine Le Pen.
Since Wilders rarely grants interviews and prohibits those who run on his ticket from doing so, the closest I could get to his worldview was Sorensen, who was very close to Wilders until they had a falling-out last year over the PVV’s closed ranks. Sorensen told me that he shares Wilders’s view that Islam is a “political theory” more than a religion, since its members seek to impose Islamic law, or sharia, on civil states. When I pointed out that the meaning of sharia varied radically from one strain of Islam to another, Sorensen wheeled on me. Because Muslims view the Quran as the actual word of God, he told me, they feel compelled to carry out the faith’s directives in the most literal terms. All Muslims, he went on, wish to impose religious law. As a teacher, he had specialized in fascism and Nazism, so he recognized the true nature of Islamic ideology. “They accept violence as a means,” he said. “They’re allowed to lie, and they don’t have to say anything” in response to questions. Islam was fascism, and that was the end of it.
Nevertheless, even Sorensen thinks that Wilders has gone off the deep end. “He’s losing touch with reality,” Sorensen told me. When he had pressed Wilders to open up the party to members, the latter had rejoined, not unreasonably, that he feared attracting every crackpot in the Netherlands, as Fortuyn had. But the consequence is that Wilders is isolated not only by his omnipresent security detail but by his lack of peers. Tom-Jan Meeus, a columnist for Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad, said party insiders have told him that the PVV is a “one-man operation” in which all live in fear of a paranoid leader who could get rid of them at any moment. And since the taint of working with Wilders is ineradicable, the only job available for the faithful is with Wilders himself. For that reason, Sorensen told me, the PVV head is surrounded by sycophants.
Wilders seems torn between his ambition to lead the Netherlands and his ambition to smash its political rules. In 2010, the PVV won 24 seats in parliament, making it the third-largest party. The VVD and Christian Democrats formed a government, and Wilders agreed to support the coalition without actually joining it. Wilders was compelled for the first time to compromise, a potentially lethal problem for a party whose appeal was based on contempt for elite opinion. After two years, Wilders withdrew; but since then, the party’s vote tally has declined in local and national elections. The PVV now functions as the Netherlands’s biggest permanent opposition party.
Like Fortuyn before him, Wilders has kept himself at the center of Dutch political life by testing the standards of permissible speech. In January 2009, a three-judge panel ordered prosecutors to try Wilders for engaging in a pattern of hate speech. Wilders himself could hardly have dreamed up a spectacle better suited to his oratorical gifts or his penchant for martyrdom. The trial dragged on until 2011 and became a national spectator sport. In his closing speech, Wilders declared that Islam “threatens Westerns norms and values, freedom of speech, equality of men and women, of hetero- and homosexuals, of believers and nonbelievers.” As Meindert Fennema writes in his biography, “The inner logic of his discourse was not one of racism or xenophobia but rather one of enlightened universalism.” Wilders had donned the mantle of Fortuyn without having to surrender his life. Better still, he was acquitted. Last fall, in a new trial, Wilders was found guilty of inciting discrimination in a 2014 speech in which he asked supporters if they wanted “more or fewer Moroccans. “Fewer!” they shouted. “Well, we’ll take care of that,” Wilders promised. Nevertheless, the court did not impose any punishment.
In recent years, Wilders has become a central figure in the informal “Populist International.” He tried to form a political bloc in the EU with Marine Le Pen and other nationalists, though the effort ultimately came to naught. He was a featured speaker in January at a right-wing conclave in Koblenz, Germany, known as the Europe of Nations and Freedom Conference. There he warned darkly of hordes of African and Muslim immigrants pouring into Europe and said, “We are fed up with the elites, who offer you a beautiful ideal world in which all cultures are morally equivalent.” During various visits to the United States, Wilders has met with Michele Bachmann, Steve King, and other leading figures in America’s nativist right. He has written regularly for Breitbart, which in turn has extensively covered his campaign. Meeus, the NRC columnist, told me that Wilders had been trying to use his contacts with Stephen Bannon, the Trump advisor and former Breitbart CEO, to wangle a meeting with the president — as, for example, the British nationalist Nigel Farage has done to great effect. Given Trump’s sinking popularity, Wilders may now be relieved that the sit-down never happened.
Do the guys in the Boulevard have a legitimate grievance? This is, of course, the same question that American liberals found themselves asking during — and especially after — the 2016 presidential campaign and that European progressives have been uneasily posing as their countries have turned against refugees. We know that illiberalism is rampant. What, if anything, does that tell us about the real failures of liberal government?
The bill of particulars is different in every country. Anti-globalism is not nearly as neuralgic an issue in the Netherlands as it is in Britain or for that matter in Hungary; the Dutch, merchants and traders, have a broad streak of economic liberalism. Wilders has vowed to pull the Netherlands out of the EU and drop the euro if elected; but as citizens of a small country with no delusions of grandeur, the Dutch do not fantasize about life beyond the confines of the EU. And since the country has thus far been spared terrorist violence, the issue lacks the salience it has in France and Belgium. For voters in Rotterdam and across the country, the question is identity: Will Muslim immigrants ultimately become Dutch, or will they make the Netherlands less Dutch?
This atmosphere of unease has occasionally been illuminated by a lightning bolt. Last summer, in the days following the failed coup in Turkey, thousands of Turkish immigrants and people of Turkish descent thronged the Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam, shouting slogans on behalf of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and carrying placards bearing his image. Some even assaulted reporters and attacked homes said to belong to Turkish followers of Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan accused of orchestrating the coup. It was as if they wanted to prove that Wilders was right about the refusal of Muslim immigrants to integrate into Dutch civic life. As Han ten Broeke, a senior VVD parliamentarian and candidate for foreign minister in the next government, said to me, “You couldn’t miss the irony of Erasmus, who came to Holland because it was a haven for freedom of thought.” Ten Broeke pointed out that while Dutch anxieties in the past had focused on Moroccans rather than Turks, who seemed better integrated and in any case were much appreciated as shopkeepers and taxi drivers, “even third-generation Turks turn out to be totally nationalistic.” They were Turks before they were Dutch.
There are a number of reassuring responses to this dire line of thought: Only 5,000 of the country’s 400,000 Turks showed up on the Erasmus Bridge. Erdogan had whipped up the patriotic fever of expats. Right-wing extremists who had attacked refugee shelters behaved just as badly; society was getting more polarized. But even the progressives who repeated these shibboleths were knocked off balance by the demonstrators’ fervor. Tofik Dibi, who was born in the Netherlands but is of Moroccan descent, and who had served in parliament for the GreenLeft party and subsequently come out as gay, told me: “It was a setback for people like me who have consistently reassured the Dutch people that we love the fact that we have freedoms here, that I can come out here in a way that would be impossible in Morocco.” In an interview two months after the demonstration, Prime Minister Rutte said, in his personal opinion, immigrants who behaved as the demonstrators had should “fuck off.” Given the intensely negative reaction to the protest, Rutte knew that his listeners were thinking the same thing.
The Netherlands has now become the site of competing nationalisms, each rubbing the other raw. A new drama blew up this past weekend around Erdogan’s efforts to win the votes of Turks based in the Netherlands for an upcoming constitutional referendum, planned for April 16, that could greatly increase his powers as president. Both Germany and the Netherlands, afraid of provoking their own populist voters, have barred members of Erdogan’s party from staging rallies. Erdogan upped the ante by accusing both countries of behaving like Nazis. That was ludicrous, but Rutte was playing to his nationalistic voters just as Erdogan was playing to his. As much Holland wants their immigrants to be Dutch, Erdogan seems to want them to stay Turkish.
Dutch of Moroccan or Turkish descent don’t burn cars and rampage through the streets; Dutch suburbs are not banlieues — the poor, crime-ridden, immigrant-majority housing projects that mark the outskirts of French urban centers. Nor do they carry out terrorist attacks. Though the Netherlands took in about 45,000 refugees in 2015, even the guys at the Boulevard said the country has an obligation to accept them (so long as they’re spread evenly around and not squeezed into the immigrant neighborhood of South Rotterdam). The issues that have galvanized the anti-Islam vote have been mostly symbolic, whether the pro-Erdogan march or the endless debate over Black Pete, a blackface character who is a companion to the Dutch Saint Nick and who is seen, quite rightly, as a racist symbol of the colonial past.
Yet the feeling that immigrants live in a largely self-enclosed world is not without foundation. According to a recent government report, the number of neighborhoods with 50 percent or more immigrants has gone up by half since 2002. Intermarriage between Turks or Moroccans and native Dutch remains below 10 percent. Half a century after large-scale, non-European immigration began, it is hard to deny that the Netherlands has an urban underclass. Four times as many non-Western migrants are accused of crimes as Dutch natives. Unemployment rates are three times as high.
The progressive explanation for this isolation is that it has been imposed on newcomers. When Italian and Spanish migrants came, they were welcomed by the Dutch unions, the Communist Party, and the Catholic Church. No such Western social “pillar” greeted non-European migrants, who had little choice but to cling together. Persistent discrimination has limited job prospects. The refusal of both Turkey and Morocco to permit migrants to drop their citizenship has compelled them to retain dual citizenship and thus kept them from becoming fully Dutch. In short, socioeconomic conditions dictate cultural choices, not the other way around. As Jesse Klaver, the 30-year-old leader of GreenLeft and the Netherlands’s most popular progressive, has said, “It’s not about immigrants or Islam. It’s about social, economic problems. People who have to pay too much tax and can’t make a living.”
Misguided policy may have abetted those external conditions. Throughout the 1990s, Dutch leaders sought to deal with the issue of integration through multiculturalism. Ethnic groups were encouraged to celebrate their own backgrounds, languages, customs, and history. This came to a screeching halt when scholars — and not just Fortuyn and his followers — concluded that multiculturalism was inflaming the problem it was intended to solve. In 2000, Paul Scheffer, a Dutch Labour Party academic, wrote an immensely influential essay, whose title translates more or less to “The Multicultural Disaster,” which argued that progressive policy was producing a generation of immigrants who did not speak Dutch or feel part of Dutch life. Since that time, government policy has emphasized integration and language training. When I visited the Globetrotter School in the vast immigrant quarter of South Rotterdam, I saw printed reminders to the elementary students posted on classroom doors: “We speak Dutch in school.” The fact that such a sign was necessary in a school virtually all of whose pupils are second- or third-generation children of immigrants was striking.
Of course, none of this confirms the PVV view that Islam is the problem.
Earlier this month, I went to Friday prayers at the Essalam mosque in South Rotterdam, one of Europe’s largest. The mosque is considered Moroccan, though while there I met a Kurd — a Dutch citizen — and a Kosovar and a Bangladeshi, both newcomers. Essalam is dedicated to a moderate, ecumenical vision of Islam. Albert Ringer, the rabbi of Rotterdam’s Reform synagogue, had come by for a chat with the imam. He told me that he had been delighted to be introduced at a recent Ramadan iftar as “our rabbi.” Essalam’s imam, Azzedine Karrat, is a soft-spoken 30-year-old who has lived in the Netherlands since he was 10. When I told him that I was writing about integration, he said, “It doesn’t make sense to speak of ‘integration.’ We are not immigrants. We are part of the society. When somebody asks me where I am from, I say, ‘I’m a Dutch Muslim with Moroccan roots.’”
Outside, after prayers, I met Driess Terrhi, a 45-year-old chemical engineer who had emigrated from Morocco with his family when he was 10. He had come to the mosque with his father, a venerable gentleman in a white skullcap, and his son, Souhail, who was getting his master’s degree in psychology in the hope of doing social work. Terrhi was mystified at the resentment that immigrants had provoked. His friends were second- or third-generation Dutch-speaking professionals, like him. Like the imam, they considered themselves Dutch. “Probably,” he hypothesized, the PVV types “have a low educational level, so they are competing with immigrants for jobs, and many are jobless.” I told him that that was more or less what the PVV people said about immigrants. I asked Terrhi if he would vote for Denk, a new party founded by Turkish immigrants, which says it aims to combat xenophobia. Absolutely not, he said — they were chauvinists just like the PVV, only in reverse.
It isn’t only the world of the Essalam mosque that gives the lie to Geert Wilders’s frenzied denunciations of Islam. So does Rotterdam’s mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb, a devout Muslim of Moroccan background who nevertheless champions freedom of speech and religion and openly criticizes Muslims who fail to do so. (Mayors in the Netherlands are, however, appointed by the national parties rather than elected.) Pierre of the Boulevard adores Mayor Aboutaleb, with whom he works on training programs for sanitation workers.
But that is hardly the whole story. One of the Dutch literary sensations of the last year was I Was One of Them: Three Years Undercover Among Muslims by Maarten Zeegers, a former theology student. Zeegers had penetrated the Muslim community of The Hague, which, he told me, is the most segregated in the Netherlands. A boulevard that runs down the middle of the city literally separates the immigrant from the native Dutch halves of The Hague. Zeegers found that Salafism, the fundamentalist strain of Islam that looks to the Prophet Mohammed and his followers as the sole source of guidance, is gaining ground rapidly, especially among young immigrants from Morocco, who explicitly repudiate the idea of integrating into Dutch secular society. He witnessed three pro-Islamic State demonstrations during his time in the neighborhood, though all were small. Of the 300 Dutch citizens who have gone to Syria to fight, Zeegers said, 90 came from his neighborhood. He has concluded that the progressive view that Muslim immigrants will integrate into Dutch society so long as discrimination ends and economic conditions improve is “sticking your head in the sand.” Zeegers is no fan of the PVV, but he admits that “Wilders is stepping into something real.”
I asked Zeegers what he thought the Dutch should do. “We should create a national identity,” he said. How, I asked, would you do that? After all, national identities emerge organically. And what would the content of that identity be? Would it look more like Black Pete or more like the EU Constitution? Zeegers admitted that he had no idea. But he was very worried about the possibility of a “religiously pillarized society.” Breaking down entrenched patterns of housing segregation would help, he said. But the government has tried that, without much success.
Beyond the mesmerizing antics of Geert Wilders, the national political campaign of the past few weeks has produced very little material to attract the attention of non-Dutch. A dozen or more parties have been fanning out in the hustings to express their views on health care and retirement funds and the threat from Russia and all the other issues that have shaped European elections in years past. The Netherlands is, after all, just about the best country in the world — rich, peaceful, stable, picturesque, friendly. A U.N. report recently concluded that Dutch children are, by a long shot, the happiest in the world — first in education, material well-being, and “behavior and risks” (smoking, drinking, obesity, teenage pregnancy); fourth in “housing and environment”; and fifth in “health and safety.” Whatever troubles the Dutch have are, by definition, first-world problems. Of course, Wilders is the living proof that prosperity doesn’t necessarily produce contentment — or even that contentment doesn’t produce contentment.
But the week before I arrived in Rotterdam, the Dutch political volcano had gone silent. On Feb. 22, Wilders announced that he had discovered a “mole” among the secret service agents who provide his security. The head of the secret service suspended the officer, whom he said was of “Moroccan background,” for allegedly leaking Wilders’s otherwise secret campaign schedule to an unspecified “criminal organization.” Wilders immediately canceled all planned appearances. When Wilders resumed his campaign, a week or so later, his schedule consisted almost entirely of television and newspaper interviews. Otherwise, Wilders sits in his guarded fastness in The Hague and sends out tweets.
Wilders’s political success is all the more remarkable given his penchant for alienating all but the most hardcore among his followers. Meeus, the NRC columnist, believes that with a less self-destructive campaign, Wilders could almost double his vote, win the election, and perhaps form a government. (Others argue that a more acceptable Wilders would sacrifice the “I hate everybody else” vote.) But the latest polls show that the PVV has dropped from a 12-seat lead over the VVD to a dead heat. Experts speculate that Wilders’s support was buoyed by the election of Trump and has since sunk as the reality of the new American president has hit home with Dutch voters. Nevertheless, polls both in the United States in the 2016 election and in England during the Brexit referendum deeply undercounted the nationalist vote. Wilders could still win the most seats, though he wouldn’t be able to form a government.
The Netherlands may well wind up with another left-right coalition led by Prime Minister Rutte. This would hardly put an end to nativist rhetoric. In a full-page ad the VVD took out in January, Rutte returned to the blunt language he had used in the aftermath of the Erasmus Bridge demonstration, warning immigrants to “act normal or go away.” And this time he was speaking as prime minister and party leader, not as a private individual. That is still not Wilders’s message, which is simply “go away,” but it sounds very much like Pim Fortuyn’s. Wilders’s extremism has turned Fortuyn into the new middle of Dutch politics.
The idea that men and women who have lived in the Netherlands their whole adult lives should leave the country if they don’t care to conform to Dutch standards of comportment hardly puts one in mind of the example of Erasmus. The Erasmian spirit of tolerance and openness remains very close to the core of Dutch national identity, but the presence, in their midst, of a non-European and often illiberal “other” has tested the limits of that spirit and persuaded many voters that “tolerance” is the royal road to cultural suicide.
Critics of Wilders often say he identifies problems but offers no solutions. But politics is a very awkward instrument for solving problems of culture and identity. Issuing commands to “act normal” is even less of a policy than “go away.” In fact, Rutte and the VVD don’t propose to deport troublemakers, change the criminal law, cut funding for social programs, or flood the street with cops. What they stand for is more like a mood or a tone of voice. Immigrants should act normal, and native Dutch voters should calm down and stop looking to crackpot saviors. It’s a blunderbuss solution to a complicated problem.
I have to admit, however, that I didn’t hear any more convincing solutions during my time in the Netherlands. “Act normal.” Perhaps it’s the slogan that our era has been looking for.
Top photo credit: ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN/AFP/Getty Images
James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit." (@jamestraub1)