The rage of the outsiders

November 30, 2023 08:31
Dutch politician Geert Wilders, the leader of the PVV party. Photo: Reuters

One of the biggest mistakes I ever made as a journalist was to underestimate Geert Wilders, now the leader (and only formal member) of the most popular political party in the Netherlands, and potentially the first far-right prime minister his country has ever known.

I interviewed Wilders in 2005 for my book, Murder in Amsterdam, about the assassination of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim extremist. The Party for Freedom (PVV), founded by Wilders in 2006, did not exist yet. But I was interested in the views of an outspoken critic of Islam, and of immigrants with a Muslim background.

Frankly, I thought he was a bore, with no political future, and did not quote him in my book. Like most people, I was struck by his rather weird hairstyle. Why would a grown man and member of parliament wish to dye his fine head of dark hair platinum blond? In fact, he turned out to have been somewhat of a pioneer in this respect. The later successes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson demonstrated the importance of visual branding, of having a zany image boosted by the cultivation of odd hair. (Perhaps Hitler’s toothbrush moustache, or even Napoleon’s comb-over, was a harbinger.)

There is, however, another possible interpretation of Wilders’ hair. In 2009, a Dutch anthropologist and expert on Indonesia, Lizzy van Leeuwen, argued that Wilders might have been keen to disguise his Eurasian roots. His maternal grandmother was partly Indonesian. His grandparents had to leave the Dutch East Indies under a cloud of financial malfeasance.

It would be unfair to hold any of this against Wilders, of course. Race may not explain anything. But there is a history of far-right, anti-Muslim sentiment among Eurasians in the former Dutch East Indies that might help to put his politics in context.

Eurasians, or Indos as they were called, were never fully accepted by the Indonesians or their Dutch colonial masters. They were born as outsiders. The more educated ones often yearned to become insiders. An aversion to Islam, the majority religion in the Dutch East Indies, and extreme Dutch nationalism were often the result.

During the 1930s, many members of the Dutch Nazi party in the colony had a Eurasian background. As van Leeuwen pointed out, the party enabled Indos to be “more Dutch than the Dutch.”

Wilders may not be a fascist, but his obsession with sovereignty, national belonging, and cultural and religious purity has a long lineage among outsiders. Ultra-nationalists often emerge from the periphery – Napoleon from Corsica, Stalin from Georgia, Hitler from Austria. Those who long to be insiders frequently become implacable enemies of people who are farther away from the center than they are.

Wilders is not a rarity, even in the Netherlands. In 1980, Henry Brookman founded the far-right Dutch Center Party to oppose immigration, especially Muslim immigration. Brookman, too, had a Eurasian background, as did another right-wing politician, Rita Verdonk, who founded the Proud of the Netherlands Party in 2007.

A politician who might fruitfully be compared to Wilders is former British Home Secretary Suella Braverman. As a child of immigrants – her parents are double outsiders, first as Indians in Africa and then as African-Indians in Britain – her animus toward immigrants and refugees “invading” the United Kingdom may seem puzzling. But in her case, too, a longing to belong may play a part in her politics.

Braverman’s entry into the British establishment and ascent within the Conservative Party shows that Britain has become more open to outsiders. It is less laudable that her hard-right views on immigration have become mainstream in Conservative politics, or that white-skinned Tories were happy to use an ambitious daughter of immigrants to promote an anti-immigrant agenda – at least until her incendiary rhetoric became too embarrassing.

Until relatively recently, ultra-nationalist parties and politicians were marginalized by mainstream conservative parties, or dropped, as happened in 1968 to Enoch Powell, the British politician who predicted that more non-white immigration would lead to “rivers of blood.” They were treated as political outsiders, whatever their family backgrounds.

To more and more disaffected voters, however, this was precisely their appeal. Brexiteers and Trump benefited from this in 2016, and Wilders is benefiting from it today.

But such outcomes could not happen without the cynicism displayed over the past few decades by traditional conservative parties. Afraid of losing their voters to the far right, they pandered to their prejudices, against foreign “freeloaders,” the Muslim threat to “Judeo-Christian values,” the “woke” city slickers, or the “people from nowhere.” But it was mostly just rhetoric, and conservative parties simply carried on serving the interests of rich people and big business. This only fed the rage of people who felt treated like outsiders and wanted an outsider to blow up the old order.

The way the conservative parties in the Netherlands, such as the Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), have dealt with this problem in the past was to refuse to govern with extremists like Wilders. The VVD also stood for internationalism, the European Union, military support of Ukraine, and measures to deal with climate change. Wilders is opposed to all of it.

What changed is that the VVD, hoping to protect its right flank, took a harder line on immigration and hinted that governing with angry outsiders might be possible after all (a stance that has now been reversed, but for how long?). Now that the door was left open, and immigration was made into an election issue, Wilders was able to win in a landslide.

The irony of this sorry tale is that Dilan Yeşilgöz, the VVD leader who allowed this to happen, was born in Ankara to a Turkish mother and Kurdish father. She is precisely the kind of Dutch citizen that Wilders has vowed to stamp out.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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The author, most recently, of The Collaborators: Three Stories of Deception and Survival in World War II.