Meet the poster boy for Dutch populism
Thierry Baudet. Getty images   

“We stand here tonight … among the rubble of what was once the grandest and most beautiful civilization the world has ever known.”

On 20 March, an exhilarated Thierry Baudet, the 36-year-old leader of the Dutch Forum for Democracy (FvD), addressed an ecstatic crowd with a message of decline and a promise of resurrection.

“We are being destroyed by those who should be protecting us. We are being undermined by our universities, our journalists. By the people whose art is subsidized by the state and those who design our buildings. And especially by those who govern us […], people who haven’t read a book in their lives, have no idea what the long-term issues are, [and who] time and time again, in a strange mix of incompetence and cynical self-interest, make the wrong choices. But not for long!”

The populist rhetoric is now familiar in the Netherlands. It was the size of Baudet’s win that was the surprise. The FvD party, with its anti-immigrant, anti-EU and anti-liberal far-Right agenda, won some 17% of the votes in the provincial elections, more than any other party – something that is all the more remarkable given it has only been in existence for two years.

It is interesting too, in what it says about how the populist message is shifting.

Over the past 17 years, the political landscape in the Netherlands has become volatile and fragmented. The seeds of change were planted in the late 1990s by politicians such as Frits Bolkestein, of the Right-liberal VVD, who was among the first to question the country’s long-standing multicultural approach to immigration.

Then Pim Fortuyn, in the early 2000s, managed to associate a blanket rejection of non-Western immigrants, particularly Muslims, with the defense of progressive values like tolerance, gender equality, free speech, and gay rights — values, moreover, that he redefined in nationalist terms as quintessentially Dutch. Fortuyn was the founding father of a homegrown, Dutch brand of xenophobic populism that now represents more than a fifth of political opinion.

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He was murdered, in 2002, shot by a Dutch environmental activist who declared him to be a “threat to Dutch society’. Then, two years later, in November 2004, filmmaker Theo van Gogh — professional provocateur and a ruthless critic of Islam, too — was killed in broad daylight in Amsterdam by a 26-year-old Dutch Muslim of Moroccan descent. The murders solidified the notion — among the public and a segment of the intelligentsia — that the country’s immigration policies had failed and that the presence of “unintegrated” foreigners was a problem that called for a drastic solution.

Enter Geert Wilders’s far-Right Party for Freedom (PVV) with its folksy, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim style of populism. At the last Dutch parliamentary elections, in 2017, Wilders’s party achieved an unprecedented 13 percent of the vote, good for 20 seats and becoming the second-largest party after Rutte’s liberal VVD. At those same elections, Baudet’s party, barely six months old, won a surprising two seats.

Two years on, the FvD’s growth has come partly at the expense of Wilders’s PVV. But transfer votes from Wilders alone don’t account for Baudet’s meteoric rise. So where is the new support coming from?

Wilders and Baudet do share some central positions. Both, for example, have called for a radical stop to immigration from non-Western cultures. Both believe that Islam is incompatible with Dutch values and traditions. Both decry the domination of Dutch institutions by Leftist elites. And both seek to tap into a widespread anxiety among some sectors of the Dutch population that their culture is under serious threat.

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But in his personal style and cultural background, Baudet is Wilders’s polar opposite.

Wilders was born in 1963 in the southern province of Limburg and raised a Roman Catholic; his mother is of Indonesian descent. A career politician in Rutte’s VVD, he broke with that party in 2006 to found the PVV, convinced that the VVD did not sufficiently acknowledge the threat of Islam and immigration.

Baudet’s biography could not be more different. Born into a non-religious middle-class family in Haarlem, half an hour from Amsterdam, he attended his hometown’s prestigious Gymnasium and went on to read history and law in Leiden. In 2012, he earned his PhD in Law with a thesis co-directed by Roger Scruton.

Baudet has cultivated a public image as a witty and charming provocateur. He proudly claims to hate modern art, contemporary classical music, and contemporary architecture. In his free time, he plays classical piano. He sleeps little and reads widely. He’s written several books, including a novel.

He is not your standard Right-wing populist. He calls himself a “romantic conservative”. In fact, his worldview is deeply elitist, with elements reminiscent of José Ortega y Gasset’s reactionary 1929 classic The Revolt of the Masses.

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The problem, in Baudet’s eyes, is not that there is an elite. The problem is that the current elite is ignorant, incompetent, immoral, and weak. It needs to be replaced. Baudet’s view of the world is decidedly Darwinian: we should trust our instincts. Life is a struggle. Strength is what counts. Those who are not ready to fight are bound to be conquered. It’s the West against the rest.

Baudet likes to use Scruton’s term oikophobiathe repudiation of one’s own cultural inheritance, to diagnose the pathology of the Netherlands’ political and cultural leadership. Suffering from “a spiritual disease,” he claims, the country’s elites have been wilfully weakening Dutch political sovereignty by selling out to a faceless, bureaucratic European Union.

At the same time, they have allowed Dutch national culture to be “homeopathically diluted” through the ever-increasing influx of non-integrated non-Western refugees and immigrants. They have undermined the country’s defense mechanisms by suffocating it under a blanket of leftist illusions, numbing bureaucracy, and political correctness.

To the Left, the statements sound worryingly close to fascism. What concerns the liberal-Right is the ease with which Baudet dismisses the foundations of liberal democracy — including parliamentary politics.

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But for much of the population, his words are a breath of fresh air in a political climate where neoliberal technocracy, closed-door coalition negotiations, a culture of compromise, and politicians’ embarrassing slip-ups have undermined people’s faith in their leaders. It’s a message that resonates with Wilders’s voter base: the disgruntled white urban working class and conservative rural voters. To them, Baudet appears to offer to a chance to take back control.

His sophisticated, provocative image as a dangerous dandy who is not afraid to say what he thinks is also broadening his appeal to more educated voters. In particular, the FvD is gathering an enthusiastic following among university students, especially men, who are tickled by the idea that they would make far better national leaders than the current political class.

Today’s leaders, according to Baudet:

“no longer believe in the Netherlands. […] Not in our language […] not in our arts, in our past. They no longer believe in our holidays, our heroes.”

Today’s heroes are Baudet and his army. If things had not gone so badly, he said:

“I would have never entered politics. But we have been called to the front because it’s necessary. Because our country needs us. […] Today, we have chosen to go to battle again. To dream, to hope, to fight again.”

Such fighting talk is a far cry from Wilders’s one-man-show, which seems to have run out of steam after 13 years of not achieving very much policy-wise.

Baudet, by contrast, has a very specific platform of ideas. These include replacing the current system of political appointments to public or semi-public management positions with an open application process, moving to direct mayoral elections, and bringing in binding referendums on important political issues. Some of these measures, including directly elected mayors, have been long demands of the liberal Left. The call for referendums, meanwhile, cleverly taps into widespread discontent with the way the Dutch government adopted a referendum law in 2015, only to abandon it after it saw itself forced to ignore the results of the consultations.

He is outspoken, too, on environmental policy. Baudet is opposed to any efforts to counteract climate change, which he sees as a “masochistic heresy fed by guilt”, “a secularised belief in the Deluge” that will “not only mean the total collapse of our economy but is also meant to further hurt our spirit and self-confidence”.

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This element of his platform, too, represents an electoral option that no other party has dared to offer. Although the Dutch economy has had a better recovery from the Great Recession than most other EU countries, the government’s climate policy has resulted in a significant increase of household energy bills.

So what happens next? If parliamentary elections were held today, polls suggest, the PVV and FvD would together win 22% of the vote, which in the Netherlands’ almost fully representational system would correspond to about 34 of the 150 seats in the Second Chamber —an absolute record, and a far cry from the one or two seats that radical Right parties would win until 20 years ago.

Will the other Dutch parties be willing to govern with Baudet and his crew, given that his party is most likely to become the largest in the Senate chamber? Prime Minster Rutte has trouble enough as it is keeping his four-party, centre-Right coalition together.

Some propose a principled cordon sanitaire, refusing any gesture that could be seen as legitimating radical-Right positions. Others remember how attempts to form a parliamentary coalition with Wilders’ party several years ago were sabotaged by Wilders himself, when he refused to adhere to the Dutch political culture of compromise.

Baudet, however, has said he understands that entering a coalition will require concessions. Perhaps in anticipation of this next phase, he appears to have modified his position on the Netherlands’ relationship with the EU. For many years, he openly advocated for the country to leave. (“After #Brexit we should have #Nexit,” he tweeted in May 2016.)  Yet when, on 2 April, Wilders’ party proposed a parliamentary motion for Nexit, the FvD’s two deputies voted it down. The FvD continues to be sceptical about Europe but says that the voters, not the parliament, should make decision to stay or leave, through a referendum.

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Baudet is clearly determined to keep his momentum. “We are building a party with its own educational institute,” he said on 20 March. “We will educate a new generation to replace and defeat our current leaders. … So that we may finally rule our own country once again.”

But the volatility of Dutch electoral politics today makes for rapid rises and equally precipitous falls. Quick expansion carries risks — and so does assuming actual government responsibilities, whether it’s at the local, provincial, or national level.

Fortuyn’s party collapsed as quickly as it was born. Wilders’ PVV, unable to deliver, has passed its peak. Baudet, though, seems to have learned from the organisational failures of his populist predecessors. Still, the day-to-day of governing — if his party gets that far — will prove a crucial test.

But given the ascent of nationalist Right-wing movements elsewhere in the world and the Left’s relative impotence in the face of their rise, Baudet, even more than Fortuyn and Wilders, looks set to enjoy the advantage of a strong global tailwind.