By Thijs Kleinpaste
As voters in the Netherlands gear up for local elections, to be held across the country today, the old adage that all politics are local is being turned on its head. For the Dutch, the opposite is equally true: Local politics are national. Since all cities and towns vote on the same day, prominent national politicians intrude, elevating mundane local elections that used to center on debates about bicycle paths and garbage collection into a national spectacle.
After last year's nasty campaign that involved sitting Prime Minister Mark Rutte arguing that his rival Geert Wilders, the leader of the nativist Party for Freedom (PVV), would plunge the Netherlands into chaos and Wilders countering that not a single Dutch citizen believed Rutte anymore, the incumbent Rutte defeated Wilders in the March 2017 national election. The results were welcomed by European leaders such as Angela Merkel as a "good day for democracy." But, as more critical observers have noted, Rutte's win wasn't a definitive victory for sensible centrism; indeed, he managed to triumph over the Dutch far-right by moving consistently further to the right himself - by dog whistling to anti-immigration voters and adopting positions similar to Wilders's own.
If the biggest electoral headline from the Netherlands a year ago was Rutte's success in fending off a challenge from Wilders, the less trumpeted but equally noteworthy news was the success of a new player in town - the self-styled far-right intellectual-turned-politician Thierry Baudet. Presenting himself to his audience on at least one occasion draped over a grand piano, Baudet, who is 35, combines a sentimental attachment to European high culture with the spirit of an online culture warrior. He has expressed support for Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, both of whom he views as strong leaders. He has also cast doubt on investigations showing that Russia was responsible for the 2014 downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet over Ukraine that killed nearly 200 Dutch citizens.
With a talent for manufactured outrage and victimhood, Baudet exemplifies the politics of the 21st century. Last year, banking on the irresistibility of his persona to journalists, Baudet's Forum for Democracy (FvD), a think tank reconfigured as a political party, entered parliament with two out of 150 seats - a modest but remarkable result for a party that didn't exist in the previous election. Since then, Baudet has captivated the Dutch in the same way that Wilders benefited from the media's obsessive attention to his every move since he founded his own party in 2006.
Baudet's two-man party has, in recent polls, tied or even overtaken Wilders's PVV, drawing voters from among Wilders's supporters as well as Rutte's center-right People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). The local elections will be the first big test for Baudet and the FvD, which is fielding candidates in the Netherlands' two largest cities, Amsterdam and Rotterdam.
The predictions look promising for the FvD. If the polls are correct, Baudet will achieve something that Wilders has never managed nor attempted - to secure a foothold in Amsterdam's city council. Because Amsterdam is known to have a political culture and electorate that are predominantly leftist, the PVV simply never bothered fielding candidates there, fearing that it would not win any seats and might be humiliated. However, the FvD may win as many as four seats in a city that has long thought of itself as the "Republic of Amsterdam," bucking the racist and nativist sentiments that have swept the rest of the country - much like the Californian cities that have defiantly resisted Trump's policies.
Many Dutch politicians and journalists have long hoped that once Wilders ran out of steam, the problem of nativist populism would fade from the scene. Baudet, however, plays a long game. He is building an ideology for the 21st century that seeks to re-establish the nation-state in the form that 19th-century Europeans imagined for it while simultaneously ridding the political space of both internal and external enemies. Liberated from European bureaucrats, Muslim immigrants, and feminists alike, it is the culture war of the American alt-right cloaked in the garb of European intellectual history. In this sense, the rise of the FvD marks a decisive shift.
Baudet's FvD is different from Wilders's PVV in several ways. First, there is a distinct difference in style. The PVV has long been characterized as populist, and it depends on leeching off and perpetuating popular frustration to win votes. Though the PVV has been consistent in the harshly Islamophobic content of its rhetoric, its ideological grounding always seemed hodgepodge at best, oscillating between the paranoid style of its chief ideologue, Martin Bosma (a Dutch David Horowitz of sorts), and naked opportunism.
In contrast, the FvD likes to think of itself as a party that has a solid intellectual grounding. (It was recently announced that Paul Cliteur, a well-known professor at Leiden University, will head the party's "scientific institute.") Long before entering politics, Baudet donned the cloak of the public intellectual, penning polemics on topics including modern art and the European Union, often repeating on loop that it was all connected to oikophobia. Baudet defines this term, taken from the conservative British philosopher Roger Scruton, as a "pathological aversion" to the national home. Oikophobia, he insists, is destroying the nation-state through its concerted support for feminism, cultural Marxism, modern art, immigration, the European Union, and whatever else can be cast as the vague yet menacing bogeyman of the paranoid right.
This focus on an omnipresent and all-encompassing threat is the second shift from Wilders's immigration-centric form of politics. The two men have a past working relationship, and Baudet has advised PVV politicians behind the scenes. However, when it comes to ideology, Baudet casts a far wider net. The hallmark of Wilders's platform is a mix of nationalist kitsch and calculated cruelty toward the country's Muslim population and immigrants, couched in the language of civil war. Wilders offers Dutch voters a form of politics based on persecution and perpetual resentment of immigrants and minorities. And while his rhetoric has escalated to even more rabid extremes in response to the electoral threat Baudet represents, there is also something impotent about it. Baudet, though equally obsessed with Islam, is reinventing the nativist platform in a way that anyone familiar with the American alt-right will instantly recognize; it is a political brand built around an imagined assault on ethnically white people and their culture - and the need to fight back. Significantly, Baudet is also popular among a sizable section of the younger generation - much more so than Wilders ever was.
Finally, Baudet represents a break with recent Dutch political culture. In many ways, he seems to channel the legacy of Pim Fortuyn, the iconic populist politician murdered in 2002. Fortuyn carried the torch of the Dutch tradition of anti-clericalism. In the 20th century, anti-clericalists targeted the church's influence on Dutch society; it was only logical that this tradition of extreme secularism would set its sights on Islam next. And while Baudet seems to play a role very similar to Fortuyn - that of the dandy intellectual, able to upset and fluster his opponents with a flurry of theatrics and eloquence - his ideology represents the next chapter in the ever-escalating nativist resentment that has the Netherlands in its grip.
Where Wilders introduced a religious crusader's fanaticism to the debate about Islam, Baudet is casting himself as the country's lone defender of Western culture and as a champion of white people in particular. Even before entering politics, Baudet spoke of wanting to ensure that Europe remained "predominantly white and culturally as it is." Last year, he claimed that Dutch society was being "diluted homeopathically" by an influx of refugees and migrants. He attributed the fall of the Roman Empire to mass migration (a myth long since debunked by scholars but popular on the far-right), explaining that the marble busts of Roman emperors in museums "look like us" but that modern-day Italians clearly look very different. In other words, immigration and ethnic mixing are the harbinger of political decay.
Baudet has suggested that the West suffers from an "autoimmune disease," turning the body politic against itself and that "malicious, aggressive elements are being introduced in unheard numbers into our societal body." He defended a mob smashing windows and threatening politicians at a local town hall meeting about taking in refugees as an "act of self-defense" against an "injection of criminality."
Baudet consistently uses rhetoric that conjures the people as an organic being, poisoned by both external and internal enemies - language that clearly resembles that of fascist intellectuals in the early 20th century who were obsessed with the ethnic hygiene of their society. It is worth recalling that after the fascist intellectuals came the politicians who decided that this language needed to be matched by policy.
Most of the time, Baudet chooses his words carefully. In the speech to launch his political party, he called for the restoration and protection of "Boreal Europe." To most listeners, the term seemed archaic and quaint. Boreal Europe stems from the myth that Europeans are of Aryan and polar descent and is used to envision an ethnically white space north of the line from Gibraltar to Vladivostok.
But the term also has a clear political lineage. It appeared on the margins of French intellectual life right after World War II and was popularized from the 1980s onward by the French ethno-nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the National Front and father of its current leader, Marine Le Pen. Apart from his French inspirations, Baudet is cozy with American thinkers of the racist right: A few months ago, he sat down for a long dinner with Jared Taylor, the self-proclaimed race realist and proponent of scientific racism.
Whenever Baudet is called out, he is quick to play innocent - but he never quite convinces. Two weeks ago, one of his party's top candidates in Amsterdam stepped down after having repeatedly suggested that black people simply have a lower IQ than white people and arguing that same-sex marriage had rendered society less intelligent (the claim being that gay people are smarter than straight people and that the marriages they used to settle for at least produced smart babies). Pressed for comment, Baudet made contradictory statements, refused to disavow his candidate, and insisted that differing IQ scores among different races were simply a matter of scientific fact.
In the Netherlands, vulgar racism is widely considered unacceptable. But Baudet's brand of matter-of-fact racism, which consists of claims about the natural differences among entire ethnic or racial populations, often derived from bad science and discredited theories, is on the rise. Add that to the idea that white Europe is moribund due to the twin assaults of migration and cultural self-loathing and you end up with a dangerous mix - an ideologically coherent worldview.
More troubling is the fact that this worldview is gaining mainstream legitimacy. Several Dutch media outlets ran articles and reports on Baudet's claims about IQ as if they were a legitimate academic debate. Indeed, the FvD is spearheading a culture war that targets a population that has in recent years been receptive to the aggressive political proselytizing of Wilders. For such voters, Baudet's party represents the logical next step.
In the early 2000s, the Netherlands was one of the first countries, along with Austria, to experience the rise of anti-establishment populism. Now, as the country witnesses the umpteenth wave of further radicalization, it is once again becoming the bellwether of Europe.
Local elections may seem insignificant, but they are now the primary battleground where openly racist politics and politicians, cloaked in eloquence and intellectual pretention, are establishing electoral footholds and hijacking Dutch political debate. Those concerned about the re-emergence of ethnic nationalism and white supremacist politics in Europe should pay attention. Thierry Baudet's rise to national prominence signals more darkness to come.
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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.