Populist Setback

Trump’s Dutch Fanboy Geert Wilders Loses. Sad!

Geert Wilders doesn’t just want to ban travel from Muslim-majority nations, he wants to ban the Quran itself. But Dutch voters just handed him a defeat.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

AMSTERDAM—Ban the Quran. Shutter the mosques. Denounce Islam as a fascist ideology, not a faith.

Many Donald Trump supporters may have thought the president they voted for would do just that. In fact, he just hinted at such things with his fill-in-the-blank rhetoric about Muslim bans during the campaign (and he’s still paying the price in the courts).

But one of Trump’s biggest boosters—one who spoke to a rapturous audience at the Republican convention—is a Dutch politician who is quite explicit when he calls for just such measures.

Geert Wilders, the dyed-blond hate-speaking avatar of European bigotry, has a devoted following in what Americans call the alt-right and the French, rather more accurately, call the fachosphere.

As the Netherlands went to the polls to elect members of parliament on Wednesday, partisans of the xenophobic extremism that Trump has inspired and that his closest aides hope to nurture were looking forward to a victory like frat boys at an away game they figured their team was sure to win.

“Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny,” incendiary Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King tweeted on Sunday. “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” King linked to a cartoon version of Wilders poking his finger in a leaking dike holding back the toxic floodwaters of Islam.

But as the votes were counted on Wednesday, it appeared Dutch voters, who know Wilders all too well, were rather less enthusiastic than Iowa nativists.

A month ago, it appeared that Wilders’s Party for Freedom would dominate the fractured political scene, taking a plurality of the seats.

Even though all the other parties vowed they wouldn’t form a coalition government with Wilders, or let him try to dictate their policies from outside, as he did briefly after elections in 2010, his strength would have been apparent. And Wilders, as his own brother suggested to The Daily Beast, is at least as interested in leading an international movement—the same movement advocated by Trump strategist Steve Bannon—as he is in actually governing.

With a convincing victory, the momentum for his brand of populism, which is not only anti-Islam but anti-European Union, would have been assured.

But it’s fair to say that was precisely what Dutch voters rejected.

The turnout was extremely high, a stunning 80.2 percent of eligible voters, and many analysts figured that was because people wanted to reject what current center-right Prime Minister Mark Rutte called “the wrong kind of populism.”

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As a result, although the economic austerity policies of Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) cost it support, and it lost some eight seats, it emerged once again as the dominant party in parliament.

With 98 percent of the vote counted, Wilders's party was struggling to hold on to second place with 20 seats in the Dutch House of Representatives. Two other parties may win as many in a parliament where it takes 76 to make a majority. Wilders claimed that because he had picked up five seats, he'd won in some fashion, but other parties made even bigger gains. As they say in the stock market when shares in a company crash, he failed to meet expectations.

In the last days before the vote, a major row with Turkey probably had an impact as well, but not the one many people predicted.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is pushing for enhanced—critics say dictatorial—powers in a referendum to be held next month, and millions of Turks eligible to vote for or against that measure are in Europe. But the Germans and then the Dutch prevented Erdogan’s ministers from holding campaign rallies, citing security concerns.

Erdogan’s typical truculent over-the-top response was to brand the Dutch “Nazi remnants.”

Initially that seemed to play in favor of anti-Muslim, anti-Turk Wilders, but Rutte’s calm and collected reaction fit better with the popular temperament. Then Donald Tusk, the Polish president of the European Council that Wilders treats with contempt, came out with a ringing defense of the Dutch people and their history.

“Rotterdam, the city of Erasmus, was totally destroyed by the Nazis, [and] now has a mayor born in Morocco,” said Tusk. “If anyone sees fascism in Rotterdam, they are completely detached from reality.”

Tusk said Erdogan’s remarks were “completely detached from reality.”

For a long time now, the extremists of Islam and the extremists of anti-Islam have fed on each other. But on Wednesday the Dutch appeared to draw a line against both.

That doesn’t mean they’re happy with the politicians they’ve got. And it doesn’t mean they don’t want change. But not that kind of change.

One of the biggest winners in the Dutch elections is the left-wing environmentalist party Groen Links (Green Left), led by the enigmatic young Jesse Klaver, nicknamed Jessias, who managed to gather the votes of many Dutch millennials. His party picked up 10 new seats.

In Klaver's thank-you speech, he spoke about the overwhelming presence of the international press covering the race as the election unfolded. He said those foreign reporters would ask him, “Is populism breaking through in the Netherlands?”

The room crowded with Klaver supporters had the answer.

“Nooooo!” they said.

It is too early to say if this is the beginning of the end of the so-called populist wave in Europe. The most important test will come in a few weeks in France, where Marine Le Pen, the great white hope of the anti-immigrant, anti-NATO, anti-Europe (and one might add pro-Russian) fachosphere, has a real chance to win the presidency. But there’s no doubt this is a setback.

As Trump himself likes to say, with mock irony: “Sad!”

—Nadette De Visser reported from Amsterdam; Christopher Dickey reported from New York

This story was updated at 8:00 a.m. EDT, March 16, 2017