Argument

The New Face of the Dutch Far-Right

Thierry Baudet once called politicians brain-dead. Now his upstart white nationalist movement has eclipsed Geert Wilders and won more Senate seats than the prime minister’s party.

A campaign portrait of Dutch far-right Forum for Democracy (FvD) party Thierry Baudet is pictured next to alcool bottles during a provincial elections party electoral gathering in Zeist on March 20, 2019. - Netherland's Prime Minister is set to lose his majority in parliament's upper house after FvD surged in today's provincial elections, according to an exit poll. (Photo by Bart Maat / ANP / AFP) / Netherlands OUT        (Photo credit should read BART MAAT/AFP/Getty Images)
A campaign portrait of Dutch far-right Forum for Democracy (FvD) party Thierry Baudet is pictured next to alcool bottles during a provincial elections party electoral gathering in Zeist on March 20, 2019. - Netherland's Prime Minister is set to lose his majority in parliament's upper house after FvD surged in today's provincial elections, according to an exit poll. (Photo by Bart Maat / ANP / AFP) / Netherlands OUT (Photo credit should read BART MAAT/AFP/Getty Images)

Elections for the Netherlands’ provincial legislatures are usually a dull affair; last week, they turned into one of the greatest political upsets in Dutch political history. Forum for Democracy (FvD), a party that currently holds only two seats in Parliament, overtook sitting Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) as the largest in the Netherlands—a unique achievement for a party not even three years old. Not only does the result rob Rutte’s governing coalition of its slim majority in the Senate—a peculiarity of the Dutch system is that provincial legislatures elect the upper house—but it is also the first time an explicitly white-nationalist movement has become the country’s largest party. It will determine the shape of Dutch politics for years to come

On election night, Thierry Baudet, the leader of FvD, addressed his audience with a speech that was broadcast live to well over 1 million households by the Dutch national broadcasting organization, NOS. Baudet did not, as is common, address the crowd in front of him and thank staff and volunteers. Instead, he spoke directly into the cameras. Baudet repeated his core political message of the last two years, conjuring a stark image of the near-total decline of the “boreal world”—a term popularized on the French far-right as an alternative to the discredited “Aryan”—imagining a white cultural and political space “from Gibraltar to Vladivostok.” A quaint word to the uninitiated, the term “boreal” has long been recognized as a deafening dog whistle to white supremacists. The most famous politician to invoke the idea of a boreal Europe to date is Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of France’s National Front.

Baudet suggested that he and his party had been called to defend a continent in ruins: “We stand here, amid the debris of one of the greatest and most beautiful civilizations the world has ever known,” he declared. “But like the other countries that belong to this boreal world, we are being destroyed by those who ought to protect us. We are being undermined by our universities. By our journalists. … But above all we are being undermined by our administrators.” After sounding those notes, Baudet turned to the topic of foreigners and the European Union, denouncing “uncontrolled migration that distorts our streetscapes, all this leftist indoctrination in our schools, all this ugly architecture, the transfer of power to the European Union, the climate heresy—if none of this had happened, I would have never entered politics. But we have been called to the front lines.”

Five years ago, Baudet was still a minor figure and largely unknown to the Dutch public, making a few TV appearances and mostly writing contrarian newspaper columns. Now, he is a major political player. Jort Kelder, a well-known media figure and a friend of both Baudet and Rutte, offers one explanation for his rise. Kelder argues that Dutch elites, dominated politically and culturally by an exclusionary “party cartel” (a term popularized by Baudet) have created their own nightmare. Kelder claimed that after Baudet realized he had no future in academia, lost his column in the prestigious centrist newspaper NRC Handelsblad, and had his proposal for a documentary series rejected by the public broadcasting organization, he had no other option but to test his luck as a politician. “He visited me in the summer of 2016 and told me he was broke,” Kelder said. “So he figured that his only option was to go into politics.”

But Baudet, who grew up in a family steeped in privilege and social status, is not a victim of poverty or elitist exclusion. After obtaining his Ph.D. from Leiden University, Baudet briefly pursued a postdoctoral research project with the well-known Dutch political commentator Paul Scheffer, who wrote a seminal article in 2000 that kicked off the Dutch public debate on migration and integration, until a conflict between them ended the project. As for his column, Baudet gave up the position himself to focus on his research.

Baudet was motivated by more than just money; he craved a life in the public eye. And in the absence of a platform, he founded his own: a think tank, housed in a basement along one of central Amsterdam’s canals. At the time of its founding, the think tank’s financial practices came under public scrutiny for potential misuse of European Union funds. Concerns, too, persist that it was taking cues from the Kremlin—especially after the think tank became one of the main public proponents of the referendum against the EU association treaty with Ukraine in 2016, a cause heavily favored by Russia’s government. Baudet has dismissed these concerns.

Though Baudet at the time said he was uninterested in politics (suggesting that politicians were “essentially brain-dead”) he was already laying the groundwork for his new career. There was a point when his dark discussions of imminent catastrophe transformed into a rationale for action. Shortly after founding his think tank, Baudet wrote in glowing terms in the French right-wing journal Valeurs Actuelles about the French fascist novelist and Nazi collaborator Pierre Drieu la Rochelle. Baudet seemed intentionally vague about whether it was the Frenchman or himself who believed: “In life, everything is achieved through struggle. He who doesn’t fight, dies.” Discussing whether the present seemed a lot like interwar Europe, and suggesting that Muslim immigration may already have changed Europe beyond “a point of no return,” he argued that Europeans would perhaps soon need to confront the same “diabolical dilemma” as the generation of the interwar period: either to live “enslaved,” or to “go into battle.” In conclusion, Baudet wrote, “We must act now, radically.”

The transformation from public intellectual to leader of his own political party marked a shift in Baudet’s thinking. At an earlier stage of his career he suggested conservatism, the school of thought he identified with, was the tradition of the “losers of history.” Baudet once admitted that he did not mind much being on the losers’ side but was simply interested in going down with fighting dignity. His early ideas had a romantic, even fatalistic streak—his nationalism was largely aesthetic, the fantasy of a privileged boy from an elite family who yearned for a past in which the world, in his own words, was still “whole.” 

The loser, however, turned out to be a winner. And what may at some point have begun as the infatuations of a young academic over the course of time radicalized into a hardened nationalist doctrine. Ideologically, his thinking still takes much of its inspiration from early 20th-century French notions of “rooted” nationalism expounded by thinkers like Maurice Barrès. Rhetorically however, his favored metaphors of illness and the need to rid the “national body” of “hostile elements,” as well as calls to combat an “enemy wearing our own uniform,” invites comparison to the militant political expression of that type of nationalism, that is to say: fascism.

The fact that Baudet could enter national politics with such apparent ease might seem perplexing to outside observers. In the Netherlands, however, the boundaries between journalism, politics, and punditry are very fluid. The country’s commentariat includes members of all professions, and it is not uncommon for its members to move back and forth between them. It is also very small; the collective of influential politicians, pundits, and intellectuals—the faces of public opinion—would fit in one or two of Amsterdam’s sightseeing canal boats. And in this chummy world, few political debates are fought so hard that it would be impossible to share a drink afterwards. No matter how much resentment Baudet might direct toward this “elite,” it was this same clique that helped him rise.

Henk Otten, Baudet’s consigliere and campaign strategist, observed in an interview that FvD is essentially a media company with a political branch. Its stunts, staged in Parliament and broadcast across social media and friendly online outlets, often gave journalists a reason to invite Baudet to their studios. A master at capitalizing on outrage he himself prompts, Baudet would often end up being invited to talk shows to explain himself, securing a place in the spotlight where he could dismiss any criticism as faux outrage from biased journalists. Always theatrical, he rarely walked back his comments, dismissed any criticism as overreaction, and meanwhile exploited the opportunity to present himself to a wider audience.

From the moment Baudet announced his plans to become a politician, he has been a virtually constant presence in the media, exploiting the curious mix of shock and fascination journalists felt towards him. Dutch journalists, in particular TV journalists, frequently emphasize the competition between politicians and parties over the substance of their ideas. Who is up and who is down often takes precedence over matters of policy and ideology, and judgment of policies is ceded to polls: views are considered vindicated simply by gaining traction. Baudet fanned the flames of public frustration, which, with the help of free airtime, turned into a political conflagration, culminating in his recent electoral triumph.

Too often, journalists were simply no match for Baudet’s brash intellectualism, seemed unaware of the ideological roots of his ideas, or remained blind to his dog-whistling. At times, their unpreparedness amounted to sheer incompetence. After Baudet singled out George Soros in a way chillingly similar to the anti-Semitic ads used by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (whom he has frequently praised) and called for a public investigation into Soros’s influence, the Dutch national broadcaster ran a profile on Soros in which he was referred to as an enigmatic philanthropist with “tentacles” reaching deep in European politics.

Television journalists in particular seemed enthralled by Baudet, whose charisma is undeniable, and whose political style is many things, but rarely dull. Baudet’s constant accusations of left-wing media bias functioned as a force multiplier. He managed to excite his own fans while persuading defensive journalists to invite him on air more often in a misguided attempt to prove their evenhandedness. The result was an outsize amount of free publicity relative to the size of the party, which Baudet exploited handsomely.

Baudet’s showman persona, mesmerizingly free of self-doubt, has become a kind of real-life meme. In one instance, he had himself photographed on top of a grand piano (which after being elected to Parliament became the subject of several news stories again when Baudet announced he was having it moved into his new office). It became a meme. On election night of the local elections last year, Baudet was filmed dancing all by himself with comical exuberance. It also became a meme. Last summer, he a posted photo on Instagram of himself lying naked on the edge of a pool in a sunny location. That photo, too, went viral.

A writer for the traditionally left-leaning daily De Volkskrant noted that everyone, admirers and critics alike, had “snickered him into Parliament.” But the memes also come in a darker variety. In the sordid corners of 4chan and other message boards, a following of white nationalists creates memes that feature Baudet in Nazi uniform, edited to look like Pepe the Frog, or in other bizarre scenes, often with exhortations to “clean up” the media, schools, government ministries, and the immigrant population. Baudet has become an avatar for the online alt-right, and the Dutch media bear much of the blame.

Now that Baudet is no longer a marginal political figure, Dutch journalists will have to confront the question of how they have enabled his success. At the very least, they will have to start treating him not simply as a pundit with a mandate but as someone with power—someone with actual responsibility.

Baudet appears to be playing a long game. Over the last two years, he has built a political party from the ground up. FvD currently boasts over 30,000 members, beating Rutte’s ruling VVD by several thousand. At the same time, the party does not, like other parties, have a meaningful internal democracy. Critical members are kicked out, and Baudet is a celebrity among his own membership. This precludes the usual checks a party exercises over its leaders.

Unlike the other Dutch far-right figure Geert Wilders, who early on made a decision never to let his Party for Freedom (PVV) assume governing responsibility (with a few local exceptions, and a brief period of “conditional support” for Rutte’s first coalition government between 2010 and 2012), Baudet has indicated he wants his party to play by the rules of Dutch coalition politics. Immediately after the election, Baudet acknowledged he would have to compromise and signaled his willingness to do so. This could dent his image as a revolutionary outsider, but his willingness to compromise might also turn out to be exactly what gives him even broader appeal.

Baudet and Wilders are friendly, but the newcomer is eating into the PVV’s base. As one voter said, “Wilders gets nothing done. But Baudet is nearly identical, but he phrases it differently. Subtler. A little smarter.” Like the late populist politician Pim Fortuyn, Baudet has an appeal that can potentially unite a divided right-wing electorate that until now mostly split voters between the establishment conservatives of the VVD and obstructionist populist forces like the PVV. Under the right conditions, Baudet could become prime minister.

In the Netherlands, however, as Karl Marx reportedly once noted, there are no revolutions because you’re not allowed to walk on the grass. The peculiar nature of Dutch politics, including its institutions, is such that revolutionary change rarely materializes. Even as Baudet speaks with a fanatic’s zeal about his desire to “replace” the Dutch elites, he will have to work with other parties, as well as the Dutch civil service, which is apolitical and highly competent. While politicians may often be quick to jump on the bandwagon of a changing political zeitgeist, Dutch institutions are a granite force of continuity and stability.

And although the hallmark of the Dutch political system is effectiveness in embracing outside challengers and inviting them into the fold of the political elite, it remains to be seen who exactly is doing the embracing. Wilders, for example, has had little direct effect on policy but has clearly pushed Dutch political discourse far to the right. There is little in recent history to indicate that Baudet would not achieve at least that. His ideas will not become less dangerous—just more mainstream.

As a messiah figure and teacher to a following of mostly male 20-somethings, Baudet has laid the foundation for future extremism; his personal vendetta against the elite has given his followers a self-radicalizing faith. If he makes compromises or tones down his rhetoric, his words about a national body infected with an autoimmune disease will not simply go away.

After all, no “wholeness” can be restored without ultimately getting rid of the root cause of fragmentation itself: democratic pluralism. His alt-right followers could remain faithful to him or find another icon. But even if they abandon Baudet, he has planted a seed. Other politicians or public figures might at some point return to reap what he has sown by railing that nothing has changed and proposing ever more drastic courses of action. Baudet will bear responsibility for this. A dangerous Dutch future is now within the realm of possibility.

 

Thijs Kleinpaste, a former contributor and editor at the Dutch weekly magazine De Groene Amsterdammer, is a doctoral candidate in political theory at Georgetown University. Twitter: @kleinpastethijs

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