Holland’s rightward lurch is a warning

Dan Perry
6 min readDec 3, 2023

If the US Democrats don’t figure it out, it won’t just be the Dutch and Argentinian Trumps who roll to power — but despite his absurdities, the original as well

Wilders

The winner of last month’s Dutch election was Geert Wilders, one of Europe’s most notorious immigrant-bashers. That capped a good November for populists, as Argentina also elected as president Javier Milei, another Trump mutation. There is a reason these things happened, and they offer lessons for the US in 2024.

That main one is that the Democrats need to be very careful as they balance their need to mollify the progressives and the youth with a possibly greater need to not alienate everyone else with culture war positions obnoxious to most Americans.

What does that have to do with Holland? Well, let’s take a look at Wilders, notorious for his peroxide hair and for being the bete-noir of Dutch politics for two decades.

His Party for Freedom (PVV in Dutch) basically stands for freedom from immigrants, and it won about a quarter of the vote on Nov. 22. That may not sound like much but it’s way more than any other of the 15 parties that made it into parliament, and double his haul the last time around. The PVV is the largest in what can be called — despite a confusing landscape divided along many issues — a conservative majority.

So Wilders, who can fairly be called the Dutch version of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro or Marine le Pen, basically won the election. Only improbable (yet not impossible) alliances by incompatible other parties and splinters could deny him the prime ministership. In a normal situation the result would make it a given.

If all that seems odd for the country that gave backpackers from all corners of the world legalized pot, tolerance of misbehavior and a notorious Red Light District, it is basically because Wilders’ distrust of immigration has hit a nerve.

Here’s why.

Though the country is only 5% Muslim, the immigrants are more visible in the large cities — and they are present in bigger numbers and sparking serious pushback in nearby Germany, Belgium and France. And the reason why the Dutch are becoming illiberal about this is because they want to preserve their country as a liberal one.

We’re talking about the global definition of liberalism, which is somewhat different from the American political one; it does not mean “far left” so much as a centrist focus on freedom, humanism and individualism. The mass arrival of culturally conservative Muslims has sparked (along old-fashioned racism) an epidemic of illiberalism by liberals about the newcomers’ illiberalism — an irony that merits scholarly attention (such as this paper from the Central European University).

In that vein, Wilders casts himself as a disciple of Pim Fortuyn, a fast-rising politician assassinated in 2002 by an opponent of his anti-Islam positions. Fortuyn, an openly gay former Marxist who rejected the far-right label, held those positions because he feared Muslim influence would make Holland unfriendly to gays.

Wilders feels the same, and has argued for closed borders and “zero asylum seekers,” and while he has recently moderated his rhetoric his party’s manifesto calls for banning the Quran, Islamic schools and mosques. He also wants to engineer a Dutch departure from the European Union, undeterred by the fiasco that Brexit turned out to be for Britain. That’s mainly because EU membership forces Holland to welcome anyone allowed into other EU countries.

A hint at the reason for his ascent may be found in this recent poll that showed 51% of the Dutch either “negative” or “very negative” about immigration from outside the EU — which is a dog whistle for Muslim immigration.

It is a sentiment that is being played out all over Europe, including in France, where the xenophobic Le Pen, whose signature issue is immigration, has actually been leading in the polls (I discussed it on a TV panel below).

Which brings us to the poor US Democrats, who once believed that they are destined to be the natural party of power because growing minority groups — Blacks and Hispanics — will forever vote for them in droves.

That idea was encapsulated by co-authors John Judis and Ruy Teixeira 21 years ago in “The Emerging Democratic Majority.” This month the duo published another book — “Where Have all the Democrats Gone?” — claiming the potential was squandered by the party’s excessive embrace of the progressives on cultural issues instead of core economic ones.

The Democrats remain aligned with the American majority on abortion, gun rights, healthcare, and the climate. While abortion has been an effective cudgel for them, the others have not; something is bothering the American people more. Among friends of mine inclined to vote Republican, it is indeed the culture wars.

The Democrats are being associated, in people’s imagination at least, with an obsession with gender concerns and transgender rights, with an idea that racism is everything, and especially with opposition to the policing the nation’s borders.

It is interesting to note that even most Hispanic Americans agree that borders should be borders. It’s almost as if they left Latin America because they wanted to leave Latin America. And deliciously absurd is the Latino community’s refusal to rebrand themselves “LatinX,” which overly considerate but tone-deaf non-Hispanics thought would be the safest space for the Spanish speakers.

The US minority communities are also by and large not enamored of gender politics or of “defunding the police,” because they want better and more police since crime affects them disproportionately. Also, distressingly for the Democrats, they are not especially aligned with the indifference to religion that typifies the coastal elites.

Identity politics are tricky. On one hand many people love to celebrate their (generally unchosen) heritage, whatever its actual merits. But on the other, an obsession with tribal and group identities is no way to foster a national one, and can render a society weak. We need an optimum of both, not a maximum of either.

The Democrats have not become the progressives, not yet. But on immigration especially, it does appear to many that President Biden is caving in.

Moreover, he is still hurt by the inflation that bedeviled much of his time in office — and that is the issue (in a hyperinflation variant) that brought the government-despising Milei to power in Argentina. The masses, in North America as in the South, hate inflation most, because unlike unemployment its effect is universal.

In the US, the Democrats have a strong case on core economic issues. But to win on culture they will have to await a future Gen Z majority, perhaps. Right now, less than a tenth of Americans identify as progressives — the moderate left is mostly liberal, and the two concepts are increasingly in opposition. Liberals are less likely to trivialize the scourge of racism (or anti-Semitism) by proclaiming it everywhere, and they reject the acceptance of all narratives as equally valid lived experiences.

In the wider sense, the global elites have made a fetish of “change,” with worldviews no less than technology. But they forgot that people need to be persuaded that a given change is change for the better. Absent that persuasion, people often like things as they are. Enough Dutch wanted Holland to be Holland as it was. Quite a few Americans, immigrants included, also want America to be America as it was, at least in many ways. Unlike Holland the US is not a nation-state, but it still applies.

If the Democrats don’t figure this out soon, it won’t just be the Argentinian and Dutch Trumps who roll to power; for all his excruciating absurdities and despite the clear and present danger he presents, the original may do so, once again, as well.

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Dan Perry

Journalist and comms professional who led the Associated Press in the Middle East, Africa, Europe & Caribbean. Author of Israel & the Quest for Permanence.